Summer in Howell County One Hundred Years Ago

Summertime heat and humidity today often drive us indoors, but in the Ozarks one hundred years ago, before air conditioning was commonly available, folks went outside. In researching diaries, journals, and letters from our earliest settlement period through the Civil War I was surprised at the frequency of community gatherings in the form of dances held in homes or occasionally in a public building, often lasting through the night. 
I think it was a Scotch-Irish thing brought with the family and neighborhood groups that traveled here together. As our communities grew, the gatherings became public “picnics.” Sometimes there was too much drinking, and fighting erupted, but for the most part, the picnics were peaceful and popular.
The larger towns, West Plains, Willow Springs, and Mountain View, by the 1920s, had graduated to big celebrations, usually held on the 4th of July. With a world war and influenza epidemic not that far distant in the rearview mirror, the quarantines and rationing were over, and the urge to have a community get-together returned. 
In 1923 West Plains hosted the community fireworks on the 4th with music, according to the Howell County Gazette, provided by the “Ex-Service Men’s Band of Ava, which is one of the largest and best bands in the southern part of the state.” The American Legion was in charge of the event, featuring “a balloon ascension when a dare devil aeronaut will drop 5,000 feet, making a triple parachute leap.” (The aeronauts failed to show up, and the American Legion promoters pursued a lawsuit against them.) Attendance estimates were between five and nine thousand, depending on who was counting. 
With Independence Day over, the late July activities became directed toward celebrating the beginning of harvest, and 1923 showed all the signs of being a good year. I believe the harvest referred to was hay, and the first cutting should have been stacked in the field or barn.
In his July 26, 1923 issue of the Howell County Gazette editor, Will Zorn informed his readers under the headline "Many Picnics to Amuse the Public" of the many outdoor activities in local communities. He wrote, "This is the time of year when farmers and town people lay aside their labors and business cares and take in the numerous picnics that are held throughout the country. Prospects for good crops in the Ozark region this year makes the farmer joyful and for this reason, big crowds will gather at the various country picnics and make merry and mingle among their neighbors.”
"The first picnic this year is the annual gathering at White Church which will be held Saturday, July 28. The scenario for the big affair is almost complete. The corn-fed chickens the ladies will serve with the dinner will be the best you ever ate. It will be a genuine pleasure to loiter in the shade of the giant oaks and spreading chestnut trees in the company of old-time friends watching the young blood of the country contending for honors on the ball diamond, while the orator of the Ozarks, Judge Henry D. Green, of whom you are all justly proud, will entertain the visitors with one of his addresses so full of wit and wisdom. There will be many entertaining features at the picnic, including music by a brass band and singing together with a big dance in the hall at night. Theo Boss, Frank Peters, and Mike Stein are the committee in charge.”
“The annual picnic at Rover Saturday, July 28, is under the auspices of the Modern Woodmen of America. Amusements of all kinds have been provided. There will be two ball games, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. There will be a boy’s race for boys between 12 and 14 years, egg roll for girls, and a sack race, followed by a nail driving contest for women. Prizes will be awarded the winners. E.A. White and I. H. Young compose the committee in charge of the picnic.”
“Once each year after the crops are laid by the people along South Fork, in the vicinity of Missouri and Arkansas border gather in the Race Track Bottoms one-half mile east of Sturkie, Arkansas to celebrate. Next Saturday, July 28, they will hold the annual picnic this year. Amusements of all kinds will be provided for both old and young. There will be boating, swimming and fishing, a baseball game, swings, and other entertainment. Virgil Story, Henderson Ward, and Garfield Skaggs will be the committee in charge.”
“In order to create interest in the building of a bridge across North Fork, a big picnic will be held at Hammond's Mill, on the north Dora Road, 17 miles west of West Plains on Friday, August 3. This is one of the finest picnic grounds in the Ozark region. Plenty of shade and the finest stream of water in the country. Hon. S.J. Galloway, Howell County’s representative in the state legislature, will deliver an address and there will be speaking by others who boost the building of a bridge at Hammond’s Mill. Amusements of all kinds will be provided, including a singing contest with prizes to be awarded the winners. Everyone is urged to being well-filled baskets and spend the day on the river. John Riley, Dora, Mo., has charge of the stand privileges.”
“What is being advertised as 'The biggest Event of the Season' is the first annual picnic at the Tank Pond, a beautiful lake of water covering 5 acres on the Missouri State highway four miles north of West Plains and two and one-half miles south of Olden, on Friday and Saturday, August 3 and 4. There will be entertainment and amusement in every form that will meet the approval of everyone, including speaking, singing, dancing, boat riding, bathing, and fishing. R.J. Byers, George Woods, and A.L. Fisher compose the committee in charge of the picnic while A.L. Fisher of West Plains is looking after the stand rights and privileges.” 
Tank Pond, located along the Frisco railroad tracks, was dug by the original Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Memphis railroad around 1881 or 1882. There was a pumping station and tank where trains under steam stopped for water. After it was no longer needed by the railroad, it they allowed public use and it became a favorite swimming hole. Just four years later, the Gazette warned its readers in its July 14, 1927 edition that, “Boys who go swimming at the Tank Pond on the Frisco right of way six miles northwest of West Plains are requested to don bathing suits and not swim nude in the big pond. This is the request made by C.H. Baltzell, assistant to General Manager F.H. Shaffer, of the Frisco is glad they have such a nice pond for the boys, but he asks that they put on bathing suits when going in the pond. Some of the boys have been making a ‘show’ of themselves for passengers on trains passing the pond, and train conductors have been complaining.” Today Tank Pond is shown on topographic maps as dry.
A big picnic at Moody was advertised in the August 9 issue, to be held two days later, and promoted that the big attraction was a “ball game between Moody and Salem, Arkansas, old rivals.” Baseball is the common thread in all these community events dating back to the turn of the century. Even the smallest community had a team, and some towns had several. The rivalries could get quite serious.
Carl Mays, a famous pitcher for the New York Yankees in 1921, was raised on Bryant Creek in Douglas County and honed his skills hunting squirrels with rocks. He was said to be able to throw a rock to the top of the highest Sycamore tree and pick off a squirrel. It was the hope and dream for most young boys to make it to the minor or major leagues. West Plains also had a Negro league that was allowed to play exhibition games with local white teams during these events.
Mountain View was the last to celebrate summer on August 24 and 25, 1923. Many of these celebrations lasted more than one, some as many as four days. Willow Springs had a two-day parade. The Mountain View event was organized (rather loosely) by the American Legion and billed as “Two grand days of fun and frolic for both the young and old.” A traveling steam merry-go-round billed to have been "positively secured for this occasion" was indeed there but failed to work. The American Legion posts in our communities were filled with younger men that had just done service in World War One, whereas today some tend to think of this organization as being composed of older veterans.
There was more mobility after the war and the automobile was coming into regular use, though Henry Ford’s Model A was another four years in the future. The Model T “Tin Lizzie” was the preferred car or truck, though many arrived in horse-drawn wagons. In West Plains, People’s Park was already in use, and the Gazette warned its readers on August 8 that, “West Plains has never provided free camping grounds for tourists, but People’s Park is used by quite a number of motorists as a camping place while on their travels…West Plains must wake up to the fact this city is on one of the principal highways in this state and these accommodations must be provided.” 
Howell County one hundred years ago was optimistic. The “Good Roads” movement was underway. Work would begin in 1923, creating Highway 63 through our county. Business opportunity was strong and favorable weather and a good market for farm products prevailed the next few years, until the stock market crash six years later. The Great Depression and World War Two would change the Ozarks in many ways, but I’m glad we have retained the tradition of gathering that makes Howell County a great place to live.
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