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Ozarks - People

Appalachia and Ozarks The early white American settlers in the southern Courtois Hills of the Ozarks, for the most part, were native-born Americans of Scotch-Irish ancestry. Part of the westward movement of the upland Southerners, they adapted their "stockman-farmer-hunter" economy to the wooded hills of the Current River basin.

Before the invasion of land speculators, the Civil War, the railroads and large-scale corporate lumber, the southern uplanders planted their hill and riverine communities with little contact from the outside society. Although far from shut off completely from the "civilized world," they largely defined the nature of their isolation before 1850. The difficult, dissected Ozark terrain made movement in and out of the region arduous, and the early permanent settlers built communities with close kinship ties that reflected their uplander heritage.

during the Civil War. The Ozark uplands, however, remained anything but peaceful. Partisans waged a brutal war on the people and land of the rugged Missouri and Arkansas Ozark hills, including the Current and Jacks Fork riverways. These forces were a complicated mix of southern sympathizers commissioned by the Confederate army and given free reign in their actions, federal militia units, and assorted unattached bands of outlaws. In addition to these guerrilla groups, whose victims commonly gave the label "bushwhackers," regular Union troops occupied the Courtois Hills, including Van Buren and Eminence, during 1862 and 1863.

The terror struck by the guerrilla raiders and the foraging of the regular troops depopulated and impoverished the Current valley and much of the Ozark hills. Local feuds and divided loyalties fueled violent conflict in the Current valley for years after the war and left scars in the homeland that showed for decades.

The damaged economy of the Ozark hills recovered slowly after the war. During the 1860s, the number of farms in the Ozark region, as defined above, increased but production dropped. The number of cultivated acres per farm declined. Any lasting changes to the Ozarks culture, however, are hard to measure. The self-sufficient lifestyle suggests that the upland families continued to live much as they had before the war.

The expansion of state and federal government intervention in the development of the Current and Jacks Fork Riverways into a recreation ground for nature-seeking urbanites dominated the history of the area after 1920. In 1963, Missouri's Congressional delegation united in support of a much-revised bill that proposed creating an Ozark National River Park. Responding to the major critics of Park Service management, the new legislation provided for scenic easements and approved hunting and fishing based on Missouri state regulations.

KWTO Radio AM 560, which first broadcast from Springfield MO in 1933, also produced the Ozarks Country Jubilee, and its television cousin used local artists like Wilson, Red Foley, Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Porter Waggoner, Les Paul, Brenda Lee and a guitar player named Chet Atkins. These were staff musicians hired to perform live on KWTO from the 1930s through 1950s well before they established iconic careers in country music that led many to Country Music Hall of Fame and/or the Grand Ole Opry decades later.

The "ridge runner" was a derisive term for the mountaineer, as contrasted with the valley farmer, to imply ignorance or stupidity. The word hillbilly was used in the same sense. The “hillbilly” has been an enduring staple of American iconography, and Arkansas has been identified with the hillbilly as much as, if not more than, any state. Despite the lack of scholarly consensus on the origin of the term—historian Anthony Harkins gives as the most likely explanation that Scottish highlanders melded “hill-folk” with “billie,” a word meaning friend or companion—there is no shortage of hillbilly images in American popular culture.

The genealogy of the hillbilly icon stretches deep into Arkansas history, from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s caustic descriptions of the Arkansas Ozarks’s earliest settlers to the late-nineteenth-century stories of Opie Read in his Arkansas Traveler. As Anthony Harkins notes, by the time of the Civil War, the word “‘Arkansas’ was becoming instantly recognizable shorthand for the half-comic, half-savage backwoodsman.”

Whether a barefoot, rifle-toting, moonshine-swigging, bearded man staring out from beneath a floppy felt hat or a toothless granny in homespun sitting at a spinning wheel and peering suspiciously at strangers from the front porch of a dilapidated mountain cabin, the hillbilly, in all his manifestations, is instantly recognizable. Wrapped up with the condescension in people’s common view of the hillbilly is a trace of admiration for what they perceive as his independent spirit and his disregard for the trappings of modern society.

In 20th-century popular culture, some of the nation’s most recognizable hillbilly characters were from Arkansas or had Arkansas connections, including Arkansas comedian and actor Bob Burns, radio’s Lum and Abner (Arkansans Chet Lauck and Norris Goff), and B-movie stalwarts Ma and Pa Kettle. Ozark hillbillies made their first television appearance in 1968 when Jack Benny returned to his supposed roots by portraying fiddler “Zeke Benny and his Ozark Hillbillies” on a single show.

Although the crass stereotyping of Al Capp and Dogpatch, U.S.A., rankled many Arkansans, others coopted the term “hillbilly” and wore it as a badge of honor. Today the mythical comic-strip image is promoted by tourist-baiters and indulged by tongue-in-cheek "hillbillies".

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:07 ZULU