By: R.J. Gunter

I remember being in the school yard at recess. The boys were chasing lizards at the edge of the woods. Occasionally one was caught and was used to chase screaming girls. Then all heck broke lose when someone picked up a blue-tailed skink. All of the girls and most of the boys screamed and ran back a safe distance.

One boy, in a high-pitched voice, yelled, “It’s a scorpion—a blue scorpion. They’s pison. They’ll kill ya dead. They’s as pison as they kin be!”

Actually, the blue-tailed skink is as harmless as a common fence lizard. I don’t know where the myth comes from but it is a common superstition in the Ozarks. The skink’s brightly colored tail is used to distract predators. If a predator bites the tail, it will detach, giving the skink an opportunity to escape. The skink will grow another tail. Continue Reading

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The little house behind the big house.

The little house behind the big house.

One image that seems to be associated with Ozark hillbillies more than any other is that of the humble, rustic outhouse. Countless cartoon images have been drawn of hillbillies with a Kentucky rifle in their hand running to take cover behind the outhouse. During the 1960’s, this was an image on every bottle of Mountain Dew soft drinks. If you grew up in the rural Ozarks and you’re over forty, or if you visited your grandparents in the country, then you are probably well acquainted with that little old shack out back.

One thing about them that might come as shock is that in reality most of the hillbillies of the nineteenth century Ozarks did NOT have an outhouse. Folks that lived in town or prosperous farmers are the ones that always had one. So, what did the backwoods folk do?

Well, the answer is what the old timers referred to as “going to the woods.”  Sometimes, especially in bad weather, pa and boys would run to the barn (if they had one). Ma and the girls would sometimes run to the chicken house. Otherwise, you went into the bushes and picked a place to do your business.

Dig a Pit

As the 1900’s rolled around, most families did build an outhouse.  They were usually built with unpainted boards of yellow pine, with split white oak shingles on the roof. Sometimes a pit would be dug under it and sometimes a piece of tin was nailed over the lower back end of the little building. This was so it could be cleaned out. There was a time when the clean out was considered fertilizer and it was spread on the garden. However with the advancement of the times, even hillbillies came to realize that was not a healthy thing to do. In fact that was a major cause of dysentery in the 1800’s.

When the outhouse was built over a pit it could be moved. When the pit started getting full, or was too stinky, a new pit could be dug and the outhouse was moved over it. Then the old pit was filled in with dirt.

Most of the outhouses were what they called “two-holers.” That is, there a choice of two holes to sit. There may have been times and situations when folks were very social with their outhouse time, but just like today it was mostly time spent alone. Often the two holes were cut in different sizes–one for adults and another one for smaller bottoms.

A common expression in the old days was, “Don’t fall in.” It was something that small children worried about. There were lots of jokes and stories from the old days about that.

The door was hung on a couple of barn hinges. Sometimes a makeshift lock was made by cutting of the end of a man’s belt. The piece of leather was nailed to the door and on the inside was another nail. By hooking one of the belt holes over the nail, you had a lock that could not be opened from the outside.

Of course, there usually wasn’t any kind of lock on the door. Proper etiquette dictated that when you approached the door you were supposed to knock and say, “Anybody in thar?” I have also seen an outhouse with the door made purposely short with a gap at the bottom. This is so you can see the feet of the occupant and know you need to wait.

I don't like spiders and snakes. Ancient outhouses would be a perfect place to find both.

I don’t like spiders and snakes. Ancient outhouses would be a perfect place to find both.

Sun and Moon

These days you always see cartoon pictures of a hillbilly outhouse with the moon on the door. The fact is that there were two symbols in the old days. Churches usually had two nice outhouses. The one for men had the symbol of a sun with rays cut into the top of the door. The one for women had the quarter moon symbol. This was a time when many people could not read or write. The symbols were understood by all.

Bad Weather

There were times when the weather was so bad that no one wanted to go skipping down the path out back. Folks kept commodes, or a “thunder mug” as they were affectionately known, under their bed for times when they too sick, the weather was too bad, or when it was just too dark out there. No one had flashlights before the 1940’s. Nobody wanted to step on a snake or kick a bobcat out in the dark.


In the old days, Halloween was more about tricks than treats. If there was someone in the community that folks didn’t like much, then that person’s outhouse would usually be a target. The least that could happen was for the outhouse to get tipped over. It was an especially good joke if the owner happened to be inside it when it happened.

Other than that, anything could happen. It could burn down. You could find it in the barn loft or your front porch the next morning. If someone really had it in for you, it could end up in the middle of the road at First and Main in the nearest town.

Thomas Jefferson's outhouse. Yes, even presidents need to go.

Thomas Jefferson’s outhouse. Yes, even presidents need to go.

Over Sharing

Well, I could tell you a lot more about outhouses but I have to stop sometime. Chances are that I have told you much more than you wanted to know already.  Feel free to leave a comment and share your own outhouse stories.

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a typical moonshine still

a typical moonshine still

Life was always hard in the Ozarks.  Many of the old-timers said, “We didn’t know there was a depression. Life was already so hard in these hills that we didn’t see any difference.”

My grandparents, John Thomas DAVENPORT (b. 1906, d. 1976) and Mary Opal DAVIS (b. 1909, d. 1997) were married in 1926. John once said, “When I was married all I had to my name was a broad ax, an old single barreled shotgun, and the clothes on my back.”

They moved around to vacant houses in the Success and Roby areas. In the early depression years John made money from making railroad ties until the railroad quit buying them. He then worked for a while at a shingle mill in Vada, Missouri. He worked at a few odd jobs but soon got to the point where nobody was hiring anybody.

The Homestead Act was still in effect during the early years of the Great Depression. John staked a claim on 40 acres in a place called Wild Hog Holler. He built a small, 12×12 foot, single room cabin out of 6-inch poles that he had stripped the bark from. They had one bed in the room and cooked on a wood-heating stove. The kids slept on a mattress in the loft.

They soon found that it was hard-living there. Opal set out a garden every year but what the animals didn’t dig up usually dried up in the July sun. John would go hunting to put a little meat on the table. There were times when he thought his kids were going to starve. Game was getting scarce; too many times he had come back from hunting all day with nothing but a possum or a groundhog, if he shot anything at all.

There was a spring there that came out in the bottom of a deep hollow. It was a rough place—a box canyon with tall sandstone bluffs on both sides. Opal carried water from the spring to the house. Sometimes she would go at night with the whippoorwills calling and a mountain lion screaming.

Once a week, Opal would carry a washtub and washboard down to the spring to wash clothes.  She took the kids along so she could keep an eye on them while doing the laundry.  After all the clothes were washed and hung on a clothes line to dry, she gave the kids a bath, one at a time, in the same water that she had just washed the clothes in.

John found out that several of the men in the Patty Creek area were making good money from bootlegging moonshine—illegal distilled corn whiskey. John didn’t care to partake of it himself. Once a friend of his wanted to buy some moonshine but didn’t know where to go. John took him to the house of a neighbor who made the shine and introduced them. The house was less than sanitary.  The moonshiner sat in a chair with his foot propped up on the side of an open Mason jar of shine. He was doctoring his sore toe by pouring whisky over it and letting it drain back into the jar. John wondered if that same jar would be sold to someone for consumption.

This is an interesting piece of anti-moonshine propaganda from 1935.

This is an interesting piece of anti-moonshine propaganda from 1935.

The moonshiner asked if they wanted regular whiskey or if they wanted some that was aged. Then he added, “We got a batch aging on the stove right now.” He was referring to the old trick of adding brown sugar to the moonshine to give it the appearance of being aged.

Another neighbor named Lawson lived on Patty Creek. He made moonshine but folks were afraid to buy from him. His still was made out of an old cream can and folks didn’t trust it. There was a big problem back then getting a bad batch of moonshine resulting in horrible consequences. Many died or went blind.

John Davenport decided he was going to build a still. He made one from an old copper boiler. He bought some copper tubing and made what they called a “worm.”  The tube was coiled to make a condenser. The condenser was placed inside of a 50 gallon barrel with cold spring water running through it.

He obtained another wooden barrel to use as the mash barrel. It was filled with water, corn chops, sugar, and yeast. After the mash had fermented a few days it was ready to be distilled. It usually has to be run through the still a couple of times to get the desired alcohol content.

John made a few batches and made a little money selling to locals. The longer he had the still the more afraid he was of getting caught. So he was looking for a way to get out.

One day a man offered to trade a couple of hogs to John for his still.  John accepted the trade and took the hogs home.  A few days later, the hogs turned up missing.  After a long search, John found them. They were dead and floating in the mash barrel at the whiskey still that he had traded.  Apparently, the hogs could smell the fermenting corn chops in the barrel, they somehow had managed to jump into the barrel where they drowned.

John told the man what had happened.  He came over and the two of them pulled the dead hogs out of the barrel.  John said that he was sorry that the whole barrel of mash was now ruined and would have to be poured out.  The man said that it was all right and there was no harm done.

They say everything tastes better with bacon. Somehow I don't think this example applies.

They say everything tastes better with bacon. Somehow I don’t think this example applies.

Later on, John found out the man didn’t pour the mash out after all.  He went ahead and ran off the batch and sold it without telling anyone about the dead hogs.

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mean chickenMy grandma, Opal Davenport (1909-1997), lived in Texas County, Missouri, all of her life. When I was a kid, she and I would often sit in the yard watching the chickens cluck and scratch.  She had one old hen that had no feathers left on its head and back and its comb had been pecked to a bloody pulp. I watched in disbelief and horror as the other chickens would chase that old hen around until they got her cornered. Then all the chickens took turns, jumping on the old hen’s back and pecking at her head.

I begged grandma to make them stop and asked why they were doing that. She said she had tried to make them stop plenty of times and it did no good. She said they were mean and would single out the hen that seemed weak. If the old hen did not attempt to defend herself then the others would try to get the best of her.

Grandma said that people were a lot like that too and the only thing dumber than a chicken was a person that didn’t have the sense that God gave a chicken. I’ve always believed that there was a lot about human nature to be learned from studying the behavior of those chickens.

People can be mean, too. They start out that way when they are young, in elementary school they look for another kid to pick on. It may be a kid that is small, talks funny, looks funny, or wears hand-me-down clothes. When the picking starts, other mean kids will join in as if the side dishing out the abuse is the cool side to be on.

Of course, no one wants to side with the poor kid who is singled out, do they? But sometimes other children will do just that—stand up for the weak and the picked on, for that is where goodness, mercy, and maturity are born. And that is what separates us from the chickens.smiling rooster

We can find wisdom in observing chickens as well.  When my daughter, Mandi, was about five years old, I asked her the famous question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” I wasn’t really expecting an answer.

“Neither one, what comes first is a rooster.”

“What do you mean?” I remembered that she had spent time with my mom, asking lots of questions as she took care of the chickens.

Mandi held up one finger. “First comes a rooster.” She held up two fingers. “Then comes a hen.” She held up three fingers. “The hen lays an egg. Then another chicken hatches out of the egg.”

Her understanding took me by surprise. It is a problem that evolution cannot explain and philosophers have debated for centuries, but the bottom line is actually so simple it can be explained by a child.

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Alfie and Ralphie Bolin robbing another train at Silver Dollar City.

Alfie and Ralphie Bolin robbing another train at Silver Dollar City.

I’m sure many of you have ridden the “Frisco Silver Dollar Line” at Silver Dollar City, near Branson, Missouri. And of course your train got held up by that no good Alfie and Ralphie Bolin gang. I’ve had people ask me if there really was a historic Alfie and Ralphie Bolin.

There really was an Alfred “Alf” Bolin, born in Stone County, Missouri, in December of 1842. As for his brother Ralphie, well I think they just made him up for the train robbery skit.

Alf was already an outlaw when the Civil War began. The outbreak of hostilities turned him into one of the most notorious bushwhackers of the Missouri and Arkansas borderland. He robbed and murdered, taking revenge on the families of union soldiers or any families that were suspected of giving any kind of aid to the North.

In one incident that occurred near the old village of Day, Missouri, he murdered a 16-year-old boy named Dave Tittsworth. Some of the local women gathered and one asked Bolin why he wasn’t ashamed of murdering the innocent lad.

Bolin said, “Get in yer houses and shut yer mouths if ya wanna save yer own scalps. That makes 19 I’ve kilt.”

Another victim was 12-year-old Bill Willis. He lived on Roark Creek, which is near present day Branson. The boy was carrying some ears of corn out of a field. When Bill stopped to climb over a rail fence, he was shot and killed by Alf Bolin.

Bushwhackers of that time often agreed with the practice of murdering young boys. Their reasoning was that if they didn’t kill the lad, they would be facing him in a shootout a few years later.  However, both the North and South condemned this practice as nothing other than the murder of an innocent child.

The old men were not safe either. An 80-year-old man from Christian County, known as Old Man Budd, was driving an ox team south across the White River. On the return trip, he met up with Alf Bolin and his gang on the banks of White River. Alf ordered Budd to wade out in the river. Then Alf shot and killed him. Budd’s body slumped into the river and was carried away by the current.

At one time Bolin had bragged of killing more than 40 men. One notorious place associated with him was Murder Rocks, which was beside the old Carrollton-Forsyth Road. Bolin and his gang robbed and murdered many travelers on this spot. The Union placed a high reward on the head of Alf Bolin or any member of his gang.

One place that Bolin considered a safe house was the home of Robert D. Foster, who lived near Murder Rocks close to the Arkansas border. Bolin often came there looking for a home cooked meal by Mrs. Foster. Her husband was a Confederate soldier who had been captured and was being held at the Union stockade in Ozark, Missouri.

In early 1863, Robert Foster was begging to be released as he feared for his families safety. The army knew that Alf Bolin often frequented the Foster home and made a deal to release Mr. Foster if he would help them capture Bolin.

A Union soldier from the 1st Iowa Cavalry named Zachariah E. Thomas was selected to carry out the plan. Robert Foster guided Thomas to the Foster home where Thomas pretended to be a wounded Confederate soldier in Mrs. Foster’s care.

One evening, Alf Bolin came into the Foster cabin and found Zachariah Thomas in a bed pretending to be wounded and very ill. Robert Foster was there too. Bolin thought nothing of it after Foster explained he had been released on parole, to bring his wife to safety in Springfield. He pointed to a bloodied southern uniform hanging on the wall and explained about the wounded soldier.

Mrs. Foster fixed Bolin a meal and he sat down and began to eat. When he was finished, he went over to the fireplace and stooped down to light his pipe with a burning coal. At that moment, Robert Foster got out of bed, came up quietly behind Bolin and whacked him in the head, several times with a fireplace poker.

Alf Bolin’s head was cut off and taken back to the Ozark Post. According to tradition, the head was placed on a pole and paraded around through the streets of Ozark. Then the head was left standing on the pole in front of Union headquarters where children were said to have thrown rocks at it.

Today it seems strange that a heinous serial killer of young boys would be turned into a comical train robber at Silver Dollar City. Or maybe that is just history’s revenge against Alf. Anyway, next time your train is held up by Alfie Bolin, look him in the eye and say, “Well, I see you got your head back.”

If you want to know more about the Alf Bolin story, the following book is a good reference: Elmo Ingenthron, edited by: Kathleen Van Buskirk.  Borderland Rebellion, A History of the Civil War On the Missouri – Arkansas Border, Ozark Regional History Series BOOK III (Branson, MO: The Ozark Mountaineer, © 1980) p. 285-289.

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Black walnut pie. There should be laws against this.

Black walnut pie. There should be laws against this.

My entire life I’ve been told that there’s something wrong with me. In fact, it’s been questioned whether I was dropped on my head or switched at birth. Being maligned in this way would normally scar one for life, but for me, it’s become a badge of honor.

I HATE black walnuts. I detest, revile and altogether loathe them.

This Ozark delicacy is loved by everyone in my family, both sides. I questioned nearly every dessert my mother made. “Does this have those nasty things in there?” was my constant refrain.  Eventually she took pity on me and would make a portion of the recipe without walnuts, bless her.  In fact, Mr. MoOzark hesitated to commit himself to a woman who hates black walnuts; because of course, he loves them, as does his entire family. Marrying me condemned him to a life of no black walnuts in cookies, cakes, brownies, fudge or anything else within a 100 mile radius of me.

Most of our married life this has not been an issue. For almost 30 years we lived in Texas, where the pecan is king and I was a devoted and loyal subject. You cannot even find black walnuts in any grocery store there. What a tragedy. However, now that we have moved back home to the Ozarks, I am confronted left, right and center with black walnuts, especially this time of year. Fortunately, I have perfected the art of selective blindness in the nut aisle.

So much work for such a questionable reward.

So much work for such a questionable reward.

So, my question to the Ozark community at large is, where do you stand on black walnuts? I have found either you love them or hate them. There does not seem to be any middle ground. Did your mother or grandmother have a recipe you particularly liked or loathed featuring black walnuts? Share any black walnut memories you have, we would love to hear them. All of mine involve running in the opposite direction.

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We purchased this feather crown from an Arkansas man who was selling the estate of a relative.

We purchased this feather crown from an Arkansas man who was selling the estate of a relative. It is approximately 2.5 inches in diameter.

In the old days of the Ozarks, something that figured greatly in the superstitions of death was the feather crown. They were also known as heavenly crowns or angel wreaths. Feather crowns are tight, flat circles of feathers that were swirled and compacted together. They seem to be formed like a seashell with the feathers compacted and swirled in the same direction. They formed in feather pillows that were stuffed with the small feathers of a goose, a duck, or chicken. They varied in size from as little as a couple of inches across to as large as six inches in diameter and a couple of inches thick.

No one has ever been sure about how they are formed. The creation of them occurs inside the pillow with no human interference and is thought to be miraculous to some. When a person is bedridden and believed to be dying there is special care not to fluff the pillow. There is a fear that to disturb the pillow would stop the formation of the feather crown.

The hillfolks believed that the feather crown that formed in the pillow of a dying person was a representation of the crown that person would be wearing in heaven. Vance Randolph stated in his book, Ozark Magic and Folklore, “When the bereaved family finds one of these feather crowns in the pillow of a relative who has just died, they are quite set up about it, sure that the dear departed has gone straight to heaven and is ‘doin’ well thar.’”

After a person dies, someone cuts open the pillow and dumps out the contents. If a feather crown is found, then it is shown to family and friends, with great excitement.  Sometimes there would even be a mention of it at the end of an obit in the newspaper.  The crown would often be kept in a box or it might be put behind glass in a shadow box and hung on the wall.

If a crown was not found in the pillow of a saintly person, then it was best to not say anything about it. But there are also old stories about the crowns being found in the pillows of an evil person. In one case, someone accused a widow of fabricating her husbands feather crown by sticking the feathers together with molasses and drying it in the sun.

Not everyone was in agreement about the superstition. A few hillfolk believe that the crown was a death sign, something evil or the work of the devil and very bad luck. Some believed they were created by witches and should be destroyed as soon as they are found. Some believed that if you felt one inside your pillow, you should get it out as soon as you can and throw it into the fire. For they believed that if it ever formed to completion, then the person sleeping on the pillow would immediately die.

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Shepherd of the Hills playbill from 1922

Shepherd of the Hills playbill from 1922

October 19 will mark the end of era. The owner of the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead announced today that the final curtain would soon fall on the Shepherd of the Hills play. The television news commented today that the play has been performed for the past 53 years, since 1960. Actually, the play has been going on a lot longer than that.

The first play based on The Shepherd of the Hills novel was produced in 1914 by the book’s author, Harold Bell Wright. That play opened to overflowing crowds with lines stretching around city blocks. A troupe of players traveled all over the country, performing in major cities, then the smaller cities. It toured non-stop until about 1918. The only thing that stopped the crowds was the outbreak of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, otherwise known as the “Spanish Flu” when people ceased to gather in public during the outbreaks.

Interest was revived in the story when Harold Bell Wright produced the first of two silent movie versions of the novel in 1919. The second version was produced in 1928, but no known copies of either silent movie survive.

The play was then revived in the early 1920’s and performed at Chautauqua events across the country. These Chautauqua events brought entertainment and culture to large and small communities across the US during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Various versions of The Shepherd of the Hills play have been performed in the Branson, Missouri, area. The plays were sometimes held on the waterfront at Lake Taneycomo and also organized by Lizzie McDaniels at Old Matt’s cabin in the late 1920’s.

The different movie versions of The Shepherd of the Hills, including filming of the 1919 version in Taney County Missouri, and the various versions of the play is a subject I intend to cover in my upcoming book. I plan to include a lot of never before published photos on the subject. I look forward to sharing it with you.

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Don’t you love old photographs? Look at this picture closely, isn’t it interesting? We can tell quite a bit just from studying this picture. These gentlemen were probably brothers/cousins/friends who hit the big city of Joplin, Missouri, and posed for this photo to mark the grand occasion. The soapy “beer” bottles they hold were certainly photographer props, as a couple of those men look as if they’ve never held a beer bottle in their lives. What I like best about this photo is that the biggest guy of the group is perched on the smallest guy. The ‘percher’ is definitely happier than the ‘perchee.”

You can tell this photo was in a frame for many years by the dust stains on the edges. Eventually the owner died, the picture was tossed in a box, and one day made its way to a flea market. The sad fact of this photo is that there are no names written on the back to give us a clue to who they were. Would this photo have ended up in the flea market if there were names inscribed on it? Doubtful, almost no photos in antique stores have identification. If someone had just taken a few moments to write their names on the back, it would have turned this interesting photo into a priceless one.

During the many years of assisting MoOzark with his obsession, er, hobby of collecting Ozark items and artifacts, I have traveled many a mile up and down aisles of antique stores, malls and flea markets across the US. I am always saddened by how many anonymous antique photographs I find tossed casually in boxes. What I would give to have a picture of my grandfather and all his brothers together, especially knowing the two oldest died in the Influenza epidemic of 1918. A photo of them could be stuffed in a box in an antique store somewhere, forever anonymous and out of my reach. What would you give for a lost family treasure? What would you do to prevent one from being lost?

“I’ll ask Grandma about that picture next time I see her.” Don’t wait. With every generation that passes we lose those connections to who we are and where we come from. Don’t we all wish we had asked more questions of our grandparents? Tell the stories and write them down; invest in a digital voice recorder and lets have conversations with our parents and grandparents. Not only will we retain those family names and stories, but we will also have the priceless gift of their voices long after they are gone.

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watchIn the nineteenth century Ozarks, folks didn’t live a five-minute drive from Wal-Mart or the nearest Seven-Eleven. If someone needed something, they either did without or they borrowed it from the nearest neighbor. It was often a couple of eggs, a little sugar, or even some nails or sewing thread.

They often borrowed a few things that would seem odd to us. Keeping a fire going all the time was a necessity back before the Civil War. Matches had been invented around the 1830s but there where several different varieties of varying quality. They were known as “Lucifer sticks.” I suppose some folks must have thought they were an invention of the devil. Anyway, they were usually in short supply, especially out west in the Ozarks. When the fire went out, it would be a labor to get it going again with flint, steel, and a tinderbox. It was often easier to go to the nearest cabin and borrow some fire. A family member would be sent to the neighbor’s house with a tin pail or a special carrier to keep the coals. They would knock on the door or yell, “Yoohoo” and say, “I’ve come ta borry some far.” Then the person carrying it back would have to blow on the coals to keep them going until they got back home.

The only thing we would find stranger than that would be the practice of borrowing the time of day. In the old days there was no way to synchronize the time. Usually a person would look at the sun and guess what time it was and some were better guessers than others. People living in town could get the time from each other and they would all be fairly close. Out in the country it was a much more difficult task. If a person walked a half-mile or more to the nearest neighbor’s house to borrow the time, it will still be off quite a bit by the time they got back. I’ve heard stories of people walking up to a neighbor’s house carrying a big mantle or wall clock in their arms. Then they might say, “Oh the clock run down last night, so I’ve come ta borry the time.” The unsynchronized time didn’t really bother anyone very much until the coming of the railroad. They soon discovered it was a very bad problem if two engineers headed toward each other on the same track had very different times set on their pocket watches. A lot of head-on collisions occurred before they started synchronizing their watches by telegraph.

This reminds me of my great-grandparents, Dan and Amanda Davis, who lived on Spring Creek near Licking, Missouri, in the early 1900s. One morning there was a knock on the door on a Saturday morning. A neighbor was there asking to borrow a small amount of coffee beans. Dan and Amanda went back to the kitchen. Dan was against it. He said that they barely had enough coffee to last the week and if they gave it to the neighbor, they would be out themselves.

However, Amanda said, “Then we will just be out. I’ve never turned anybody away that was in need. God will see to our needs.”

The next morning, they did without their morning coffee and walked to church. But, when they came walking back, they discovered a new can of coffee on the porch beside the front door. They believed that the neighbor had repaid them. However, the neighbor said that she didn’t leave it there and had not told anyone about it either. Dan and Amanda always believed that they had been paid back, ten-fold, by no one else but God.


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whiteriverrr041Pearl Spurlock was giving a tour to five Presbyterian Ministers in her Shepherd of the Hills Taxi.  One of them remarked, “Did you know the Missouri Pacific Railroad was the oldest railroad in the world?  It is even mentioned in the Bible!”

Pearl replied, “Well for pity sakes, where is it mentioned in the Bible?”

The Minister answered, “Well, it says in a certain place that God created all creeping things and he must undoubtedly have meant the Missouri Pacific!”[i]

Sure people made fun of it, but there would have been no tourism in Branson—in fact there may have been no Branson–if it were not for the Missouri Pacific Iron Mountain Railroad, otherwise known as The White River Railroad.

The railroad was already bringing folks into the Marble Cave area when Harold Bell Wright came there in 1905 to spend the summer.  As described on the final page of his novel, he would have heard, “…the dull report; as of distant cannons…to the north, on the other side of Roark.  Men were tearing up the mountain to make way for the Railroad.”[ii]

The construction was tough. Two long tunnels were blasted through the hills between Reeds Spring and Branson—then another long one at Cricket Arkansas.  Mile-per-mile, the construction costs and difficulty proved to be almost equal to building a line through the Rockies.

Today, no passenger trains bring the tourists streaming in from “beyond the farthest blue line of hills” anymore.  Now visitors drive from great distances in their own automobiles, over four-lane highways that wouldn’t have seemed possible in 1905.  Many even fly-in to airports at Springfield, Branson, or Point Lookout.

The railroad tracks are still there, as is the old depot in downtown Branson.  Today passengers climb aboard vintage Pullman passenger cars on the Branson Scenic Railroad for a two hour sightseeing trip down the line.  The train doesn’t take its passengers to any end destination, except memory lane.  It’s just a nostalgic train ride back in time that ends up back at the Branson depot when the ride is through.

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Sammy Lane at her lookout by George E Hall

Sammy Lane at her lookout by George E Hall

Sammy Lane was the beautiful daughter of Jim Lane and the heroine of The Shepherd of the Hills.  In the story she rode her brown pony, “…climbing the Old Trail to the Lookout on the shoulder of Dewey, and she spent hours at the big rock, looking over the valley to where the smoke from Aunt Mollie’s kitchen curled above the trees.”

No one knows if Harold Bell Wright had this exact rock ledge in mind when he described the scenes in the book.  However, this was the rock that photographer George E. Hall chose about 1914 to take the earliest known postcard photos of Sammy Lane’s Lookout to sell to the tourists.  He used his sister, Ethel, as a model for Sammy Lane.  The old trail that went from Branson, around the side of Dewey Bald, to Old Matt’s Cabin, passed right beneath this rock.  It was the first stop on the pilgrimage to visit the sights mentioned in the famous book.  As late as the 1960’s a small, wooden handmade sign stood in front of this rock to inform visitors that this was “Sammy’s Lookout.”

You would probably get blank stares if you stopped in Branson today and asked for directions to Sammy’s Lookout.  Hundreds of people speed by the lookout every day on Highway 76, on their way to Silver Dollar City.  They pass only a couple of hundred feet from it and never know it’s there, hidden by the underbrush.  It’s now part of the 1,534 acre Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area that is operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Sammy's Lookout as shown in an early 1960's postcard.

Sammy’s Lookout as shown in an early 1960’s postcard.

If you were to walk around the hillside from the conservation area parking lot you would soon find the little rock ledge. However, you would not have the same view today that you would have seen a hundred years ago. Back then, Sammy Lane was said to have sat on the ledge and watched the sheep down in Mutton Hollow. She could also watch people coming down the old tail and determine who they were, long before the arrived. Today, there is a thick growth of cedar trees all around the ledge. You can see about as far as the highway and fleeting glimpses of the modern cars as they speed by.

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Howdy. Come on in and pull up a chair. My name is Rick J. Gunter and you have just stumbled on to my new site. There’s not much to see here yet but that’s gonna change. This is the place for everything connected with the Ozark Mountain Region. I’ll be covering topics such as Ozarks history, hunters and trappers, sawmilling, Civil War, bushwhackers, Bald Knobbers, homesteaders, Harold Bell Wright, Silver Dollar City, Shepherd of the Hills country, Branson, genealogy, superstitions, ghost stories, antiques, old time crafts, and—well you get the idea. I’m planning lots of short articles with lots of old photographs from my collection.

A little about myself: I was born and raised in Texas County, Missouri, in the nineteenth century ghost town of Old Success. I grew up listening to the stories of the old timers, some who had been born as far back as the 1880s. I developed a great appreciation of Ozark history and the ways of the people who had lived there. My ancestors were Scotch, Irish, Welch, and English. Many of them had descended from old Norman families. Most had crossed the Atlantic in the 1600s.

For 30 years, I worked as a Software Design Engineer on US Defense Department classified projects. I’ve lived and worked in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Maryland, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Colorado. However, my real love has always been the Ozarks. I have collected historic photos and I have researched everything Ozarks for many years. I have written articles for magazines, newspapers, and internet blog sites. Now I’m ready to step out and do my own internet magazine and blog.

If you have a question or if you have an interest in something Ozarks that hasn’t been discussed here, click the contact button and let me know. If I can’t tell you something off the top of my head, I’ll research it and report on what I find. Otherwise, I’ll just make up something. Seriously, I write both fiction and nonfiction but you should be able to tell the difference. (Or maybe not–my wife and kids still have to ask sometimes.)

Keep coming back. One big announcement that I will be making soon is the KickStarter project I’m working on. More details will be made public in a few weeks, but I can tell you it will be historical and have lots of never before seen photographs. If you want to be kept informed, click the contact button, send me your email address and I’ll keep you updated. And come back and see me sometime.

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Branson City Limits sign

Branson City Limits sign

Branson, population 10,520, is a small town in southwest Missouri, in Taney County. It has the unique distinction of being the Live Entertainment Capital of the World. Branson is a major tourist destination with more than 60 music shows and major attractions, such as, Silver Dollar City, The Shepherd of the Hills Homestead, White Water, and the Showboat Branson Belle.

The City of Branson is at the crossroads of highways US-65 and MO-76, about a half-hour drive south of I-44 and Springfield, Missouri. Most of the entertainment theaters are on 76 Country Boulevard, which is MO-76 west of US-65.


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Alley Spring, MO, summer 2003The Ozarks is a physical place with defined boundaries. It can also be a place in time—anywhere from today, as well as back to the historical past of our Ozark ancestors. It is their stories and crafts of yesteryear. It is their memory that walks the hills with the morning mists, like ghosts flitting by the old house places and the lost cemeteries of unmarked graves.

The Ozarks can be a memory or state of mind. Those who were born and raised there know the scent that hangs over a cold river at dawn. They cannot forget the sight of dogwoods and red buds in bloom or Easter lilies being resurrected from the ground in springtime. It is an emotion, a feeling in the heart of those who long to be there.

Many will come to the Ozarks for the first time. They travel the roads in awe of the steep wooded hills, the springs which burst from the ground like a river full-grown, and the dark caves that yawn from the towering buffs beside the cold rushing streams.

The Ozark Mountain region is a geologic dome or plateau that is very old and greatly eroded. It covers most of southern Missouri, the northern half of Arkansas, Eastern Oklahoma, and the far southeast corner of Kansas.

Where the name Ozarks comes from is not know with great certainty. It is a name that has been referenced in writings as far back as the 1810s. Some historians have said that it comes from a French expression “Aux Arcs.” However, that expression has no meaning to those of today whose first language is French. Perhaps something has been lost in translation.

Other historians have theorized that the name come from the compound word “Os-Arks” which was used on early maps to show that the region was inhabited by the Osage and Arkansas tribes of Native Americans. Regardless of its origin, it is a place that will forever be etched on the hearts and minds of the folks who love those hills.

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