1961 Ozark Breakaway: The Year McDonald County Seceded from Missouri. By Dwight Pogue. (Independently Published, 2021, Pp. 186)
Reviewed by Rocky Macy
Rocky Macy grew up in the small tourist town of Noel in the Missouri Ozarks. He is a retired public school educator, state child protection worker, and a licensed clinical civilian social worker with the US military. Earlier this spring, Crimes in Desolation, a full-length historical drama that Macy wrote, was presented by the Spotlight Players at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Rocky Macy is the father of three grown children and six grandchildren. He lives in West Plains.
Dwight Pogue is an educator, artist and writer. He is the sixth generation of a family born and brought up in the Ozarks of Southwest Missouri. While his ancestors were subsistence farmers and teachers, his parents were conservationists, writers, and newspaper editors. In 1961 the author was sixteen years old, and, owing to his family’s weekly newspaper, The McDonald County Press, found himself an active participant in the Ozark Breakaway of McDonald County.
Dwight Pogue’s book, 1961 Ozark Breakaway: The Year McDonald County Seceded from Missouri, travels sixty years back in time to reveal a unique episode in the history of the Ozarks. The book, as the title indicates, is about McDonald County, the southwest corner county of Missouri. But to a larger extent it is focused on the tourist town of Noel, located in the southwest quadrant of McDonald County, just three miles north of Arkansas and six or seven miles east of Oklahoma. Noel, which sits along the clear waters of the Elk River, was the tourist mecca of the county, and for many years it served as a weekend getaway for people from Kansas City and Tulsa and a vacation destination for much of the Midwest.
Dwight Pogue is a native of Noel, and in 1961, at the time this tale of political shenanigans and publicity stunts unfolds, he was sixteen, the son of the local newspaper publisher and right at the very center of the action. Sixty years later, after inheriting his father’s printed materials and photos from that time, Pogue was the natural person to distill the events of that amazing summer onto the pages of a book.
The finished product is an homage to the community where he came of age, but, more importantly, it is also an accurate historical account of a special summer in the Ozarks. He chronicles events leading up to a county in semi-serious revolt against its state government, as well as the “secessionist” activities carried out that summer in an attempt to stir publicity—the lifeblood that would keep the tourists and their dollars flowing toward extreme southwest Missouri.
The story behind the events of that summer is this: In 1960 and 1961 McDonald County, and particularly the town of Noel, received a pair of grievous political insults from the government of Missouri. State Highway 71 was rerouted away from Noel without prior notice, a situation that literally left many confused on how to find the town. And then the state published a brochure about its tourist areas—and somehow managed to leave Noel out of that publication.
The town fathers complained to state officials in Jefferson City, and for the most part felt that their complaints were ignored. It was at that point that the topic of “secession” came up, and because 1961 was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, secession was a term that was understood and being talked about. A letter was introduced in the Missouri Legislature in which McDonald County withdrew from the state and expressed hope of forming a new state with the bordering counties of Benton (Arkansas) and Delaware (Oklahoma). Eventually the county went on its own and proclaimed itself to be “McDonald Territory.” The ensuing publicity that summer was a windfall that more than made up for financial harm caused by the state’s political machinations.
It was a summer featuring militia battles with residents of neighboring counties, a “land rush,” antique cars, gun-toting hillbillies interfering with traffic, and all manner of well-intentioned mischief. Newspaper editor and “Territory Press Secretary” Ralph Pogue, Dwight’s dad, was keeping one foot close to the brake when he summed it up this way: “The McDonald County Secession fight should not be construed by anyone as a ‘move of animosity’ against the State of Missouri. If hatred and intent to get revenge enters into it, we will lose our battle.”
For those seeking documented historical facts, they are in this book—aplenty. News articles of the times from a variety of sources—local, state, national, and even international—are included, as well as correspondence, maps, and hundreds of photos. And for those, like this reviewer, who was living in or around Noel at the time, Dwight Pogue’s book offers a great place to relax and reminisce. Every page brings back memories right up and including the back cover—which features a couple of my dearest friends who have passed on.
And for those just looking for something fun to read—and perhaps to learn a little in the process—there is a lot of humor in Dwight Pogue’s history of McDonald County’s secessionist summer. Rivers Wylie was an older gentleman who drove his own car as a sort of private taxi in and around Noel. He was an early forerunner of an “Uber” person, and he was also quite a character. Dwight uses a quote from one of his father’s newspaper columns in talking about Rivers Wylie, and his words give an indication as to some of the banter going around at the time: “Rivers Wylie recommends to the new Territorial Government the following tax program: No Retail Sales Tax, No Corporation Tax. No Income Tax. No Inheritance Tax. No Thumb Tax.”
And though the Territory did issue its own postage stamps and wooden nickels, as far as I know it never collected any taxes from any source, thumb or otherwise!
1961 Ozark Breakaway: The Year McDonald County Seceded from Missouri by Dwight W. Pogue is intelligent, witty, and chock-full of facts about a most unusual summer in the Ozarks. Readers will enjoy and learn from this work, whether they had the good sense to have grown up in McDonald County or not!