"I wasn't really looking for something on the creek. I knew I wanted to live out of town, and I had a list of specifics. I wanted a place with a spring, at the end of the road. I wanted grass in the road, from little traffic. Isolated, bottomland. Good woods. I thought it would take at least 80 acres to put together something I could be comfortable with.
"Ed Owens knew I was looking for something out in the country that would make a good home or home site," Collins said. "He said he knew of a place I might like, so we drove down to this place on the creek, and the ragweed was so high you couldn't see the house. But it fit with what I was looking for and had a good feeling to it, so I decided it might be worth looking into."
Before he could investigate on his own, though, fate stepped in to give him a nudge. That same night a realtor friend called him at home and said, "I think I've found you a spot." It was the same place.
"It wasn't until I looked at the plat book and saw where it was actually located that I realized I might be looking at the old Russell place," Collins said. If it was, then he was looking to buy the tract of land that his mother's family had homesteaded in the 19th century, and on which a family tragedy had occurred during the Civil War. "The original place was 160 acres, with 80 acres on each side of Bryant Creek, at Bollinger ford. I was looking at the part on the east side of the creek, including the field where David Russell was shot."
At the beginning of the Civil War, he explained, the Russells had chosen the Union side. Some of their neighbors, however, had sided with the Confederates, he explained. "At that time, you could join the army for just six months at a time. That way, you could get your crops in, serve your six months, and get out in time to harvest. Then you could sign up again and serve over the winter months. That's what David and John Russell did. They served three enlistments in the 46th Infantry Volunteer Company. They fought at the battle of Clark's Mill, at Vera Cruz."
David didn't die in battle, though, Collins said. He was ambushed while he was at home, tending his father's cornfield. "A few days earlier, a band of Confederate sympathizers had caught James Wiley Russell, their father and my great-great-great-grandfather, and attempted to hang him. He was rescued by some Union soldiers and got away from them. That's all recorded in Col. Monk's book (A History of South Central Missouri). He got away, but they were still looking for him. When they came by the farm, they found David out in the field and shot him. He ran across the river and hid in a cave, where his sisters found him later. He lived three or four days, but then died. He's buried near the cave, and his grave was the start of Alcorn Cemetery. I've looked around there for the cave, but I haven't been able to find it."
From the front porch of the log home Collins built on the old home site, he can see the place where his great-great uncle fell. "The rest of the family lived out their days here. James Wiley's wife Lucinda is buried up at Ball cemetery. They met and married in South Carolina, before they came here. Her family name was Crow. She was a full Cherokee."
Collins said living on his family's homestead has increased his awareness of the rich culture of the Ozarks, and the importance of recording and preserving its history. "I imagine there are large numbers of people living in these hills today whose ancestors' names are recorded on the rolls of one or the other armies who fought here. Many people's ancestors fought in that volunteer company alongside John and David."
A New Log Home - Built the Old Way
Once the ragweed had been cleared, Collins said, it also became clear that the old house on the site was too small, and remodeling would not solve its problems. A new one would have to be built. But what kind? And how?
"I'd had this idea in my head for a long time, and really wanted to try it," Collins said, surveying the large, double-pen log home from its spacious front porch. "I got a team of mules and took the lumber from the hill above the house." He smiled gently across the table at Leslie, his wife, who was his fiance' when he began the house. "I think Leslie thought I was nuts. But she was very supportive."
"I knew he could do it," she said, matter-of- factly. His description sounded simple. The reality was something else. Supplementing the traditional tools of the pioneers with a chain saw, Collins felled the trees, removed their branches, snaked the logs down the steep hill, which is a bluff for part of its length, and squared and shaped them, using only a broad axe and pole axe.
In between working the logs, he took down the old house and stored its lumber in the barn, and dug the footings to extend the original stone foundation to accommodate the new house's size. The old home's chimney was carefully dismantled and its fire-marked stones set aside to be used in the new home's fireplace. The mules lent their assistance again, bringing more flat slabs of stone down the hillside. When all was ready, Collins called in reinforcements, in the form of long time friends and family.
"We kind of turned it into a party, but it was hard, dangerous work. I was relieved when it was over and no one was injured."
Collins wouldn't be able to say the same for himself. "I was in the middle of putting the fireplace together, and I needed some large chimney tiles to line the chimney. Well, when I went to the store, they wanted $20 a piece for them. I had some stored over on my family's farm, and I thought, 'Why, heck, I can go out to the farm and get those for free.' So," he said, smiling wryly, "I went out there. By myself. And climbed up on this rockpile to get those tiles. Then the pile shifted, and I took a step back to steady myself, and where I stepped, there was nothing but air."
Collins said he knew instantly that his leg was broken. "My other foot was caught between the rocks, and I could see there was a bend in my leg where there shouldn't be. I got myself untangled and hobbled to the truck and took myself into town..."
"And only $5,000 in medical bills later," Leslie finished
for him, "we'd saved maybe $60 in chimney tiles."
Actually, it did. Today, eight years after coming home for the first time to the Russell place, Collins said he doesn't regret a single step in the process. "Every time I look up at that fireplace, I think, 'Well, look at that. It's still standing there. It worked.' I wasn't sure, but I had to try it. We're pretty pleased with the result."
In the summer of 1995, Colin and Leslie were married on the front lawn of their new home, attended by a large throng of friends and relatives. Colin said he wouldn't be surprised if those relatives from long ago didn't stop by, too.
"Once in a while I'll be working around the place and a thought will come to me, and I'm not sure where it came from. It might be just my own musing, but sometimes I wonder." He stared off into the firefly-lit meadow, listening to the call of cicadas and history.