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Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image

Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image

by Brooks Blevins

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The Ozark region, located in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, has long been the domain of the folklorist and the travel writer--a circumstance that has helped shroud its history in stereotype and misunderstanding. With Hill Folks, Brooks Blevins offers the first in-depth historical treatment of the Arkansas Ozarks. He traces the region's history from


The Ozark region, located in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, has long been the domain of the folklorist and the travel writer--a circumstance that has helped shroud its history in stereotype and misunderstanding. With Hill Folks, Brooks Blevins offers the first in-depth historical treatment of the Arkansas Ozarks. He traces the region's history from the early nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth century and, in the process, examines the creation and perpetuation of conflicting images of the area, mostly by non-Ozarkers.

Covering a wide range of Ozark social life, Blevins examines the development of agriculture, the rise and fall of extractive industries, the settlement of the countryside and the decline of rural communities, in- and out-migration, and the emergence of the tourist industry in the region. His richly textured account demonstrates that the Arkansas Ozark region has never been as monolithic or homogenous as its chroniclers have suggested. From the earliest days of white settlement, Blevins says, distinct subregions within the area have followed their own unique patterns of historical and socioeconomic development. Hill Folks sketches a portrait of a place far more nuanced than the timeless arcadia pictured on travel brochures or the backward and deliberately unprogressive region depicted in stereotype.

Editorial Reviews

Robert Cochran
Easily the best comprehensive history of the Ozarks yet accomplished. It will be a benchmark in the field.
From the Publisher
Easily the best comprehensive history of the Ozarks yet accomplished. It will be a benchmark in the field. (Robert Cochran, University of Arkansas)

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The University of North Carolina Press
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6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

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Hill Folks
A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image

By Brooks Blevins

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826758


In the introduction to his 1931 book, The Ozarks: An American Survival of Primitive Society, Vance Randolph warned the reader that his subjects were not the "progressive element in the Ozark towns, nor . . . the prosperous valley farmers" but the "diverting and picturesque" residents of the backwoods, the "hill-billy" and the "ridge-runner." Randolph had fired one of the first volleys in what would become a barrage of nonfiction treatments of "the most backward and deliberately unprogressive region in the United States." He, along with many other midwesterners, had found a place "practically unknown to the readers of guide-books" and a people differing "so widely from the average urban American that when the latter visits the hill country he feels himself among an alien people."[1]

Subsequent chroniclers of Ozark life and culture were less forthright in their approaches to their subjects and in their relationships with their readers. The disclaimer Randolph boldly asserted throughout half a century of roaming the hills, recording stories and songs, and writing books and articles gradually faded into the background in succeeding decades. The "diverting and picturesque" became the norm. Randolph assured the reader that "the most picturesque of the Ozark natives are seldom seen by the casual summer visitor." He was not mistaken, and the observation has almost universally remained true to this day. But the efforts of Randolph and dozens of other writers in the coming years revealed these hillbillies in all their homespun, rustic quaintness or wretched backwardness; they etched into the American consciousness images of contrast and paradox while they obscured the history, diversity, and complexity of the Ozark region.[2]

These conflicting depictions of a region and its people served America well throughout much of the twentieth century. As Henry Shapiro discovered, Americans have long been adept at utilizing their southern mountains and mountaineers for purposes both physical and psychological. In Appalachia on Our Mind, Shapiro examines the American (generally northeastern) image of a backward region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shapiro's Appalachia, the Ozarks' mother region, served as a living gauge by which "progressive" America could measure its advancement. This peculiar region of centuries-old culture proved to be both a cause for continued faith in modernization and a burden on the minds of all who desired to modernize the mountaineer. But as progressivism and the spirit of social missionary activity waned after World War I, so too did the missionary's social and moral concern for the salvation of Appalachia.[3]

Faced with the burdens of the modern age that took shape after World War I, many Americans sought an arcadian region of innocence and beauty. To a country racked by depression, war, and the anxieties of the nuclear age, the Ozarker embodied the frontierlike individualism that pervades American tradition, a trait quite removed from modern society. And the region's rural, isolated characteristics proved both aesthetically pleasing and nostalgically reassuring. Furthermore, as mechanization and New Deal agricultural relief programs transformed the rural landscape, and as the nuclear age brought into question the intrinsic value of change and the inevitability of technological progress, Americans searched for a region untouched by the modern world and indicative of a more innocent time. Many of them discovered the Ozarks, which, ironically, was a region well advanced into the process of rural transformation and decline. Simultaneously, the degraded and backward state of the hillbilly helped expel, or at least soften, any doubts that depression-era and Cold War Americans might harbor concerning the innate goodness of science and "progress."[4]

Perhaps the quilting, folk song-humming grandma shared a leaky log cabin with the barefooted, black floppy hat-wearing moonshiner. The conflicting images both had their appeal to post-World War II generations. To urban and small-town Americans burdened by the Cold War and their own attempts to adjust to a rapidly mechanizing and modernizing society, the Ozarks offered a haven, both physically and mentally. Urban midwesterners flocked to the region's lake shores, river banks, and hiking trails in ever-increasing numbers to escape, if only for a brief time, the rigors of fast-paced life. Even more therapeutic was the region's developing image. Many Americans, separated from a rural past, yearned with foggy-eyed nostalgia for the bucolic countryside, the homestead of American lore. Through the ink of the travel writer the Ozarks could supply this need. More important, the Ozarks, like its parent to the east, seemed to provide a direct link with the American past, especially in the Anglocentric days surrounding World War II. Some sort of pure "Anglo-Saxon" culture had been carefully preserved there by "contemporary ancestors." Lest Americans become too overburdened by a sense of guilt over the loss of heritage and frontier survival skills, however, the barefooted moonshiner stared out from comic strips and postcards to sober the nostalgic spirit and reaffirm the resolve toward progress and modernization. As one New York writer wrote in 1949: "Even more than most places, the Ozark Mountains are all things to all people."[5]

The Ozarks attracted few missionaries and entrepreneurs of the type who had traveled into the Appalachian Mountains before the turn of the century. The Ozark region did, however, summon other kinds of seekers similar to the ones who explored Appalachia and its culture in the early twentieth century. Many came to record and preserve a soon-to-be obsolete way of life in books of photographs and stories of the last mountaineers. Others sought to preserve disappearing arts and handicrafts once widely practiced by America's frontier families. The most famous simply recorded the wealth of folklore, oral traditions, and mountain ballads. The focus had changed since reformers first entered Appalachia. The Progressive Era spirit of reform and conformity had passed, and in its place thrived an appreciation for nostalgia and a yearning to preserve some vestiges of a bygone era, some physical and spiritual connection to a frontier long vanished. The Ozarks would be rediscovered in the 1960s, but its image would not undergo the fundamental revision experienced by Appalachia during that decade. The American spirit of nostalgia and the actions of a group of non-Ozarkers and natives concerned with tourism promotion and folk culture preservation would maintain the region's static, contemporary ancestor image into the late twentieth century.

The entrepreneurs who entered the Ozarks in growing numbers after 1945 were not the coal and timber barons who had come to rule the remote hollows of Appalachia years earlier. These businessmen came to capitalize on the region's scenic beauty and the nation's growing prosperity and culture of leisure, factors that led to the emergence of widespread tourism. Although the region's best timber resources had been harvested early in the century, the smaller scale of the Ozark operation (when compared to Appalachia) left fewer visible scars. Furthermore, mining activity, primarily zinc and manganese ore extraction, proved relatively minuscule and less damaging to the aesthetic qualities of the environment. These tourism entrepreneurs would eventually capitalize on everything from scenic river canoeing to mountain music to theme parks perpetuating Ozark stereotypes, sometimes with the assistance of Ozark natives.

Despite the conflicting images of rustic isolation and uncultured backwardness promoted by Ozark boosters, the Ozarkers and their lands were in the midst of a transformation in the years following World War II. The forces effecting the modernization of the United States and the demise of rural communities—the same technological, political, and institutional forces breeding and cultivating the increasing interest in the Ozark region—were at work in even the most remote northern Arkansas hollow and had been for half a century or more. The region of traditional rural communities and families popularized and romanticized in the nation's imagination stared beyond the darkening horizon of its last sunset. In reality the Ozarks that survived in the minds of post-World War II Americans had long since disappeared, if indeed it ever had existed.[6]

The purpose of this study, then, is to reveal the Ozark region and the Ozarkers that did exist, to look beyond picturesque diversions into a region almost wholly unexplored by the historian. In so doing, I hope not only to shed light on a region long darkened by misunderstanding and misrepresentation but also to chronicle the chroniclers of the Ozark image.

The Arkansas Ozark region of the post-World War II era was, for a brief moment, still the domain of the small farmer. But it was also a land of flux and outmigration, and the home of a people experiencing the effects of modern science and technology, government intervention, and Cold War American affluence at a level heretofore unimaginable in much of the relatively isolated countryside. The Ozarkers of the foothills, creek bottoms, and mountain hollows had never been as isolated and as unconsciously immune or consciously resistant to modernizing influences and brushes with the outside world as folklorists and travel writers had suggested.

This observation pushes the beginning of this study back almost a century and a half before World War II, back into the sparsely settled wilderness that was the Ozark region at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in order to reveal the historical forces, the complexities, and the nuances that comprised the past and explained the present of the region and its inhabitants discovered by tourists and folklorists in the middle of the twentieth century. Therefore, although the jumping-off point for this study is the interplay of image and reality in the post-World War II era, what follows is a dual effort. It is an exploration of the development and perpetuation of the Ozark image as well as the first treatment of the region's social history, the reality behind the image. It seems only natural that the initial scholarly study of a region long obscured, even eclipsed, by myth and stereotype should proceed in such a dichotomous fashion.

In the decades after the first white settlers pushed into northern Arkansas after the War of 1812, Ozark settlers and their descendants, although certainly more isolated than the vast majority of Americans, witnessed the coming of the steamboat, the introduction of cash crops, the construction of railroads, and the harvesting of hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin timber. Yet the diversity of topographic conditions, soil qualities, and water resources prevented uniformity in the Ozarkers' experiences with change and modernization. Whereas the fertile plains of extreme northwestern Arkansas and the rich bottomlands along the White and other Ozark rivers brought prosperity to many agriculturists, the comparative barrenness of the vast interior of rocky hillsides and rugged mountains left other generations of Ozarkers the unenviable task of providing food and shelter within a harsh and unforgiving country. This intraregional diversity has been a key feature in the history and development of the Arkansas Ozarks.[7]

Until a couple of generations ago, the vast majority of Ozarkers scratched out their livings on hillside and creek bottom farms. Consequently, any historical study of the region must necessarily begin with agriculture and rural life. Farming in the Ozarks has in no way been a stagnant occupation. While photographers who combed the most remote recesses of the region in the 1940s and 1950s could on occasion find old men and women on isolated farmsteads whose practices varied little from those of their grandparents, such models of contemporary ancestors were nearing extinction. Although less picturesque and interesting to journalists and folklorists, the small farmers whose cotton and corn patches speckled the hillsides, whose dairies supplied the expanding milk markets, and whose poultry flocks and cattle herds fed the changing appetites of postwar Americans dominated the Ozark region. That is not to say the Ozarks was simply another rural region quite like any other in most regards. It certainly was different from other regions but not as monumentally as its chroniclers have had us believe. Agricultural mechanization arrived belatedly in northern Arkansas, and in most cases the Ozarker's clinging to the tradition of animal and man power was a decision made of economic necessity, not from a stubborn disregard for modernity. And when the modern world of technology did visit the hillside farm, it often did so with striking and incongruous results. Not only did sons mount small, one- and two-row tractors in fields beside their father with his team of mules, but electric milking machines and tractor-drawn hay balers coexisted alongside smokehouses and mule-powered sorghum mills.

In a century and a half, technological, governmental, and institutional forces effected the transformation of the region from an isolated, subsistence farming culture to, first, one of scattered row crops and general farming (not unlike other parts of the Upper South and lower Midwest) and then to one of fewer and larger farms specializing in livestock and poultry. The factors spurring the transformation of farming practices also affected every facet of rural life—churches, schools, local institutions, traditions, and crossroads businesses.

The region's past and present are riddled with paradox. The three decades following the Great Depression witnessed a mass exodus from the Ozarks as mechanized, large-scale farming on more arable soils left the small hillside farmer unable to compete, and the spread of technological innovation to the countryside scattered rural communities. As the last of the migrant families left their homes for work elsewhere, retired northerners—beneficiaries of Cold War America's affluence—flocked southward in search of quieter, cleaner, warmer environments in which to spend their golden years. They spurred Ozark tourism and construction activity in the process. In true twentieth-century irony, the very forces of modernization that transformed agriculture and drove thousands of rural families from their communities in search of work also provided the only available livelihoods for the many who remained on the land of their grandfathers and in the company of family.

The study that follows is more than a refutation or qualification of long-held misconceptions and exaggerations of a region and its people. The Ozarks merits examination not only in response to decades of criticism, distortion, and uninformed appraisal by outsiders, but in its own right. Therefore, first and foremost, my research reflects an attempt to fight through the thicket of myth, nostalgia, and stereotype. In the clearing beyond we will discover the story of the Ozarks, a region's transformation and a people's perseverance. Such a treatment will likely lend nuance to our understanding of cultural transformation and rural modernization and perhaps reveal a region long subjugated by the American preference for image over substance. At the very least it will offer a first, in-depth study of a region long ignored by historians and quite worthy of their attention.

Excerpted from Hill Folks by Brooks Blevins. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Easily the best comprehensive history of the Ozarks yet accomplished. It will be a benchmark in the field.--Robert Cochran, University of Arkansas

Well researched and skillfully written, [this] book does an excellent job of presenting historical, geographic, and economic material that focuses on 15 countries of northwestern Arkansas, following changes in how the men and women of this area made a living and interacted with one another in a variety of social settings.--Choice

A monumental study. . . . With this book, Ozark history now has a solid foundation.--Journal of American History

At last we have a fascinating and valuable in-depth historical treatment of the Arkansas Ozarks and by an able scholar from the region.--Journal of Appalachian Studies

Blevins views the Arkansas Ozarks through an agricultural lens, arguing successfully that the agricultural landscape has directly or indirectly influenced every aspect of its history. . . . Blevins' well crafted narrative provides a 'good read' for everyone interested in Arkansas Ozark history. . . .A meticulously researched, documented, and indexed resource of comprehensive data. . . . An inspiring research source.--Arkansas Review

Blevins has provided an important addition to the scholarship in Ozarks social history; folklorists intrigued by relationships between folklore, culture representation, and history will benefit from this valuable study.--Journal of American Folklore

Contains a wealth of information about the Ozarks that will be useful to anyone interested in the region and a cautionary tale about the divergence between image and reality.--American Historical Review

This is quite simply the best history of the Arkansas Ozarks that has been published. Characterized by excellent research, writing, and an admirable ability at summarizing the thorniest problems and getting to their essence, Hill Folks is an outstanding book.--The Ozarks Mountaineer

In the first serious historical examination of the region, Brooks Blevins measures the romance of the Ozarks against the region's development and plumbs the anxieties that gave rise to its image .. . . By revealing that the fashioning of the Ozark image is also part of the story of the region, Hill Folks helps us to escape the romance that obscured a truer past. That is a significant contribution.--Arkansas Democrat

Impressively researched and clearly written. . . . Adds a great deal to our understanding of this understudied region. . . . Scholars and residents of the region owe Blevins a debt of gratitude for his pioneering work.--Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Meet the Author

Brooks Blevins is Endowed Associate Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University.

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