Pearl Spurlock spent nearly 30 years chauffeuring tourists to sites made famous in “The Shepherd of the Hills.” (Courtesy of “Over the Old Ozark Trails”)
The first stars beckoning visitors to Branson weren’t neon-lit along the 76 strip. Instead, they sparkled in the silent Ozarks night; tiny diamonds above the free-flowing White River and vibrant, rolling hills. It was that simplistic beauty — and seemingly sheltered local life depicted in “The Shepherd of the Hills” — that drove visitors to the area at the turn of the 20th century.
Upon arrival, however, many were driven by something else: The motoring skills of Pearl Spurlock.
For nearly 30 years, Spurlock introduced visitors to Ozark hills and hollows as a taxi-driving tour guide. Her navigation of nearly nonexistent trails drove her right into the history books — and into the memories of many, both from afar and right down the road.
“Mrs. Spurlock is probably known to more visitors to the White River country than any other person,” wrote the Springfield Leader in 1930. “She, through the sightseeing taxi … has given thousands of persons a systematic insight into the distinctive qualities of the region for which she holds a keen appreciation.”
Starting the trip
Spurlock wasn’t originally a local, nor did she plan to become a taxi driver. She and her husband, G.F. Spurlock, moved to the area during World War I after buying a garage. With nothing to keep her at home, Spurlock spent much time with her husband at work, and began shuttling visitors on short trips while their vehicles were being worked on.
“I like to drive, love to meet people, and like to be out in this wonderful invigorating mountain air; so I decided to get a chauffeur’s license,” wrote Spurlock in 1936. “You know, a doctor could not prescribe a better tonic than plenty of this Ozark air.”
That was a time of great growth in tourism for the area. After Harold Bell Wright’s “Shepherd of the Hills” hit shelves in 1907, the outside world was introduced to an isolated Ozarks. The region rapidly became a magnet for folks wanting to see the scenes Wright vividly described.
“The people of the hill country made Wright’s book great and incidentally his book made them famous,” wrote the Democrat-Forum in 1923. “Thousands of people have climbed the winding trail to view old Matt’s cabin, have looked up at Dewey Bald and down in Mutton Hollow on the scenes Aunt Molly loved.”
Spurlock capitalized on that fascination by sharing stories as she drove. Soon, visitors sought her not only for transportation, but for an experience: The taxi driver would shuttle them around a circuit of noteworthy local sites, including ones made famous in “The Shepherd of the Hills.”
“By appointment, Mrs. Spurlock drove sightseers to Old Matt’s cabin, Sammy’s lookout, the haunts of the Printer of Udell, giving an interesting lecture as she drove along,” printed the Springfield Daily News in 1945, which noted that Spurlock was responsible for keeping many of the “Shepherd of the Hills” traditions alive. “She located prototypes of Wright’s characters and saw to it they were in sight when tourists came around.”
An early ad for Spurlock’s service. (Courtesy of Richard Crabtree)
Spurlock’s “lecture” also included stories and anecdotes shared along the way. Some were “inoffensive hillbilly yarns,” as she called them. But they did more than entertain: They also demonstrated Spurlock’s devotion to the region she called home, such as one she recorded in the 1930s:
“Did you realize that if you ever came down into this country once, you would always come back? Well, one time there as a tourist who came down here and dreamed he died and went to heaven. When he got up to the Golden Gates, he met St. Peter, shook hands and passed the time of day. He peeked through the Golden Gates and saw a row of people chained to the golden streets. He said to St. Peter, ‘Well, that’s very beautiful in there, but why are those people chained to the golden streets? St. Peter said, ‘Well, all those people are from Taney County, and if we didn’t keep them chained they would all go back!'”
Spurlock, ready to drive. (Courtesy of Richard Crabtree)
At one point, Spurlock traveled her sightseeing trip more than 100 times each year, and served passengers from places including China, Australia, Turkey, Japan, Egypt and every state in the United States.
“It would be a matter of curious interest to know just how many tires this devoted lady has worn out along the now abandoned goat-trail of a road that climbed the rocky shoulder of Dewey Bald and reached by many rutted crooks and turns in the romantic region that she truly loved and loves,” wrote John G. Neihardt, poet, historian and ethnographer, in the 1930s. “But it would be a matter of far greater human interest to know the goodly number of friends that she has made in her years of service as a guide to men and women from all our States and many foreign lands.”
These days, most of those friends aren’t around to remember. Ninety-nine-year-old Waldo Walker Powell, however, is one of the few who recall her firsthand. His family owned Fairy Cave (today’s Talking Rocks Cavern) which was a regular stop on Spurlock’s circuit.
“You could hear her come down the road,” says Powell, noting that in the days before air conditioning, she puttered along with her window down. Even though it’s been decades since he’s heard her call, Powell remembers what she’d say as she neared the cave: “Pancakes on the hill and the sugar’s in the trees!”
“(There were) rocks shaped like pancakes,” Powell explains, and ties the “tree sugar” comment to nearby maples.
Once she arrived at Fairy Cave, Powell was responsible for parking her car, normally in a certain place next to the steps. But he often played another role in her tour, too. “Well, she’d get up (the steps) about halfway and, ‘Folks, here is the grandson of the shepherd of the hills!’” recalls Powell.
It was technically true. Powell’s grandfather — Truman Powell — was the inspiration behind the shepherd in Wright’s famous novel. But as a teenager, it wasn’t a mention that thrilled Powell. “She’d introduce me, and I wasn’t too happy with that,” he says.
Perhaps that promoting personality aided Spurlock’s success. “She wasn’t bashful,” says Powell, noting that tourists often came by rail in those days. “She’d go to the train, and meet the people coming off the excursion trains.” At other times, she’d find customers at the local resorts.
“She’d go down to these resorts in the morning and get her a group of people ready to go about 8 or 9 o’clock and she’d start out over Dewey Bald,” says Powell of the landmark immortalized in Wright’s novel.
Not everything on those trips, however, was as picture-perfect as the scenery. While travelers seemingly loved Spurlock, other taxi drivers did not. “They started calling her Sparky,” says Powell of the nickname that stuck with Spurlock the rest of her life. And back then, roads were so bad that they hardly deserved the distinction.
“The roads were terribly rough and bad throughout Taney County at that time. There were no highways, and it would take two or more days to go to Springfield and back — only 60 miles,” wrote Spurlock. She also noted, however, that it wasn’t something travelers minded. “My passengers all seem to enjoy the roughness of the road, as it is in keeping with the story.”
But even though the roads were bad, it really didn’t matter: Spurlock went basically anywhere she wanted to.
“She has always been gratified that in her long experience of driving the rocky, steep and frequently dangerous hill trails she never has had an accident,” printed the Leader in 1930. “She always has driven wherever her passengers wished to go. No road was too rough nor too dangerous for her to attempt.”
Creating a legacy
That is, however, until 1930. On May 28, Spurlock was critically injured in an accident when her car went out of control on some loose gravel. Her accident proves her notoriety throughout the region: It was the top story in that day’s Leader, but also made the papers as far away as Jefferson City and Sedalia.
The Springfield Leader led with Spurlock’s accident on May 28, 1930. (Courtesy of newspapers.com)
At other times, she was recognized for reasons other than taxicab fame. In the late 1920s, she led a campaign to erect a memorial to Mr. and Mrs. J.K. Ross, the real people behind characters “Uncle Matt” and “Aunt Molly” in “Shepherd of the Hills.”
“…I wrote a letter to Mr. Wright, telling him of our plans and received a lovely answer with his check for twenty-five dollars,” wrote Spurlock. “A little later he sent another for ten dollars. Our stone cost two hundred and fifty dollars, and was paid for mostly by one-dollar donations from my passengers all over the Untied States and some old countries.”
“Uncle Ike” was one of the attendees to the dedication of a memorial in memory of “Uncle Matt” and “Aunt Molly” in 1925, a cause that Spurlock championed. She led a similar campaign for him after he passed away. (Courtesy of “Over the Old Ozark Trails”)
Years later, she revived her efforts to erect a similar monument to Levi Morrill, postmaster at Notch, Mo., and for whom the character “Uncle Ike” was modeled.
“It was the request of Uncle Ike that he be buried beside his good friends and neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. J.K. Ross, so we see another mound close by, with a polished stone of granite presented by the lovers of Uncle Ike, Postmaster, at the Forks in the Shepherd of the Hills Country…,” wrote Spurlock.
That fact — and many others — can be found in Spurlock’s book, “Over the Old Ozark Trails in the Shepherd of the Hills Country.” Published in 1936, the volume is a first-person account by Spurlock of the lecture she gave tourists about various points of interest. The book was popular, even prompting a second — and a third — printing.
Among her descriptions of local landmarks, Spurlock told stories and snippets behind what folks were seeing. In retrospect, she ultimately accomplished a goal through the book that she suggested within its pages.
“Almost every hill, valley, cove and ford has its bit of legendary or folk lore to contribute to the history of the Ozarks,” she wrote. “However, these quaint stories of the hills are rapidly disappearing, and in a few years will be lost. I think it would be a fine idea for some feature writer to compile all the Ozark legends and folk lore in book form so that they might be preserved.”
Later in life
Sammy Lane’s Lookout, where Spurlock’s wedding was held in 1939. (Courtesy of “Over the Old Ozark Trails”)
Spurlock’s occupation as a taxi driver differentatied her in a day and age when women simply didn’t do such things. However, she further solidified her stance on women’s rights in 1939 when she remarried.
“Mrs. Pearl Spurlock, who has the distinction of being the only woman taxi driver in the Ozarks, and the double distinction of being combination taxi driver and author, will park her cab tomorrow long enough to get married,” recorded the Democrat in 1939.
Details about the ceremony were given: Several hundred people were expected to attend, which would take place at Sammy’s Lookout, “one of the prettiest spots in the Shepherd of the Hills country,” unless it rained. In that case, it’d take place at the post office in the aforementioned tiny town of Notch.
The article also showed that little was to shift about Spurlock after her marriage. Her name wouldn’t change — she married her late husband’s brother — and neither would her taxi driving.
“After the wedding, Mrs. Spurlock will carry on with her taxi, because she has no intention of letting marriage interfere with her career,” wrote the newspaper.
Spurlock seemingly kept chauffeuring until basically the end of her life. She passed away in 1945 after a three-month illness, and was buried in Ozark Memorial Park near Branson. Her headstone notes nothing about her life’s work.
However, while unique, that legacy isn’t as a taxi driver. It’s as an Ozarks ambassador.
Thousands witnessed local beauty from her touring car as it rumbled down and around rut-riddled hilltops. Perhaps they fell in love: Not with another, but with a region. After all, who wouldn’t feel from the watercolor-washed landscapes — secluded in a tree-colored paradise — that Spurlock showed and wrote about?
“The gorgeous hues are reflected in scores of woodland streams. Red and yellow berries grow by every fence, and star-like asters and the golden-rod beautify embankments. I was piloting a minister over the Shepherd of the Hills country one fall when the goldenrod and the beautiful coloring in the trees were all aglow. And he said to me, ‘Mrs. Spurlock, the Lord must have bankrupt heaven and poured all the gold in these Ozark mountains.’ And I believe you would quite agree with him were you to see the hills and streams when the paw-paws and persimmons are ripening, and the grapes are purpling, and apples are gleaming from green leaves. The serrated horizon fades in haze and mist, and the days dream by, enveloped in the magic of an Indian summer.”
A magic, thanks to Spurlock, that didn’t disappear with dusk on those Indian summer days.
“Then you go back to the busy humdrum of the outer world, and you know that you really have been to a land of enchanting dreams, where you can fish and hunt in comfort, and hear the whistle of the quail, see ducks fly up from the Lake, hear the honk-honk of the wild goose in the air.
“Well, I guess you would really forget all your cares, and think you have been out alone with God in a land of his special favor.”
Well, almost alone with God. They also had Spurlock, deputized as His tour guide.
“Death claims Pearl Spurlock, Ozarks driver, guide 30 years,” Springfield Daily News, March 15, 1945
“Memorial to be unveiled,” Springfield Republican, Oct. 4, 1925
“Memorial to ‘Uncle Ike,'” Neosho Daily News, Oct. 14, 1929
“Over the Old Ozark Trails in the Shepherd of the Hills Country,” Pearl Spurlock, 1936
“Well loved Ozark character is dead,” Democrat-Forum, April 4, 1923
“Woman taxi driver badly hurt!,” Springfield Leader, May 28, 1930
“Woman taxi driver of the Ozarks fatally hurt in auto crash,” Jefferson City Post-Tribune, May 28, 1930
“Woman taxi driver to wed,” Sedalia Democrat, Dec. 19, 1939
“Woman taxicab operator injured,” Sedalia Democrat, May 28, 1930