Willodean: Ozark Subsistence Traditions in the Present
On a spring day in 2009 I visited the home of Kenneth and Willodean Smyth in Marshall, Arkansas. They live a mere six blocks off the main highway, but their fifteen acres boasts a very large garden, fruit trees, nut trees, blackberry brambles, chicken coops, a humble,
comfortable residence, and a priceless view of the forested Boston Mountains (Ozarks) in the distance. During the interview Willodean toured me around her gardens, planted approximately a month earlier, showed me the coop for her bantam fan-tail chickens, and led me down into the cellar. The cellar contained a woodstove, an enormous freezer stocked with meats and grains, most notably her family variety cornmeals milled down the road, and a 12’ x 12’ room completely full of canned preserves. She proceeded to rattle off the contents of every group of Mason jars, with agronomic and culinary anecdotes accompanying each. This essay uses those anecdotes as springboards for detailed discussions of the three interconnected concepts that emerge in my analysis of traditional Ozark subsistence: diversity, agroecological knowledge, and frugality.40
Willodean: A Glimpse of Traditional Ozark Self-Sufficiency
A short film by Brian C. Campbell, 2009.
Willodean Smyth exhibits agroecological knowledge and frugality in the creative strategies she uses to recycle materials to ensure that nothing goes to waste. Diversity is on display by the range of species and varieties grown and used and in the array of methods of preservation and consumption. Prior to the early twentieth century, the only methods of preservation consisted of salting (meats), pickling (various vegetables), drying (fruits and meats) or burying (typically tubers and some squashes) in the ground.
Carl Mydans, Drying Jars for Canning Time, Missouri Ozarks, May 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Once canning was introduced and caught on, with much urging from Extension agents, Ozark housewives prided themselves on the amount of food they could “put up,” with estimates of “100 to 400 jars (quarts or half-gallon)” being acceptable.41 The unpublished memoirs of Alice Dillard Smith of Marion County, Arkansas, born in 1894, set the bar even higher:
We use to have to raise our living, can and preserve it for winter use. I was always glad when the first frost fell for that meant my canning was about over, which I always did a lot of. One summer we canned 1600 quarts of fruit and vegetables. We didn’t have to worry about something to eat after the canning season was over; we looked forward to Hog Killing time.42
Diversity exists not only in the range of species grown in a garden or field, but also in the distinct varieties of a species grown annually or from one year to the next. Old Stock Ozarkers who grow an annual garden frequently maintain some of their parents’ open-pollinated seed varieties. Gardening provides them with their own produce, and saving seed closes the loop, conferring independence, a valued trait. While many Old Stock seed savers do not refer to their family seeds as heirlooms, seed saving became so rare in the late twentieth century that mainstream society applied the term to such inter-generationally saved seeds.
Old Stock Ozarkers who maintain family varieties do so for various reasons: to preserve their family history, to grow seed that requires minimal inputs to successfully produce on their farms, and especially to have the correct ingredients for the meals they like the most (e.g. bean dishes, cornbread, fried okra, grits, hominy, soups, squash casseroles). They consistently inform me that hybrid varieties just “don’t taste right” in their family recipes. Willodean maintains her open-pollinated varieties because she enjoys the holistic process of gardening, seeing the seed through the entire cycle.
Vaughn Brewer, Claudia Gammill, age 89, Stone County, Arkansas, 1979. Courtesy of University of Central Arkansas Archives, Rackensack Collection.
Willodean continues an Ozark tradition when she plants a wide array of species in her garden; squash, cucumbers, garlic, onions, lettuces, corn, beans, peas, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, turnips, and more fill every last inch of her tidy one acre patch. Abundant and diverse garden produce historically provided a significant portion of most Ozarkers’ diets. In 1979, Claudia Gertrude Gammill of Stone County, Arkansas asserted: “I made sixty-eight gardens in the same garden spot out here and I have not missed a year.” Her gardens included:
. . . tomatoes. . . peanuts. . . two or three acres in peas, a sorghum molasses patch, the cane to cut for hay for mules and stock to eat. . . Kraut cabbage. . . Three or four acres or five in cotton and corn. . . Taters, turnips, taters of both kinds and all kinds of garden stuff, onions, cabbage, and everthing beans, beans, planted in the corn, what is called white soup beans, . . . a yellow-pale yellow bean that I raised out just in the rows. There is a bunch bean. All of the beans we could eat all winter long.43
In 1833, an immigrant to the region noted the seed varieties she transported from Germany to the Missouri Ozarks in cloth bags and paper seed packets:
. . . three kinds of green peas, four kinds of beans, three of carrots, three of onions, three of cabbages, two of beets, plus parsnips, cucumbers, gherkins, spinach, rhubarb, kohlrabi, leeks, and four kinds of turnips, two of which were for animal feed. . . gooseberry, blackberry, raspberry, and strawberry seeds, and for her planned orchard apple, cherry, peach, pear, quince, apricot, and plum seeds. Some twenty years later she wrote, “We have 22 apple trees; 10 cherry; 12 peach; 5 quince; 9 plum; 16 pear; 6 apricot; 16 crab-apple. We started by planting from seeds that I brought with me from home.44
Corn has been a key component of Ozark subsistence, appearing in one way or another at each meal.45 The continuity of culinary traditions perpetuates diverse seed saving because family recipes sometimes require (or taste better with) particular varieties of crops such as corn. Because hominy remains a popular food in traditional Ozark homes, those families continue to grow open-pollinated field corn.
Zachariah McCannon, Hominy made with Hickory King corn, Stone County, Arkansas, 2008.
In Bittersweet Country Ellen Gray Massey explains the practicality of hominy:
Making hominy was a way to continue using corn after the growing season in some form other than corn meal. Since the stored dried corn would not spoil, the ingredients were always at hand and it could be made throughout the year as a vegetable dish. Either yellow or white corn can be used, though most preferred white corn because it makes such a pretty white fluffy product. The variety that most preferred was Hickory King (usually pronounced “cane”).46
Ozarkers maintain that neither sweet corn nor hybrid field corn varieties can be used to make hominy appropriately. In 1982, Anna McDowell, of Madison County, Missouri explained:
I can tell you one thing, you can’t make hominy out of this hybrid corn. It’s got to be old fashioned or whatever you call it. I’ve tried it twice since I’ve been here with that hybrid corn, and you just can’t make hominy out of it. Oh, it’ll peel good, but . . . you just can’t cook it done enough. There’s a big difference in it.47
Willodean’s Hominy with Lye
6 cups corn
8 or 9 cups of water
1 tbsp lye
Put in stone jar or glass, stir with wooden spoon. Soak overnight in glass or crock container in lye solution. Cook 30 minutes or until eyes come off easy in porcelain or cast iron pot. Stir last 15 minutes constantly. Dip out of kettle and strain. Change water and put corn back in. Boil 20 minutes. Repeat 2 or 3 times or until the water clears up. Fill jars ¾ full and add water and 1 tsp salt to top. Cook 1 hour. 10 lb pressure for 40 minutes. Yield 6 ½ pints.
Brenda Smyth, Willodean in her garden, Searcy County, Arkansas, July 2009.
Willodean conveys ecological knowledge about the cross-pollination of various species and how to maintain pure seed varieties. Specifically she indicates that because she has more than one corn variety in her field she must separate them to prevent cross-pollination. Corn is wind-pollinated; once the tassels emerge and produce pollen the wind blows it onto the silks emerging from the developing ears below. Each kernel has a silk that must be dusted with pollen in order to develop. Corn varieties can easily cross, unless separated by a mile or two, or their planting is staggered to ensure that only one variety is spreading pollen at a time.48
In the Ozarks, I have documented both seed-saving farmers who consciously prevent cross-pollination to ensure seed purity and others who do not concern themselves with cross-pollination, allowing the genetics of their seeds to intermingle. In this case, Willodean planted both Tennessee Red Cob, a field corn used to make corn meal, hominy or grits, as well as a sweet corn variety that would be eaten on the cob. Ozark farmer/gardeners frequently plant one field corn and one sweet corn variety each year.49 To reduce the possibility of cross-pollination, Willodean strategically plants other species in between each variety to block the flow of pollen from one corn variety to the other. She also chronologically staggers their plantings. Another way to prevent cross-pollination is to have someone else grow it, as Willodean explains about her daughter:
She got some black corn at the Seed Swap and she didn’t have space [in her garden]. I didn’t want it to cross with my corn in my garden so she had a neighbor up in Harrison grow it. She says: “It’s the strangest lookin’ corn I ever seen. It’s like a bush, with an ear on every stalk.”
The most common field corn (Zea mays) varieties found as heirlooms from the Ozarks include Bloody Butcher, Hickory Cane (King), Old Joe Dent, Pencil Cob, Possum Walk Special, Red Indian, Tennessee Red Cob, in addition to several popcorn varieties, such as Strawberry and Indian. I have documented many additional varieties that families name after a specific person, such as Ted Horton or Alfred Drury corn. Some of these corn varieties can be recognized as variants of historical varieties that were brought into the area from Appalachia (Hickory “Cane” [King], Tennessee Red Cob). The names indicate an Ozarkian (possibly universal) tendency to name a seed variety after the person who introduced it into the family.
A comical exchange occurred when the sixty-year-old son of a seed saving matriarch was sent back to the pantry to retrieve some “Grandma Milsap’s” pinto beans and came back with several bags of bean seeds. He poured the contents of a bag out in his hand: “Is this them mama?” She studied the seeds and finally said: “No. That’s them John Dee beans.” Her son and daughter both giggled, having never heard about these beans, and she clarified: “I don’t know where John got them. They’ve been in the family for years. We don’t plant them anymore, because we don’t really grow field corn anymore and you have to have the field corn to vine’em.” She continued with a genealogical overview of John Dee, which reflects the power of seeds to preserve history and root cultural identity.
This exchange also elucidates a distinctive practice in agrobiodiverse farming: interplanting; in this case, John Dee beans are “cornfield” beans because they vine and climb the corn stalks, simultaneously fixing nitrogen for the corn plants. But because the family no longer grows field corn, they have abandoned this related seed variety. This exemplifies agricultural biodiversity loss and the interconnections between species; as particular traditions cease, related components, such as seed varieties disappear also.50
Photographer unknown, Avery Brothers’ grandfather’s water-powered gristmill on Big Springs, Stone County, Arkansas, circa 1900. Courtesy of University of Central Arkansas Archives, Rackensack Collection.
Gristmills were commonplace in rural areas through the mid-twentieth century. They were a place of congregation where people told stories, went on short hunting expeditions, whittled and/or reminisced while their corn was being milled. As early as 1840, there were at least four gristmills for stone grinding corn in each county of the Ozarks.51 In the early 1940s, Mr. A. O. Weaver, who “was seen on his mule, with a sack of corn strapped to his saddle, a gun in his hand, and his hound-dogs following along . . . on his way to the old Cedar Grove gristmill, to have his corn ground into meal” remarked:
This ol’ Cedar Grove mill is a real ol’ timer an’ has been grindin’ out corn meal ever since long before the Civil War. It has purtnye [pretty near] raised my family ‘cause there is where I’ve allers [always] took my corn to have it made into meal,. . . We’ve got to have corn meal at our house or we can’t live. I’ve got a big family an’ it takes lots ov bread, an’ when I go to the mill, I allers take my gun an’ dogs along an’ by the time I make the round an’ get back home, I’ve usually got a bunch of squirrels tied to this ol’ white mule, an’ that shore helps a lot at our table ‘cause we all like wild meat, sich as fish, squirrels, ‘possums an’ ‘coons an’ ground hogs, an’ turkeys.52
Zachariah McCannon, Searcy County miller Rick Horton discussing local corn varieties with University of Georgia anthropology graduate student James Veteto, Searcy County, 2009.
Whereas early Ozark gristmills were usually water-powered, contemporary ones typically run on fossil fuels or electricity. The general disappearance of gristmills throughout the U.S. contributes to the decline in heirloom corn varieties because without a local miller, field or dent corn used for cornmeal, hominy, and grits, is suitable only as livestock feed.53 The Searcy County miller who grinds Willodean’s family corn works fulltime for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission as a habitat biologist. He constructs and sells gas-powered gristmills and mills local families’ corn as a hobby. He estimates that only five to 10 percent of the corn brought for him to mill is hybrid, the other 90-95% is open-pollinated family corn. When a family brings him corn to be milled there is a fee for the service, unlike in the past when Ozark families had little (if any) cash money and instead paid a “miller’s fee,” a percentage of the corn. Willodean’s miller sets aside a small percentage of the corn unmilled in a deep freeze as seed stock to ensure that these family heirlooms are not lost. Several years ago one family planted all its seed corn and a severe storm washed it from their fields. The family was overjoyed when they contacted the miller and found that he had saved their corn seeds and their ancestral corn variety was not lost.
This is the second piece in a three part series entitled Closest to Everlastin’: Ozark Agricultural Biodiversity and Subsistence Traditions by Brian Campbell. ~ Look for Part Three of this series coming soon! ~
Previously published on Southern Spaces and reprinted with permission.
Copyright 2010 Brian Campbell – All Rights Reserved
Check out these documentaries by Brian Campbell!
This documentary film uses the development of a seed exchange and agricultural biodiversity conservation project as an ethnographic lens to explore the seed saving subculture of Arkansas and the Ozark Highlands region. The film showcases the utility of applied anthropology to get the public involved in more localized food systems, presents a wide range of open-pollinated, heirloom seeds of the Ozarks, and illustrates the steps necessary to establish a community seed bank and host seed swaps.
The Natural State of America
In the 1970’s, in the Ozark Highlands of Arkansas, “the Natural State,” residents organized and successfully halted the U.S. Forest Service’s planned aerial applications of herbicides; now the group battles their rural electric cooperative to protect the region’s organic farms, wells, springs, and the Buffalo River, the only National River in the United States, from being contaminated by herbicides once again. Visit the film’s Facebook Page.
About the Author:
Brian Campbell, P.h.D., is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Department of Sociology at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway. His current focus is on Agricultural Biodiversity Conservation in the Ozark Highlands region of Arkansas and Missouri.
As the Director of CAAH! – Conserving Arkansas’s Agricultural Heritage -Brian has been instrumental in the preservation of the agricultural folkways and knowledge of the Ozarks region through hands on learning and the development of their Seed Bank initiative. Click here to learn more about CAAH!