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Book Review: James Fork of the White River, Transformation of an Ozark River

Book Review:  James Fork of the White River, Transformation of an Ozark River

Published by Lens & Pen Press, 4067 Franklin, Springfield MO 65807, $35 (buy both James Fork of the White River and Damming the Osage for $52.50 postpaid), 351 pages.

The evolution of a river in the modern era has many dimensions—geology, politics, cultures, the rise and fall of towns, commerce—and Crystal and Leland Payton have once again used various techniques to capture the modern history of the James River in Southwest Missouri. These techniques involve reproduction of old photographs, maps, and promotional brochures, and lavish new photographs. Combining these graphics with a penetrating verbal narrative, the Paytons have given us what we all want and need to know about the White River’s largest Missouri tributary.

The James originates on the dome of the Springfield Plateau, east of Springfield, near Mansfield. Other streams radiate from this high elevation—the Niangua and the Osage Fork of the Gasconade flowing northward, Bryant Creek and the North Fork of the White flowing southeastward, Swan and Bull creeks flowing south, and the James, initially flowing westward before taking a southward turn at Springfield to eventually reach the White River a few miles above Kimberling City.

Drawing on the pioneering archaeological work of Carl and Eleanor Chapman, whose courses and books about Missouri anthropology and archaeology shaped a couple of generations of students including me, the Paytons summarize what is known about occupants of the valley over the past 12,000 years until the first Anglo-Americans began visiting, then settling, in the past three centuries.

The text, supported by photographs, depicts the valley of the James and its tributaries east of Springfield as an agricultural area, once dominated by general farming, changing to cattle ranching. The authors point out that the substantial Amish communities have continued to raise a variety of crops and livestock, along the tributaries such as Panther Creek and the upper Finley.

Proceeding westward, the James and especially its tributaries that drain Springfield (Pearson, Jordan, Fassnight and Wilson creeks), are urban streams, carrying loads of contaminants. Jordan Creek runs through the heart of downtown Springfield, much of it in underground culverts; the Paytons do a great job of explaining the history and politics of burying Jordan Creek and the progress toward its exhumation and restoration. A interesting tidbit appears in a sidebar, connecting the Jordanaires vocal group that backed Elvis to this stream, a small point that typifies the richness of this book.

In addition, the role of John Woodruff, a Springfield business mogul in the years before World War II, in the development of Springfield and his pursuit of the Arcadian style of tourism is also connected to the James River. In their various books, the Paytons have explicated the attempts of various Ozarks promoters, like Woodruff, to present living and vacationing in the Ozarks as a step back into a perpetual paradise. The idea is both attractive and hollow, and the Paytons use advertising materials and historical photographs to show the efforts made to puff up this ideal, which can never been sustained.

The middle section of the James River Valley, from Springfield to Galena, has a history connected to the Arcadian ideal, some deep hill country culture, and geological curiosities. Here you’ll learn about Browns Spring, Hurley, Jenkins, Ponce de Leon, and Montague.

Galena, with a railroad, became the jumping off point for the classic Ozark float industry that began early in the 20th century. The railroad brought customers from Kansas City, Saint Louis and other Midwestern metropolises. At Galena, they could be placed into long, flat-bottomed boats, and spend several days fishing, camping and drinking, before disembarking at Branson. From there, they and their boats would be loaded on a northbound train to return them to Galena, and eventually take the fishermen to their homes. While there are lots of photos of strings of fish, I suspect that much of what happened on the river stayed on the river.

The lower James, more than the middle section, was caught up in the clamoring for a dam. The story of how the Corps of Engineers wrested dam-building away from private enterprises is well-told in the the Payton’s earlier book Damming the Osage. Similarly, with the boosting of engineering and construction firms, local politicians (especially Dewey Short) and chambers of commerce became convinced that the national interest would be served by a dam and reservoir on the White River, just below the point where the James River emptied in. The machinations resulting in the selection of the Table Rock dam site and the construction of the dam is fascinating and occupies a significant portion of the book.

I’m especially happy that the Paytons are interested in the economic and ecological health of the James River Valley. They have included opinions of several knowledgable people and provided their own thoughtful synthesis.

A short final section is entitled Guardians of Water Quality, and describes the good work of several organizations and individuals who are dedicated to monitoring, protecting and improving the water of this compromised system. The organizations mentioned are the James River Basin Foundation, Ozarks Water Watch, Watershed Committee off the Ozarks, and the Ozarks Environmental and Water Resources Institute at Missouri State University. I have worked with all these organizations, and believe that the work of each of them in public education will be helped by the publication of the James Fork of the White River.

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About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, construction and local government.

2 responses »

  1. Nicely done, Harry. Thanks for this reference. I think I’ll hunt down a copy.

    >

    Reply
  2. Elizabeth Warrick

    Thank you, Harry. I would LOVE to read this.

    Reply

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