Settlers Return and Fill Howell County Following the Civil War

For this story, we go to opposite ends of Howell County. Around the turn of the century, as our earliest pioneers were at an age to reminiscence, local newspapers began carrying their stories. The West Plains Journal did a series in 1904 and 1905 recounting those times in the participants' own words. I know of no better source for seeing how the earliest emigrants to this part of the Ozarks lived in a near wilderness after the tragedy of Civil War.
From the far southeast corner of Howell County in the Myatt Township comes a letter from "M. Bennett, an early settler on Myatt Creek. The Myatt begins in southern Howell County and continues into Arkansas, where it joins Spring River below Mammoth Springs. 
In his letter to the Journal, Bennett writes, "I was born in Illinois, Monroe County, came to Missouri in the year 1863. Jefferson County was the first place in which we lived in Missouri. In 1868 we came to Howell County and landed on the Myatt in November 1868. It was thinly settled but we found good people here. They were mostly people from Tennessee."
"Our neighbors were John M. Peoples, Henry Maroney, Thomas Elliott, and Frank Cordell, they were old-fashioned people and very kind. Money was scarce here then but people had lots to eat. They had old log smokehouses full of luscious home-cured bacon lots of corn and wheat homemade clothing, and lots of religion too.”
“Corn was 40 cents (a bushel), pork 3 ½ to 4 cents per pound, but when you went to the store for anything you paid for it. Two and ½ pounds of green coffee sold for a dollar, salt $14 per barrel, calico 25 cents per yard, domestic (plain cloth) 20 cents per yard, a pair of brogan shoes $2.75, a good pair of common boots $7 to $9. Cattle and hogs were cheap. Rolla was the nearest market then and all of the merchandise had to be hauled on wagons from there to West Plains."
"We lived in log houses and had puncheon floors and clapboard doors. I have seen houses that did not have a nail in them. Well, do I remember the first lumber that we got on the Myatt to make floors out of. It came from Arkansas. A man by the name of Gadberry put a sawmill near the state line."
"People that came here then found them a piece of land that suited them, homesteaded it, and cleared out fields where the good land was regardless of lines. But when the country settled up and people had their land surveyed it ruined many a good old farm, the line would not run with the valleys and hollows. So they split some farms open, but times have changed and everything is different now."
 "When I was a boy and went to school I had an old blue-black speller, Ray's arithmetic, and McGuffey's Reader, and that was all the books we had. We had a log house with a big fireplace and a log split open there for a seat. This was our school supplies in those good old days."
"We had church in a log house with a dirt floor and split logs for seats and old Brother Nathaniel Barnett, Brother Findley, Brother William Cordell, and Brother Toney Smith, would come down and preach for us in that log cabin or warm weather in a grove. I tell you we had a good meeting. Everybody went to church they did not stay at home on the account of not having fine clothes and went and nobody made fun of them. The preachers wore homespun too and preached for the good of souls, not for a living, he made that through the week at home. Sometimes they would preach two hours and have good order."
Though not detailed in his article, I believe the writer is Moses Bennett, who felt those earlier days were better than the present, in this case, 1905. Over the years I've observed older people often thinking of their childhood times as idyllic, and in this case, Bennett believed the current generation was too worried about "style." He continues,
"For young people took an interest in the meeting then and paid close attention to what the preacher said, but now if a preacher talks for twenty minutes people can't be quiet and will say didn't he preach a long time and people can't go to meeting now unless they are dressed in the latest style. If they do, somebody is ready to make fun of them. When I was a boy I thought I was well off when I got a pair of brogan shoes and a calico shirt for Sunday, and sometimes a pair of calico breeches too. Us young bucks didn't know what fine collars and neckties were and if somebody had given us some we wouldn't have worn them."
"We had to plow barefooted. We had no cultivator but long homemade bull tongue plows to make our crops with and we made lots of stuff with them too. Why don't they farm that way now? Because times have changed and the old way is too slow. Everybody wants to get rich and they strive to get the almighty dollar regardless of old-time neighbors. Then there were not many people here. Our neighbors lived some of them ten miles away."
"In threshing time we had to help one another. We had to thrash then with an old groundhog thrasher and cleaned the wheat by hand on a fan mill. We had to go thirty miles to get flour made at Sharp's flouring mill on South Fork. The nearest corn mill was eighteen miles at the head of Spring River (Mammoth Spring.) When we went to the mill we put in a week's feed for man and team, took a load of grist, and stayed until we got it ground. Some people made what they called tramp yards and tramped their wheat out. Well, I do remember the first separator that ever came into this country. We thought this was grand. We helped our neighbors do anything they could not do themselves and did not think about pay. Everybody got along then." 
"We visited each other then and loved our neighbors and helped one another in time of need. Everybody was on equality then – no 'big I's and little u's.' But times have changed. It is style now but give us the good times without the style."
"J.W. West, H.H. Easterly, and myself were young men together and we had a good time away back in the 80s, chasing the deer over the hills and I and J.W. West would go away down to the Dogwood Spring a deer hunting. On Sundays, we would take our best girl and walk four to eight miles to meeting and back the same day, and the girls that had store shoes would pack them until we got close to the meeting house, then put them on. But, where is the young people that would do as we had to do? They don't do that way now, it is not the style."
"We had good meetings and good Sunday schools to go to, we don't have such a good time now. What is the cause? Why, style, that is the trouble backbiting, cheating, defrauding and everybody for self, that is the trouble. If everybody would live now like we did 36 years ago then there would be good times on the Myatt. Then if a man had an old long rifle gun a dog, a yoke of oxen, and a homestead he was all OK. He would make a small crop in the summertime, then the women made the rest, and he hunted."
"There was lots of deer and wild turkeys, and we had good hog range. I have seen hogs fat in the woods the year round, and the grass was as high as a man's head all over the woods and cattle did fine on the rang. We ate cornbread, pork, beans, venison, potatoes, milk, and butter, and the cooking was done on the big old fireplace." 
"Everybody was healthy. There was only two doctors here then. Dr. Middleton lived on Howell Valley, and Dr. Dixon lived on Hutton Valley. They didn't make a very fat living either. Dr. Dixon was our doctor. I well remember his coming to our house 35 years ago with his pockets full of roots and herbs to doctor with. Now we have lots of doctors and lots of sickness too. What is the cause? I think it is the food we eat. If our food was like what our mothers and grandmothers used to cook we would be fat and robust, but now it is out of style to cook that way."
"Now the farmer sells his hogs and produce to keep up style and foes to the store for his provisions. The weather has changed too. It has been the worst weather this winter I ever saw in this country. Well, I have been in five states and one territory, but came back to old Howell. It is good enough for me. I married Belle Marshal in 1886. We have seven boys and one girl, all at home, except one son who is dead. The old neighbors have passed over, and we too, who are left, will join them by and by."
Bennett's mention of Doctor J.C.B. Dixon is a common vein in many of the early settler stories. The majority of them mention Dixon coming to their home to treat them. I find it amazing that Dixon often traveled more than a day to see his patients. Dixon frequently wrote local newspapers telling about his practice. In our next account, we hear from the good doctor himself. His account of the same period is a little lighter. Dixon wrote,
"I will now endeavor to give new settlers, or immigrants to this or any other new country some advice. First, get all the real estate you can, especially unimproved land, which you can pay down for. Keep out of debt and keep all such land for some time. You may regret letting it go even at what might be called a good price. I have had this disagreeable experience in Howell County. I will try and describe some of my land purchases and sales. I first purchased a tract of improved land in part about 240 acres on Hutton Valley for the sum of $700. I kept this place and rented it out until it paid for itself as the saying goes three times the first cost. I sold the place for $1,700. I also purchased 240 acres of land unimproved near King's Mountain for $225 and sold the second year after for $1,250, which is now worth three or four thousand dollars. I thought I was doing well but I was mistaken." 
Indeed, Dixon became one of the wealthier men in Howell County. His first farms were located in Hutton Valley, and near King Mountain, northwest of Willow Springs, in the northwest corner of the county."
"I kept the best saddle horses that could be bought, about four, which I used alternately to visit the sick. I did not charge very high prices and generally got my pay. Emigrants came into the country fast, but no doctors or preachers. There was but one preacher in my entire range of practice. He resided nearly 35 miles from Hutton Valley, but he came up there and preached one Sunday in each month. I had him make my house his home as often as he would come, board and horse feed free."
"I talked to the settlers about paying the minister who was very old, but I could not get anyone to put up anything. I headed the list with four dollars and that was all he got. I think the people were very pious, did not kill deer on Sundays, they had plenty of game through the weekdays. Chickens were very hard to find as nearly all the people were emigrants. I bought two hens and brought them on horseback ten miles, and they were so old they were childish, but we got a start and kept up all the time." 
"I cannot fail to state some of the cases of sickness which I had to treat under the most unfavorable circumstances, owing to the wild and destitute condition of the country just after the rebellion. I was called up at about 9 o'clock p.m. and asked to visit a patient, a case of midwifery, which they stated was only four miles, but we rambled through the wilderness following a path until midnight. I was detained until next morning about 10 o'clock, the case not over, and could not tell when it would be from appearances, so I ordered my horse and asked them to pilot me to the county road, as I knew I was lost, we had passed no house after we left my place. I was flatly told that I could not leave until the case was over, at the risk of my life."
"I found from the history they gave of themselves they had been bushwhackers in the time of the rebellion, so I thought I had better stay as they had plenty of venison and roasting ears, and said they would pay me my price as money had nothing to do with the case, so I was not scared, but awful mad and staid. I remained for three days, and there were several cases brought to me for treatment while there, as the bandits had friends for about 18 miles away who were sick, as they lived on the Jack's Fork Valley, which was sickly. My cases all turned out well. When the old man asked me my bill for the time and all, I told him I would put up with forty dollars. He laughed and said it was low as there were twins. So he paid me, and named one of the twins for me and made me a present of a Colt's revolver of old times."
"In 1868 I was elected as president of the county court, also probate judge which gave me the right to practice law as well as to practice medicine, and the right to solemnize the rite of matrimony. So there being but few preachers and no justices of the peace I attended to uniting nearly all parties in matrimony, which made me feel queer, and kind of solemn, as I could call on that great name without being made, and helped me financially, which I needed, you know."
"In those days there were no licenses required, so if they could find me the two were made one in a hurry if they had the cash or deer skins; this they understood as I was not here for my health only. I attended a marriage, the groom was a lawyer, and the bride a beautiful lady; she was the daughter of a widow, and after the two were married, I was called upon to unite the mother and an old bachelor in marriage before the supper was ready. We had a jolly time, no one got drunk but happy."
I'm always amazed at the hardiness of these early pioneers eking out an independent existence in a land that was unsettled and harsh. We are fortunate they took the time to share their experiences and lives with future generations.
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