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Humor and Ingenuity Evident in Life of Early Ozarkers

By David Burton, MU Extension

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — “The rural and Scot-Irish influence on the Ozarks is seen in the region’s philosophy which has often been couched in humor,” said David Burton, county engagement specialist in community economic development with University of Missouri Extension.

For example, in Jim Owen’s manuscript called “Hill-osophy,” there are these sayings about life.

On gardening: “The easiest way to tell the difference between weeds and young plants worth keeping is to pull up everything. If they come up again, they’re weeds.”

On learning: “The human mind should be like a good hotel – open the year round.”

On maturing: “A boy becomes a man when he walks around a puddle instead of through it.”

On sleep remedy: “Nowadays, there is a lot being said about tranquilizers. But even back in Grandpa’s time, there was something to make you sleep. They called it work.”

On age: “Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you got to start young.”

On a woman’s definition of her husband’s retirement: “Twice as much husband on half as much pay.”

Reliance on others: “We don’t have psychoanalysis here in the hills. We’re considered poor people, so we have friends instead.”

According to Burton, the tongue-in-cheek Scot-Irish bluntness can also be seen in the story of the granny woman comforting a sick relative from typhoid fever.

The patient told her that he was feeling better and expected to be up in a few days. She replied, “Well, you can’t always tell by your feelings. I remember when John Teague had typhoid, he looked just about like you do and said the crisis was over and he would be up in a few days, but he was a dead man in twelve hours.”

On prayer: “It’s perfectly all right to pray for a good harvest, but the Good Lord expects you to keep on hoeing.”

Living in the Ozarks was often a challenge that required creativity in meeting basic needs.

“For example, during food shortages in Civil War times, mothers told their children to follow the cows through the woods and gather the kinds of greens that the cows ate. Cows would not eat the poisonous plants,” said Burton.

When there was a salt shortage, families would dig up the dirt from the smokehouse floors and filter out the salt by boiling it out from the water added to the dirt which had salty grease in it.

In most cases of illness, the housewives were the doctors, and most were medical-minded and economy-wise. They knew by memory 100 or more remedies handed down from past generations or learned from the Native Americans.

“For their drugs, they depended mainly upon the ‘yarb’ (herb) garden and the forest. Some of the herbs used were peppermint, catnip, sage, thyme, rue, horehound, sweet basil, wormwood, golden seal, sweet fennel, wormwood, and horseradish,” said Burton.

The early Ozarks of the late 19th to an early 20th century was much more rural than it is now.

“Over 3 million people currently live in the 92 counties of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma that make up the region known as the Ozarks,” said Burton.

Four rivers make up the boundaries of the Ozarks: the Mississippi to the east, the Missouri to the north, the Arkansas to the south, and the Neosho to the west.

For more information, contact David Burton at the Greene County MU Extension center at (417) 881-8909 or go online to