CASSVILLE – Perhaps it was Jean Wallace’s claim of clairvoyance that drove her into the Ozarks’ wilderness. She came to hide in a cabin tucked among the trees; one faraway from her East Coast origins. But as plans often do, hers didn’t work out.
Because the world found her anyway.
For nearly 50 years, hundreds of locals came to Miss Wallace’s door, their lives dictating their journey more than their feet.
“A seer of vision, friend and counselor to hundreds, finder of lost articles, the woman remained a mystery to her neighbors who loved her, and became a legend from the hills she treasured,” wrote Irene Horner in 1978 for the Barry County Advertiser.
To them, she wasn’t just Miss Wallace: She was the Maid of Roaring River.
In the beginning
The story of Miss Wallace isn’t lost to locals, but time has blurred some of the details. These days, very few people remember Miss Wallace firsthand, and what’s been reported about her — even in accounts from decades ago — presents contradictory pictures. Such factors lend an air of mystery to her life, which began in 1851.
Even where it began is up for debate. Horner penned in the same article that Miss Wallace was born “according to her account, on a ‘pier at the foot of Canal Street in New York City.’”
William Preston of Seligman, however, claimed in a 1968 article for the Springfield Daily News that he’d also spoken to Miss Wallace and she “told my wife and me that her family was from Scotland and she was born at sea during their voyage to America.”
Regardless of where she began her life, it’s recorded that she discovered her gift — or curse, depending on how one looks at it — as a child. In her younger years, she was frustrated by other people who misplaced items that she could see in her mind’s eye.
It was her father who eventually explained to her that she had a special power; that she must be patient with others who didn’t have that “sight.” He also admonished her that such things must only be used for good, and never for financial gain. “As far as known, she always obeyed that injunction,” wrote Horner.
Settling in the Ozarks
But even those with second sight must live in the “real” world, and as an adult, Miss Wallace decided to become a nurse. The profession, however, didn’t turn out to be a wise choice. “The way I present it is that she couldn’t stand the fate of knowing whether her patients would live or die,” says preservationist Tracie Snodgrass, who has spent years portraying Miss Wallace for group events.
Stories abound on what exactly brought Miss Wallace to the Ozarks in the first place. Some reports say she came to southwest Missouri with friends, but that the other ladies eventually moved away.
Snodgrass, however, believes that the story was a little different than that. She thinks that Miss Wallace was bound for Eureka Springs, Ark. with a young man she intended to marry; that the man was seeking medicinal help from the springs, but that he died.
“Then she discovered Roaring River and decided to stay,” says Snodgrass, noting that she believes Miss Wallace chose to hide in the woods, being so upset about her fiancee’s death. But really, “it’s all storytelling,” Snodgrass says. “(It’s) mouth-to-mouth so nobody knows for sure.”
“A tasteful sign, painted in gold letters on a black background, directed visitors down a mile-long wagon road through the woods to her sturdy two-room log house set in a small clearing,” wrote Irene Horner in 1978. (Photo courtesy of Fields’ Photo Archives)
Regardless of why, Miss Wallace chose the wilderness near Roaring River State Park to be her home around 1892. It’s likely that her move wasn’t easy: Her lifestyle wasn’t a typical one for women in that day and age — and her attractiveness perhaps propelled her notoriety. “She was always neatly dressed and kept her lovely blond hair combed to the style of that day,” said Preston.
Horner agreed, writing that Miss Wallace’s eyes were “the bluest blue that had ever been seen in this part of the Ozarks. She was once a comely blonde, with honey color hair, yet she died an old maid, and she always vowed she knew she would.” After all, according to some accounts, Miss Wallace was said to say, “Who would want a wife who knew everything her husband had every done, thought, or was going to do?”
Such things could feed a gossip mill for a lifetime: Miss Wallace was an unmarried, pretty, young, Easterner who homesteaded a 160-acre claim when it wasn’t the norm for females — not to mention that she claimed to see the future.
Although reports note that Miss Wallace was loved and appreciated by the end of her life, Snodgrass says that locals were suspicious of her to begin with — even though she was a deeply rooted Episcopalian, and often used Bible passages to give advice or console her visitors. “Back then, they associated a sixth-sense with witchcraft,” she says.
But time changed things. “They were curious,” says Snodgrass of Miss Wallace’s neighbors. “So they’d go up and see her. A lot of time they’d go out of need.”
Those needs might involve locating stray animals, or relationship advice. As time passed, her popularity grew — perhaps because her predictions, which were reportedly often correct, helped the locals. “The road to her cabin door was well worn by worried folks who had lost something or were at their wit’s end about some personal problem,” wrote Horner. “She delighted in greeting the stranger with the answer to his problem before he had time to state it — much to his amazement.”
Miss Wallace’s cabin, shown here in 1940, also housed her collection of cats: It is difficult to see, but there was a cat “hole” near the door for her furry friends to come and go. (Photo courtesy of Fields’ Photo Archives)
The only time she moved away from her cabin was during World War I, when she temporarily resumed nursing as an “acting mother” of a soldiers’ cottage in Long Island, N.Y. But “immediately after the signing of the armistice, she returned to her cabin home,” said Horner.
She may have returned to her home, but according to Snodgrass, her cabin wasn’t there. Once again, debate surrounds the cabin’s demise. According to Preston, it was a forest fire that destroyed it; Snodgrass, however, suspects arson.
But regardless of why, “her many old friends decided to have a house raising for her and they did,” says Preston. “Everyone pitched in, the men working and the women keeping them fed. By night fall, we had a log pen built with a roof on it.”
Miss Wallace was popular with members of the Civilian Conservation Corps who worked at nearby Roaring River State Park. (Photo courtesy of Johnnie Payton)
That new cabin served as Miss Wallace’s home for the rest of her life. It’s also the spot many members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) visited while working at Roaring River State Park.
“The boys more or less adopted the strange old woman, taking food and supplies when they went for counsel, and in general seeing that she had what she needed,” wrote Horner, who also noted that “the boys would have fought for Miss Wallace, and probably she for them, so mutual was the affection.”
While many people believed Miss Wallace’s predictions, there were naysayers here and there — but she didn’t have much patience with such individuals.
One of those doubters was a CCC member, who had lost something but scoffed at the suggestion that “the old fool” could help him find it. Finally, despair drove him to her cabin as a last resort: But Horner reported that he didn’t get what he was looking for, and returned quickly, upset and out of breath.
“Oh, gosh!” he gasped. “It was awful. I approached the hut, thinking up a nice speech to please the old girl, and a whole mob of cats came out a hole near the front.
“I didn’t get a chance to ask her anything. They minute I knocked on the door, she threw it open and snapped at me, ‘This old fool can, but will not tell you anything.’ Then she slammed the door in my face.”
As years progressed
Time changes life, and Miss Wallace wasn’t an exception to the rule. By the time the late 1930s rolled around, her health and eyesight began to fail. She let her personal appearance go, and carrying water — obtained from 200 yards down a steep path from her cabin — became difficult.
Locals tried to help Miss Wallace, and did to some extent by cutting firewood and bringing food to the cabin. But pride stood in the way of any major assistance, even though “as her health failed, her cabin home was a scene of disorder, filth and squalor,” wrote Horner. Some encouraged her to mortgage her land to provide more financial assistance, but she refused the suggestion.
For much of her life, Miss Wallace also declined being photographed. But in February 1940, she had a sudden change of heart: For the first time in years, she consented to having her picture taken. “Not only was she willing to pose for the many photographs taken by the Fields’ Photo shop on that eventful day, but she kept repeating, ‘Take all you want — all you want,’ which of course, seemed strange after her long-time aversion for the camera,” recorded Horner.
Miss Wallace staunchly maintained that she was unable to see her own future, but perhaps this was an exception. The week after the photos were taken — on Feb. 26, 1940 — her cabin burned to the ground.
The Macon Chronicle-Hearld picked up the story, noting that “the ‘mystery maid’ of Roaring River may have burned to death today.” The article also said that it was two boys who first noticed smoke at the site, and that “there was no trace of the aged woman whose willingness to discuss the troubles of others brought many to her door.”
After some investigation, all that remained of the 88-year-old woman was a handful of bone fragments used to confirm her presence.
Miss Wallace’s cabin has been gone for more than 75 years, but the atmosphere around where it stood remains. Today, the land is part of the Mark Twain National Forest.
What little that remained of Miss Wallace was buried in the Seligman Cemetery, marked by a modest stone that listed her name and dates of birth and death. Her land was sold, and eventually became part of the Mark Twain National Forest.
However, in 2006, the Barry County Genealogical and Historical Society decided that more should be done to recognize this longtime local legend. Representatives from the organization worked with Wommack Memorial Company to design a new stone to mark her grave; it includes her name, dates of birth and death as well as a brief history of the Mountain Maid legend. The new stone was presented to the community in a memorial service for Miss Wallace on Sept. 30, 2006.
More than 65 years after her death, a new stone was installed at Miss Wallace’s final resting place. The old stone was moved to the foot of her grave.
It was the hope of the historical society that such action would help visitors understand a little bit more about who Jean Wallace was — a person who influenced history through more than her fortune telling. “I think she was fascinating because she just did that on her own,” says Snodgrass, referencing Miss Wallace’s success at homesteading. “I just think it took a lot of courage and bravery. I just admire her.”
Want to learn more?
If you’d like to research more about Jean Wallace and other parts of the area’s history, make a trip to the Barry County Museum, which features a plethora of information and exhibits on many topics. Tracie Snodgrass also gives first-person presentations for groups of Miss Wallace’s life, and can be reached at 417-229-2809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.