Rural Missouri - January 2018 - 12
Journey on the James
New book explores history and culture of an Ozark river
photos and images courtesy Leland and Crystal Payton
by Zach Smith | email@example.com
f you're anything like Leland and Crystal Payton, you might daydream about
the Ozarks of yesteryear. And the Springﬁeld-based authors are happy to
take you along for the ride. But instead of a time machine, the husbandand-wife team use cameras, pens and an enormous personal collection of
Ozarks memorabilia to create the journey that is their new book, "James Fork
of the White: Transformation of an Ozark River."
"James River ﬂows through the third largest metropolitan area in Missouri,
but you can get up in the morning, get in a canoe and be out there in the deep
Ozarks by afternoon," Crystal says of the river that ﬂows through southwestern
Missouri. "That's a pretty great resource to have in your backyard."
The Paytons aren't strangers to the history and culture of the Ozarks. Through
their independent publishing company Lens & Pen Press they have collaborated
on nearly a dozen books with subjects ranging from the settlement of the Irish
Wilderness to Silver Dollar City. True to their accessible style, "James Fork of
the White" is equally an appreciation for in-depth regional history and as it is
roadside nostalgia. Sprinkled throughout the 350-plus pages are hundreds of
images, from historical photos and the Payton's photography to vintage travel
brochures, postcards, books, paintings and records.
"The artifacts tell a story on their own," Crystal says. "They tell pieces of history and it's not just the old butter churn."
A theme running through the book is how human development in the watershed affected the area's culture and how people then and now interact with the
landscape. According to Leland, some changes in land use over the years - the
transition from row crops to pastureland, for example - improved its natural beauty. He says that point of view, from Missouri-born geographer Carl O.
Sauer who researched the Ozarks in the early 1900s, guided the book's focus.
"His theory is that man and nature don't have a totally odious relationship,
and that culture and land development are the same," Leland adds. "It's actually
in the last 50 years there have been efforts to manage the resources that beneﬁt
James River ﬁshermen have a successful night gigging suckers near Camp Yocum.
RURAL MISSOURI | JANUARY 2018
the scenic value of the river, balancing with economics."
Ornate labels recall the tomato canning empires that sprung up along the
river's railroad towns such as Crane, Elsey and Reeds Spring. The canneries
are lost to the ages, but other traditions of the James River are far from faded.
Count among these events such as Nixa Sucker Day, which recalls the nights
of gigging suckers and the ensuing fried feast on the riverbanks that followed.
One casualty of time was the original Ozarks ﬂoat trip from Galena to Branson on johnboats. When the expanding Missouri Paciﬁc Railroad opened the
area to tourism, Americans visited by droves to run the river. Today the trip is
a little shorter, but ﬂoaters still take to the clear waters ﬂowing between Hootentown and Galena. And since the dams creating the lakes at Taneycomo and
Table Rock were constructed, more visitors have vacationed to see the land
immortalized by Harold Bell Wright's "The Shepherd of the Hills."
"It doesn't create a huge impact on the river, but it enhanced the tourism era,"
Leland says of Taneycomo. Of Table Rock, he adds. "Branson thrived because it
already had a river-based economy and an intriguing local culture."
The dams that now provide hydroelectric power and no end of recreational
opportunities around Branson weren't the ﬁrst attempts to squeeze electricity
out of the White River or its tributaries. That honor might go to Civil War veteran William H. Standish, former attorney general of North Dakota who in 1899
wanted to bore a hydroelectric dam into Virgin Bluff on the James. Standish is
just one of the many personas who ﬁgure into the history of the James River
hills, in addition to names such as Dewey Short, Vance Randolph and John T.
As development in the watershed increased, so too did concern about protecting its quality from pollution. But the Paytons are optimistic about the river's future. From high-tech wastewater treatment facilities to citizen-led trash
pickups, there's a culture built around protecting the area's water resources
ingrained in residents, businesses and local municipalities alike and the Paytons single out these efforts.
"The idea that you can leave something on its own and it will revert to
some perfect state of wildness is out the
window," Crystal says. "There's going to
have to be some human intervention if
we want to maintain it."
To hear the Paytons describe their
research sounds like more fun than
work. Digging into all of those tiny
details that tell the story is right up
their alley. "The best part is doing
ﬁeld research - get in the car and
start driving the back roads looking for old bridges," Crystal adds.
"That's my idea of a great day."
Copies of "James Fork of the
White: Transformation of an Ozark
River" are $35. To order or for
more information on other books
available from Lens & Pen Press,
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - January 2018
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