Wild game and fish kept the first pioneers from starvation in hard times as they honed their skills in the outdoor wealth of the Ozark Mountains, the Mulberry and the Arkansas Rivers. Early Ozark area settlers possibly learned their skills from the Indians who co-existed with them in the area. The mountain people were called hillbillies and their food was called bizarre in the early days. Their location in extraordinary natural beauty with outdoor adventures, interesting foods, and hospitality brought tourism to the once isolated city of Ozark.
The Osage, Quapaw, and Cherokee had been relocated to Indian Territory by 1828 from Arkansas’s Ozark region before the influx of white pioneers. Franklin County was populated mainly by people from Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, Indiana, and Illinois. Later, in the 1840’s, German settlements began arriving in nearby Altus.
Early travel to and from the area was mostly on the Arkansas River. According to folklore, “French Explorers came up the Arkansas River in 1819. They reportedly shot an arrow and vowed to found a town where the arrow landed. The arrow allegedly landed just northeast of the present day Franklin County Courthouse. The French words “Aux Arc” mean “at the bend” and are pronounced Ozark. The French never established a settlement but they did build a trading post. The name Aux Arc stuck and is now the name of a local campground on the Arkansas River in Ozark.
The first steamboat to ascend the Arkansas River to Ozark was the Robert Thompson in 1822. Some of the items brought in and deposited for reshipment to the north included axes, kettles, mosquito bars, cloth, guns, and paper.
The land was quickly developed, beginning with a courthouse in 1831 and log homes without doors or windows, and chimneys made of sticks and mud. Small settlements were built and by 1837, and with Ozark being centrally located it became an important settlement in Franklin County. Officially founded in 1836, Ozark became the county seat in 1837.
Before 1838, there were no school buildings or teachers in Ozark. The only public education was taught by traveling teachers who would teach four or five months then move on to another school. Today Ozark has modern school buildings, and Ozark is the only district in the union to use both the likeness and the name Hillbilly as its mascot. They are quite proud of it. Benches at the local travel center boast the words, “Hillbilly Pride Runs Deep,” and “Proud to be an Ozark Hillbilly.”
The city was incorporated in 1850, but during the Civil War, the town was raided, burned, and every business destroyed. Only three homes were left standing. The city lost its incorporation but rebuilt and reincorporated by 1869. The establishment of new businesses brought the people back to the town. Horse and cattle trade became the leading industry in the Arkansas River Valley. Early careers were merchants, innkeepers, saloon keepers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, doctors, and lawyers. In 1888, The Ozark Canning Company began operation. It canned local produce and was in operation until 1892. A variety of fruits, potatoes, cotton, and hay were grown in the region. Bakeries, millinery, meat markets, furniture, and drug stores all began businesses during this time.
The first county courthouse was built in 1840 and was burned during the Civil war. Afterward, the county had grown rapidly and a new courthouse was completed by 1871.
Nine newspapers were begun in Ozark beginning with The Southwestern in 1858. The only one to survive was The Spectator, established in 1911 and still operating today.
The railroad, which was planned to bypass Ozark, was rerouted overnight. Supposedly, the chief engineer
fell in love with a local girl and was persuaded to run the track through Ozark. The first train reached Ozark in January 1876.
Coal mining began in Franklin County in the 1870s and continues today. The mines near Ozark provided work for many people. The Black Diamond and Franklin Coal Companies were based in Ozark. Four coal trains per day still pass through the Ozark Depot on a regular schedule.
Five public executions by hanging in Ozark began in the early 1800s and ended in 1912. One hanging in 1907 attracted 5,000 spectators in the town square.
Several Banks, The Arkansas Valley Bank in 1889, and the People’s Bank in 1926, open and closed by 1933. The Bank of Ozark opened in 1937.
Natural gas, water, and a sewer system were installed by the Arkansas Western Gas Company in 1930. Electricity was brought to Ozark in 1909 by the Citizen’s Service Company. Prior to that time, lights were from candles or wicks hanging in oil pots.
The historic steel lighted Ozark Bridge was constructed from 1929-1931 and spans the Arkansas River. As old military roads were being repaired and new roads built in 1916-1921, roads replaced river travel and the bridge brought an end to the passenger ferry business from the Depot to the other side of the river.
The Arkansas Tech University-Ozark campus was established in 1965 and offers technical certificates, Associates, Bachelors, Masters, and Specialist Degrees. It also offers online courses.
Butterball Turkey, established in 2006, employs 600 Ozark residents. This plant and one other in Arkansas supply one-third of the turkeys eaten in the U.S. Another business that employs 300 locals is Baldor Electric Motors.
But the main income to the city comes from tourism according to Mayor T. R. McNutt. “Although the population here is 3,700,” says McNutt, “during the day there are up to 10,000 people from the surrounding area in town.”
The importance given to the city’s heritage is evident in the downtown area, beginning at the quaint town center and radiating in all directions from the Courthouse Square Historic District. The Ozark Depot Museum and two of the three homes that remained standing after the Civil War are in close proximity. A sand carved mural inside the Bank of the Ozarks depicts the history of the area.
Early visitors from the east sent back reports that the backward, illiterate mountain people offered freely what they had of food during the lean years after the war. Families had been burned out, their food supplies raided, and livestock taken by soldiers from both the north and the south. Still, the settlers offered their food to strangers. The offerings were strange and distasteful to some who reported day’s old cornbread, the fried meat they didn’t recognize, and coffee made with acorns and corn. No cream or sugar was offered for the coffee, only raw honey. The poor settlers had fished, hunted, planted, and gathered what was offered by their surroundings to survive. In the isolated region, the people had to survive on their pioneering skills. The writers of the era soon were hailing the Southern hospitality and complaining less about the food.
In Ozark, the farmers and hunters were the first to develop bee finding skills. The hunters would bait the bees with a spray of sweetened water, and when bees would arrive, they would follow the bees back to their hive, and possibly capture the queen and take it with them and develop their own beehives. Farmers would carefully watch the wetland and flowered areas and observe and follow bees until they returned to the hive. Once found, the hives would provide honey for many families in the area for years to come. The skill of finding a “course” of bees was a tradable skill. Often farmers traded the knowledge of finding a beeline for farm implements or other goods. The honey was used to sweeten sassafras tea or coffee and make cough syrup. The wax was used to make candles. The honey was also thought to cure a variety of ailments such as jaundice and arthritis.
The region has quite a reputation for its odd cuisine and in the cookbook, An Ozark Culinary History,” author Erin Rowe has covered a wide range of Arkansas favorites which include Johnny cakes, rosehip and elderberry jellies, persimmon cookies, and chocolate gravy. Then the meats section lists chicken and dumplings, squirrel meatloaf, duck, souse, venison, trout, and catfish. There is even a recipe for moonshine. Current Ozark natives tell of being raised by digging sassafras roots and making sassafras tea, making homemade root beer, and gathering and cooking poke sallet with eggs fried in bacon grease.
Local restaurants don’t serve wild game but give homage to their ancestry with the names or traditions of some dishes. Rivertown Barbeque serves “possum dumplins” and “the big clucker” dinners. The Southern Grille offers meat-stuffed pancakes, homemade cobblers, pies, and ice cream in a wide variety.
If you’re an angler, many fishing opportunities are available in the Arkansas and Mulberry Rivers and Ozark Lake. Younger visitors may enjoy the flea and antique markets, the giant shuffleboard at the Speakeasy Bar, several interesting restaurants, or traveling up Highway 23, a National Scenic Highway, called the “Pig Trail.” Annual music festivals in the area are the Backwoods Camping & Music Festival and the ByrdFest Music Festival. Motorcycle enthusiasts may enjoy the Ozark Run route that encompasses the “Pig Trail” running through Ozark and totaling 117 miles of Ozark Mountain and wild rivers scenery.
The Ozark Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Ozark organizations sponsor many fun activities throughout the year which include: the Annual Chowdown at Rivertown Barbeque, UA Master Gardener’s Plant Sale, Backwoods at the Mulberry, Earth Day, Byrd’s Spring Backcountry Fly-In, Art & Farm Market (Monthly in Summer), Music on the Mulberry, Annual Cardboard Boat Race & Independence Day Celebration, the County Fair, Annual Rods & Ribs Car Show, Annual Old Fashion Square Gathering, and Scare on the Square.
Whatever your age, enjoyment of the outdoor, indoor, culinary, or historic nature will be offered with a heaping scoop of Southern hospitality in the unique city of Ozark.
For more information contact the Ozark Tourist Information Center at www.ozarkchamberofcommerce.com.