“The Shepherd of the Hills” post office to be restored

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The Notch post office is one of few buildings written about in “The Shepherd of the Hills” that remains in 2018. (Courtesy of Layne Morrill)

NOTCH – Not so long ago, the Ozarks’ beauty was a secret shared by those who lived among its gentle hills and hollers. That all changed when Harold Bell Wright, a former artist and minster turned novelist, used a pen to paint words instead of pictures through “The Shepherd of the Hills.”

In the novel, published in 1907, Wright vividly told a story based on the region’s unique people and places — and quickly convinced the world to come see what he saw.

More than 100 years after the book transformed the Ozarks into a tourist destination,  few structures remain from its pages. A well-known exception is Old Matt’s Cabin, which even today draws tourists.

There is another little landmark, however, that still stands: The post office at Notch. Long overseen by postmaster Levi Morrill, a man known in the book as Uncle Ike, the tiny office was frequently visited by Wright during his stays in the Ozarks and was featured in the novel.

The passage of time — and many break-ins — have been hard on the more than 120-year-old building. In the coming months, however, the structure will soon get a new lease on life through the Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters.

The Notch post office as it appeared in May 2018.

Members of the local preservation and celebration group are working with its owner to restore the historic site so people can experience a piece of the past.

“Personally, I would like for us to make it so it can be interactive,” says Layne Morrill, great-grandson of postmaster Levi Morrill, who owns the property today. “After all, ‘The Shepherd of the Hills’ was what established tourism in the Ozarks.”

Levi Morrill (Courtesy of the Layne Morrill)

If Levi Morrill’s life timeline had been slightly altered, he might not have met Wright at all, let alone been a character in his famed book.

A native of Maine, the future postmaster was born into a Quaker family in 1837. He graduated from Bowdoin College at around 15 years of age, and began a career in the newspaper business.

“I went to New York and got a job as printer on the old New York Tribune, where I came to know Horace Greeley,” Morrill reportedly said, via quotes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in 1926. “The gold rush to California was on, and the caravans of covered wagons were continually crossing the plains. Relatives in Kansas stimulated my imagination and filled with me desire to get out on the frontier, so I went to Mr. Greeley for his advice and heard his decisive reply — ‘Go West, young man.'”

So Morrill did: There were a number of stops out West, several of which were in Kansas. There, the abolitionist fought in the Civil War, continued in the newspaper business, and later practiced law.

He eventually relocated to Lamar, Mo., where he founded the Lamar Advocate newspaper, and worked alongside future friend Truman Powell. There, he met and married his wife, Jennie Dickerson, in 1880.

“Truman was the one who married Levi and Jennie,” says Layne Morrill. “He was 47 and she was 18.”

Eventually, both the Powell and Morrill families made their way to Stone County. The moves were for better health: Years ago, physicians often recommended rest and retreat to nature to help cure aliments, which in Morrill’s case was asthma.

“He settled where he did because of the pine trees,” says Layne Morrill, noting that the trees supposedly helped his great-grandfather’s respiratory distress. “Granddad said that he made a pillow out of pine needles.”

Powell and Morrill’s accomplishments post-move were considerable. They continued their journalistic work; Powell bought Morrill’s interest in the Advocate and moved the press to Galena, where they launched the Stone County Oracle newspaper.

Powell, later a state legislator, even became one of the first explorers of Silver Dollar City’s Marvel Cave, and Fairy Cave, today known as Talking Rocks Cavern.

Morrill also worked to advance the area, proven through his petition for a post office in the 1890s. At the time, the closest trading point and post office was 16 miles away — a trek today, and a major journey way back then.

The request was granted, and the outpost was named Notch because “it was a ‘notch’ in the wilderness,” says his great-grandson.

The Notch post office initially operated in the front room of the Morrills’ home, but it wasn’t long before the small wooded structure that stands today was added next door. Part of that decision was tied to Notch’s designation at a “distributing office,” with five mail carriers leaving from there each morning on routes into the hills. It also served as a small store, selling grocery staples.

Just a few years after the post office began, Harold Bell Wright began the first of several visits to the Ozarks. The year was 1896.

The minister-turned-author soon became acquainted with locals, and impressed with the region in which they lived and died. He also became a regular visitor to the Notch post office, a story preserved by a 1926 Springfield Leader and Press article:

“During his sojourn at the Ross cabin, Mr. Wright received his mail at Notch. Each day he made the trip, approximately five miles, to the post office, where he received his mail from Mr. Morrill. The latter had been in the hills for some time and was well acquainted with various places which proved of interest to the writer. During his visits to the post office, Mr. Wright often discussed his work with Morrill and a strong and lasting friendship sprang up between them. From the postmaster, Mr. Wright learned bits of folklore regarding the hills which in the course of the writing crept into the manuscript. However, Mr. Morrill never once thought that he was being ‘worked into the story’ until ‘The Shepherd of the Hills’ came off the press.”

Those “bits of folklore” likely weren’t only from Morrill. After all, in those days, the post office was more than just a place to get and send mail (or, in some cases, have letters read or written, since literacy wasn’t a given).

“The post office of any small community has always been a meeting place where neighbors may swap news and views, exchange choice gossip, speculate on the weather and politics and predict things to come,” wrote G.H. Pipes, an Ozarks author, in 1948. “Uncle Ike Morrill’s post office at Notch served the same purpose for the Shepherd of the Hills folk at the turn of the century.”

Life continued as usual until 1906, when the railroad came through and connected the region with the rest of the world. The next year, “Shepherd” hit the shelves.

The unique combination of those factors soon made the Ozarks a top tourist destination. The bittersweet change was well documented in “The Story of Uncle Ike,” a booklet written in 1948 by Oscar Morrill, Levi Morrill’s son, who witnessed the change firsthand:

“Roads and highways sprang out from the railroad like the thousand legs of a centipede’s body, twisting down every hollow, rooting the virgin trees from their paths, winding down every ridge, leaving the doors of this mountain paradise wide open so any and all might enter.

“My father and the shepherd watched them come, and they were sad, for they realized that they had been among the first to unlock the doors…

“Then followed a transition of Ozarkian society that would soon eliminate most of the folkways. Industry reached greedy fingers into the hills clawing at stately timber and rich mineral deposits. In return the fingers dribbled out minted coins and crisp paper bills over the hills, but this disturbed the hillman’s simple economic system of barter and trade which had served him adequately. It brought unhappiness and worries and cloud choked days that had once been carefree and sunny.”

It’s hard to imagine what the book’s popularity and influx of tourists was like for the hill folk who infrequently saw anyone other than their neighbors.

To express the magnitude: “The only thing that outsold ‘The Shepherd of the Hills’ was the Bible back in 1917,” said Walker Powell, Truman Powell’s grandson, to Ozarks Alive in 2016.

Morrill, pictured in a booklet promoting the area.

While some tourists wanted to see the region as a whole, many were on a mission to see the specific people and places Wright wrote about. That was a little tricky, considering that the only person Wright specifically said was written into the book was Levi Morrill.

“Someplace, I have a letter from Wright, and he said that ‘Uncle Ike’ was the only true character,” says Layne Morrill. “The rest of them were modifications on various people.”

Regardless of the facts, visitors were happy to believe that locals were particular characters. The connections were reinforced by local families; even the booklet published by the Morrills links local folk to specific hill folk.

The ties were further perpetuated by Pearl Spurlock, a legendary longtime taxi driver who in the 1930s and early ’40s took tourists to visit the sites made famous in the book.

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”)

Dewey Bald in the 1930s. “You wouldn’t believe that road,” says Powell. “But she just took her time.” (Courtesy of “Over the Old Ozark Trails”)

During her drives, she promoted the idea that Truman Powell was the “shepherd,” his son was Ollie Stewart, and that John and Anna Ross were Uncle Matt and Aunt Mollie.

Although he was only a child when she died, Layne Morrill remembers Spurlock as a colorful lady who “could make a timeshare salesman look poor,” thanks to her sales pitch.

Such sentiments were also voiced by Walker Powell in 2016.

“She wasn’t bashful,” said 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.

When visitors arrived in the area, Spurlock would drive them to the sites they read about in the book, becoming a celebrity in her own right. Later, she published her tour in book form, preserving photos and firsthand memories:

“Your next stop will be Uncle Ike’s Post Office, where he was postmaster for so many years, where Harold Bell Wright got his mail while writing the book, and where Sammie would ride up on her little brown pony to see if there was a letter from Ollie Stewart,” Spurlock wrote in her book.

“The fittings in the office are still the same as the story describes. A rude wooden box set on end and divided roughly into eight pigeon holes still stands on the somewhat rickety little old table. In the table is a drawer filled with stamps, snaps of leaf tobacco and an odd company of veteran cop pipes. Before the table stands a little old straight chair, which by many years of use has lost its back. Uncle Ike spent many hours sitting in this chair sorting the mail and waiting for customers.”

While many of the connected characters enjoyed their celebrity status, not all of them did. The Rosses were so hounded by visitors that they ultimately abandoned their home and retreated to a new one in the woods.

“All summer long, strangers roosted on the rail fence and took pictures of the Ross cabin. People peeked in the windows, and even sought out Ross at his work and asked him to pose for pictures. Fed up with all of this, the Rosses sold their place in 1911 and built a cabin far back in the woods where they lived the rest of their lives, perhaps the only ones in the Ozarks who never wanted to be characters in a book,” reported the Post-Dispatch’s “Everyday Magazine” in 1965.

In contrast, Levi Morrill embraced his notoriety — heightened by his legacy as the oldest postmaster in the country — which even took him far from the Ozark hills. In 1926, he traveled to Kansas City to participate in the inauguration of the Southwest air mail route.

“I was pretty tired after my trip to the flying field for the celebration. I can appreciate now how President Coolidge feels after a strenuous reception,” said 89-year-old Morrill in the Leader and Press. “My right arm ached last night from shaking hands with so many people.”

Most of his hobnobbing, however, was done within the walls of his small post office where he served as postmaster for around 30 years.

That latter fact did cause one hiccup: Around 1925, newspaper articles note that Morrill was asked to resign due to his age.

“But thousands of letters were sent to the Post office department from all parts of the country in protest, and Morrill was permitted to hold on to his title and job…” noted the Post-Dispatch in 1926.

That same year, as Morrill’s 90th year approached, a 10-day celebration was planned in honor of the important milestone. Unfortunately, the activities continued — but the tone dramatically changed — when Morrill died of an asthma attack the day after his birthday.

A news photographer, already on hand to take photos for the birthday celebration, stayed to cover the funeral instead.

“The 10-day birthday celebration planned for the aged postmaster will be converted into a memorial service, according to those in charge,” printed the Leader and Press. “At 3 o’clock Thursday afternoon, the cornerstone for the new ‘Shepherd of the Hills’ library and reading room will be laid on a site 300 yards south of the Notch post office and the building is to be located on the old trail to Marvel Cave from the post office.”

Even after Levi’s death, Jeannie Morrill continued operating the post office at Notch until 1932, when she retired as postmistress.

Some time after his death, taxi driver Spurlock eventually led the erection of a monument to “Uncle Ike” in Evergreen Cemetery. Located right down the road from Notch, the peaceful spot is the final resting place for many locals who witnessed the rise of “Shepherd of the Hills” country.

The post office in 1955. (Courtesy of the Springfield News-Leader)

Morrill’s death, however, didn’t end the post office’s status as a tourist attraction. Tours were made for decades, and by the 1950s, Layne Morrill was one of the guides.

“In fact, when I was 12 years old, I started taking people through the old post office,” he says. “I had a little routine, and charged 25 cents a tour.”

At that time, the tourism game was changing in the Branson area. “Shepherd” traffic had died down from its early furor, but locals were still working together to promote their various attractions.

One organized effort was the Shepherd of the Hills Association, which found several forms over time.

One was in 1918, when Stone and Taney counties formed a group to promote the region. Another was in 1926, when a group launched, using the book’s phenomena to promote the region as a whole (and actually had Springfield businessman and Route 66 promoter John T. Woodruff as its first president). “New organization to tell the world about the agricultural and scenic advantages of the Ozark region,” one Springfield newspaper headline proclaimed.

By the 1950s, however, an iteration of the group focused on the region specifically around Branson. Morrill recalls members would meet quarterly to talk about what was happening, and discuss how to best promote the area. Some of the members were his family, the Trimbles (representing Old Matt’s Cabin), and the Powells (from Fairy Cave).

Then there were “these new people from Chicago who spoke differently,” says Layne Morrill, speaking of Hugo Herschend, a Danish immigrant and his wife, Mary. The couple had recently relocated to the Branson area to take on Marvel Cave, the foundation of today’s Silver Dollar City.

The newcomers’ attitude about publicity, shown after news of a cave-in, has stuck with Morrill his entire life. Even though it didn’t happen in Branson, the Powells were worried about a resulting slow season at Fairy Cave.

“The thing that so impressed me was this vacuum cleaner salesman (Hugo Herschend) stood up, and he threw his arms in the air, and he said, ‘Good or bad be damned, it’s a publicity,’” recalls Morrill. “Something, as a kid, so impressed me. And I think today, constantly, ‘Ha! Good or bad be damned, it’s a publicity.’ A total different thinking, which changed the area.”

As time passed, the post office kept seeing visitors — according to a Leader and Press article, hundreds were still coming by each year as of 1963 — but the visits eventually stopped. In 1972, the post office and the Morrill home next door were closed to the public.

“I became concerned for the liability because the old house was not in good shape. After all, it had been built out of rough pine,” says Layne Morrill. “I disconnected the electricity … I could see easily something (bad) happening there.”

A look (above and below) at the post office and Morrill home in 2000. (Courtesy of Bob Linder/Springfield News-Leader)

Despite its closure, the property has seen a few visitors and moments of celebration in the past few decades. One was in April 1979, when the post office and homestead were added to the National Register for Historic Places.

Two years later, a first-day-of-issue stamp ceremony was held at the post office. It brought the U.S. postmaster general — and hundreds of visitors — to Notch and resulted in the sale of more than 10,000 stamps to collectors.

Locals could see the property from a distance as they took trail rides, offered on the edge of the property until a year or two ago. The property also housed the family’s real estate business — Shepherd of the Hills Realty — at one time.

Otherwise, most of the folks seeing the site have done so driving by on Highway 76.

There are a few, though, who have visited illegally. Numerous break-ins have happened over the years, even as recently as a few weeks ago.

Thankfully, Morrill opted to remove nearly everything from his great-grandfather’s post office years ago. Most of the items are in storage, waiting to be returned to the post office exactly the way they were before.

The post office and home in May 2018.

Thanks to the Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters, that time will hopefully be sooner rather than later.

Originally organized in the 1930s, the Hillcrofters started with a five-prong mission. It began to secure the Ozarks’ proper recognition; to protect Ozark wildlife; to preserve the natural beauties of its historic spots; to perpetuate its history, folk-lore and traditions; and to teach (its) own people the value of the great heritage (it) possess in these regions.

Those efforts are the same today for the revived group, which was reorganized in December 2017. In the few months since, the group has already made its mark through a walking trail at Bonniebrook, artist Rose O’Neill’s historic homestead.

“The Hillcrofters were looking for a project to be involved in,” says Curtis Copeland, leader of the group. “We want to find projects that meet a need.”

The group quickly decided that the post office was another “need,” and spoke with Morrill about a partnership. Parties agreed on the renovation project, which ultimately will keep the property in the Morrill family, but open it to visitors.

“I’m really thankful he is open to this project, and to make it publicly available for education (and) appreciation,” says Copeland, who notes that the project does not involve restoration of the Morrill home.

One of the top priorities is stabilizing the post office while retaining as much of the original materials as possible. At this point, Copeland doesn’t have an exact dollar figure for the work’s expense. However, he expects it to begin and finish within the next few months.

Although the exact opening may fluctuate, Copeland is already looking forward to what it will offer the area.

“It will be designed for public access, where folks can pull off, have a rest and learn something about Notch,” says Copeland. Such visits, and perhaps those by school children, will hopefully keep old-time Ozarks history alive for future generations.

“If you get kids interested at a young age, maybe it’ll carry on,” he says.

Want to help?

On Nov. 3, an Old Country Fair is being held to raise money for the project. The event is free to attend, but some of the activities carry a small fee to benefit the restoration efforts.

So far, the activities include music jam sessions and an auction featuring antiques, homemade pies, and other items. The Missouri Boatride Bluegrass group is having a reunion show, and there will be traditional Ozarks activities and games for the kids, as well as living history exhibits and an encampment and demonstrations by the 10th Missouri Infantry Civil War reinactors.

The event will be held at 262 Collins Rd., Branson. For more information, click here.

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“Chief postmaster to speak at Notch stamp ceremony,” Springfield Daily News, April 23, 1981

“Historic post office enjoys busiest day,” Mike Sweeney, Springfield Daily News, May 19, 1981

History of ‘The Shepherd of the Hills,'” The Shepherd of the Hills website, 2018

Hugo Herschend,” obituary, 1955

“J.T. Woodruff named president of Shepherd of the Hills Association,” Springfield Republican, Jan. 29, 1926

“Lecturer provided with Ozark pictures,” Springfield Leader, Oct. 24, 1926

“Mozark Moments: Uncle Ike: The oldest, most famous postmaster,” Paul Johns, Christian County Headliner News, Oct. 18, 2009

“Notch may gain historic niche,” Springfield Leader and Press, Feb. 25, 1979

“Over the Old Ozark Trails in the Shepherd of the Hills Country,” Pearl Spurlock

“Over the Ozarks,” Springfield Daily News, Aug. 16, 1963

“Postmaster, portrayed in ‘Shepherd of Hills,’ dies,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 23, 1926

“Services held today for Uncle Ike Morrill,” Springfield Leader and Press, Aug. 23, 1926

“‘Shepherd legend still grows,” Townsend Godsey, Springfield Leader and Press, Aug. 4, 1957

“Shepherd of the Hills Association makes plans,” Springfield Leader, Feb. 14, 1926

“Shepherd of the Hills Association organized,” Baxter Bulletin, Sept. 20, 1918

“The Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters died out decades ago. Now, it’s being revived,” Jan Peterson, Springfield News-Leader, May 30, 2018

“The Story of Uncle Ike,” Oscar Morrill, 1948

“There’s gold in those Ozark hills,” Dickson Terry, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 29, 1965

“Uncle Ike goes back to Ozark hills, tired out by city rush and noise,” Springfield Leader and Press, May 14, 1926

“Well loved Ozark character is dead,” Democrat-Forum, April 4, 1923

“Who’s the real Shepherd of the Hills?” Mike O’Brien, Springfield News-Leader, Nov. 12, 2006

3 thoughts to ““The Shepherd of the Hills” post office to be restored”

  1. Wonderful article!! I love it that Uncle Ike was such a well-educated easterner —who must have loved having far less well-educated travelers come and gawk at him.

  2. A good article on this important topic of preservation of such an historic property! Thanks, OZARKS ALIVE!

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