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Reflections on the Roots & Routes of the Ozarks Symposium

Reflections on the Roots & Routes of the Ozarks Symposium

By Thomas A. Peters, an Iowa boy, has been a librarian for 36 years, the most recent eleven at Missouri State University. He divides his time between Springfield and McClurg, home of a long-running weekly music jam session featuring old-time Ozarks music.

In the Missouri Ozarks, family matters. When two or more people gather in the Ozarks, questions concerning your kin and where your kin hail from often quickly emerge. Many Ozarkers pride themselves on how many generations their families have lived in the area – seven, eight, lay them straight. Many have deep roots, while others are recent transplants. These are the roots that clutch. Personally, I’m a negative second-generation Ozarker, since my grandson was born in the Ozarks. 

Routes, in the form of trails, pathways, railroad lines, and roadways, matter immensely in the Ozarks. From the foot trails of Native peoples on through the Butterfield Stage Line, the Old Wire Road, and the Trail of Tears, to modern divided highways, routes have had a profound impact on the Ozarks and Ozarkers. While the beauty of its natural features, such as rocks, rivers, forests, hills, and hollers, help define the area, roots and routes also define the Ozarks. 

Getting to the Ozarks is just as important as being there. Route 66 is the Mother Road and the mother of all routes into, across, and out of the Missouri Ozarks. Ozarkers played a significant role in the birth and development of Route 66. Cyrus Avery from Tulsa, the father of Route 66, spent his formative teenage years on a farm in southwest Missouri. Meanwhile, B. H. Piepmeier, chief engineer for the Missouri Highway Department and the other signatory of the famous telegram of Friday, April 30, 1926, that cemented the number 66 into the proposed federal highway from Chicago to LA, was from the northern Ozarks.

Thus, the recent Springfield symposium organized by Missouri Humanities in late April struck two strong chords with the region. The Sixth annual symposium focused on the theme “Roots & Routes of the Ozarks: People & Pathways.” Conversations centered around the movement of people into, out of, and within the Ozarks—examining how both chosen and forced migration and how historical changes in transportation continue to inhabit and shape the region. This theme of the Ozark’s pathways and movements is also a key organizing idea for the big Ozarks Program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in late June and early July. 

Candacy Taylor gave the opening keynote address on Friday evening in the Historic Fox Theater, part of the History Museum on the Square, along the original alignment of Route 66. Taylor summarized some key points and recounted a few stories from her fascinating book, Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America. Taylor noted that the rise of car culture in the first half of the twentieth century was both a boon and bane for Black people. Travel by car could be liberating for Black families, compared to segregated travel on trains and buses, but trips in the family car in the Jim Crow era created real challenges about where to eat and sleep, plus blatant acts of racism, such as sundown towns, where Black people were not welcome after dark, to hangings and even gruesome bodily desecrations in Springfield and other places in the Missouri Ozarks. Victor H. Green, a postman and entrepreneur from Brooklyn, New York, provided a travel guide specifically for Black travelers. Taylor reminded us that most of the conditions Black people faced decades ago are still with us, in different forms, degrees, and guises. 

On Saturday morning there was an excellent panel discussion about higher education opportunities and experiences in Springfield for Latinx students and academics. The lively event was held in the eFactory, a space dedicated to entrepreneurs, start-ups, and businesses. Two academic administrators and two students from Missouri State University participated in the panel discussion. One of the panelists grew up in Springfield, but most came from far-flung southern locales. Several of the panelists noted that whole-person support for Latinx students and academics often is spotty at institutions of higher education, locally and nationally. Surprisingly, female Latinx college students outnumber males by a whopping thirteen to one. 

In the early afternoon, a panel discussion following the short documentary film about the Trail of Tears took place at the Moxie Cinema, a local independent theater. For decades members of the Cherokee Nation have ridden bicycles along the entire Trail of Tears Route. The Missouri Ozarks portion of the Trail of Tears is the longest and most arduous. This is a form of cultural remembrance and perhaps catharsis, similar to visiting other horrific places, such as the Dachau concentration camp (death chamber) and the D-Day beaches of Normandy. 

Mid-afternoon, there was another panel discussion held in the Library Center of the Springfield-Greene County Library District. The panelists were three representatives of immigrant groups, past and present: Mohammad Reza Hussaini, a scholar and human rights activist from Afghanistan, Mara Cohen Ioannides, a faculty member at Missouri State University, president of the Midwest Jewish Studies Association, founding president of the Ozarks Studies Association, and Vice President of the Greene County Historical Society, and Tha Tlung Lian, founder, and CEO of Veilamtah B&B Ministry, President of Chin Community of Springfield, and Children Education Director at Springfield Chin Community Church. They explored and reported on the challenges faced by groups immigrating into the Missouri Ozarks. 

Kaitlyn McConnell spoke at the final event of the symposium, held late Saturday afternoon at Mother’s Brewing Company on the original Route 66 alignment through the west side of Springfield. McConnell covered some lesser-known places of interest in the Missouri Ozarks that tie into the twin themes of the conference, such as the boyhood home of George Washington Carver. She also praised the importance of cemeteries in the Missouri Ozarks, “If only because so many dead lie round” – a line from a fine Larkin poem. She talked about Sadie Brown Cemetery, the Black cemetery north of West Plains, which was somewhat neglected for decades, but now is receiving renewed attention and care. Segregation persists, even in death and burial – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Blacks, Whites, war heroes, paupers, and others. 

Comic relief is part of the roots and routes of the Ozarks, even infusing symposia about the region. Over the course of the symposium, a running joke ensued about the correct way to pronounce the symposium title – “roots and roots” or “roots and rowts”. Friendly banter about pronouncing key terms of importance to Ozarkers is a long, honored tradition. Is a creek a “creek” or a “crick”? Is Missouri “Missouree” or “Missourah”? The debate never ends. It’s all part of the sly humor. 

The 2023 Missouri Humanities Symposium on Roots and Routes, a moveable feast of ideas and experiences, struck two strong chords here in the Missouri Ozarks. Springfield has been called the Birthplace of Route 66, the Queen City of the Ozarks, and the Crossroads of Country Music. Harlan Howard, third husband (the charm, after two duds) of Jan Howard of West Plains fame and country music stardom, famously stated that a great country song is simply three chords and the truth. Perhaps in some future year, this fine symposium series from Missouri Humanities may strum the rich, deep, and enduring musical traditions of the Missouri Ozarks. Old-time Ozarks music has been the stuff of house parties, jam sessions, hoedowns, annual festivals, fiddling contests, and pie suppers for centuries. As Sleary, the wise, sly head of Sleary’s Circus reminds us with a lambent lisp and one wandering eye in Dickens’ novel Hard Times, “people mutht be amuthed.”