hillcrofters 2

Clockwise from top left: The original Hillcrofters organization's Miss Ozarks of 1932. A dedication to the Ozarkian Hillcrofters in the 1940 book “Backwoodsmen: Daring Men of the Ozarks” by George Clinton Arthur. A sign declaring the Notch Post Office Restoration Project at the site. A very old photo by local photographer George Hall taken not long after “The Shepherd of the Hills” was published, with Levi “Uncle Ike” Morrill standing on the porch of his little post office at Notch. In this old postcard from the early 1940s, Levi Morrill’s son, grandson and great-grandson (Layne Morrill) pose in front of the old post office.

The first Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters, formed in 1931, seems to have met with limited success according to old newspaper accounts. The society did succeed in acquiring quite a few members, but as for what the members accomplished, that might have been minimal.

They did crown a Miss Ozarks in 1931 and 1932, probably as a way to draw attention to the organization. Dorothy Chilton of Eminence was the winner in 1931, and Madge Mathis of Anderson was pictured in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Oct. 13, 1932, as the winner for that year.

Another article, this one in the Rolla Herald on Oct. 10, 1935, revealed that the Hillcrofters were going to hold their annual festival at Marvel Cave Lodge in the “Shepherd of the Hills Country.” The participants were meeting at the lodge for a “steak fry” followed by an “exploring expedition,” which one can assume would be in the cave.

Then they were going to Forsyth for the “highlight of this gala occasion,” which was “the great pow-pow and initiation around a blazing campfire at twilight.” The article went on to say, “A full moon glorifies the music, dancing, singing, fish fry and legendry until the wee hours of dawn.”

That was the first day. The second day they were caravanning to Harrison, Ark., to the Seville Hotel, where there would be a program about such subjects as folklore, history and literature.

The article noted that the spring meeting in May 1936 would be at Rolla. An article in the Rolla Herald’s Dec. 12, 1935, issue gave details for the upcoming spring meeting, including a program to honor Mark Twain on the centennial year of his birth. It reported that the Missouri author's cousin Cyril Clemens had agreed to attend the event.

The 1938 Hillcrofters “Ozark Festival” was held at Forsyth at the Shepherd of the Hills Estates near Lake Taneycomo. In an Associated Press article about that upcoming event in the Miami Daily News-Record in Oklahoma on Oct. 7, 1938, May Kennedy McCord was quoted as saying, “We have about two hundred members, including Rose O'Neill, Carl Sandburg (who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln) and Congressman Dewey Short.”

Lucile Morris Upton, Springfield's first female reporter and author of a book about the Bald Knobbers, wrote an article about the Hillcrofters founder, Otto Ernest Rayburn, in the Oct. 11, 1953, issue of the Springfield Leader and Press. In the article she stated, “One of the first folklore societies in the Ozarks was an organization called the 'Hillcrofters' which he promoted.”

In 1956, Morris ran a letter from Rayburn in her Over the Ozarks column in which he wrote about the Hillcrofters. In the letter, Rayburn acknowledged that, “The accomplishments of the Society of Hillcrofters during the past 25 years have been comparatively negative.” That 25-year period Rayburn was referring to would have included all the years the society had been in existence.

I do not think that will be the case with the new Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters, however. The reorganized and re-instituted society was given a new life just in the fall of 2017. Already, the society has taken on some significant projects.

The first project involves one of the original charter members, Vance Randolph. While he was out collecting bits of folklore throughout the Ozarks, Randolph also took photos of a variety of subjects, many of them the people from whom he was collecting stories, songs and Ozarks superstitions.

More than 200 of those photos ended up in the Vance Randolph Photography Collection housed at Lyons Memorial Library at College of the Ozarks at Point Lookout. The new Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters has instigated a partnership with the library to digitize this treasure trove of photographs and make them available on the society's website.

The second project also involves one of the charter members of the old Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters, Rose O'Neill. The society partnered with the Bonniebrook Gallery, Museum and Homestead at O'Neill's old home on Bear Creek. It is just off U.S. 65, a few miles north of Branson.

This project involves the creation of a walking trail on that property so visitors can see the beauty of the Ozarks at the site that so enthralled Rose O'Neill.

The third project is vital to the history of this area. The publication of Harold Bell Wright's “The Shepherd of the Hills” brought the first influx of tourists into southwest Missouri to see what he had described in his novel and the area that became known as “Shepherd of the Hills Country.”

The two most visited sites that Wright wrote about in the novel were the Ross log home, which became known as “Old Matt's Cabin” after a character in the book, and the little post office at “The Forks.” That post office was at Notch, not far from what then was known as Marble Cave (now Marvel Cave), and was operated by Levi Morrill, who became “Uncle Ike” in the novel. The post office sits next to his home.

The old post office, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, is starting to fall into disrepair. The society has partnered with Layne Morrill, the great-grandson of Levi Morrill, and the owner of the property to ensure that the little post office will remain intact while maintaining its historical integrity.

If these projects come to fruition and others follow, undoubtedly in another 87 years, Ozarks residents will look back on this second incarnation of the Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters and know that it helped preserve the folklore, history and beauty of this region.

To check out this organization, go to societyofozarkianhillcrofters.com.

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