Ben "Tell the Truth" Elder

Pursuing further my pastime collecting early stories of Howell County, we dip southward this week along the Arkansas border for the recollections of Ben Elder, a well-known pioneer character until he died in 1934. On the occasion of his death, Elder was remembered as a storyteller, much of it taken from his life experiences in Howell County, Missouri, and Fulton and Baxter Counties in Arkansas. The Mammoth Spring Democrat told its readers that, "Uncle Ben was a horse trader, horse doctor, owned a hotel, bought cattle and hogs, was three times a saloon keeper, several times in the grocery and mercantile business, once owned a drugstore, was a real estate dealer and built about a dozen homes in Mammoth Spring. Although his father was a soldier in the Confederate Army, Uncle Ben was a life-long Republican and had been mayor of Mammoth Spring for three terms."
The paper went on to state that although he had been handicapped by poor health for his final years, Ben would "be remembered as a liberal, good neighbor and will be missed by many a poor man. He was seventy-seven when he died and regarded as one of, if not the richest man in northeast Arkansas. In 1893 W.S. Kirby wrote a book about Ben's life entitled "Drummer Boy of the Ozarks or Sketches in the Life of Ben Elder." The initial printing of five thousand books sold out, and in 1912 another five thousand copies were printed. 
On the occasion of the release of the second printing of the book, the West Plains Journal published a brief history of Elder's life, stating, "Ben F. Elder was born in Pontotoc County, Mississippi, February 1, 1857. When one year old, his parents moved to Cross County, Arkansas, making the journey with a team of oxen. His father served in the Confederate Army and was killed by being thrown from a mule on Mulberry Mountain, Arkansas, in 1863. His mother died a few weeks afterward. Ben was reared by an aunt and drifted from Arkansas to Missouri. He spent several years in Webster County, Missouri, and then moved back to Arkansas, settling near Mammoth Spring. In 1873, Ben started for California with a party who drove seven hundred head of cattle across the prairie. He got sick on the prairie and came back with a government wagon train to Missouri."
The West Plains Journal Gazette offices received a visit from Ben in 1915 and recorded part of their encounter. They wrote,"'Tell the Truth!' was the greeting of Ben Elder, of Mammoth Spring, gave the reporter as they greeted each other when the big stockman and trader of North Arkansas visited West Plains. They have known each other for one-third of a century." 
Ben was indeed big, six foot two inches, weighing over 250 pounds. In 1872, suffering from malaria, Ben decided to leave Webster County, Missouri, and strike off on his own for the Ozarks, seeking its clean air.
He told the Journal Gazette reporter, "Back in 1872, I passed through West Plains looking for a location (to settle on his own). I was riding a horse and left town going down the valley. I met a man who offered to trade me forty acres of valley land near town for my horse. Tell the Truth! Gee, I wish now I had traded. They tell me this forty is worth $125 an acre now. But I've got 1,200 acres of land in Arkansas - it's worth about $1,200 - nothing on it but rocks and brush. There were only a few stores in West Plains at the time. Ben Carter (profiled in our last installment) and Langston Brothers had just started in the business. Mr. Arbogast had a store down on the creek, and this was about all there was of West Plains. Colonel Monks run a hotel near the big spring, and Sam Risley was the Post Master."
"Ben Elder delights to tell of the early history of the Ozark region. For many years he was in business at Lanton. He grew reminiscent when he spoke of business methods of those early days and the way a mercantile establishment is conducted today."
"I used to buy goods from Clark Brothers of West Plains, who did a jobbing business. That was before the railroad was built through the country. Tom Whitmire, Carrick Hill, Tom Curry, Charley Orchard, and Bud Mustion worked for his firm. There never was a finer lot of men. Tom Curry used to come to Lanton and help me drive my cattle to West Plains, and Clark Brothers bought them and gave me merchandise in exchange."
The Journal Gazette continued, "Ben Elder was a whiskey drummer (traveling salesman) for several years, but he realized the fact that liquor is a great evil and that booze and business don't mix well. I'd vote to put liquor out of existence, and I always vote against the stuff every chance I get.' Mr. Elder says. 'But say, I like a dram every night. Not so much the quality but the quantity. I've got a bad stomach, and it makes me feel better. Tell the Truth!"
Next, the Journal Gazette asked, "How about this 'Tell the Truth!' business? It started this way, he explained. Years ago, I was a whiskey drummer and a swell chap in those days with my silk hat and cane. You wouldn't think it to look at my old slouch hat and overalls, but we get over wanting to dress up when we get as old as I am. Tell the Truth! Well, I went to visit a country school one Friday afternoon where there was a pretty young teacher that I liked. The children's recitations were stupid, and I got drowsy and leaned over the desk in front of me, half asleep. After a time, the teacher asked one of the youngsters who was President of the United States. 'Mr. Ben Elder,' he sung out. 'Tell the Truth!' I exclaimed from my nap. I got to thinking about it on my way home and decided that my words would make a pretty good motto. I kept thinking about them. They have stuck with me ever since, and when we started building Mammoth Spring, I wanted to make them the motto of the town, so I painted them everywhere I could and had them cut into the walks. I don't know whether they have done any good or not. Tell the Truth!"
The Journal Gazette elaborated further on what they called Ben's "checkered career," adding to this list of occupations farming, railroad tie-making, and teaching a Spenserian handwriting course that he knew absolutely nothing about or the skill to do. They mentioned his dabbling in politics - as a Republican in a staunch Democratic county where no one dared try what he did and was successful. Ben served as Mayor of Mammoth Spring three terms and in some law enforcement positions, including town marshall. It was Ben who captured the killer of West Plains Jailer Alf Henry in 1900.
In conclusion, the Journal Gazette noted of Ben, "He has always been a moneymaker and today is counted one of the wealthiest men in Northeastern Arkansas. Yet he dresses on $15 or $20 a year, he drives an old mule to an old-fashioned buggy, and he eats the simplest of food, consisting very largely of cornbread and bacon. He works every day. He had a feed store at Mammoth Spring, and he buys and ships stock. He comes down to his store early in the morning, looks after business for an hour or more, then leaving it to the hands of his son, drives his favorite mule into the country to look at a drove of hogs or herd of cattle, sometimes driving many miles over the rough country roads. Though 59 years of age, he has no thought of retiring from business and bids fair of living many years.  
In 1916 the Journal Gazette reported that Ben had bought a Ford car. They wrote, "It was easy riding for Ben, who weighs something more than 200 pounds. Elder had a lot of sport, joyriding and going about the country looking at livestock. But one day, when Ben bought a bunch of hogs and then started to drive them to Mammoth Spring, he realized the fact that he could not drive hogs with a Ford or any other kind of automobile. So, Ben had it put in the Mammoth Spring papers that he had a Ford for sale because he couldn't drive hogs with the derned car. Tell the Truth! 
On the occasion of Ben's seventy-first birthday in February 1928, the West Plains Journal Gazette mentioned, "When a young man, Ben made his home on a farm near Lanton. When the railroad was constructed through this country in 1883, he had a grading contract near Mammoth Spring. Ever since that time, he has prospered." The Gazette added to his accomplishments park building, banking, and newspaper publishing. 
The following year, 1929, Ben told the Mammoth Spring Democrat, "Once I was young, and now I am old. Brothers, when my time is up, I want the Odd Fellows to bury me. Bill Huckins to lead the way, for I have a warm place in my heart for Bill. I love my friends, but I have stayed my time about out. Boys, come in when you hear old Ben is gone and see me put under the ground. The coffin is the last scene of man. That old sour stomach has come back on me, and I have a pain in my heart. Farewell boys, Old Tell the Truth is about gone up.
Benjamin Franklin Elder lived another five years and died in 1934 at the age of seventy-seven. He is buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas. 
You can read the 112-page book about his colorful life, "Drummer Boy of the Ozarks," online and free by going to and typing Drummer Boy of the Ozarks.
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