An Old-Timer Remembers Bryant Creek's Cashless Economy
When Tommy Medlock of Gentryville was 95, he
told of the days when Bryant Creek was the center of economic life in the area.
It was the main transportation route, was busy with farm life and mill towns
and it provided fish and small game. He talked about the good times and the
hard times of those days.
Travel Along Bryant Creek
The Bryant was the main north-south travel route through the watershed before everyone had cars. It was the larger creek that all the little tributary creeks fed into, just like a highway today is the main road that all the little roads feed into. Until well into the 1900's, if you wanted to get somewhere in the watershed by the most direct route, you'd walk, ride your horse or drive your wagon and team of horses up or down Bryant Creek.
Actually, you would cross the creek many times on your way because there are bluffs or other features of the land that make it difficult to travel on the same bank of the river all the time. The places where travelers took their wagons across the river were known as "fords." They were usually named after the owner of nearby land, and local people still refer to different parts of the creek by the names of the different fords.
You could also cross the river by boat, if you had one handy. Tommy Medlock remembered that local people took care of that by putting boats out for everyone to use at different spots along the creek. The boats were attached to cables that were attached to trees or posts on either side of the creek. "That way, any side of the creek you came up on, you could pull a boat across to you" if it wasn't already on that side. The cabled boats "were in different places all up and down the creek," he says.
Spring flooding was an especially big travel problem back when the creek was the main thoroughfare. Even today when spring rains come, people in the watershed have to drive around areas with low-water bridges. But back then, you just had to stay home. "When I was a kid, I'd get so tired of rain; the Bryant stayed up so much," Medlock says.
Today, the Bryant Creek area is pretty quiet. But up through the 1930's, it was busy with the sights and sounds of many small farms and big families all up and down the creek. "There's no telling how many people you'd find back then living up that creek."
Just about everyone had crops, a big garden, an orchard and some livestock to provide food for their families year-round. What they didn't eat fresh, they protected or preserved some way. Root cellars were good for keeping things like potatoes, apples, turnips and other produce good through the winter. If you didn't have a root cellar, you could just bury the produce in the ground. The ground will freeze only so far down in winter, so if you bury food below that point, you can be sure it won't freeze. Still other people buried their apples and potatoes in big stacks of hay to keep them from freezing. Canning was also a big thing for preserving vegetables and meats.
Keeping food cool in the summer, on the other hand, was a matter of putting the milk, cheese, meat and other perishables down in the spring house. Fresh water springs are all over the Ozark hills. Families would build little rock buildings around their springs to capture the cool air around them. It was just about as cool as a refrigerator, said Gladys Medlock, Tommy's wife. "I've seen my mother put Jell-O in to set," she says.
When farm families did go to the store to buy some food supplies, they didn't necessarily have to bring money with them, Gladys Medlock says. "People would take their eggs to the store and sell them to the grocer in exchange for groceries." The store would usually be close to a water mill, where farmers would also go to grind the corn and other grains they grew. But, again, they didn't always need money to pay for that service. The mill owner would just accept a percentage of the farmer's meal in exchange for grinding it. Like the grocer with the eggs, the mill owner could eventually sell the meal that the farmers exchanged. In the meantime, the farm family had what it needed without having to go get a paycheck in town.
Tommy Medlock doesn't always have fond memories of the days when everyone lived on the creek and on what food and shelter its environment provided. "There was always plenty of work and wondering where your next meal was going to come from," he says. "People had to make their own living; I don't know how they did it sometimes."
The fact that there was very little game, such as deer and turkey, didn't help. Today, we know that deer and turkey are plentiful enough to have big hunting seasons every year. But when Medlock was a teenager and young man in the 1920s and 30s, they were extremely scarce. The market hunters and regular hunters "had it all about wiped out by the time I got grown," he says.
Hunting deer for hides to ship and sell to Europe was a big business in Missouri in the late 1800s. The Ozarks was a prime place for market hunters to get the deer. By the early 1900s, however, market hunting started declining because deer became fewer and harder to find. That also means it was harder for local people to find any deer to hunt for food, and when they did hunt them they put an even deeper dent in the declining population. The widespread clear-cut logging of the early 1900s in the Ozarks also hurt the deer population, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. In 1937, one researcher estimated that the state of Missouri's entire deer population numbered only 2,000 animals. Wild turkey suffered the same overhunting and habitat loss.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the government started bringing deer and turkey back to the Ozarks. During the restocking time, it was illegal to hunt the deer or turkey. But by 1944, the government started allowing deer hunting again. It still took a while for the deer population to really grow, though. Medlock says that when he moved in 1942 to his current home near the old Fox Creek community of Bertha "there were still no deer here at all."
Surviving The Great Depression
People hunted squirrels, possum and other small game. They also found plenty of fish in the Bryant Creek to eat. Because of these wild food resources and their own ability to raise a variety of produce and livestock, the people who lived down in the Bryant Creek and other Ozark watersheds didn't feel the Great Depression quite so badly as those who lived in the cities or out in the dustbowl areas of Oklahoma and Kansas.
It did hurt though, when the Great Depression "dried up" all the money in the economy so that the nation no longer had the cash to buy what Ozark farmers had to sell. Local people who had bought Model T's in the 1920s,when farming was profitable,wound up turning them into tractors and wagons, says longtime Douglas County presiding commissioner J.G. Heinlein, because they needed those kinds of vehicles more than they needed to drive around in a fancy car. Because cash was not an everyday necessity in the Ozarks, however, "we survived the Depression probably better than a lot of other parts of the country," Heinlein says. "We were poor but we didn't know it."
In order to get cash, Ozarkers like those who lived in the Bryant Creek Watershed often had to go somewhere else to earn it. Fruit and vegetable harvests on the west coast were one big source of cash. Men from all over the area would load up and head out to California and Washington to pick apricots, peas and other items during the harvest season.
Not everyone had a car or enough gas money to get there, so they traveled together. Tommy Medlock had a truck and would load it up with people from the Bryant Creek area. "I always used to take a truckload of fellers to the fruit harvest," he says. A photograph of Tommy Medlock and his truck, with best friend George Stone, who lived on Bryant Creek down the road from Medlock, shows the young man who spent many years on the road working to support his family back home.
Deep Water Fishing
Even though life on the creek was tough, it had its advantages - and delicacies. Like eel. Yes, eel! Tommy Medlock says one of the best treats he's had in his 95 years of life was the chance to eat eel again after they were last seen in Bryant Creek more than 55 years ago. Eel used to travel upstream into the Bryant Creek Watershed area from Arkansas. But when the government built the Norfork Dam in the early 1940s at the confluence of Bryant Creek and North Fork river, the eel could no longer travel past that point. They can't get beyond the dam.
Tommy Medlock and George Stone used to fish for eel all the time; they grew up eating it and loving it. A few years ago, a friend of a friend from Arkansas learned about the two old-timers who longed to eat an eel again. He shipped some eel up to Medlock and Stone, who were overjoyed with the meal.
The Bryant Creek provided plenty of food in the form of fish and other animals, especially when the water was so much deeper and cleaner. To compare the creek's depth today to its depth in Medlock's younger days, consider the fact that "Grown men used to dive into the creek from the bridge on Highway 14. It was that deep," Medlock says.
Fishermen used to take long, narrow boats down the creek to go gigging. Why did they use long, narrow boats instead of the flat-bottom canoes that are more common today? One, the water was deeper, so they could use boats that had keels (not flat-bottomed) and two, the long boats were easy to turn whenever the fishermen ran across a school of fish. "You could turn the boat crossways in a hole of water, and all three people in it had a chance to gig at the fish coming at the boat," Medlock says.
Life on the Bryant Creek was one of both riches and poverty. The creek and its watershed provided food and fun, but not a lot of money. The quality of life in a watershed that is full of clean water, plants and animals, however, is worth a lot to people who consider it home.