Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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Location: Missouri

I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written seventeen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History, and Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The All-American Redheads

Long before the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), a women's professional basketball team called the All-American Redheads toured the United States, succesfully competing against men's teams and entertaining spectators in much the same fashion that the Harlem Globetrotters did on the men's side. The Redheads got their start in 1936 at Cassville, Missouri, where the owner and organizer of the team, Connie Mack (C. M.) Olson, lived at the time. Olson owned and played for a barnstorming men's team, and since his wife, Doyle, was also a good basketball player, he decided to start a traveling women's team that would play by men's rules, featuring five-on-five, full-court basketball rather than six-on-six, half-court basketball that girls usually played at the time. He recruited girls who were not only good basketball players but who were also tall and physical. The women regularly beat men's and boys' teams when they went on the road in 1936, but the thing that contributed to their success perhaps as much as their playing ability was a marketing gimmick that Olson came up with. His wife, Doyle, owned and operated several beauty parlors in the area, and someone suggested that all the girls who weren't already redheaded should color their hair using henna dye. The suggeston was adopted, the team became the All-American Redheads, and fans began flocking to see them play.
In the mid 1950s, Olson sold the Redheads to Orwell Moore, whom he had previously hired to coach the team, and Moore moved the team's headquarters to Caraway, Arkansas. Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, more than any other factor, contributed to the gradual demise of the All-American Redheads, because it opened up previously unavailable opportunities for girls and young women to compete in high school and college basketball just as boys and young men had been doing for years. Instead of aspiring to play for the Redheads, outstanding female basketball players gradually began aspiring to play for stellar college teams like the University of Tennessee. The Redheads finally disbanded in 1986, and the team played its last game ten years later when former players got together for a reunion.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Norman Baker and the Crescent Hotel

Eureka Springs, from its very beginning in 1879, has always drawn a lot of unusual characters. I don't mean this as a put-down of Eureka Springs, because I like the town. I especially like its quaint shops and its artistic leanings, and I'm sure my opening observation is not as applicable nowadays as it used to be. At least in the town's early days, though, many eccentric, adventurous, or sometimes even desperate people flocked to Eureka Springs to "take the cure" of the town's healing waters or otherwise be rejuvenated, and along with the seekers came hucksters and charlatans ready to take advantage of them.
One such faker was Norman Baker, who purchased the Crescent Hotel in 1937, at a time when the historic landmark had faded and was in disrepair and the city fathers looked to Baker to help revitalize the town. Baker had already earned a reputation as a medical quack and a political demagogue even before he landed in Eureka Springs. Despite having no medical training himself, he had started a hospital in his home state of Iowa that offered alternative cures for cancer and also started a radio station that he used to hawk his phony cancer cures and to promote a sort of right-wing populism that fostered distrust in government, science, education, and any religious tradition other than Protestant.
In Eureka Springs, Baker painted the Crescent in flamboyant colors, turned it into a hospital, and once again began hawking his dubious cancer cures. He was soon charged with mail fraud for sending literature through the mail promoting his unconventional cures, was convicted, and spent over three years from 1941 to 1944 in a Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. He later returned to Iowa, where he tried unsuccessfully to reopen his medical facility there. He lived the last several years of his life aboard a yacht off the coast of Florida. He died in 1958, and his body was returned to Iowa for burial.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lucille Morris Upton

To future generations of Ozarkians, Lucille Morris Upton may best be remembered as the author of a book about the Bald Knobbers, but I remember her best as editor of a column in the Springfield Daily News that she filled with poetry and stories from contributors throughout the Ozarks. Originally called the "The Wastebasket," the title of the column evolved to "The Ozarks Wastebasket" and then to "Over the Ozarks." The column ran from 1947 to 1963 under Upton's editorship (although it predated her editorship) and continued for some years after 1963 under other editorship. Some of the contributors were well known, like Rosa Zagnoni Marinoni (poet laureate of Arkansas) and Edsel Ford. Others were somewhat lesser known, such as my father, Ben L. Wood, whose poetry regularly appeared in the column, while there were no doubt some contributors who were published in "Over the Ozarks" one or two times and never again in the Springfield paper or anywhere else. The column was filled mostly with poetry, but it also included brief stories and tales.
Upton also edited a column entitled "Good Old Days" that appeared only in the Sunday edition of the Springfield newspaper. It focused on the history of Springfield. Upton would comb Springfield newspapers from 50 years earlier and then write fictitious letters from "Celia" to her aunt in St. Louis describing what was going on in Springfield at that time (50 years prior).

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Cobbites of White County

I have mentioned previously that the late 1880s were a time a great social and religious experimentation. After the turmoil of the Civil War, people were looking for some meaning in their lives and were willing to try new things they might not otherwise have tried in times of more stability. Some of the experimental groups were mere fads that lasted only a short time, while others enjoyed a period of popularity before dying out slowly, but a few morphed into the mainstream and are still going relatively strong today (e.g. Christian Science).
Perhaps the most bizarre religious group to settle in the Ozarks during this time was the one that took up residence in a house a few miles south of Searcy in White County, Arkansas, in 1876 under the Rev. Cobb. Known as the "walking preacher," the leader of the group reportedly came from Tennessee and held outlandish beliefs, but little else was known about him. His "atrocious doctrines," as the New York Times called them, included the belief that he himself was God or Jesus Christ and that he could perform miracles, such as commanding the sun to rise or set by wielding a sycamore pole.
His followers, called Cobbites, were just as strange and fanatical as he was. One of their peculiar behaviors was walking back and forth on the housetop with their eyes closed, supposedly to prove that they were chosen and protected by God. They believed that the only way they could become Christ-like was to be "sanctified" and that "sanctification" could only come to the women through Rev. Cobb and then to the rest of the group through the women.
The group's antics soon aroused the alarm and curiosity of local people, and several who ventured out to investigate reported being dragged inside the house and forced to pray with the group. In the late summer of 1876, only a few months after the group arrived in White County, two local men went out to see what all the uproar was about, and the Cobbites went out to greet them with entreaties to come inside and "see God." When one of the men made a sarcastic remark, the group started shouting "Kill him!", dragged him from his wagon, and chopped off his head with an ax. The other man fled and reported what happened. A mob quickly formed, went to the Cobbite settlement, killed two of the men, and arrested a few of the other "murderous Cobbites," as the Times later called them. However, Cobb himself managed to escape and was never captured.

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