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.

Advertisements

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.

Works of Man and Nature

A few days ago I headed out to explore a road I’d never been down before. It’s less than fifteen minutes from where I live and in my current work-in-progress on the history of the West Fork valley, the road is mentioned often. I thought I should see it.

I was not prepared for what I found there.

Winn Creek Road. Named after the creek and Zadock Winn, a man who drowned there back in the early days of settlement. Other Winns established homesteads up that valley, too, and maybe the road took that name before Zadock drowned back in 1852. The road veers off southwest from Woolsey Road south of West Fork amid wide flat pastures framed on either side by steep, thickly-wooded hillsides.

You know you’re getting to the good part when you see the “Pavement Ends” sign. The road narrows. You slow down as tires hit the gravel and a cloud of dust rises behind you. The valley attenuates to its essential elements and tree canopy encloses the roadway in welcome shade.

To the right, the hillside rises sharply, its massive rock outcroppings mostly hidden in dense undergrowth and hardwood forest. I imagine how it must have looked to the first man to blaze this path, hacking his way through brambles and vines. I imagine how he eagerly awaited the next curve of the creek as it curled through the 30-foot deep ravine to the left, perhaps thirsty, perhaps eager to splash water on his sweaty neck.

Creeks were the roads before roads, paths cleared by regular torrents where in times of low water, man or beast could walk without fear of ambush by tick or cougar. Infinite generations of rocks large and small line the creek bottom. Pale brown, gray, occasionally black where the roaring water has undercut shale, limestone and sandstone claim the greater share of the lithic congregation. I pass a few houses, some buried on deeply wooded hillsides with “No Trespassing” signs at the driveway, others laid out alongside barns and white graveled drives.

The valley and its waterway curl under the dominating rise of these northern slopes of the Boston Mountains. Here and there ancient landslides or silted bends form little meadows suitable for a house, a garden, even pasture. I drive along watching the land slowly rise as I pass further south. I think of pioneers who claimed these places as their own, the long process of clearing fields to plant their wheat, corn, oats, cotton, and tobacco. I think of their log cabins, the children they raised, perhaps descendants living here still.

I’m immersed in the past when travel through places that required heavy wagons pulled by mules or a faithful horse to pick its way across the rugged land. I think of the millennia before white men, when Natives crept through the underbrush watching buffalo herds graze. I think of the millions of years it has taken this tiny place on our planet to form, primeval seas that covered the land then receded, the rush of glacial melt carving its way through countless layers of primordial continent with its fossils of all that came before.

Finally the road and creek bed approach the same level. I could stop, walk past a broken down fence line, and wade. I could sit and watch the water sparkle in sunlight as it rushes along its path.

I round a last curve and stop mid-breath. My heart leaps into my throat.

A surreal scene spreads across the narrow valley. My mouth falls open in shock. I’m instantly transported to a science fiction world. It’s almost more than I can take in.

There, straddling the stream and rising so high I must lean forward to see the top, are massive square steel pillars that hold up Interstate 49. The juxtaposition of the interstate and its structural supports against the backdrop of this venerable wild landscape is almost too much to absorb.

I stop, take pictures, try to come to terms with this bizarre reality. I examine the way the highway engineers planned to use the upper canyon wall as a launching pad for the roadway to fly across this valley. I study the exposed layers of earth and stone cut over countless eons by this now-trivial stream, laid bare as if pages of a book waiting to be read.

Not so trivial, even now, it seems. Evidence of raging flood mark the edge of the roadway, grass twisted and brown with silt, knots of weed tangled in fences. I think of Zadock Winn who believed he could cross even though the water foamed and seethed in its torrent. I thought of how, in all things, Nature will always win.

She will win here, too. For now, traffic clatters and roars far above my head, the steady drumming of tires, the regular lub-dub lub-dub as one after another vehicle crosses each section. Some bracing rattles more loudly than others, perhaps already loosening from its original moorings. There is no peace in this valley.

I drive on. Another quarter mile up the road, the creek takes a ninety-degree bend, providing me the fullest view of its intrinsic beauty.

I peer down from the road where it hugs the hillside forty feet above the water. This is the widest point of its course, ornamented in sparkling ridges as layer upon layer of rock gradually step down through the curve. I can almost hear children laughing as they splash and play in the shallow cool water.

Ahead, if I ventured another three miles or so, I’d arrive at Highway 74 where a left turn would take me to Winslow or a right turn would drop me into the wonderland of Devil’s Den State Park. I turn around and go back the way I came.

I drive home slowly, jarred from my normal frame of mind. The experience of that creek and its valley remains an arresting memory I won’t soon forget. It compares with the best stories I’ve seen or read where astonishing realities intersect with the commonplace. The interstate and its undergirding simply do not belong in that landscape.

Yet I’m twenty plus years past any of this being new. Surely the people who lived here during construction grew familiar with the mind-boggling scale of the interstate’s design. Surely the workers laboring day after day through the pouring of concrete and operation of massive cranes to erect these towers saw their labor as being rooted in the ground. It is rooted in the ground. No doubt the foundations for these support towers are driven deep into the strata far below the creek bed.

I wonder how long it will stand, this high-flying roadway built to accommodate a life lived too fast for contemplation of creek bottoms and tumbled rocks. How many decades will these pillars remain? I imagine a future time when only the towers still stand, the path for vehicles long since rusted and crumbled by the forces of weather, traffic, and time. How much of the concrete will fall to this scenic valley? What will it look like here in a hundred years, a mere blink in geologic time?

I’m disappointed in my words and even the photographs to adequately describe my visceral experience of this location. It’s worth the drive to put yourself there, to stand staring up at the work of man while surrounded by the work of Nature. Questions of time, space, and existence arise spontaneously. Of our place in the continuum, of what the future might hold.

The Scenic Route

Between Winslow and Mt. Gayler, across from Grandma’s Cafe

With the opening of Interstate 49, old Highway 71 through northwest Arkansas has lost most of its traffic. Formerly thriving businesses like the Smokehouse Restaurant near Mt. Gayler have folded up and slipped away in the night. Towns along this formerly packed thoroughfare have suffered losses as well, especially enterprises that depended on highway traffic as much as local customers to keep the black ink on their bottom lines.

Soon after the new four-lane highway opened with its easier grades, straighter curves, and swooping (terrifying) bridges high above the mere mortals below, state and regional officials began marketing the old highway as the “scenic” route. And it is, without doubt, scenic. Crossing the Boston Mountains with their sheer drop-offs and stunning vistas never fails to inspire.

Main Street, Winslow

Yet now more than ever, the underbelly of the Ozarks blossoms into view. Not so scenic are places where the property owners have lost the fight with their ‘stuff.’ Mounds of trash, some of it looking as though it was simply tossed out the door, litter their places of habitation. Old vehicles and various implements once used in the pursuit of livelihood sit haphazardly around the place. Cobbled-together homes make creative use of plastic sheeting and various and sundry bits of construction material.

Winslow across from new Dollar Store

These places have become a regular irritant to some locals, one of whom took these photos and sent them to me after I said I’d write a blog post about it. Locals like us have long since accepted the fact that some folks either can’t or won’t make the effort to present a respectable front to the world. There’s no shortage of such scenarios along just about any dirt road you might care to drive. But along the highway, a highway advertised as “scenic,” these places paint the entire region with a dismal color of decay and poverty.

Maybe the world expects to see evidence of destitution and apathy in the Ozarks. After all, ever since the publication of the “Arkansas Traveler” song in 1840, this region has suffered the disdain of many for its slovenly ways. Even now the more ‘civilized’ regions on either coast consider all of the hill states to suffer similar inability to come up to snuff–not that they don’t have their own ghettos.

Across from Silver Leaf campgrounds, Winslow

Unfortunately, time and again those stereotypes are borne out in real life. Homeowners barely scrape by, making do with what they’ve got, saving every scrap in case it might be needed. Or they’re renters unwilling and/or unable to improve on a place they’ll never own and whose owner can’t be bothered to make needed repairs. Or people whose lives have run over them with injuries or job loss or a litany of emotional defeats that leave them incapable of trying to make things better.

Brentwood

There are no zoning laws in Washington County that require people to clean up junk piles or dead vehicles or really much of anything. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that an ordinance was passed requiring that electrical wiring standards be met in rural housing and that came about only after children died in a fire caused by poor wiring. Laws forbidding the surface disposal of sewage passed only a short time before that, and even now a properly-built outhouse remains legal despite the karst geology that allows pollutants to rush right through fractured layers of rock and loose soil to percolate into groundwater that surfaces as springs and streams. All of it, including discharge from septic tanks, ends up in Beaver Lake which supplies drinking water for the entire region.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that landfills were required to monitor discharge and place liners under the trash. Some efforts have resulted in the cleanup of junkyards where vehicles in various stages of decay leak oil, gasoline, and various other noxious fluids into the waterways. Other efforts attempt to stop residents from openly burning trash, a practice that releases toxic chemicals like dioxin, furans, and dangerous particulate into the air we all breathe.

But there’s a mindset lurking in the minds of our people, that this is their place and they can damn well do what they please.

And so they do.

Winter

She speaks for us all, confessing to the check-out clerk with an excited laugh that if it’s going to ice, she’d better get ready. Milk, bread, chocolate bars, corn meal—her choices are different only in detail from the rest of us standing in line, in a store so jam-packed that even the stock boys work up front wearing jackets over their aprons and sacking supplies that will keep us secure when the weather moves in. Cars and trucks crowd the parking lot, some left running with the plumes of their exhaust whipping sideways in the freezing wind.

Men wait holding meat, bananas, coffee, restless in insulated tan coveralls with the legs unzipped over their heavy clay-soiled boots, their hair packed down against their heads where knit hats had been. Uneasy in a role usually filled by their wives, they joke, catch up with old acquaintances who also stand in line, promising to call soon, men not accustomed to being off work at one p.m., hurrying home to family before the sleet starts.

The cold comes first, thirty-five degrees when I started to town in the morning, twenty two when I return home, fifteen by three. Wind rocks the great oaks side to side, piling stiff dead leaves in new arrangements at the corner of the woodpile, at the steps. Twelve degrees at dusk, the clouded sky pale pink and white, the countryside settling into frozen night.

More wood on the fire at midnight and two a.m. I shiver by the fire. The house creaks.

Five-thirty a.m. by my bedside clock, the tick-tick of sleet against the windows wakes me. I indulge in another hour of fitful sleep, comforted by heavy quilts and cats at my feet. Plans of all I could do race through my dreams, the albums not finished, correspondence neglected, the watercolors so long set aside. Roads coated in ice mean a day without visitors, a day at home tending the fire, tending myself.

Dressed in sweaters not worn for five years, in long socks and with no regard to appearance, I sip hot tea at the window. Only a small shift in the light signals dawn, lifting the dark blue cast of the air to a lighter shade.  Barely visible deer move slowly through the woods, pawing at the ice-coated duff.  Tiny crystalline flakes of snow filter into the sleet, thickening the white of the downfall, obscuring trees at the fence line.

Four degrees.

I build a fire in the wood-burning cook stove. A kettle of water with cinnamon oil steams while I craft my list of things to do, tasks that seem too petty or cumbersome for normal days when open roads and obligations burden the hours. I simmer apricots with honey and ginger and fry half-moon pies, edges evenly crimped with tender fork lines. I sketch scenes, the road to my house, the long-familiar contoured hills, and let watercolor swirl on the heavy paper, a skyscape of gray and blue, fields tan, oaks silhouetted black.

Freshly washed clothes hang by the blistering stove whose greedy heat soon pulls out all moisture. With satisfying frugality, a pot of vegetable soup thick with garlic and a pan of beans decorate the stove top, cornbread in the small sooty oven. Every few hours I rush out for more wood, lingering coatless in the sharp scent of cold and wood smoke, large flakes of snow tumbling down into my hair, resting on my eyelashes.

The winters have not been accommodating in recent years, failing first with abbreviated snows, then disappointing even in temperature. In the onslaught of global warming, the Ozark hills have increasingly remained accessible in deepest January, when a few decades earlier our steep, curving roadways had been reliably impassible for at least two arctic weeks of the year. We grew up expecting that at times chosen by Nature, no one would venture out. The guy with the local wrecker service would make enough money to last until June.

In this mid-South clime, we don’t get winter enough to justify the county’s expense for snow plows. It suits us better to schedule school years with extra days for snow. It pleases us to find ourselves unexpectedly confined to the house discovering long lost treasures at the back of the closet, reading magazines, standing at the window as midday lightens the sky to a shade barely more luminous than the snow lying thick on the ground.

Lately, with the warming climate, there has been little winter at all. Days have run together, no time to reflect, restore, sleep in the afternoon. We long for the cold, the ice, roads we could not drive, jobs we could not attend.

Welcome then this celebration of ancient instincts to stay in the cave, content with the provisions we have hoarded, the firewood we have stacked near the door, wrapped in the warmth we have made. Embrace this triumph of man over the elements, a proof of our adequacy in a time when little else seems so clear.

This piece is excerpted from my collection of essays, I Met a Goat on the Road–and other stories of life on this hill. Published 2013

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

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