“The witch of Bradshaw Mountain, near Berryville, Ar. about 1925. I wrote a story about her and Thomas Hart Benton made a picture for it.”
POINT LOOKOUT – A walk through an Ozarks forest reverberates souls and stories. The nooks and crannies of the region’s hills were once filled with a people unlike any other — a culture that lived and died, married and had babies all without any distraction of an outside world.
Those people are long gone. Theirs was a culture obliterated — perhaps willingly — by the introduction of modern convenience. And if it weren’t for people like Vance Randolph, their stories would be, too.
The Ozarks’ premiere preservationist, Vance captured the Ozarks in a way that has never been done before or since. His words, filling the pages of more than 20 books, painted vivid pictures that were secret to the outside world — people and places that now only exist in the minds of a dwindling number of Ozarkers.
Well, and at College of the Ozarks.
No, the college doesn’t own a time machine — at least not one in the conventional sense. But a collection of photos taken by Vance on his travels into the hills does provide a crystal clear window into the past.
Those time-travel images are something that Gwen Simmons says she feels fulfill an important need. “We’re such a visual culture,” says Gwen, an associate professor of Library Science and media specialist at College of the Ozarks. “You know, I can tell you what a still looks like, but until you a picture of that still making moonshine, it doesn’t translate.”
You can indeed see a picture of that still in the collection. Other images show the weathered faces of hill folk at work and play, often with a musical instrument close at hand. Many of the photos, most shot before 1940 and from around the Pineville area, depict Ozarkers in the beauty of their hardworking, everyday lives.
“Still in operation, Pineville, Mo. The man in the picture is Gifford Lee, deputy sheriff of Pineville, Mo., 1930”
However, Vance wasn’t a photojournalist — and some of the photos were more representation than reality. For example, on one of the photos — a woman showing a lot of leg — Vance wrote that he was “trying to sex up the Ozarks image.” And in the case of the still, it’s unlikely that the man pictured there wasn’t posing. You know, since he was a deputy sheriff and the photo was taken in 1930 when prohibition was still in full force.
But even though a few of the photos are a little larger than life, most bring forth an Ozarks that few today have ever seen. And for Gwen, their collective story is one worth preserving. “Once we lose the pictures, we lose the history,” she says.
The photos are part of The Ozarkiana Collection, a resource room at the college that’s chock full of everything Ozarks. It was a brainchild of Townsend Godsey, the college’s longtime public relations director and Ozarks enthusiast. “He and Vance Randolph were great friends,” says Gwen of Townsend. “He encouraged Vance to donate his photos to this collection.”
And that’s where they’ve been for nearly 50 years. Besides Vance’s photographs, the collection includes books, recordings, newspaper articles, photographs and other local memorabilia, including the Townsend Godsey Archives, a treasure trove of the historian’s work.
Even though it’s been around since the early 1970s, the room — located on the second floor of Lyons Memorial Library — isn’t too well known. “(The collection) has a certain level of notoriety, but I think it’s a pretty well kept secret,” says Gwen. The same is true of Vance’s photos, which are only available to view in person at the library (except for about 30 or so of ’em, which are here for you to see today).
If today’s smattering whets your appetite, there’s around 200 more where they came from — so take time to make a trip. “There is a lot of value to seeing something in person,” says Gwen. “I think it’s important that we know what our history is, because if we don’t know where we came from, we don’t have much context for who we are.”
While you’re there (because it’s likely that seeing these ones today won’t be enough), take time to read the captions, many of which were hand-written by Vance himself. Those earthy descriptions provide insight into both the historian and the people he wanted to share — you know, with people like us.
Want to see the photos?
The Ozarkiana Collection is accessible whenever Lyons Memorial Library is open. Regular library hours are Monday to Thursday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sunday 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Hours vary during holidays and semester break. For more information, call 417-690-3412.
All photos used by permission of The Ozarkiana Collection.