Editor’s Note: Today we’re launching a new, monthly column focusing on the life and culture of the Ozarks, the largely rural uplands region located predominantly in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. Writer Kaitlyn McConnell grew up on an Ozarks farm in a house that has been in her family for generations. She has spent years documenting the region for her website Ozarks Alive.
With the twist of an old metal doorknob, let me show you the Ozarks.
It’s found in the basement of a country church built of stone, one of few remnants left of a little town called Rader in rural southwest Missouri. Founded in the 1870s by brothers with dozens of kids who begat thousands of descendants, it was once a bustling little place.
Things have changed in the 150 years since. The aptly named Rader Store closed about 15 years ago, its faded sign reminding of what was, and what is. Today, so few people are in town that the community doesn’t even show up in the 2020 U.S. Census records.
Yet, as it does in rural areas, the community still bubbles up. And in Rader, it’s at that stone church, which was built with local rocks – a common Ozarkian style of construction – in 1936 after the previous wooden building was destroyed in a tornado. Ever since, generations of local women have regularly taken needles in hand and simultaneously created quilts and community.
“It’s just always been in the family, clear back to our great-great grandmother,” said Bertha Rader Terry, 95, of the quilting tradition. She works alongside her younger sister, Betty Rader Terry, who is 93. The sisters began attending this same quilting gathering with their mother more than 85 years ago, when it started after the tornado.
Yet it’s not just for folks whose ancestors sat around the same wooden quilting frame as they do today. One transplant attendee is Diane Whitwer, who moved to the area from Alaska with her husband, Jim, and was “adopted” by the group years ago.
“I didn’t have really any good friends until I came here, and they smothered me with attention,” said Whitwer, who shares how her life has been enriched in the process.
“I learned that it takes about an hour to set one [quilt] in the frame, use a single thread, hide the knots, and use a thimble. Since joining, I have learned a lot about local history and been blessed with some of the best of friends.”
Where Is the Ozarks Region, and Who Are Ozarkers?
The Rader quilters live a story that speaks to the greater Ozarks. It’s one of history sewn to the present, creating a new, beautiful picture. Of those with roots grown over a century or more, and others who came here by choice. Of traditions handed down like treasure, and the contrasting change led by modern life. And of the evolution of rural spaces that, as history repeats itself, are attracting new families to call the hills home.
If you figuratively zoom out from that map, you’ll find a lot of stories like Rader – and a couple of different ways to define the Ozarks. There are two sets of boundaries, the lines of which are prime fodder for internet debate.
The region can be described by both geographical lines (which encompass parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma) and cultural confines, which focus on northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri, and a sliver of Oklahoma.
If we’re going with the cultural boundaries – the definition I use – significant numbers of white U.S. citizens began arriving in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Small communities, some tied to shared heritage, sprang up and brought people together in the largely undeveloped expanse.
At some points, their movement was alongside the presence of Native Americans. The tribe indigenous to the Ozarks were the Osage, but a long list of others — including Cherokee, Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo — inhabited the region at various times. They were ultimately forced to leave by the 1830s due to pressure from white settlers.
Even nearly 200 years later, remnants of that legacy are found throughout the region — starting with people whose lives preserve their Native heritage. A physical landmark includes Osage Village State Historic Site, where thousands once lived in the 1700s and early 1800s on the edge of the Ozarks.
Signs marking the Trail of Tears crossings are another visual reminder of the forced, and often deadly, journey made by thousands of Native Americans from the eastern United States to Indian Territory.
Today, we know part of that territory as Oklahoma. It is also home to Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, which lies within the boundaries of the Ozarks.
Native Americans were not the only individuals who left the region. Black residents, too, were expelled from some communities around the turn of the 20th century.
While the area is predominantly white, diversity is increasing. Examples include Latinx and Asian representation, as well as individuals from the Marshall Islands, many of whom have settled in northwest Arkansas.
Seeing the Ozarks
The Ozark Mountains convey a feeling of seclusion. More than a century ago, that vibe came through “The Shepherd of the Hills,” a phenomenally successful novel that told the story of local hill folks and their Arcadian paradise.
Published in 1907 and set near the Missouri community of Branson, it helped launch a tourist industry that continues to this day.
Visitors still come for the area’s scenic beauty presented in the famed novel’s pages. The region is dotted with a collection of lakes, rivers, and other outdoor destinations. Two notable firsts on that list are Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the United States’ first national scenic riverway; and the Buffalo National River, the country’s first with that designation.
Those scenic and natural sites bring big revenue into the region. According to information from those two parks, more than $151 million came into local economies from their presence in 2022. That’s not to mention the dozens of state parks, conservation areas, and privately held nature-based recreation destinations.
Agriculture, too, is still significant, although perhaps not in the same way it was during the heady days of national recognition for dairy, tomato, peach, strawberry, and apple production.
Small subsistence farmers have been gradually replaced by those in big business, but many a field finds a few cows or goats or a garden out back. Foraging is a trend, but also part of life – especially each fall, when Ozarkers head out to gather black walnuts and sell them at hulling stations that pop up for the season.
We are largely very rural, but have pockets of urban growth in places like northwest Arkansas – where companies like Walmart, Tyson, and J.B. Hunt are headquartered – and Springfield, the largest city in the Ozarks with about 170,000 people that is home to other national businesses such as Bass Pro, O’Reilly Auto Parts and Prime Trucking.
Affectionately known as the Queen City of the Ozarks, Springfield isn’t rural but connects with places that are: It’s where Route 66 was born in 1926 and is home to the intersection of U.S. 60 and 65.
Those roads and many more take people through the greater Ozarks where there’s an expectation of freedom, in whatever way that feels relevant to you, and in places where even Dollar General hasn’t gone before. Those realities have led to communes, communities, and characters who have come to the Ozarks to get away from the world.
Like those quilts made on frames hung in the basement of the Rader church, those of us who live in the Ozarks create a patchwork place. It’s of such interest and fascination that the greater region went to the national stage in 2023, when “The Ozarks: Faces and Facets of a Region” was one of two featured programs at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.
I’m one of those figurative quilt pieces. I grew up on a farm in rural Missouri, in the same house where my grandmother was born, and that her grandmother bought more than a century ago. That history tethers my heart to the rolling hills in ways that continually call me home.
That feeling makes me excited to share the beauty, challenges, people, and wonderful stories of Ozarks intricacies with readers of the Daily Yonder.
Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project through which she has documented the region through hundreds of articles since 2015.