The story I’m about to tell is one of the many coming from the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Hardscrabble existence was a way of life with our pioneers, and it was no different in my own bloodline. The Holts, James Simpson, and sons settled on a land grant in Newton County, Arkansas in the 1850s. They were some of the earliest ones to settle the wild wilderness known now as Newton County, and their descendants would go on to perpetuate the ‘wild’ part for generations.
The stories are passed to me, faded, like the faint tunes of an old Hank Williams song, which rang from the clock-like radio of a 1956 Ford Fairlane. In the dim light of that radio, the heroes of my childhood came of age, fighting and drinking their way through their own lives. Much like that Hank Williams tune, the melody seemed to hang on the air, reverberating down into my childhood, with the same sad sound that touched my ancestors. Lost loves and lost people. Some would be found, some would not, but all had one thing they had in common that nobody could take: a home.
Men who were raised in a tough yet loving atmosphere in their own homes soon began to run, like the well named ‘Big Creek’, through their lives like the blood in their veins, with their own wayward cousins. Growing up, people who could fight or work harder than others quickly gained a reputation over others. All the bloodlines in Newton County, at least the founding stock, soon proved to be up to the task. Some were brawlers, some were dead shots, some were killers and some were a mixture of all of those things. The people I speak of are my close ones; the ones who, to me, exemplified the end of a dead Ozarks of another time in many ways. But thankfully, not all ways.
Growing up in Vendor, Arkansas, I never once thought about another place; only another time, and even then, that didn’t come until later. I grew up literally down the hill from my great-grandparents, and was blessed to know them. My childhood was blessed in the fact that all those I descended from, in my lifetime, were near at hand, and were there to guide me. My childhood was typical of the Ozark mountaineer, but sadly, is atypical today. But, even then, my childhood was markedly different from those of my ancestors.
Timber was the dominant method to make a dollar in the Ozarks, and my ancestors were no exception. Growing up dodging ‘widowmakers’ and fighting logs onto skids and truck beds quickly built a man who could hold his own. Growing up, the log woods and sawmills were the biggest employers in the county, and I spent many an hour hearing horror stories of people killed and maimed trying to provide for their families. This carried on down even into my generation.
Whilst a good part of the South was succumbing to the ‘New South’ ideology, and Southern-born, self-made industrialists were counting dollars in Atlanta, folks in my neighborhood were still skidding logs with mules in remote locations. The mountains, which had oft proven to be a curse in many ways, were a blessing in stopping (or at least stemming, for awhile) the tide of the poison known to all of us as ‘progress.’
The life I lived was once common here in the South. Sundays were a holy, reserved day in which one spent visiting their still-living ancestors. My great-grandparents were at the ‘top’ of the hill on which I lived. We would be there, rain or shine, and sit for hours, visiting and exchanging the news with our folk. This is, probably, the first exercise I ever had in the art of keeping up with my own.
Sitting around a wood fire, listening as my ancestors spun tales of times long gone; of hard times and good; of tragedy and love and all the human emotions that come with them. My people were tough, but they were fair. Every generation came to be known to me through these stories. Every one had its heroes and villians, its tragic folk heroes that would make Porter Wagoner break out into tears by their ballads, had they ever been written. Say like a brave young man named Kent Bruce who once lost the brakes on a log truck as he descended the Newton County mountains. He stepped out on the fender to jump free when he noticed a car full of people coming up that would surely be hit if he let the truck go. So he climbed back in the cab and cut his wheels away, saving those people, and costing him his life in the process. He became one of our heroes that day. Sadly, he was not the last.
The hills and hollers are full of stories. Some tragedies so left their mark that places were named after them, like ‘Battleground Hollow’ where a shootout between revenuers and whiskey makers left a young man dead, who was caught in the crossfire. Points and peaks are named after the men who settled and improved them. My name itself was given to one of these mountains years before I came along. Though I never knew these people, they were very real to me, in a true sense. Their story is mine.
As I sit here watching the dying sunlight fade across the rugged Boston Mountains and twinkle lightly across the clear, cold creek water, I gaze down at the ground below me. Once trod by mules and horses, later carriages and buggies, and now littered with ATV tracks and truck tires. The old Ozarks, a Southern highland subculture, is gone in a large way, but it is far from dead. It seems all the stories reach back for a thousand years, instead of the less than two hundred that we have been here.
When I gaze into the eyes of my children, I see the fascinated light that I once possessed at that age; an intrigued, rapt attention to learn about those who came before me. Though they will never know them in a physical sense, never feel the gentle, work worn hands as they pick them up, never hear the old voices speaking wisdom, but they are with us in the light wind that blows through the ancient oaks and cedars in the valleys of my home. As long as our people continue, they will KNOW these people in a very real sense. They will tell the stories of their tragedies and triumphs, of the comical happenings and sorrowful accidents; loss and gain, feast and famine, hard times and fat times, all the things my ancestors suffered and prospered through. My children will know their people. Long as we draw breath and remember, I implore you to remember your ancestors. Tell their stories.