A Step Back In Time

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The Ozarks—a young reporter from Kansas City named Charles Phelps Cushing thought in 1910—were “not stunning Rocky Mountains, just graceful old hills. And the backwoods-type inhabitants of the region, though they were hardy and quaint, clearly were living a hundred years or more in the past.” Cushing’s curiosity was piqued. “I began to wonder who they were and where they came from” and, he added with presentiment, “why weren’t there any worth-while pictures of them?” So with folding camera in hand, Cushing made his way into southern Missouri, close to the border with Arkansas, and was astounded by the extent of the region—”a great rugged plateau” of worn-down, ancient mountains cut by wild valleys where, it was said, “darkness drops quickly on cabin dooryards.” The hills made road building difficult, and what few trails existed could only be traversed on foot or by horse. Many Ozarkers never knew where the roads led, exhibiting, Cushing noted, a “sublime indifference concerning matters of geography … a few even took pride in the fact that they never had journeyed farther from home than the nearest county seat town or the ridge-tops at the horizon line.” In this isolation—“in a lingering backwoods of barefooted hillbillies, primitive log cabins, razorback hogs and old-time water-wheel grist mills” —Cushing found “a people of pure quill American stock;” most of them of English and Scotch-Irish extraction—no “Johnny-come-latelies” but rather descendants of pioneer families that had migrated from the Appalachians. They said “buss” for “kiss” and “hit” for “it,” and cherished other “relics of the speech of Shakespeare’s days.” Cushing photographed them at work, at play, at ease, in their homes, in their fields, thus leaving for us what he called a documentary history of a people struggling against almost hopeless economic odds. Cushing’s sojourn sated his curiosity about the Ozarks but only whetted his penchant for photography. He later became, among other things, picture editor of Collier’s magazine, and as a first lieutenant in the Marines during World War i he helped organize the Stars and Stripes and subsequently was the photo editor for the A.E.F. Afterward he was famous for his photographs of Main Streets and as a writer of articles on American history. And for more than forty years until his death in 1973, at the age of eighty-eight, he ran an invaluable photo agency in New York that stocked hundreds of thousands of illustrations of American life. Few capture the time and mood of the past as well as his own photographs of the Ozarks, a sampling of which we offer in this portfolio.

—N.B.