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The astounding first generation of modern farmers in the Western Ozarks

by Harry Styron

I frequently drive from my home in Branson to my parents’ home in Granby, 80 miles to the west. Sometimes I drive across northern Stone and Barry counties, through Reeds Spring Junction, Galena, Crane and Monett. Other times, often on the way back after dark, I drive on US 60, through Monett, Aurora, Marionville, and Billings, sometimes taking Missouri 14 from Billings through Nixa or staying on US  60 through Republic, skirting around the southwest side of Springfield to US 65.

When I’m passing through Christian, Greene, and Lawrence counties, and the northern parts of Stone and Barry counties, I see huge old foursquare houses, some of them with large barns and other outbuildings.

These large classic farmsteads were built in the 1880s generally, between the financial downturns of 1877 and 1893, and represented a wave of settlement and general prosperity that occurred during the period of resettlement and population growth as the railroads were extended west of Springfield.

Historians tell us that from the 1890s through World War I, the economic activity in Southwest Missouri slowed. The railroads had been built, and the lumbering that took place in the hilly parts of the Ozarks resulted in massive erosion and frequent flooding.  Cedar-apple rust, which is a fungus that alternates between cedar trees and apple trees, took its toll on the orchards of Lawrence County and elsewhere. Farm commodity prices fluctuated, like weather, but perhaps with more human manipulation, and steam power changed the economics of farming. There weren’t very many large farmhouses built from 1890 to 1920.

I’m awestruck when I consider the accomplishments of these people who put the first plows in the prairie sod and who were able to raise massive barns and houses and large families. In just a few decades, they learned to cultivate a variety of field crops–wheat, oats, barley, corn, tobacco, and hemp–and they also had kitchen gardens for vegetables and fruit trees and berry vines. They also managed a variety of livestock, and made dramatic improvements in beef and dairy cattle and hogs. They also kept poultry and fowl. They built and maintained roads, schools, and churches. They did it with oxen, horses, and mules, and later, steam.

The first wave of farmers in the Ozarks were incredible managers of soil, seed, and animals. But farming also required sophisticated and varied skills in engineering and construction. Today’s landscapes also show that this generation of pioneers mastered the arts of construction of large wooden structures such as barns, and also worked effectively with with water wells, windmills and pumps, and masonry structures such as silos. We do not see in the landscape the impact of blacksmiths, millers, mechanics, window makers, plasterers, wheelwrights and wagon builders, and many other practitioners of arts once essential and now largely forgotten. Nor do we think much about those who before 1920 were stringing the first telephone and electrical lines, installing their control systems and teaching others how to use them.

The domestic arts also required skill in the creation of products for food and clothing, always with an eye to surviving the next long winter.

Feeding large families required care of animals, plus frequent milking of cows and goats and butchering cattle, hogs and poultry, without modern plumbing, electricity and refrigeration. Milk and eggs were sometimes sold for cash or exchanged for manufactured goods, such as needles, thread, scissors, and cloth. Gardens required tending.

Once the raw milk was taken from the animals, the cream was separated and butter was made, along with hard and soft cheeses.

Butchering required many hands, to catch and slaughter the animals and carve their carcasses into products that could be preserved. Meat was salted, ground into sausage, smoked and dried, without gas or electric stoves, electric slicers, or electric saws and grinders.

Fruits, berries and vegetables had to be picked and pickled or canned in kitchens turned into furnaces by hot woodstoves in the summer heat.

Sheep were shorn and wool was carded and washed and spun into yarn, for knitting socks, sweaters and gloves. Hides and pelts were tanned and cured, to be made into clothing and other useful articles.

While the farms–when everything was working right–could be self-sufficient, there was still the money economy to be dealt with. Taxes had to be paid, and to obtain cash money, products had to be taken to town and sold, requiring transport and also the requirement that the price offered had to be accepted; there were not many alternative markets, and no hedging with futures contracts was available.

We have many institutions–public and private–whose beginnings are based on the hard work and ingenuity of this first generation of modern farmers (and all those whose industry supported them). Our county governments and courthouses began operating then, after being destroyed and abandoned during the Civil War. Missouri State University and Drury University were founded then to educate teachers and farmers to serve the growing population.

The productivity of the this first generation of modern Ozarks farmers was the foundation of the companies that processed and improved dairy products and those which manufactured and sold equipment for processing of agricultural products. Fortunes were made in the trading of agricultural commodities, in stockyards, in transportation of agricultural products, and in banking.

The Ozarks Empire Fair was the annual celebration of agriculture in Southwest Missouri. The word “empire” in its name signifies the pride that people in this region felt. It was well-earned.


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