Wandering In The Shadows of Time: An Ozarks Odyssey
A rush of water roared over the spillway, tumbling around boulders as big as houses. They lay scattered below where they had come to rest when dynamite blasts tore great chunks from the mountain and destroyed the path where I once walked hand in hand with my mother on the way to grandmother's house.
But we left this place long before the dynamite and the moving of my baby sister's grave. Our course was already set on a different life out in the world, away from the poverty and the simple Ozark cradle that was a peculiar kind of childhood for all of us. My brother, my mother, my father, and I left behind tiny pieces of our hearts and souls, buried with the two little ones who found the going much too tough and gave it up.
I parked and climbed out, strolled gingerly across the hallowed ground, and sat for a time on one of the picnic tables embraced by what was once my entire world. Turning from the lake, I pictured the log house built by my father, the rock chimney I once believed pierced a hole through the blue of the sky. A breeze off the water stirred the yellow blooms, and their lingering, sweet fragrance soothed me. My mother planted those bulbs deep in this soil nearly sixty years before, and everyone knows the power of a mother. They have endured; nothing can destroy them, especially not those whose turn it is to enjoy this place, who came to hunt and camp and fish and chase their children from the thickets where copperhead snakes lie in wait.
Others who remained out here in this particular wilderness of the Arkansas Ozarks while we chose to wander afar lost their land too. For many of them the loss meant more than being deprived of something they had already left behind.
Some years after that bittersweet homecoming I decided to visit Logan and Chub France outside Mountainburg. On a typical Ozark sunshiny February day I again head south, but this time I don't turn off Highway 71 on the Old Creek Road. Logan hasn't lived out that way in a long while. The homestead of 430 acres, in the family since the late 1820s, all lies under water now, contributing more than half of the lake bed. The government called it eminent domain when they took away that land back in the early 1950s. All Logan and Chub have left of it are the original land registry grants signed by President Zachary Taylor, dated 1845, and President Franklin Pierce, dated 1854.
On the road to their place I drive under the railroad tracks of the Frisco and stop to let several ducks waddle unhurriedly across the gravel road. The couple has lived in this home going on forty years, a longer time than many of us will ever spend in one place. But they remember vividly their ancestral home and its history.
Interviewing Logan France is a lot like trying to keep the attention of a restless black bear. His eighty-five years lie gently on broad shoulders. He tends to pace while he talks, and his six-foot-plus muscular body blocks whole parts of the enormous log and rock parlor. Topics change quickly as he pivots to pace in the opposite direction. But, oh, the tales he can tell, having appointed himself the family story teller, the passer-on of history.
His mother's family, the Vaughts, homesteaded land around Frog Bayou while the Indians who inhabited the Ozarks were hearing only whispers of the approach of the tragic Trail of Tears.
Says Logan, "When the Indians were here it was Foggy Bayou, white men took up calling it Frog Bayou and then when them old boys built Lake Fort Smith and made their maps, they named it Clear Creek." A snort tells me what he thinks of that.
Logan and wife Glathyra–Chub to everyone because no one can spell or pronounce her name–now own 500 acres in a lush green valley south of Mountainburg where the Frog, freed of its rocky forest bed, runs wild and free and is now called Clear Creek. There they raise cattle and chickens, and from their front yard they can see the soaring pylons that will support the new Highway 71 when it is completed from Fayetteville to Interstate 40 at Alma.
A close call, that highway. Eminent domain almost claimed their land once again. Logan talks about the first time.
"Twenty-five cents an acre, that's what land was worth then in money. And they condemned it all. Wanted to give us nothing for it, 'til I went to court."
Shepherd Springs, he says, has been a well-known camping and hunting spot since before the Civil War. Jackie Shepherd lived there back in the mid-1800s. The house he lived in was built before the war and made from lumber hauled from Fayetteville by yoked cattle. The spring itself flowed year-round into a hand-built rock holding tank. That, too is underwater except during extremely dry weather.
Logan shakes his head, stops his pacing for a moment, and gestures. "Gone. All gone now. The Owen and Isabel France place, all the Penses. Fred Smith, Shelby Hutchens who owned the old Wells place, and 150 acres belonging to a fella by the name of Hardy. All under water now."
A goodly time earlier, Logan's great-grandfather had donated two acres of land for Vaught Cemetery. In that cemetery, the valley families interred their dead and do to this day.
There they held decorations and sang their hymns, testifying to the ways of the Lord. Spreading patchwork quilts and pallets in the lush grass, everyone would partake of dinner on the ground, a custom that in recent years had been elevated to tables and chairs. Every one of the graves in that cemetery later had to be moved to make way for the lake, an undertaking that caused many a ghost story to evolve. Logan doesn't tell ghost stories.
"It took a year to build Lake Fort Smith in 1935-36. They only had trucks, you see," he recalls. "By 1955 when construction began on Lake Shepherd Springs, D8 and D9 dozers worked around the clock and finished the project in one-fifth the time."
Logan enjoys telling tales. His eyes fill with amusement even before the first words fall from his lips. He has an audience, and likes nothing better.
"I had four brothers and come Saturday night they'd all ride to Chester and get drunk. I'd take out for Bidville and listen to gospel music, or go to a spelling or ciphering match. I was a poor reader but no one could spell against me. At the Kinney and Winfrey match, they brought in outsiders just to whip me and Carl Hutchens. He and me, we could spell every word in the Blue Back Speller, and so we always won."
"There was a schoolhouse down south at Winslow on a rise there just across from Tip-Top, or what they called the Boston Mountain Lodge. The school was named 'Who'd A Thought It.' Yeah, that's right. John L. Collins, John Ridenour, and old man Harrison was on the school board, and that school was going on when ours was out. Dad went to see if me and Carl could go to school there. They said yeah. There was seven or eight about my age, and they'd heard about my spelling, so the very first thing, they decided to have a spelling match. They had this teacher about thirty years old who weighed near 250 pounds. We had to spell gymnasium and gigantic and all the hard words they could find. That teacher, he couldn't hardly pronounce most of them, but me and Carl, we could spell 'em. That was the last time they did that with us."
What was it like to give up the land? To start over again?
"Leaving the old land where you was raised, where your great-grandparents on both sides had lived, naturally it put a bitter taste in your mouth. But they was nothing you could do about it. Chub, now, she just worried it to death. But women ain't supposed to know as much as a man. If they had a-been, He'd a-made 'em first. They get excited, you know. I've done learned that if something is impossible, there's no need in worrying it."
"She seen me and she chased me 'til I finally give in to marry her. But I told her one thing she'd never make me do was live in town. That's one place we weren't ever goin', was to town."
He looks around the rambling and comfortable home so indelibly marked by the passing of his days. "When we first seen this place it was growed up completely, and an old bachelor lived in the house there. He didn't have any sense. I know about that 'cause I didn't marry 'til I was near thirty-two years of age. Bachelors don't have good sense. But I told Chub I could fix it up... and look at it now! I can graze four hundred head, raise their calves, and cut all the hay I need off it."
Chub hasn't spoken much as yet, but now she tells me her favorite story connected to memories of the family homestead.
"Times were hard in those days. One time we were down to our last silver dollar. Every day Logan would go looking for work and he'd take that silver dollar with him. When he'd come home he'd grin and show it to me, tell me he hadn't needed it that day. What he didn't say was that he had walked everywhere he went and gone without a noon meal. We had that silver dollar until sometime after we moved onto this place in 1955. But then someone stole it."
She looks at me for a long beat, her eyes glistening with a staunch pride. In that moment I sense she has shared with me much more about their lives than the theft of one silver dollar.