‘A Continuity Of Place And Blood”


Past a clearing where a hill woman was carrying the night’s stovewood into her cabin. Past a gray clapboard church, baled hay showing in the arches of its glassless windows. Through the village of Plumlee, and past a stone building-another church, or perhaps a school, also windowless-a stolid mass against the last peach-pink wash of skyline. Finally another cautionary sign: Hill, Use Gears. Three-Mile Grade . Then down abruptly into the valley of the Buffalo River.

In what remains of the expired mining hamlet of Ponca, the lights were just going out in the general store. Beside the store was the Lost Valley Lodge, a large old house converted into primitive apartments, to which for many years people have been coming to leave the world behind. That had been six o’clock in the evening, an hour in the dark of the year when life is indrawn to its most basic perimeter of walls and fire, and a silence of almost palpable weight claims the hills.

Now it was nearly nine o’clock, and, a slave to city habit, I was still awake, making my rude supper on canned beans and a bottle of soda pop from the store. Suddenly I became aware of a noise, quite pronounced but wholly unaccountable-a crackling hiss, as of a woods fire burning fairly near, or possibly someone running a faucet in one of the upper apartments. It made a considerable racket in the room.

Outside no fires were burning. Inspection of the upstairs revealed that I was alone in the place and that all the taps were closed. Yet back in the room, the mystery sound still could be heard. It was several minutes more before I discovered the source of that great noise which had asserted itself so distinctly in the quiet of the valley.

It was the sibilance of exploding microbubbles of gas in the bottle of soda beside my plate. Such is the stillness of the Ozark night.

Yet, merely to know that silence and the hills and waters, or even the lightless, mapless caverns underlying, is not to have made acquaintance with the quintessential Ozarks. For the region, in the end, is its people and their character and way of life. And getting to understand those is an enterprise of years.

Just past the town of Ponca in the valley of the Buffalo, where the pavement ends and the road forks, the right fork leads to a place called Boxley. And there a fine lady named Orphea Duty waits with her table always set for twelve. Anyone indelicate enough to ask might learn that she is closing fast on eighty. Her house, its core of logs invisible under white wooden siding and several enlargements, is the house she was raised in. Her father was postmaster of Boxley and she the postmistress after him, for thirty-seven years until the place lost its post office in the late 1950’s.

When she was widowed some years ago, Orphy Duty determined that her grief would not shut out the world. She has her church affairs, of course. And also her Tupperware business that takes her to parties around the hills. And the television.

But still she keeps those twelve places always set at her table. Travelers passing along the gravel lane in front of her house, whether they know Orphy personally or have only heard of her, may stop to warm or cool, as the season requires, or just to rest. They will be presented a choice with their coffee of two or three kinds of pie and one or more of cake.

Her visitors tell Orphy about their lives and the errands they are on and, in return, get as much of the history and the news of that area as their time will permit them to know. That is the hospitality of the highlands, although admittedly in rare degree.

Matters of kinship preoccupy. In another Ozark valley far to the northeast, in Missouri, Marjorie Bales Orchard-who is found at the cash register of the Bales AG Store on the main street of Eminence-says her project began with a mystery: who was the mother of Shade (Shadrach) Orchard?

In 1816, two years before Henry Schoolcraft struck westward into wilderness, a Tennessee man named Thomas Boggs Chilton already was.settled near the emptying of Hen Peck Creek into the Current River. From his cabin clearing issued many Chiltons to people Shannon County, and Shade Orchard’s mother, most certainly, was one of them.

Marjorie Orchard’s inquiry into the matter has grown into a family history of one thousand manuscript pages, being prepared for print at the newspaper office just up the street. The publisher of The Current Wave (“Shannon County FirstThe World Afterwards”) is Thomas Leroy Chilton, who declares matter of factly, “There’s few people in this town I’m not some way kin to.”

“Say, didn’t any of you Chiltons ever leave this place?” a friend demands to know.

“No,” someone else says, “they just ran other people out”—a reference to some issue of past seriousness that time has softened into the stuff of ritual humor.

The fascination with genealogy is both diverting and essential. Children begin to be instructed very early about such matters, so that no daughter of those hills arrives at the age for courting without having graven in memory the essential details of her relatedness-to whom, and by what devious percentage.

That is the Ozarks’ continuity of place and blood.