‘A Continuity Of Place And Blood”


But the issue is not logic. The real kernel of resentment, I suspect, is that in none of these matters were the views of the Ozarkers themselves taken into much account. Again, as through all of their history, decisions affecting the lives and lands of the hill folk were being made by people outside.

The larger towns, particularly those to which transportation routes, mining, recreation, or hospitable surrounding farmlands gave some special advantage, have thrived. But through much of the interior highlands there prevail today the conditions of what Dr. Robert Flanders, history professor at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, describes as a “semi-arrested frontier.”

Isolation has left the hill people medically, educationally, legally, and economically disadvantaged. They suffer also from a generally low quality of public administration. The law of the town does not reach far into the countryside. Disputes can turn rather quickly to violence. Vigilantism and barn burning are part of the culture. Flanders speculates that this may be in some part a legacy of the Civil War bushwhacker experience, when townspeople found that they could live and prosper without the surrounding countryside being entirely pacified.

During prohibition, my wife’s father went into the hills occasionally to seek out and deliver paychecks to men who had worked as extra hands on state road projects. Not many miles out of town, other vehicles would begin falling in line behind his, all honking their horns. Soon he would find himself at the head of a blaring caravan that alerted backwoods distillers to the approach of this stranger in an unfamiliar car-a possible revenuer.

There’s a story of a visitor to the Ozarks during that period who was curious to see a whiskey still in operation and, after some inquiry, found a lad willing to guide him to one for a quarter, cash in advance. The man wanted to pay on return. “But,” the boy explained, “ you ain’t comin’back .”

The intent here, however, is not to reinforce the stereotype of Ozark people as lawless, depraved, stammering, shambling figures of comedy. Most of them are none of these things. They are proud, capable, independent, suspicious (with historical good reason). They also are loyal, warm, even tender, to anyone decent enough to offer uncritical friendship in return.

With the reversal in very recent years of the American ruralto-urban population drift, the region entered on a period of dramatic change whose economic consequences already have been great, but whose effect on highlands culture could be catastrophic.

The availability of land, lower cost of living, and the recreational appeal of Ozark woods and waters have attracted a tide of newcomers from the outer margins of the region and beyond. Some of these have been younger families, wanting to sink roots away from the press and problems of the cities. More have been older, retired couples-not uncommonly Ozark natives returning after working lives elsewhere.

It is necessary to wonder whether the best features of the highlands’ people and their values can survive this modern onslaught of tourists and immigrants, any more than the early forests survived the savaging by an exploitative timber industry.

In Harrison, Arkansas, recently I met a thoughtful and sensitive man named Dr. G. Alien Robinson, still an active physician in his eighties, who practiced medicine thirty-three years in New York before returning to his native hills. Forebears on both sides of his family came to the highlands from Alabama and Tennessee in the first half of the last century. In 1832 or 1833, his maternal great-grandfather, Peter Beller-miller, merchant, farmersettled on a stream near a cascade that took its name, Marble Falls, from a formation of red rock that the tumbling waters had polished.

Dr. Robinson lives on acreage at the outskirts of Harrison, in a home designed for him by another Arkansas native, architect Edward Durell Stone, and built of hand-squared timbers of ruined barns and cabins, floored with cut sandstone from settler hearths and chimneys. He took me out from there, on a bitter winter day, to visit the Beller grave and then to see the place where old Peter had helped quarry from the hillside overlooking the falls a great marble block for the Arkansas stone in the Washington monument.

The falls still exist as a feature of the landscape, but outside entrepreneurs have “developed” the spot: a hillbilly village in the valley, amusement rides, a cable railway up to the ridge, a short ski run with artificial snow. Snacks, curios, a surfeit of demeaning cuteness. The mailing address of what used to be the Marble Falls neighborhood is changed now to Dogpatch, U.S.A. , celebrating the cartoon Yokums who have shaped a nation’s view of Ozarkers. You may be sure that Al Capp is no hero in the hills.

This Road Crooked and Steep Next 20 Miles , the sign had said. Faithful to that promise, the macadam had left the ridgetop and curled down through a haze of gathering evening into that lonely, lovely section of the highlands in northwest Arkansas called the Boston Mountains.