FOURTH IN A SERIES
We cross the White River at Calico Rock. We’re in Stone County now as we drive south. The county had just 12,394 residents in the 2010 census but is synonymous in the minds of most Arkansans with mountain music and culture.
Much of the northern part of the county is in the Ozark National Forest.
“Although one of the state’s younger counties, Stone County is home to dozens of listings on the National Register of Historic Places,” Stephanie Lawrence Labert writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Among these is the Sylamore Creek Bridge, known locally as the Swinging Bridge. … Many spring-fed creeks, including the South Sylamore, are tributaries of the White River. A familiar tributary of the North Sylamore is Blanchard Springs. Known for cool, clear water that is a haven for trout and bass, the White River provides recreational opportunities in fishing and canoeing and is the source for the county’s public water system.”
Stone County was part of the hunting grounds for the Osage tribe. Settlers from Tennessee and other states to the east began moving into the area in the 1830s. Because few county residents owned slaves, there was a strong Union sentiment leading up to and during the Civil War.
“In 1862, the Peace Society was organized at Sylamore and was made up of about 80 men from the area,” Labert writes. “The men didn’t want to become involved in the war for either side but were eventually chained and sent to Little Rock. They were given the option of joining the Confederate cause or being shot.”
Stone County was created by the Legislature in April 1873 out of parts of Independence, Izard, Searcy and Van Buren counties.
“A site at the center of the county was chosen to be the seat of government,” Edie Nicholson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “After some disagreement on what to name the new county seat, a group of citizens held a drawing. Though sources conflict about who submitted the name Mountain View, Elijah Chappell is thought to have been present at the drawing along with early settlers Jacob King and Calvin McMurtry. … After a small log building was constructed as the new county courthouse, businesses began to grow around the new county seat. In 1890, Mountain View finally became an incorporated town. The city has had three courthouses — the original log structure, a two-story frame courthouse built at the present site in 1888 and the current stone building that was constructed in 1923.”
Labert writes: “In the county’s early days, the economy was based on small-acreage cash crops such as grain and cotton along with timber, trapping and livestock. The residents of Stone County, like the rest of the country, suffered from the effects of the Great Depression. The self-sustaining lifestyle they were used to in this isolated area helped them survive. Due to poor road conditions, livestock and timber were shipped by rail or water. People survived by growing their own food, trapping, harvesting herbs, making corn whiskey and bartering with those who had what they needed.
“During World War II, Stone County was affected by rationing. Women began to work outside the home, and people collected items such as scrap rubber to help with the war effort. Stone County citizens increased farm production in milk products, eggs, potatoes and peanuts. At the close of the war, soldiers returned home and life resumed. A fire in the business district of Mountain View destroyed 13 businesses and damaged four others, providing another setback for the development of the county.”
With job opportunities limited, the population of Stone County fell from 8,603 in the 1940 census to 6,294 in the 1960 census.
“Agriculture (mainly beef cattle and poultry) and timber have always been important industries for the Mountain View area,” Nicholson writes. “But the community struggled to attract industry because of its inaccessibility. The roads leading out of Mountain View — with the exception of Highway 14 toward Batesville — weren’t paved until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Local residents feared that the county would decline if it didn’t find a way to attract visitors.”
Since 1960, the population of Stone County has doubled. Give credit to the Arkansas Folk Festival, the Arkansas Craft Guild, the Rackensack Folklore Society, Jimmy Driftwood and finally the Ozark Folk Center and Blanchard Springs Caverns.
“The Arkansas Folk Festival has its roots in the Stone County Folkways Festival, which was held in 1941 to celebrate the musical heritage of the area,” writes Lori Freeze of the Stone County Leader. “Musical performances and a jig dance contest were among the events held at the Blanchard Springs recreation area. World War II prevented subsequent gatherings, but the festival was revived in 1963 during the birth of a regional tourism effort. The Ozark Foothills Handicraft Guild (now the Arkansas Craft Guild), which represented a seven-county area, had held its first show the year before in Batesville. The local tourist and recreation committee had sponsored a regional dogwood drive the previous few years. It was decided to combine the different events into one big spring festival. Attendance at the festival peaked in the 1970s with the height of popularity of folk music and the free-spirited audience that followed it. The festival was extended over two weekends in its most popular phase.”
The festival still attracts between 20,000 to 30,000 people to Stone County each April.
Meanwhile, the Ozark Foothills Handicraft Guild was incorporated in 1962.
“The organization’s initial aim was to provide supplemental income for the people in the north-central Arkansas foothills,” Erlene Carter writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1960, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service representative Leo Rainey, along with officials in Stone County, began exploring ways to bring cottage industry into the area. While soliciting crafters to exhibit at local craft fairs, they found members for the proposed guild. Focusing first on Stone County, they soon extended the area to include surrounding counties. The guild decided to include all of Arkansas in 1967. The name was changed to the Arkansas Craft Guild in 1990 to indicate a statewide organization.”
A Small Business Administration loan of $15,600 in 1963 allowed the guild to construct log cabins at Salem, Hardy, Clinton, Heber Springs and Mountain View. Stores were operating out of those cabins by 1964.
“These were the guild’s first retail outlets,” Carter writes. “Jim Warren, a woodcarver and carpenter, almost single-handedly built all five. Manned exclusively by volunteers, the outlets offered merchandise placed there on consignment by members. The guild prospered. By 1975, it was able to purchase land near Mountain View and build a craft shop and office complex, including the space necessary to hold its annual spring craft show. The first paid director, office secretary and shopkeepers were hired at that time. Merchandise was purchased from members.”
The organization’s first big spring craft show had been held at Mountain View in April 1962. A fall show started in October 1966 at Heber Springs. The Heber Springs show ended in 1989, and the Mountain View show ended in 1993. But the guild’s Arkansas Craft Gallery at Mountain View continues to be a popular stop for visitors and cements the city’s reputation as a place for Ozark crafts in addition to music.
Another major player in the rebirth of Stone County was the Rackensack Folklore Society.
“Stone County was unique in having music-making families who were the base of the Rackensack organization,” Glenn Morrison writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The society was begun by Lloyd Hollister, a doctor, and his wife Martha. They came from the Little Rock area in 1962 and settled at Fox. Hollister set up his medical practice in Mountain View with Howard Monroe, a noted surgeon in the area. The Hollisters attended various musical sessions in Fox and joined in the music-making. In February 1963, Hollister held a meeting with six others at the Monroe Clinic to form an organization that would reach out to the people of the area and provide an opportunity for them to share their music with the public. Before adjourning, it was decided to meet again that week and organize the new folklore society, elect officers and solicit membership.”
It was Jimmy Driftwood who suggested the Rackensack name. The folk festival was scheduled for the third weekend in April.
“The group received permission from the county to use the courtroom in the courthouse for practice sessions for the upcoming festival program,” Morrison writes. “These Friday night sessions became a weekly attraction to the public and were continued until the Ozark Folk Center was built. Turnout for the April folk festival was phenomenal with local, state and national media covering the event. In response, the Rackensack Folklore Society established itself as a permanent organization. Rackensack continued to have an annual folk festival the third weekend in April until the early 1970s, at which time the city of Mountain View and its newly formed chamber of commerce assumed the responsibility of having the festival at the same time each year.”
Famed editorial cartoonist George Fisher created a branch organization in Little Rock later in the 1960s.
The society and Driftwood would become key players in the establishment of the Ozark Folk Center. Driftwood, who had been born James Corbett Morris near Mountain View in 1907, had become nationally known in 1959 when Johnny Horton recorded his song “The Battle of New Orleans.”
“He was given the name Driftwood as the result of a joke his grandfather had played on his grandmother,” Zac Cothren writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When the two went to visit their new grandson, Driftwood’s grandfather arrived first and wrapped a bundle of old sticks in a blanket. When Driftwood’s grandmother arrived, she was handed the bundle and remarked: ‘Why, it ain’t nothing but driftwood.’
“Music played a large role in Driftwood’s life from his earliest years. His father, a farmer by trade, was also an accomplished folk singer. It was through him and other local musicians that Driftwood was first exposed to the songs of the Ozarks. While still a small child, Driftwood learned to play the guitar his grandfather had made from a piece of a rail fence and other salvaged materials. He would continue to play this unusual-looking instrument throughout his career.”
Driftwood attended school in a one-room building at Richwoods in Stone County. He passed the state teachers’ exam at the age of 16 and then taught in one-room schoolhouses at Prim in Cleburne County, Roasting Ear Creek in Stone County, Timbo in Stone County and Fifty-Six in Stone County while also taking high school classes at Mountain View. He later attended what are now the University of Central Arkansas at Conway and John Brown University at Siloam Springs.
“Driftwood left college after receiving a degree and rambled for a while, eventually ending up in Arizona,” Cothren writes. “While in Phoenix, he won a local talent show, which led to weekly performances on a local radio station. He left Phoenix in 1935 and returned to Stone County to teach at Timbo. Although he had been writing songs and poetry for years, it was at Timbo that Driftwood began teaching his students history through song.”
In 1947, Driftwood purchased a 150-acre farm in Stone County and owned the farm until his death in 1998. He finally received a bachelor’s degree from what’s now UCA in 1949 after taking night and summer classes. Driftwood was then hired as the principal at Snowball.
“In the early 1950s, Driftwood began testing the waters of commercial music,” Cothren writes. “He submitted songs he had written to several record companies, including Blasco Music Co. and Shelter Music in Kansas City. Shelter and Blasco recorded some of Driftwood’s material with little commercial success. In 1957, Driftwood went to Nashville and auditioned for RCA record executive Don Warden, who signed him to a contract. Driftwood, under the guidance of RCA’s Chet Atkins, recorded his first album, titled ‘Jimmy Driftwood Sings Newly Discovered American Folk Songs,’ in less than three hours. It was released in 1958 and saw limited success.
“The album featured ‘The Battle of New Orleans,’ a song Driftwood had composed in 1936 to help his students differentiate between the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War. The song was a hit among those who heard it, but the strict broadcast standards of the day virtually excluded it from the airways because of the words ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ in the lyrics. After the release of Driftwood’s album, he quit his job as principal at Snowball and began making regular appearances at such popular country music venues as the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville; the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Mo.; and the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. He met Horton in Shreveport. Horton expressed an interest in recording ‘The Battle of New Orleans.’ Driftwood revamped the song’s lyrics to make them acceptable for radio.”
Horton’s version of the song topped the country charts for 10 weeks in 1959 and topped the pop charts for six weeks. At the second Grammy Awards ceremony in 1959, Driftwood and Horton won Song of the Year honors. Driftwood’s “Wilderness Road” received a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Performance of the Year. And Eddie Arnold received Grammy nominations in the folk and country categories for his version of Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud.”
In 1962, Driftwood became a starring member of the Grand Ole Opry’s cast and also taught folklore at the University of Southern California.
“Driftwood longed to return to Stone County,” Cothren writes. “In 1963, he returned to Timbo. He helped form the Rackensack Folklore Society, was one of the visionaries in creating the Arkansas Folk Festival and was a leading force in the establishment of the Ozark Folk Center. Having more national notoriety than anyone else involved in Arkansas’ folk scene, Driftwood was largely responsible for promoting and securing funding for folk celebrations and the folk center. He astounded city officials by obtaining $2.1 million toward the construction of the center from the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the committee was chaired by an Arkansan, Rep. Wilbur Mills.
The Ozark Folk Center cost $3.4 million to build and opened in May 1973 as the country’s premier facility for preserving Southern mountain folkways and traditions. It had a 1,000-seat auditorium, multiple craft demonstration areas, a welcome center, a 60-room lodge, a restaurant, a conference center and a gift shop. Construction by Advanced Projects Corp. of New York, which had won the contract to build and operate the center, began in 1971 on an 80-acre tract at the north edge of Mountain View. The contractor ran into financial problems in 1972. The state later agreed to operate the center as a state park, which now covers 637 acres.
With so many factions in those hills, it was inevitable that there would be controversy.
Morrison tells it this way: “Music programs were scheduled weekly with Driftwood as the principal entertainer and emcee. Driftwood was appointed to what was then the state Publicity and Parks Commission. After the folk center became a state park, Rackensack officers received notice from the state that Rackensack would have to enter into a contract with the state if they were to provide the music. But the state couldn’t contract Rackensack since it was a nonprofit organization. A general meeting was called, and Josephine Linker Hart, the attorney for Rackensack, reported that the state had recommended that the name Rackensack Folklore Society be changed to Rackensack Inc. and that members be allowed to buy shares at a fee of $20 each. By a large majority, the membership voted to go with the state recommendation.
“Driftwood objected and told the members that Rackensack Inc. wouldn’t be formed, no contract would be signed with the state and members wouldn’t be paid to perform. Staff members in Gov. David Pryor’s office were following the developments and asked Driftwood to reconsider. Driftwood wouldn’t change his thinking, and it became necessary for Pryor to remove him from his position as musical director at the Ozark Folk Center. Rackensack contracted with the state and provided the musical programs for the first season of 1973. After leaving the folk center, Driftwood and a small following of original Rackensack members erected a building north of Mountain View and named it the Jimmy Driftwood Barn.”