Ozarks native Paula Thompson shares her experience about Arkansas Ozarks newcomers who often homestead here with little knowledge or preparation when it comes to thriving in this rural part of America.
Each wave of immigrants worries about the effects of the next wave of immigrants — that they will spoil the unspoiled . . . uncomfortably increase the competitor for opportunity . . . re-create the problems everyone came here to escape . . . destroy the refuge they seek.
But one urban escapee from the late '60s has some respect for many of the Arkansas Ozarks newcomers. "The escaping in-migrants today are more sophisticated than we were, better armed with money and tools. When they flee the cities, they're set up for it. They'll probably make it, too! From my own experience, the people who realized their dream 10 years ago were the ones who didn't act impulsively. They researched an area before they bought land, and they paid for the land before they moved. That's the best advice I could give anyone planning to come here now."
Ozarkers have always prided themselves on being individualistic, free, unwilling to march to anyone's time but their own or take anyone else's word for how life should be lived. They tend to stick to their own business when allowed to do so. This traditional tolerance appeals to highly divergent types: gentlefolk, militant fundamentalists, bigots, and the targets of their bigotry. All seek the benign neglect of the backwoods.
But how long will it be possible to maintain that kind of elbow room? The number of people per square mile in 10 northern counties of the Arkansas Ozarks (Baxter, Benton, Boone, Carroll, Madison, Marion, Newton, Searcy, Stone, Washington) increased 156% in 20 years, from 25 in 1950 to 39 in 1980. In the three most populous counties, density has more than doubled in the past 50 years (Baxter 289%, Benton 222%, Washington 256%).
As the population continues to increase, the conflicting aims of these diverse groups may focus into sharper contrast. If the right to stretch your arm ends at the other fellow's nose, the next wave of Ozark immigrants may have to play it closer to the vest than their predecessors ever dreamed of.
Paula Thompson, an Ozark native, is a writer, an award-winning actress, a child-development specialist, and a blueberry farmer.
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