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Ozarks Rambles

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Although the Branson boom put a dent in Arkansas'

tourist traffic, the Folk

Center is still going strong

by Kenny Knauer

Nestled in the ancient Ozarks Mountains of north central Arkansas is a veritable time machine. This living historic device will transport one into the past, to the historically correct saga of the last 100 years of Arkansas hill country history and its continuing folk music heritage.

The Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View, Ark., is celebrating its 25th year of operation. Also celebrating its 25th anniversary this year is its nearby sister attraction, Blanchard Springs Caverns, the only public cavern operated by the U.S. Forest Service. While well-known to regional folk-music aficionados and well-traveled Midwesterners, the history of the Folk Center and Blanchard Springs Caverns are less known to Springfield and southern Missouri readers.

Elliott Hancock, knowledgeable historian of the Mountain View area arts, crafts and music scene, and affable music director of the center, opines, "In the 1960s and '70s period, more people seemed to make the journey down from Springfield. In those days, there had not been the massive build-up of the Branson music scene, with more and more major theaters, entertainers, and the subsequent development of the Branson-Hollister area."

Since the 1970s, huge discount shopping centers, elaborate hotel/motels and theaters, and scores of area attractions added to the massive increase of family travelers to Branson. More elaborate Shepherd of the Hills and Silver Dollar City attractions were heavily promoted for one-stop family destinations, along with White Water, the Branson Belle, Grand Palace and Chateau on the Lake.

Highway 65 improvements, the soon-to-open Ozark Highroad, a successful Shepherd of the Hills Expressway and major infrastructure and traffic improvements to the 76 Country Music strip, all combined to siphon off some of the northern Arkansas tourist traffic.

The story of how the Ozark Folk Center State Park came to be built is actually the story of Stone County, Ark. The area around Stone County was quite isolated, with few all-weather roads, not many good-paying jobs, and no likelihood of industry or major employers relocating to these peaceful hills.

In 1941, just before the United States' entry into World War II, a regional music festival took place near Blanchard Springs, Ark., on the site of a forest camp project built by FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps.

By all accounts it was pure Ozarks style folk music, just as it had been played in these parts for many years by isolated families who had no access to electric power for radios, TVs or movie theaters.

The whole family would join in the music, from Granddad on the upright bass, to Mama on the guitar and vocals, Dad playing the spoons, Junior on the autoharp, the grandkids clogging, and a dulcimer or accordion in there somewhere.

It was the very isolation of these hills that preserved the rural family traditions of storytelling and dramatic readings, along with using herbal medicines for home remedies, and staging "play parties" with the whole group taking parts. Because there was very little hard cash in most households, folks made their own baskets, soap, kitchen articles and furniture, and repaired their own farm implements, or bartered their labor or handicrafts for store-bought items.

The first paved road was opened in the early 1950s, and when electric power came to the hill country, some folks could afford television sets. The newfangled outdoor drive-in theaters and downtown movie theaters all drew attendance from the traditional amusements. The outdoor music playing on the square in Mountain View and other towns, featuring clogging, yodelling and sing alongs, all began to lose their hold on the crowds.

Seeing these changes, some local musicians began playing the "old" acoustic folk music again, both for their own entertainment, and to preserve a fast-vanishing rural culture. This group of authentic mountain pickers became known as the Rackensack Folklore Society, and from these downtown weekly "pickin' sessions" they moved to the school auditorium to accommodate growing crowds.

Meanwhile, in 1962, a major effort to preserve and revive the traditional crafts and arts of these Ozarkers took place, through the Rural Development Committee of the University of Arkansas Extension Service. Several small handicrafts shows were held in north central Arkansas counties, and this led to the formation of the Ozark Foothills Craft Guild to further promote these authentic skills and entertainments.

In 1963, a serendipitous group of area craftspeople, musicians, folk-music fans and local businesses came together. Led by Glen Hinckle, a local banker, the group staged the first Arkansas Folk Festival, with the help of civic clubs, schools and many devoted local individuals. The outright success of the festival proved the existence of public demand for authentic folk art and music.

Always held on the third weekend of April, the festival was drawing 100,000 people to the isolated village by the early 1970s. Overwhelmed by this success, the town had to come to grips with the huge crowds and began to promote a more permanent location, featuring more emphasis on family travelers.

The overflow attendance at the annual event, and the vital support of then-Gov. Orval Faubus, enthusiastic participation by Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and the drive and enthusiasm of one of the founding fathers Jimmy Driftwood, and his Grand Ole Opry contacts plus the local groups of musicians, craftspeople and artisans, all culminated in the Ozark Folk Center's opening in 1973 in Mountain View.

The Folk Center was originally planned to be a commercial operation, but finances did not permit the facility to ever open as a private attraction. Jimmy Driftwood and others on the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Commission saw this as their ideal location for a traditional arts, crafts and music center.

An amazing schedule of events is conducted at the Folk Center, far too numerous to list here, but to get on the center's mailing list, write: Ozark Folk Center State Park, PO Box 500 Mountain View, AR 72560; or call 870-269-3851 for information; 800-264-3655 for lodging.

As further "proof" of how "civilization" has come to these formerly sleepy hills, the park is now equipped with a web site: www.ozarkfolkcenter.com.

Some of the best fun is the original pickin' sessions on the square in Mountain View, held on Friday and Saturday nights from April through October. You can bring a lawn chair, wrap yourself around a large mug of beans and hot cornbread, and enjoy the pure music of the Ozarks hills with other gentle folks.

Arrangements are easily made for day excursions to the Buffalo River floating scene, Blanchard Springs Caverns and other area attractions.

A wide variety of lodgings are available, from beautiful bed and breakfasts on the square to modern motels. The center itself has a nice facility with reasonable prices the Dry Creek Lodge, adjacent to the Iron Skillet restaurant. The Iron Skillet features outdoor feeders and a butterfly habitat for diners' viewing of foxes, turkeys, deer and a host of birds and squirrels.

(Kenny Knauer is an organizer of the St. Pat's Parade, a participant with the Parks, Greenways and Open Spaces Committee of Vision 20/20, and a long-time member and volunteer on the steering committee of Founder's Park.)

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