Someone looking at my life could correctly observe that my life’s work has consisted of absorbing all I can about the history, economy and people of the Ozarks. I began this undertaking as a youngster at the Newton County Library in Neosho in about 1960, probably with a book by Vance Randolph or the Chapmans’ Indians and Archaeology of Missouri.
Much of what I have learned about life in the Ozarks has come from living and working in the Ozarks. But what I’ve learned from books and scholars has given me a mental framework for organizing what I have learned and helps me to be a better observer.
At the University of Missouri in the 1970s, I was fortunate to study with professors such as anthropologist Carl Chapman; geographers Walter Schroeder, Trent Kostbade and Jesse Wheeler; economists David Loschky and Floyd Harmston; historian Susan Flader; and architectural historian Osmund Overby.
Professor Chapman and his wife Eleanor wrote and illustrated many fine books and articles about Missouri’s Indians and archaeology. Professor Chapman worked for the enactment of laws that required archaeological inventories of federally-financed construction sites before they were destroyed.
Professor Schroeder simply knows more than anybody about the settlement of the Ozarks and the way the landcape looked 200 years ago. Professors Kostbade and Wheeler were able to lead me to think about the location of towns with respect to transport routes, natural resources and geographic obstacles and advantages. They tried to teach me how to say only what I could support.
I signed up for Loschky’s course on demographic and economic change without knowing that it was really a course in the history of science and logic. He wanted his students to learn that the conclusions reached by historians and economists were often dictated by their biases (and those of their professions) rather than the product of any systematic data-gathering and analysis. I learned to be wary of the post hoc fallacy–just because one thing happened after another didn’t mean that the first thing caused the second. I also learned that it was illogical to assume that an apparent trend would continue just because somebody wanted it to. The trend could stall or reverse, so that it may not have been a trend at all. And we also learned about changes in laws relating to land that had affected how much people had to eat, how long they lived, their decisions to marry later rather than sooner, and their decisions to emigrate.
Professor Harmston was dry. He read his then-unpublished textbook (The Community as an Economic System ) to the five people in the class. We were required to make rudimentary input-output models, so that we could follow the economic effect of a dollar spent in the corner store and the beauty shop and the loan made by the community bank. We discussed which businesses would be most affected by increases in fuel prices, new bridges, the loss or gain of various types of enterprises.
Susan Flader probably won’t mind if I refer to her as a father. When she arrived at MU’s history department around 1974, she had recently finished a biography of the pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold, whose book “Sand County Almanac” is on nearly everyone’s list of environmental classics. Her great passions were forests and prairies and what happened to them. The first course that I took from her was the history of the trans-Mississippi West. The second course was a graduate seminar in how to write history. She required that we use primary sources (for example, the cash journal of a sawmill) rather than what somebody else wrote. She pointed out my patches of bad writing with great precision and told me how to fix them.
Professor Overby was willing to overlook my lack of prerequisites to let me take a graduate level course about American architecture, that left me with a better knowledge base and great appreciation for the architects who designed the great buildings of the Midwest, some of them using stone from the Ozarks.
I also worked as a lab technician in the geochemistry lab in the MU geology department in 1971 and 1972, sometimes traveling around the state taking samples of polluted water, from such places as the base of the old landfill in Branson near Roark Valley and Gretna Roads, the Spring River next to the dioxin-producing chemical plant in Verona, and springs in northern Jefferson County, where suburban development overtook groundwater protection measures 40 years ago.
My biggest debt is to my own father, Vern Styron of Granby, who pays attention to his community with a keen level of observation. As a result, he knows where things are, how they got there, who cares about them, and who gets what’s left over when nobody else cares. I want to be more like him.