Celebrating the Ozarks

History, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on May 6, 2001

Mention moonshine or shiftless hillbillies, and Ellen Gray Masseys smile turns ice cold.

I want to get rid of Ozark stereotypes, says the Lebanon, Mo., teacher and writer. I want to show the hardworking, intelligent people, and beautiful region I know.

For more than a half century, Masseys praise of the Ozarks has filled high school, university, and Eldershostel classes, 13 books, 55 magazine articles, 125 dramatic readings, 239 speeches, two television documentaries, and a two-act musical.

Ellen has a sensitivity for this culture nobody else has. Shes found her placeliving in, working in, and studying the Ozarks, says Bob McGill, Eldershostel director in nearby Branson, Mo. Its her passion.

Masseys affection for the region began on a farm in Nevada, Mo. After her fathers job relocated the family to Washington, D.C., summer vacations on the farm overshadowed the Smithsonian, inaugural parades, and the Library of Congress. The rolling hills, spring-fed rivers, and warm-hearted Missouri neighbors brought Massey back as a home extension agent, farm wife, and teacher. Then, Massey began sharing her perspective.

I love Ozarkers self-sufficiency, wit, and pioneer spirit, explains Massey, who taught English for 23 years. When I heard students say there wasnt anything interesting in the area, I wanted them to appreciate their heritage.

At Lebanon High School, Massey created classes about the Ozarks, taking students into the hills and valleys of southwest Missouri. They floated its rivers and explored its caves. With cameras and tape recorders, they interviewed people in the region making molasses, weaving rugs, and butchering hogs. For 10 years under Masseys supervision, students published Bittersweet, a quarterly magazine about Ozark folklore, and produced two anthologies. The projects earned Massey induction into The Writers Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mo., in 1995.

She really got us interested in our family history, recalls former student Kirk Pierce, who writes historical features for the Lebanon Daily Record.

When Massey left the public schools in 1986, she channeled her love of the Ozarks into writing. Publishers rejected her novels, plays, and childrens fiction for five yearsuntil she found a new way to tell her stories.

I decided I could say what I wanted about the Ozarks, Massey says, (if) I set my stories in the region, and my characters use Ozark culture to solve their problems.

The idea worked. In the first of her 11 published novels, Moon Silvers heroine solves a mystery by researching the customs of a regional Indian tribe. EquestriCats heroine trains fox trotters, horses specifically bred for the rough Ozark terrain. Kansas jayhawkers attack Missouri farms in Borderland Homecoming. In The Burnt District, a historical novel released this year as both electronic and audio publications, Masseys heroine outwits both Union soldiers and bushwhackers terrifying her community.

Between novels, Massey self-published a biography of Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey, an early 20th- century Ozark poet and journalist. I didnt want her to be forgotten. She captured the Ozarks beautifully, Massey says.

Researching Mahnkeys poetry inspired Masseys documentaries on farm life, Hollyhock Tea and My Farms Not For Sale, for KOZK Public Television in Springfield. Her Missouri Arts Council talk, Use It, Wear It Out, Make It Do or Do Without, portrays tenacious Ozarkers overcoming hard times.

Aware of her expertise about the region, Springfields Drury University invited Massey to teach her favorite subject. Her Culture of the Ozarks graduate class always has a waiting list.

Growing up in a place doesnt mean you know anything about it, says Sherri Balla, an Ozark native who took the class. I didnt have enough pride about where I lived. My whole perspective changed after her class. I feel privileged to live here.

Masseys five-day Eldershostel classes in Branson and Potosi, Mo., introduce the Ozarks&Mac226; geography, history, and society to out-of-state visitors whose knowledge of the region often begins and ends with corncob pipes and souvenir postcards.

I knew absolutely nothing about the Ozarks, says Irene Hanson of Oak Park, Ill. Ellens graphics and photographs, her family connections to the land and people were mind-boggling. I learned Missouri and the Ozarks are two of the best kept secrets in the United States.