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Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions

by Robert Gilmore
A book review by Mary Burlison

The late 1800's found Ozark communities relatively isolated from the outside and from each other. They relied on their own resources for diversion from the difficult and often solitary business of everyday living. The most popular of their entertainments were those that brought some 'theater' into their lives. They especially delighted in 'literaries'; debates, mock trials, closing-of-school programs, suppers, picnics, brush-arbor revivals and baptizings. Then, there was the occasional hanging that brought out an audience rivaled only by the political rally.

Mr. Gilmore wrote his Ozark stories from the 'Missouri' side of the Ozarks, interviewing older people in Barry, Taney and surrounding counties. I found this setting especially interesting because my own great-great grandparents, C. C. and Kissia Casey made their home in Barry County, Missouri, for a few years before the Civil War. Following the Civil War, they lived in Taney County where they farmed and C. C. served as County Judge. He was postmaster at Bradleyville and also taught school there for several years before returning to Arkansas to live in Searcy County. Several other Casey families also lived in that general White River area during this period. The descendants of Levi Casey, C. C.'s cousin, are still living around the Forsyth, Missouri, area today. There is a large Casey cemetery at Forsyth where many of our relatives are buried. Of course, the Ozark region extends down south into the Arkansas Boston mountains where others of our Casey family made their homes. Their daily lives were very similar to their Missouri cousins' lives during the late 1800's and into the turn of the century. Most, if not all, of the older residents that Mr. Gilmore interviewed in the 1960's have passed away, and with them has gone an invaluable and irretrievable store of memories. This fact should serve as a reminder to all of us with 'Ozark' roots to gather and record as many stories and memories as we can find about this interesting area before all the 'old timers' are gone.

Mr. Gilmore writes that, "Long before the Civil War, large numbers of settlers had begun to appear in the Ozark region. They were primarily from Tennessee and Kentucky, hill people of Scotch-Irish and English descent, who found in the Ozarks a way of life and an isolation that compared with what they had left. The absence of competition from slave holders and large-scale farmers made the region particularly attractive."
There is a temptation to characterize the Ozark people of the late 1800's as quaint and backward, the stereotypical image so carefully nurtured by motion pictures, television and the tourist industry. In truth, the Ozarks had free public schools, many places of worship, opera houses (in larger cities), newspapers, a strong sense of patriotism, community pride, arguments over free silver, McGuffy readers, railroads, and mail order catalogs. The great majority of the Ozark dwellers, however, were denied easy access to this exciting variety of entertainment and continued to rely on their own community resources to provide them with diversion.

Groups of Ozark folks, socially starved, welcomed the opportunities to spend time together, even if it meant a day of exhausting physical labor to help a neighbor construct a barn or a house. Other such work-related, collective activities enjoyed by these mountain people were; apple peelings, hog-killings, corn huskings and quiltings. They took what entertainment valve they could from the activity itself and from the fellowship.
The Ozark peoples' love of good talk is, perhaps, the reason why so many entertainments featured speakers of one kind or another.

Debates were a favorite past time for the mountain people. Debate teams were sometimes made up of schoolchildren, but more commonly they were formed of adult members of the community who, "could think up a powerful good speech in a whole week of walkin' down the corn rows."

Spelling Bees and Ciphering Matches were highly regarded as the chance to publicly prove whose children were more advanced in academic achievement. School patrons were concerned about the level of literacy of their children. Although they may not have been well educated themselves, they hoped for better education possibilities for their offspring. The Spelling Bees and Ciphering Matches were tangible evidence of the benefits of the school.

Revival Meetings were held by nearly every congregation in whatever building was then serving them for a sanctuary, be it schoolhouse, church, community meeting house, etc. Frequently, the different churches of the area would cooperate in sponsoring union revival services. The most colorful and best enjoyed meetings were those held in a special place, a brush arbor or a tent, to which citizens of all faiths flocked from miles around in covered wagons loaded with supplies, prepared to stay awhile. These camp meetings were usually held the latter part of July or in August, after most of the local crops were in. Every preacher around the country would come. It didn't make any difference about his denominational standing. At the camp meeting he was just, "Brother So and So," they left off their denominations. They were there to preach the Bible, not to argue doctrine. Audiences also enjoyed the spectacle provided by the emotional participants at a revival meeting or the sight of converts being immersed at a baptizing. Of course, they knew these religious services had significance or purpose beyond entertainment, principally to help people live uprightly in this life and to give them an assist into the next world. A minister never received praise for subtlety and tact! A speaker who was plain and forcible in his way of talking to the sinner so that they could not resist his persuasive voice was the preferred approach. L. O. Wallis recalled, "They really preached hellfire and brimstone, there was no compromise in their preaching at that time. They didn't pull any punches. It was what the congregation expected!" Revival ministers preached in a style described as 'revival monologue', dramatizing their sermons by adding imaginative conversation and pantomime for added interest and emotional appeal. "One revival preacher carried us back to the Flood, running across the rostrum to pound on the wall, (the door of the Ark), as he screamed, "Noe-y, let me in! Let me in!" But Noah refused to hear his plea. He dropped to his knees, fighting the raging waters around him and then, arms wide, still on his knees, he made the plea that all who were uneasy for their souls, come knock at the Ark, to which Jesus would gladly admit us." Camp meetings were counted a success when they resulted in a large number of conversions. Local newspapers proudly reported daily additions to the church. A sad note, in the mist of general rejoicing at the close of a camp meeting, is found in the Ozark County News of November 19, 1896, "Henry Jenkins of the southwest part of this county is deranged. It is supposed excitement over religion is the cause of his mind losing its balance. He attended two protracted meetings in succession, making several weeks since which time he has been entirely crazy." Happily, considerably more cheerful and certainly more typical reactions to revivals were the norm, causing the community to feel better about life in general.

An Ozark Box or Pie Supper was held usually because a community wanted to raise money for a worthy cause. They provided entertainment, fellowship and participation. It was a courtship and sporting event, charity and food, all melded delightfully into a single ceremony that Ozark people of all ages loved! Older farmers discussed crops and settled school-board business, children ran and laughed and played together, reveling in the infrequent companionship, young folk carried on discreet courtships, and the older women visited and traded recipes and gossiped.

Picnics seemed to need only three requisites to happen; a good spring of cool water, plenty of shade, and the desire. The first two were to be found in abundance, and the last seldom wanting. The result was a plentiful occurrence of one of the Ozarks' favorite warm-weather entertainments. The Fourth of July, Decoration Day, Veterans' Encampments and Old Settlers Reunions were the most notable of these affairs. These were mostly peaceful affairs, only occasionally disturbed by drinking, which occasionally lead to a knifing or shooting! Whisky was the 'devil's brew,' and by whatever name it was called, "moonshine, blue rain, old bust head or mountain dew," it was blamed for most disturbances, fights, killings, desertions and depravity in the Ozark communities. Sometimes, picnic disturbances also included reckless driving in buggies or wagons. The grand theme of the Fourth of July picnic was, of course, patriotism. Truman Powell wrote, "Patriotism should be taught to the rising generation and the Fourth of July is the time to do it!" To accomplish this end, every celebration worth its name included someone reading the Declaration of Independence. Smaller picnics might be nothing more than good conversations with neighbors sharing food. Sometimes a picnic would be a fish fry or barbecue with a baseball game played in the afternoon.
Decoration Days were not one whit less patriotic than the Fourth of July, even though political speeches, which were dearly enjoyed by Ozark people, were out of bounds on this occasion. The Civil War was still vivid in the minds of the people of the Ozarks in the late 1800's and while rancor had died down, May 30th was a day to stress harmony, friendship, respect for the dead (especially the soldier dead) and patriotism. Following services at the church, a procession of the people to the cemetery to distribute 'flowers and warm tears' was a regular feature of the exercises, large or small. The assembly decorated the graves of both Federal and Confederate soldiers alike. Singing and speeches followed that impressed the listeners with the idea that left no barriers between the North and the South. Recitations, special songs and instrumental numbers rounded out the afternoon program. Levity was not tolerated at Decoration Day programs. The Ozark mountain peoples' great respects for the dead forbade frivolity in speech or song at the cemetery. Decoration Day is still a special time in the Ozark communities.

Old Soldiers Encampments were mostly gatherings of the veterans of the Civil War, with soldiers from both the North and South welcomed. Grudges and hard feelings were not the rule at these reunions! "The Yank and Johnny buried the hatchet," said the Taney County Republican, 1898. The key attitude seems to have been one of harmony and forgetting the past and the united America was stressed by speakers. These gatherings began to dwindle after the turn of the century as old soldiers died off.

Court Week was held twice a year in the small county-seat towns of the Ozarks, once in the spring and again in the late fall. Excitement ran high as the towns came alive with merchants doing brisk business as people from all over the county arrived, not only to conduct their business with the court, but to greet friends and neighbors and to witness the drama of the courtroom proceedings. Hotels and boarding houses were crowded to capacity and those unable to find lodging, camped outdoors. Visitors were often summoned off the streets for jury duty during this busy week. Although they enjoyed a good speech of any kind, Ozark people especially favored the flamboyant, emotional style of argument used by most trial lawyers of the day.
Hanging was still the public method of execution until well after the turn of the century in the Ozarks, and to these gruesome events flocked men, women, and children from miles away. Many arrived the day before the scheduled hanging and many paid for vantage points, (up-stairs windows, balconies, roof tops, etc.), from which to watch the proceedings. Just before the actual event, a minister usually gave a talk.
Sometimes, even the accused gave a speech, then the deed was done, with all watching. Children were lifted up to witness the scene, sometimes being told it was something they would never forget! The following account of one hanging was recorded in 1906, Texas County, Missouri: Jodia Hamilton entertained his audience of three thousand with a song and joyful repartee. The condemned man's appearance on the gallows was very dramatic. On Hamilton's appearance the crowd asked, "Is that you Jodia?", to which he replied, "I told you I would try to be here!" Hamilton then made a rather long speech, which he interrupted to sing several verses of a song that included the chorus, -- Only a prayer, only a tear, Oh! If sister and mother were here. Only a song to comfort and cheer, only a word from the Book so dear! Afterward, he continued his address. Another statement followed a prayer by the minister and then the trap was sprung on the 'loquacious', Jodia Hamilton!

When Robert Gilmore had opportunity to interview the old timers of the mountains, he recorded many more accounts of the actual happenings in the Ozarks which are included in his book, Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions. I am certain that the Casey Clan Tidings readers would enjoy and appreciate this book and I recommend it for your reading.

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