by Kathleen Van Buskirk
The winds of change blew hard across the Ozarks in the 1930′s. The principal agent of change was the federal government, planning and financing programs designed to meet the problems of a nation floundering in a disastrous financial depression. The changes wrought in the Ozarks during that decade and those that followed were profound; a quantum leap into the mainstream of mid-Twentieth Century life. Young people reached adulthood, with new hopes for the future, and a lot of old-timers were pleased.
The connections between the Ozarks and the outside world had gradually been augmented between the Civil War and the Great Depression. A few railroads came, together with the towns and town people they begat. Industrial mining and timbering came, as did a scattering of little banks and small scale commercial agriculture. All drew the region somewhat in the direction that the rest of the nation had gone. So much so, in fact, that when an agricultural depression hit the nation after World War I, it hit the Ozarks too. The 1920′s saw the beginnings of changes that were to accelerate in the following decade. Nothing was affected more than farm life.
In Baxter County, Arkansas, in the late 1920′s, Miss Mattie Melton drove her horse and buggy all over the hills, organizing Home Demonstration Clubs to teach new bread-making methods, sewing skills, modern homemaking, pressure-can-ning, and cold-pack canning. Grandma Flora Fitch Beebe, a farm woman living near Forsyth, Missouri, who had taught her daughters the sewing, cooking, and preserving skills she had learned in her mother’s kitchen, was heard to declare, “Nobody ever sat down after my cookin’ that said I wasn’t a good cook.” But the 1920′s brought a torrent of new inventions affecting farm and kitchen equipment. Grandma Beebe added that she was going to Home Demonstration meetings to learn some newfangled cooking methods. Community centers offered free use of canning kitchens for those who had. no pressure cookers. Soon meats and fish, which could not be safely preserved by the old hot-water bath canning methods, sat in jars beside neat rows of bottled vegetables in the family pantry. It was pretty hard to cling to the old way, the hard work of salting and drying meat that would, at best, keep only a few months.
Grandma Beebe was not too sure about pressure cookers, however. “We always cooked in an iron kettle [on the hearth or the new wood range]. But these gover’ ment people, they says food ain’t cooked proper [that way]… Well, they let us have some money to change over the crops, and we have enough to get the pressure cooker. Why not?”
Mrs. Beebe’s comments on the changes in her life appeared in the Chicago Tribune in October, 1938. Concerning the change of crops, she said,
Telling Frank not to raise corn in the corn patch! Sakes alive. Mind, I’m not saying it hasn’t been a good thing. The tomatoes grow much easier than the corn. And the cannery in Forsyth took them, and 1 guess we did better than if we’d raised corn, Seems like there never was much leftover from the corn crop when we took out what we needed for ourselves. And I will admit that we had quite a smart of money left over after we bought what meal we needed at the store.
Main Street, Branson, Missouri, looking west. Photo from bluff on east bank of Lake Taneycomo (White River). Main Street Bridge, foreground, is not extant today. Missouri Pacific depot, left center, remains a Branson landmark in 1994.
Photos courtesy Kathlenn Van Buskirk.
Roller and canning factory, Green Forest, Arkansas.
Farmer Beebe’s tomato patch, multiplied across the Ozarks hilltops, brought to many women their first paid employment. More than 300 canneries sprang up in the region, most privately owned, but some operated under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). When harvest season arrived, many an Ozarks housewife packed her clothes in a poke and moved to the tent city beside the nearest cannery. It wasn’t only the wages that attracted her. On the job and after hours, too, there were all those folks to talk to. It was like a six-weeks-long party.
Government agents apparently saw the cannery workers as displaced persons in need of recreational assistance. Women who worked at the canneries later recalled that grown-ups as well as children had some merry times at picnics, ball games, and playing the games the recreation director taught them.
There were also programs encouraging women to replace their corn-husk or straw-filled mattresses and feather beds with modern ones stuffed with surplus cotton. In the fall of 1980, Saless Hartley, of Ava, Missouri, demonstrated for White River Valley Historical Society members the mattress project that dominated her life for a time in the 1930′s. Mrs. Hartley was one of four women who went to the nearby country schoolhouse to learn to make the mattresses. In a few days, several bales of first grade cotton and bolts of striped cotton ticking were delivered to the home of Mrs. Hartley’s neighbor, Mrs. Hale. The women were asked to take two or three weeks to teach their neighbors how to make the mattresses. The neighbors would then go back home and teach other neighbors.
“That was how it was supposed to work,” Mrs. Hartley sighed.
The cotton came from the gin in huge rolls. We didn’t have a building to store things in, so Mr. Hale said he would move his machinery out under the trees and we could use his machinery shed to store our supplies. We made our mattresses under the trees.
Tacking was done with big needles. The women couldn’t push them through the thick layers of cotton and ticking, so their husbands had to get under the frame and push the needles up while the women pulled from the top. To prevent the ticking from tearing, the heavy thread was tied through wads of cotton on both sides. It wasn’t long before the women decided that their mattresses would be less lumpy if the thread were laced through leather circles cut from boot leather.
“At first the ladies were afraid to sign up for the mattresses,” Mrs. Hartley recalled. After they saw those nice mattresses that could be freshened in the sun, they just kept coming. We thought it would last forever! They would come in and get their mattresses and a cotton-filled coverlet that we made to go with it. But they lived maybe 20 or 30 miles away and those big bales of cotton weighed 400 or 600 pounds. They couldn’t carry the materials home to their neighbors. We made two mattresses a day. Some ladies did come everyday, walked up the hill to help. It lasted for maybe six months, You couldn’t quit!
Saless Hartley explains volunteer mattress making of the 1930′s
On every hill, in every hollow, farm women were involved in classes to keep up with homemaking changes. They formed “better baby” clubs, began selling products of their gardens and kitchens, improved their homes, embarked on cooperative business projects such as marketing cream, and made hand manufactured furniture. Demonstration Agents, in cooperation with the Welfare Department and the County School Superintendent, developed hot lunch programs for children in rural Ozarks schools.
Men were offered instruction in building sturdy, inexpensive farm homes using field stones and concrete. Many of the stone houses which resulted from that instruction are still comfortable homes in the Ozarks today.
By the 1920′s medicine had become more complicated, and overworked doctors encouraged patients to come to their offices in town. Public health nurses drove their Model-T Fords to rural schools, where they gave physical examinations to children; introduced the messages of modern hygiene; set up vaccination programs; helped diagnose, treat and rehabilitate tuberculosis victims; diagnosed and treated trachoma, a disease which causes blindness; and set up treatment and rehabilitation programs for polio victims. The nurses also delivered babies and assisted doctors with such deliveries. Finally, they organized 4-H clubs which helped prepare farm youngsters for adult fanning responsibilities and life in their changing world.
Farmers were hard put to keep up with the rising expectations of their families. Most were still wedded to “self-sustaining” farms, that produced lime cash with which to buy home equipment for their wives. Agricultural extension agents, with all the knowledge and research available at State University Agricultural Centers, became unpaid partners trying to teach farmers about new planting and animal husbandry methods in order to increase their cash flow.
Newspapers from the 1934-’39 years, when recurring droughts threatened every crop, are full of reports of government-sponsored ideas for coping. One such article reported that, in 1934-35, the WPA cannery in Aurora, Missouri, was offering to can meat from drought-starved cattle that were having to be slaughtered.
The county agricultural agents used the drought to push farmers in more productive directions. In northwest Arkansas, by 1939, the long years of drought had destroyed many apple orchards and strawberry fields. Desperate orchard owners, with guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, turned to chicken and egg production, launching what is today a major industry in the region.
In 1935, the government, thinking to induce Ozarks farmers whose soil was pretty well exhausted to move to more productive land, advertised for sale federally owned parcels of “virgin timber.” The $2 per acre price seemed good for timberland, but there was a strange reluctance among locals to buy that acreage. The absentee government planners did not know that for 30 years, in the interests of meeting family needs for cash, hill men had been hacking out railroad ties, five or six at a time, from those unsold woodlands and taking them to town to sell.
The idea that ordinary citizens, the “general public,” as well as governmental agencies, had a vested interest in what happened to woodlands and other natural resources was probably startling to Ozarks people. The Civilian Conservation Corps, begun in 1933, did not originate the notion, but there is lime doubt that it pretty thoroughly popularized the idea.
One of the CCC’s first projects involved the area that is now Roaring River State Park. When the land was deeded to the State of Missouri in December, 1928, the scenery enjoyed there today was not so beautiful. The headwaters of Roaring River had been used and abused by community builders and resort planners for well over half a century. In the CCC, young men who had never been able to find a job could make $200 a year (then a sizable sum) building woodland trails, improving stream conditions and replanting devastated hillsides. The CCC workers moved on to plant new forests on rapidly eroding hills ail over the Ozarks, turning overused sections in almost every county in the region into National Forests which today offer recreation and carefully husbanded forest lands.
Tomato cannery at Olvey, Arkansas, still in operation in 1978.
North Arkansas Railroad depot Of Green Forest
A major obstacle to reforestation was the hill farmers’ belief that burning croplands replenished the soil and reduced brush and insects. Unfortunately, such fires were hard to keep confined, and each year acres of forests suffered along with the brush. Today, of course, conservationists are saying that those old hill farmers were at least partly right about the brush burning.
After planting the bare hillsides in the Hercules area near Ava, CCC workers erected a rue watch tower on the hilltop. Newspapers stated that on July 3, 1938, conservation-minded Ozarkers gathered to applaud the dedication of the Hercules Fire Tower and the surrounding park and picnic grounds.. Conservation agents felt they had gained a major victory as middle-aged farmers accepted the work of manning the watch tower during the cold winter months when the hills were tinder dry.
Efforts to renew the woodlands extended well beyond government-held acreage. The newly-organized Missouri Conservation Department, intent on rebuilding wildlife refuges and preventing soil erosion, in 1939 began the annual distribution of bundles of seedlings. For $3.00, a farmer could get 700 seedling trees and shrubs to plant along gullies, ponds and fence lines. The resultant thickets still dot the Ozarks landscape in an easily recognizable mix of cedar, ponderosa pine, black walnut, black cherry, osage orange, flowering dogwood, wild plum, hazelnut, elderberry, prairie rose and wild grape.
The CCC was only one of several government projects which helped the Ozarks during the Depression. The White River Railway, under government supervision in the 1930′s, ruled that work would continue on turning the railroad’s miles of wooden trestles into safer, permanent embankments and converting bridges from wood to steel. Between 1931 and 1935 much of that work was completed, though the last wooden trestles did not disappear until the late 1970′s. Many jobs were given to local workers and the White River line was prepared for a long, more economical existence.
The Missouri and North Arkansas line, to the west and south of the White River Railway, was not so fortunate. Plagued by strikes, accidents, and fires in its wooden trestles, it finally ceased operations in 1960. As M & NA rail service declined in the 1930′s and ’40′s, getting improved roads in north central and northwest Arkansas became increasingly important. Roads had to be built or improved.
All over the region in the 1930′s WPA road building projects and other federally assisted road projects provided cash jobs. U.S. Highway 65, its paving barely started when the Depression began, was paved through the Ozarks in the 1930′s. It was a winding, two lane highway for many years; but it was a welcome miracle to car owners who no longer had to load up with spare tires just to get to Springfield, Missouri or Harrison, Arkansas. U.S. 65 remains a primary north-south route through the Ozarks today.
The project to grade and gravel U.S. 62 across North Arkansas began in 1924; but by 1930, only a few bridges had been built. Under the WPA, paving was resumed and by 1941 most of the highway was completed. During the 1930′s, many state highways in the Ozarks were graveled, though few were paved until after World War II, Many years would pass before ail-weather surfaces were applied to state roads. County or farm roads would be paved only when strong public pressure forced local politicians into action, and voters approved the necessary taxes.
It was consolidation of country school districts with town school systems which finally led to paving county roads throughout the region. Consolidation necessitated transporting bus loads of rural students to centralized schools each day. Keeping ail those roads in good condition remains a continuing effort which employs many workers.
In Blue Eye, Missouri, near the Arkansas state line, school consolidation began in the early 1930′s and involved rural students living in both states. The district’s first school busses were trucks with tarpaulins stretched over the top. Next, framed bodies were built on truck chassis, and seats were placed along the outside edges and down the center. Blue Eye got its first factory-built bus in 1940.
The Rural Electrification Administration (REA), the federal program designed to get electricity to m-ml America, began becoming a reality in the Ozarks in 1939. Though there were towns in every Ozarks county that had their own electric generators by then, electric lines reached few rural homes and farms. Getting electricity to rural areas took many transformers and miles of poles and wire. REA provided long-term loans to local cooperatives at low interest to finance the cost. Few REA co-ops were established in the Ozarks until after World War II.
The great Corps of Engineers dam projects were begun in the time of Depression. That vast project was to be completed in stages during the succeeding 30 years, and draw millions to vacations or retirement. Since the mm of the century, regional newspapers had carried reports of plans to dam the Ozarks rivers to control disastrous flooding, provide electric power, and form recreational lakes. In 1941, with electric power a concern of national defense, work began on Norfork Dam, near the mouth of the Great North Fork of the White River in Arkansas. Norfork was completed in 1947. Bull Shoals dam, a short distance up the White River near the Missouri-Arkansas border, was completed in 1951. Following in swift succession were Table Rock, 1959; Pomme de Term, 1961; Greers Ferry, 1962; Beaver, 1963; and Harry S. Truman, belatedly, in 1979.
Many Ozarkers bemoan the loss of natural rivers and streams, the tempestuous upper White River, the sparkling shoals and white water rapids. Most like to reminisce about “the way things were.” But there also are a lot of people like octogenarian Jessie Rozell, a lifelong resident of southeastern Taney County, who in the late 1970′s, rocking before the fireplace in her hundred-year-old cottage, recalled her housekeeping chores as a young woman in the 1920′s. She spoke of the days of rapid modernization, of her son’s educational opportunities before and after World War II, and the fine cattle he was raising on his farm and on her land as well. Then she rummaged in her freezer for some snacks to heat in her toaster, drew water at the sink, set it to boil on her electric range, took milk from her refrigerator, and in 10 minutes was serving hot tea and a snack,
“My husband once said he’d like to go back to the old days, no electricity and all,” she chuckled. “I just hooted. When electricity came in 1949, I sold my old sow and her 20 shoats to buy my electric range. The old days are nice to talk about, but I wouldn’t want to go back,”
HISTORY OF MARION COUNTY, Earl Berry. 1977. Marion County (Ark.) Historical Association.
Lb. Cong. #77-73201
HISTORY OF BAXTER COUNTY 1873-1973, Mary Ann Messick. 1973. Mountain Home (Ark.)
Chamber of Commerce. Lb. Cong. #73-82235
CHRISTIAN COUNTY, Its First 100 Years, 1959. Published by Christian County (Mo) Centennial,
inc. Ozark, MO.
HISTORY OF STONE COUNTY. 1989. Stone County (Mo.) Historical Society.
THE WHITE RIVER RAILWAY 1901-1951, Walter M. Adams. 1991. The Ozarks Mountaineer,
RAILROADS OF NORTHWEST ARKANSAS, Robert G. Winn. 1988. Washington County (Ark)
U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS MAPS, Little Rock District:
Table Rock Lake, Bull Shoals Lake, Norfork Lake, Greers Ferry Lake.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers MAPS, Kansas City MO.
Harry S. Truman Dam Reservoir, Pomme de terre Lake, Stockton Lake.
Cram’s Modern ATLAS OF THE WORLD, George C. Cram. 1903. Chicago, IL
ATLAS OF THE WORLD and GAZETTEER, Funk & Wagnall Co. 1924.
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