Howell County Bear Hunter William "Pug" Garrison
Wed, 11/16/2022 - 12:16pm admin
A couple of decades ago, lifelong Willow Springs resident Ron White told me of early pioneer hunter William "Pug" Garrison, who lived and hunted for ten years before the Civil War at the south junction of what would become Willow Springs. Ron, years before, had purchased a black powder rifle that Garrison used when he was here and had the skull of a "woods bison," said to have been killed by Garrison in north Howell County.
Most of this story is the result of Willow Springs barber John Frommel collecting and preserving what undoubtedly was conveyed to him by Garrison or those who knew him. The narrative is representative of the earliest appearance and experiences of Europeans in this part of the Ozarks. The Longhunter-trapper and squatter existence that Pug lived left no evidence in the county record, and without Frommel's preservation of this story, it would be unknown.
In 1987 John Frommel wrote, "The first white man to settle in what's now Willow Springs was William "Pug" Garrison. He walked across from Tennessee in the spring and early summer of 1852. (Note-we were still part of Oregon County until 1857) He got started a little later than he wanted to because some neighbors were moving to Missouri and wanted a strong young man that could shoot a rifle that could go with them because they were taking not only all their household goods and the family but enough gold to buy a farm in Missouri when they got there. They had two wagons and two teams of oxen. And they offered him a little bit of money, plenty to eat, and a dry place to sleep. They crossed the Mississippi someplace close to what is now Cape Girardeau."
"They hadn't gone very far into Missouri before the family found a place that suited them, and Pug took off on his own. He carried a bed roll of a homespun wool blanket, a bucket, a thin steel frying pan, an axe, a long knife, a pocket knife, and enough powder and lead to do over a year or possibly two years. It had to. For his rifle, a piece of oil skin to wrap the whole thing up and act as a raincoat or shelter in case of rain."
"He headed into the hills looking for signs of bear. He knew that he was going to have to live like an Indian and that the first winter before the weather set in, he'd have to kill at least two bears - not only for the meat, but for the hides to stay warm, and the grease to cook with."
"He couldn't find any sign of bear until he got to what is now Willow Springs. Here he found signs of bear, and he even found the den where one had denned the previous winter. It was a good location. A big oak tree had blown down to the northwest. A big ol' root system gave it protection from the northwest winds. It was on a little bit of a knoll which furnished good drainage, no water accumulated back under the roots and made sort of a cave back there. It already had leaves in it. So Pug decided that it would be a good spot. There was also a little spring just right outside in front of it, and woods behind it which would furnish fuel for his fire, the little clearing from there on down to the river/creek, which would make a good garden spot."
The narrative describes Garrison's efforts at foraging and building another lean-to about a mile east of today's town of Willow Springs. He located two natural ponds (sinkholes) and found that one had fish. One of the ponds must have been located across from today's Open Range restaurant. It has since been filled with clay, but before that was still fishable in modern times. Another sinkhole pond closer to town was known as the Holloway Pond. It has filled with silt over the years.
"Late in the summer (1852), he managed to kill a large bear. He dried a part of the meat, cut it thin and sun dried it, made a smoker, and smoked the rest of it. He took particular care of the skin, which he used for a robe to sleep under. The red meat he prepared to save for winter and ate fish and clams frequently in the summertime (the 11 Point River ran less than a mile away)."
Other accounts of Garrison's home described it as a cave. Frommel recorded that Garrison dug a four-by-eight hole under the lean-to, creating another room for food storage. There was hardly room to stand up, but it was easy to stay warm and comfortable there.
Late in the fall (his first year in Howell County), Garrison "caught another bear, not quite as large but a good fat one. And his skin was large enough to make him a parka, kind of like a tunic, a garment he could stick his head through and tie around his waist. He wore it skin side out, hair side in for warmth, and kept the outside skin covered with bear grease so it would stay soft and also be waterproof."
"Just three or four miles to the east, he had crossed what he recognized as a freight wagon trail. So, he knew that at least twice a year, there'd be a freight wagon come through, usually in the spring and fall. He would go over in spring and camp along the trail and wait for it to come by. That way, he went through the winter in good shape."
"He heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun not very far off. He went over and picked up his rifle and waited, and very shortly, a wounded deer came towards him, and he shot him in the breast. A head-on shot in the breast and dropped him, of course. Quickly, another man came into sight - the first man he had seen since he got there. While he set forth to clean the deer, the man asked him if he could have part of it. Pug told him he had plenty to eat; he could have all of it. They got to talking and found out the man only lived five or six miles to his east in Hutton Valley. It was his closest neighbor. So when he field dressed the young buck, he swung it over his shoulders to carry it for the man back to his home. He stayed for several days. The man had beans he hadn't tasted, and he loved those, and they ate the liver and the brains, of course. Pug showed him how to dry and preserve the rest of the deer. The man said that they had gotten tired of salt pork; they had been living on it all winter because they just had the shotgun, and he'd found out it wasn't a very good instrument for shooting deer. He had got a turkey around Christmastime with the shotgun, but he wasn't a hunter. So, he was glad to make his acquaintance, and Pug was glad to make his. When Pug left, the family gave him some salt pork and a little extra salt, and some extra beans they could share. He'd made a friend."
"He also found out the freight wagon would come through and would stop at this man's house. They always stopped there to see what he had to take back with him. The man also did some trapping; he had furs to trade which was the main medium of exchange. They also had extra salt pork sometimes to send up. But, most of his pork he sent over to West Plains. Pug found out that there was a town of West Plains only about twenty miles from here that had fifty or sixty people, which was a much larger town than Pug imagined was around there. And also had a trading post."
"The freight wagon ran from Rolla, which was the end of the railroad. The railroad from St. Louis to Rolla was the end of the line. The freight wagon came twice a year at least, sometimes oftener, but at least twice a year, to replenish the supplies at West Plains. Some of the people down there were so rich that they could afford coffee, and that was a surprise to Pug too. They also told him there was much better farmland down there and that the people who lived in town had little farms and their bigger farms out away from town. There were possibly as many as two hundred people living in the county at that time. Most of them lived much closer to West Plains and south, where the land was better. So, he had learned a lot of things on that little sashay."
"While Pug had learned of the existence of West Plains at that time, he lived until he was eighty-four years old and never had occasion to go down there. He never saw West Plains in all the time he had lived here. While he was here, they gave him some seed potatoes, and he went home and started to put out other stuff that he had seed left over for, and he'd been sprouting some turnips and cabbage."
"The next spring, as soon as Pug got his early garden out, he started to work on his fireplace. He built it about shoulder high and put the cavity in clay mud, and above that, he'd go with a bunch of sticks and clay up to the eve of the house. When he got it all up, he'd build a roaring fire in it and bake the inner clay to the consistency of pottery so it wouldn't fall down. On top, he put a capstone to keep the rain from washing away the mud on the outside of the wall. He'd leave a two-foot wide opening on one side to get in and out (of the lean-to), and he could cover the opening easily. That would make him a dark place but very comfortable. On either side of the fireplace, he could drag the longer logs inside to put in his fireplace. It would take him all summer to finish that, but by fall, he would have a cozy spot.
William Garrison had made a life in the wilds of south-central Missouri that suited him. He had nearly a decade to enjoy his life here until the winds of war destroyed the idyllic life that many chose here. He was one of over three thousand people driven from Howell County or killed during the war. Garrison's experiences in the war and his return to Howell County will be the subject of our next article.