The Ozarks: Homesteading in Northwest Arkansas

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Bottom land is cherished . . .right on up to the house's porch.

They set out in search of a new beginning in rural America.

Many people now in their 30s and early 40s came to
northwest Arkansas 10 to 15 years ago, following a dream or
escaping a nightmare. Like other waves of immigrants before
them, they set out in search of inexpensive land and a new
beginning in the Ozarks.

Why They Came to the Ozarks

Despite his degree in industrial engineering from Georgia
Tech, Bob Jordan chose to live in the country. He found
Vermont winters too hard on southern bones, and according
to the map he consulted, Arkansas had less population per
square mile anyway. In 1974, at age 29, Bob came to the Ozarks “to settle
down.”

Barbara Jordan wanted to live someplace warmer and prettier
than the south side of Chicago, where she grew up. In 1971,
at age 21, she discovered rural Arkansas and “fell in
love.” She stayed.

After a 1972 visit to friends here, Wyit and Lillian Wright
bought 40 isolated acres. Two more years at their Tucson
jobs, teaching and managing a satellite tracking station,
paid for their land: “When we moved onto it at last, in
search of freedom and tranquility, we felt like a retired
couple in our late 20s.”

Bill Brown, a corporate headhunter in Memphis, read
Future Shock the year he turned 30. He experienced
it the morning after Martin Luther King Jr. was
assassinated in Memphis. That day, Bill and his wife,
Jeannette, began planning their family’s flight from the
city.

Gregg Thomas (1973), Loretta Shelton (1975), and Mike
Stephenson (1975) all came to learn about agriculture.
Nancy followed Mike from a New Orleans society family. She
was “into health foods” and imagined farming would be
“heaven.” All were in their early 20s.

What They Found

“Despite all our reading and planning, we were ill
prepared,” Bill said, shaking his head ruefully. “My
corporate skills didn’t apply in the new context. The first
winter, I bought a woodstove because it was part of our
lifestyle image. Of course I didn’t have a chain saw, an
axe, a truck, or any place to cut wood, but I had a
woodstove.”

The urban escapists learned a lot of things the hard way.
They bought hundreds of acres of inexpensive land, only to
find that it had neither water nor access roads —
that even minimal utilities were years away. Wyit developed
a rule of thumb for friends looking for acreage: “Buy a
place with at least an old house on it. That means somebody
once was able to live there.”

As families grew and resources didn’t, the stress mounted
on many formerly carefree immigrants. “The early years were
paradise on Mossy Creek,” Wyit recounted with a grin. “The
biggest decision we had to make in a day was where to go
swimming that afternoon. There were lots of parties,
minimal pressures, good times. We had a strong sense of
community.”

“We all had the same needs,” Lillian explained. “We have a
well-established food-buying club in the Fayetteville
Co-op. But there aren’t many of us left who started out
with it.”

The sense of being in the same boat sustained them for a
while. In many places, a gathering of 50 people for an
afternoon potluck or cooperative workday wasn’t unusual.
But varying degrees of success began creating problems in
paradise.

“Our business was going well, but when we wanted to go out
to dinner and a movie, we couldn’t think of anyone with
money enough to come with us,” Wyit remembered sadly. “It
got kind of lonesome, being the only ones with any
discretionary funds.”

At first, many took pride in the primitiveness of their
living conditions. The Wrights mentioned a neighboring
family who bragged about getting through one whole year on
only $500. But the cost was higher in the end. The family
broke up. “The wife is a CPA in Tulsa now.” An apprentice
Yuppie making up for lost time, they imagine.

What They Did

Gregg and Loretta developed and managed a 400-acre farm at
Cass on salaries, but watched their friends grubbing and
losing ground. “All your time is spent surviving and
worrying,” Gregg said. “It grinds you down. Pretty soon,
you’re fighting over where to plant the carrots.”

The people who stuck it out, adapting rather than
abandoning their dreams, often turned to entrepreneurship
as an alternative to a town job or a supplement to farming.

Bob and Barbara started with one hive of bees. When they
built up their own apiary, they formed coalitions with
other beekeepers to service fruit growers’ pollination
needs. For the past five years, they’ve sustained an
average of 120 hives, marketing tons of Spring Fever Farm
honey through direct and mail-order sales.

Mossy Creek Woodworks started making “practical things,”
but the Wrights quickly found that toys sold better. By
their second year, they had a stable income from a line of
wooden toys taken to craft fairs, Silver Dollar City, and
local outlets. After the arrival of a son took Lillian out
of the business, Wyit hired extra people to make the toys.
He turned his attention to wholesale marketing through such
outlets as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of
American Folk Art in New York. A new interest in computers
helps him keep up with accounts as far-flung as Alaska and
Puerto Rico.

Loretta and Gregg’s Ozark Horticultural Services offers
consulting, landscaping services, and blueberry plants. “I
knew about growing things,” Loretta said. “What I had to
learn about was business.”

Nancy’s farming “heaven” came crashing down “like a lead
balloon the first strawberry harvest season. It was awful.
I have a picture of me sitting under a tent, nursing my
baby and trying to deal with pick-your-own customers. I
didn’t think I’d survive!” For a city-bred woman, it was a
heavy dose of rural reality.

After an initial financial disaster, Bill took a job as a
community organizer based 26 miles from his home in Busch.
His first annual salary in Arkansas equalled his previous
year’s taxes. “You have to simplify your economic demands
and expectations, or you have to leave,” he said flatly.
“The Ozarks can be a very unforgiving context.”

The Compromises

The Wrights came with the goal of “voluntary simplicity,”
but, Lillian added quickly, “we chose this house because it
had indoor plumbing.”

After the birth of their fourth child, Barbara came to a
“gradual, disappointing realization that life would be
easier in town.” Their oldest was school age, and the
small, rustic farmhouse was too crowded and stressful for
the family. When the highway department paid for a right of
way through their land, they bought a house in
Fayetteville, though Bob continues to work at the farm.

“I always thought I wanted to live and work at the same
place, but I find I’m more productive with the two
separated. There are fewer distractions,” he added with a
mischievous smile at his nearly new daughter.

The age of children appears to be a determining factor in
changes of residence and lifestyle. The Wrights have loved
their isolation on Mossy Creek but are now considering a
move to Fayetteville. Lillian is tired of driving several
miles of rugged dirt trail and 50-plus round-trip miles of
highway to Fayetteville for Josh’s preschool and Suzuki
lessons.

“You grow up when you have to take responsibility for
someone else,” Lillian summed up. “We chose him. We owe
him.”

A Decade Later

After 10 years, give or take, how do they feel about their
Ozarks experience?

“We have no regrets,” Loretta said, “but we’ve evolved.
It’s nice to live in a pretty place, but there’s no time to
enjoy it when you’re scrabbling for an existence. I don’t
want to be an old lady on welfare, so I have to do
something about it now.”

The something was to accept a job with a horticultural firm
in Australia, doing pretty much what she’s been doing but
for a healthy, guaranteed salary.

Involved for the past two years in Arkansas location
filmmaking, Gregg hopes he’ll be able to continue his new
direction in Australia. Once again, they’re emigrating for
a new beginning.

“Our life has been almost too good, too easy here,” Wyit
said with a twinge of guilt. “Our business has financed our
lifestyle — never driven us. As crafters we can plan
ahead, work when we want to. Your own business allows you
control. We’ll always want freedom and privacy wherever we
live, but after 10 years a change is welcome. We’ll be glad
to be nearer a library, places to eat out, friends,
playmates for josh. But we’ll still evaluate ourselves by
our own standards.”

Barbara’s eyes glow intensely when she talks about her
Ozark odyssey. “Life is better in the country. I
miss it, body and soul. We came as a result of our need to
get back in touch with the earth, with ourselves. That need
hasn’t changed. A lot of people who left are only trying to
make enough money to get back here.”

Holding On to the Dream

“The gentlefolk back-to-the-landers,” as MOTHER EARTH NEWS once styled
them, have found many paths to their dreams. A major
commonality is the persistent sense of community, of
networking, of intentionally chosen extended families. Some
of that can be traced to common experience, some even to a
ghetto mentality, but a great deal more must be charged to
the nature of these gentle revolutionaries. They work hard,
they care for each other, they still believe the world can
be improved by demanding less and contributing more. They
make good neighbors, and they are good children for an
increasingly strained Mother Earth.

Paula Thompson, an Ozark native, is a writer, an
award-winning actress, a child-development specialist, and
a blueberry farmer.

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