Category Archives: Biographies

My Dad

Family of Floyd Pitts at the family home, Cane Hill, Arkansas: Standing back row, left to right: Older brother Harvey, his wife Ina, youngest sister Verna, younger sister Opal, Floyd, oldest brother Noah with wife Nellie holding Betty with Laverne standing. Front row, children of Harvey and Ina, Bobby Ray and Joy Lee. Seated: William “Bill” Pitts and his wife Nora West Pitts.

My dad, Floyd D. Pitts, didn’t fit a traditional male identification, not that he wasn’t fully male. His talent for music set him up for ridicule and bullying by his two older brothers. He hated the fields of cotton where, as a child, he was once flogged with a cotton stalk by his mom for sleeping at the end of a long row with his bag only partly filled. He was eight years old. It was a lesson in working to survive, and he never forgot it.

His high school diploma from Morrow, Arkansas, hardly counted when he entered college on a music scholarship. He’d already been part of a popular men’s quartet with classmates from high school performing regularly on Fayetteville’s KUOA, Voice of the Ozarks radio station. He played piano and fiddle, and also taught singing school. A makeshift piano tuning hammer had been fashioned from a tie-rod end by his blacksmith father because invariably when Floyd showed up at some rural church house to teach shape-note singing, the piano needed tuning.

Band Director, Rogers Arkansas circa 1940

Time in the U. S. Navy during World War II gave him the opportunity to later obtain a master’s degree as well as hours toward a doctorate. After the war, he returned to Rogers (Arkansas) to again teach choir and band. Another forty years would pass in this career, at Fort Smith in the 1950s, then Miami, Oklahoma until 1967, then part time at Westville, Oklahoma and Lincoln, Arkansas, until he retired from teaching.

From the early 1960s on, however, he advanced his moonlighting career of piano tuning and repair, which he took up full time once he left Lincoln schools. And while I had been his student in the Miami schools band, my first opportunity to work at his side came with the piano business. And it was here that we stepped outside the normal father-daughter roles.

He didn’t treat me like a girl. I remember that even as a youngster, when he was trying to remodel an old house we lived in at Fort Smith, he’d show me how to drive a nail or spread mud on a sheetrock seam. When I began ‘helping’ him in the piano business, he didn’t pay attention to whether my nails would get broken or if my feet were cold. He’d say “Come hold this clamp, sis,” or “Get that Phillips and come over here.”

I learned so much this way, not only how to repair and rebuild these complex instruments called pianos, but how to refinish wood whether solid or veneered, how to mix stains to get rid of red tones, how to smooth off delicate veneer edges with 220 grit sandpaper. If I had a shop today, there’s no end to the kinds and numbers of projects I could pursue and conclude with pleasing results.

Most women don’t get that kind of education.

Carmyn Gem Morrow and Floyd Denver Pitts, Benton County Fair circa 1945

Maybe he realized he wasn’t a “traditional” male in the sense of muscles and macho. Maybe he realized I wasn’t a traditional female in the sense of lace and flirting and whatever else defines that sort. Maybe he didn’t realize any of that but rather just moved forward through time with the work his hands could do well and the concept of work as an honorable and necessary pursuit.

I learned more from my dad’s view of the world than from my mom’s. Oh, I washed dishes and hung clothes on the line and changed my little brothers’ diapers. I sewed most of my own clothes through high school. Gardening, milking goats, keeping chickens—those were also part of my education through mom. But none of that really meant much in the greater world of the late 20th century when a woman might need her own income.

Whereas my mom’s social circles didn’t reach much past her extended family, my dad had to learn how to interact with the greater community despite his rural background. He’d have a social drink, laugh at jokes, and recruit band parents and faculty to help sell snow cones to raise money for new band uniforms. It was his charmingly open approach to people that showed me how to build a social network that became an essential part of a thriving thirty-year career as a piano tuner/technician.

If he thought I could lift one end of a 1910 upright piano, who was to say I couldn’t? If he could dig mouse nests out from under piano keys or drill through the cast iron plate to insert lag bolts in restoring a pin block to its correct position, then so could I. I was stronger than I knew, more mechanically minded, my hands—like his—able to tug strings made of cold drawn steel into the right position on a tuning pin.

Me and my dad, mid-1990s at the piano shop, Pitts Piano Service, Fayetteville

I admit to occasional worries that I had lost all chance of being a ‘real’ woman. What woman crawled under a grand piano to refasten the pedal lyre? In 1982 when I passed my Piano Technician Guild exams for registered tuner/technician status, there were less than two dozen women in the field. Plenty of customers would open their door at the appointed time and express shock at seeing a female tech. My hands weren’t delicate with slim fingers and manicured nails, but rather slightly rough tools used to create a well-tuned musical instrument.

But then, even as a child, I never felt feminine. The mysterious talent by which a female might lure a male into courtship totally escaped me. My body didn’t cooperate with the idea of feminine wiles, but rather expressed itself in somewhat androgynous terms—tallish, fairly flat-chested, angular. Interestingly, my dad too seemed somewhat of an anomaly in his family, handsome, lithe rather than muscled. Did he recognize, at least subconsciously, that we both didn’t quite fit the mold?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my share of love and marriage, cherish my three children, and never turn down a romance novel–unless it’s poorly written.

As his oldest, I gained my dad’s attention first and perhaps it was only the bond of fatherhood that propelled his urge to teach me what he knew. In his heart, he was a teacher more than anything else. He was also an artist—a bass vocalist who could track any part in a four-part harmony, a clarinetist,  and a pianist who loved to pound out the keyboard version of jump music like “Bugle Call Rag” or marches like “Under the Double Eagle.” He cherished his role as both a composer and a conductor who pushed his students to produce excellent music whether Sousa marches or Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It was natural for him to insist I learn piano, clarinet and oboe and how to sing alto, and to teach me how to shim a cracked soundboard and identify the difference between real ivory and early celluloid keytops.

All five of us kids learned music. Both my brothers earned master’s degrees in that field. Sadly, I was the only one privileged to work with him in the piano trade and see the broader side of him than as just a parent.

Whether by conscious intent or as the consequence of his personality, my father allowed me to be me. He encouraged me in skills that were beyond anything considered traditional for a female. His open-mindedness about the life choices of his oldest daughter freed me from any sense of duty to the stereotypes that so often limit women.

Today, fifteen years after his death, I appreciate him more than I was ever able to express while he lived. Thanks, Dad.

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Award Winning Article!

I am pleased to announce that I have been awarded the 2018 Walter J. Lemke prize by the Washington County Historical Society for my article on Jesse Gilstrap. The article will appear in the Fall edition of Flashback, the Society’s quarterly journal.

In 1852, Jesse Mumford Gilstrap settled in Washington County, Arkansas, with his wife and three children. He had ventured to the county earlier; his first child was born here in 1848. An adventurous and passionate young man, in 1850 Gilstrap had trekked westward to join the gold rush while his wife awaited him at her family home near Carthage, Missouri. Back from his adventure and a few dollars richer, he returned to Washington County where he immediately invested some of his earnings in a partnership in one of the county’s earliest mills. In 1856, took full ownership. Then as the winds of war heightened, Jesse spoke out on behalf the Union cause. In 1862, he gathered a company of fellow patriots to form the first company of the 1st Arkansas Cavalry. Jesse went on to serve in the state senate before his untimely death in 1869.

Jesse’s story tumbled out of my research for my new release, The West Fork Valley: Environs and Settlement Before 1900. As I studied early settlers, then the first mills, then the Civil War, Jesse’s name kept popping up. It was a pleasure to connect with a descendant who provided photographs and more details about this man and his family.

I consider Jesse the real winner of this award. I am only the messenger.

West Fork Valley — New Release!

Riverside Park, West Fork. Perfect display of how the river has shaped the land, creating high bluffs and rich bottom land.

I moved into the West Fork Valley in 1973. I had no previous experience here except, as a child, one train ride from Fort Smith to Fayetteville circa 1952 and then passing back and forth from Fort Smith to Fayetteville during the 1950s in our 1949 Chevy (and later our 1954 Chevy). Driving Highway 71 in those days provoked high tension whether we had to pull over to wait out a driving rainstorm or creep along due to impenetrable fog or shudder as big trucks zoomed past.

Mount Gayler provoked an outcry from me and my younger sister—could we stop and have pie at Burns Gables? Could we ride the train? Only one time that I remember did the journey involve stopping for a train ride, a thrilling dash along the tracks circling the pond, wind in my hair, grinning as the high-pitched whistle blew. Another time we sat around a table at Burns Gables to savor a slab of delicious pecan pie.

The landscape of high mountains and sheer cliffs made its mark in my memory. For years my amateur drawings portrayed hills of the same height marching off into the distance in ever faded color. I never understood why it seemed mountains should look that way until, as an adult, I took another look at the profile of the Boston Mountains framing the West Fork valley.

Passing through West Fork on our way north marked the last hurdle before finally reaching Fayetteville, but the only thing that lodged in my memory about the place was the rock “tourist court” along the highway. Then the green-and-white rotating light flashed through the sky at the Fayetteville airport, a magical sight in fog or rain. In those days on that two-lane narrow highway, the trip took nearly three hours.

Imagine my surprise when, in middle age, I discovered that I had ancestors buried at Brentwood and Woolsey! After the Civil War, my dad’s grandfather, Charles McDonald Pitts, moved from Johnson County, Arkansas, to the Brentwood area along with his mother Elizabeth and several brothers and their families. Charles’ mother and his first wife Easter (Parker) and newborn daughter Tennessee are buried at Brentwood as well as a young niece Eliza. Two brothers and some of their children are buried at Woolsey. Charles would remarry there, a local girl named Linnie Mae Rose who became my great-grandmother. The Pitts family moved away by 1900 to take up residence in the western part of the county.

Now, after nearly fifty years of living here, I can almost claim to be an old timer. But fifty years is nothing compared to the two hundred years of family heritage a few of the valley’s residents can claim. I wanted to know who came here first, who built these towns, what it was like to carve out a living in this rugged land. So I started digging.

The West Fork Valley, my new release, is what I found, a history of the watershed of the West Fork of White River, its natural wonders, its past, its people through 1900. It’s my great pleasure to announce this book to the world!

Visit the book page on this site for more information and purchase link.

Greetings from Utopia Park — A Review

Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood by Chaire Hoffman

If you plan to read this book, be warned there are spoilers ahead.

This book was hard to read in places, not because of poor writing. If the writing had been less skillful, I wouldn’t have been able to read it at all. It was hard to read because I kept having an intellectual argument about how people could be so stupid.

The transcendental meditation movement, in particular the cult following of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, never made sense to me. I had carefully extricated myself from another cult, that of the Church of Christ so fully embraced by my parents, so I never remotely entertained the idea of allowing another rigid structure to sit on my head and eat the days of my life.

I get that some people want to run and hide inside concepts like this, like someone has figured shit out and if you just listen to them and do what they say, you’ll see the light. Sorry, but it really doesn’t work that way. You can’t find nirvana on someone else’s path.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the entire problem with all religions. Somebody has an epiphany and tells others about this amazing understanding. They they decide to start spreading the word — what the person was doing/eating/wearing when the epiphany occurred, what he thinks the epiphany means, and then creating a set of rules on how to live and what to believe in order to duplicate that epiphany.

What you get that way is a life of servitude to someone else’s explanation of what they saw/heard/believe all while guaranteeing that you will not ever experience an epiphany of your own.

Anyway.

So this story of a woman’s growing up years with an alcoholic father and a mother who took refuge in TM rubbed me completely the wrong way. Even more upsetting was the author’s failure, after living through this and theoretically reaching adulthood able to think for herself, to ultimately call BS on the whole process.

Yes, maybe meditation is a useful practice. I choose not to waste my time that way, but if it works to bring relaxation and peace of mind to some, that’s fine. It’s your life. But nowhere in this book does the author really come out and say that TM under the Maharishi was a bucket of warm spit engineered with his personal satisfaction and enrichment as the goal. She doesn’t say that her mom, herself, and all the other people she knew were suckered into feeding this weasel’s grandiose scheme.

She does manage to accurately report the ultimate scandal resulting from media exposure of his scheme and share with readers the timeline of his rise and fall. That’s valuable. And it’s valuable that she acknowledges the time and effort it took for her to distance herself from the cult aspect of his teachings.

What disappointed me so greatly was her inability to disavow TM and its impact on her life. She never criticized her mother for being a gullible slave to the Maharishi and for dragging her children through the poverty and deprivation of a cult family. There’s still a lot of introspection due this author which, hopefully, might lead to a later work with more anger about what was inflicted on her.

For me, the book was an eye opener, yet another one, on the subject of how deluded people can be about issues of religion and spirit. Very depressing.

Last Minute Gift? Visit your local bookstore

Great gifts abound at your local bookstore. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, that means Nightbird Books on Dickson Street where you’ll find all my books on local history.

Check out Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West, a collection of murder stories from the 1800s here in this county.

Less expensive but just as intriguing, The Violent End of the Gilliland Boys chronicles the amazing journey of one pioneer family, also a local story.

Don’t live in Northwest Arkansas? Simple — check out all my books at Amazon.com

Best Gift Ever

All around us, every day, the people and events of the past still echo. What is better than to meet those memories and share them with your loved ones?

From 1835 to the present day, the City of Fayetteville in Washington County, Arkansas, has enjoyed a vibrant and colorful history. Its reputation as a regional center for arts, culture, and education began early in its history. Frequently named one of the nation’s Top 10 cities, Fayetteville hosts the University of Arkansas and its famous Razorback athletic teams.

In Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past, history comes alive in stories of the town’s origins and development. The five articles contained in Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past focus on under-reported aspects of that history. Published initially by the county’s historical society, these intensively-researched works have been revised and expanded with illustrations, photographs, and maps.

“The History of Fayette Junction and Washington County’s Timber Boom” now include not only an in-depth review of Fayetteville’s first major industry but also three appendices which examine wagon production in Fayetteville, the name and tradition of Sligo, and the Fulbright mill.

“Quicktown” delves into the story behind this quirky short-lived suburb in south Fayetteville.

“546 West Center” tracks the development of a landmark Fayetteville property from its earliest use as a site for an ice factory in the 1880s.

“The Rise and Fall of Alcohol Prohibition” documents the use, production, and regulation of alcoholic drink in Washington County from before statehood through the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and features indictment and other crime data.

“175 Years of Groceries” follows the transition from country store to supermarkets to big box stores and includes newspaper advertisements showing price changes over those decades.

Whether a reader is interested in learning more about the history of Fayetteville or simply enjoys the peculiar details of how time changes all things, Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past will inform and entertain.

Amazon buy link

 

I Met a Goat on the Road

A visiting guinea? A ‘possum in the dining room? What strange and wondrous occurrences can one expect while living on an Ozark mountaintop for over forty years?

These lyrical adventure stories feature chickens, raccoons, bugs, dogs, cats, and natural critters of this woodland home. Throw in a few neighbors who shoot copperheads or remodel the dirt road. Ponder the passage of time through a philosophical lens of wonder and delight. The seasons bring summer heat, winter snow, pouring rain, the power of fire. Lessons learned, questions posed–who has lived and died on this land? What is our responsibility to this place, its creatures, each other?

Come meet the goat on the road.

Amazon buy link