Even though the eldest Randolph daughter was old enough to attend Mill Creek School in 1923, her father wouldn't let her. "He thought I was too little to go by myself," says Holly Randolph Harron. "I had to wait until an older cousin moved into the area so we could walk together."
Keeping an eager-to-learn six-year-old from attending school doesn't seem so cruel once you've trod the path Holly took to the one-room schoolhouse. The hour-long hike over rocky terrain could be tedious for a short-legged child and sometimes dangerous.
"Once when I was walking home, an ice storm hit," recalls Holly's youngest sister, Bonnie Randolph Marshall. With large branches snapping off and falling all around her, she took refuge at a neighbor's house.
Bonnie and the middle sister, Eunice Randolph Pennington, had other classmates to walk with so they were able to attend school as soon as they were old enough. Even so, Eunice's first day was more memorable than most. "Daddy said to keep my shoes on, but I didn't," Eunice says. "A little pygmy rattler bit me on the toe. I still have a brown spot there that hurts every spring."
In spite of the dangers of getting to school, absenteeism wasn't a concern. "School was fun," Holly says. "It got us away from the house. If we stayed home we had to work." School work was easy compared to cleaning the chicken house, weeding the garden or helping plow a field with a team of mules.
Now seven decades later, these three sisters join their former classmates and their families each June under the tall oak trees where the school once stood. Long gone is the school building, the general store and the houses that dotted the hollows and gaps in what used to be the Mill Creek community. Now the trees shade the grounds surrounding the headquarters of Peck Ranch Conservation Area.
The 22,948-acre Peck Ranch Conservation Area in the northwest corner of Carter County was used to help restore wild turkeys to Missouri, and today wildlife of all types abound. Restored natural areas dot the landscape, providing habitat for a variety of species from black bears to collared lizards to purple cone flowers. With up to 50 deer per acre, it's a good place to catch sight of a newly born fawn in early June.
But it wasn't always so. In the late 1800s, long before the Randolphs moved into the area, the original pine and oak forests were logged. After the turn of the century, around 1905, George Peck set up a cattle and hog ranch. During World War I, Peck sold the timber rights to one-fourth of the ranch to Midcontinent Iron Co., which clear-cut the trees to make charcoal.
With an iron smelter came an influx of workers. More than 3,000 people built cabins in the remote area, then named Midco after the company that employed them. Most left when the plant shut down abruptly after the war. The plant closed without paying Peck for all the timber. He moved back to Chicago and hired Charley Randolph, Eunice's, Bonnie's and Holly's father, to live on the ranch to keep an eye out for timber thieves. Peck allowed other people who had worked for him to live off the land and to build houses, provided they didn't sell the remaining timber.
Even with rent-free land, it wasn't an easy life in the remote Ozarks, where none of the approximately 50 families had electricity. The stories of hard work are passed down at the annual reunion, but so are lasting friendships.
To earn a living during the economically depressed times of the '20s and '30s, most of the people raised cattle and hogs on the open range. "With a good acorn crop, there was no limit to the hogs you could have," says Robert Hart, who moved to the Peck Ranch area in 1917. He is 92 years old. "All you needed to do was take them out some salt." He had better luck if the hogs were wild because they stayed out of people's yards.
A good "catch" dog was essential, according to Tom Kent, who grew up in Silo Hollow on Peck Ranch. "A dog would grab the hog by an ear and run it around until the owner could grab the hog by the leg."
Free-ranging cattle fed on native grasses that sprung up on the ridges after timber had been harvested. "It was a job getting cattle out of the woods if you didn't have a dog," says Crandell Clark who raised cattle for 17 years. "A dog could bring them out of brush thickets where you couldn't get a mule." With his English shepherd, Julie, and his little black mule, Susie, Crandell had the perfect team. After Julie brought the cow out, he would tie it to Susie's saddle and the mule would take it home.
Many families supplemented their incomes by digging cone flowers, a native Missouri plant. The Randolph girls roamed the glades and limestone bluffs digging the roots. A family could gather 30 pounds a day. The 30 pounds dried down to 10 pounds, which the families sold for 10 cents a pound to a company in St. Louis. The root remains a popular herbal remedy.
Corn, cane for molasses and cow peas for the cattle grew in the fields the families cleared. It was hard work plowing the fields with mules and horses. One round took an hour, says Tom Kent. "Then we had to stop to let the horses cool off." Most people took their animals to one of the three creeks or a spring branch for watering each day because there were few ponds.
Houses were built near springs, which served as refrigerators. "I carried milk and butter across the field every night," says Raymond "Red" Norris. "It wasn't wide, but I thought it was the biggest field I'd ever seen." On the way back, he would tote a bucket of cold spring water.
Many foods were ripe for the picking. "Even though there was a depression, we had lots to eat," says Bonnie Randolph Marshall. In the summer she and her sisters filled their baskets with strawberries, huckleberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. In the fall, they searched for hazel nuts, hickory nuts and black walnuts. In the spring, they hunted for a variety of greens, and one neighbor made pickles out of poke stalks.
Hunting supplied extra meat. Few deer and turkey remained, but there were plenty of squirrels, possums and raccoons. "We caught a lot of coon," says Robert Hart, "and we ate a lot of them. My wife, Delphia, was a fine hand at cooking."
Finding food at home was sometimes easier than the ten-mile trip to the nearest town. Fremont was two hours by mule or four hours walking over the ridges and through the valleys. "We kept a chopping axe in the wagon," says Holly Randolph Harron, "so if the creek washed out the road, we could cut a new path."
It was often easier for entertainment to come to them. Harley Atkins came from Winona with his wife and children. He would pitch a tent near the Mill Creek School and show silent movies during the summer. "Some people would bring a pound of butter or a chicken to get in. We'd bring blackberries," says Ruth Hibner Klepzig, whose parents ran a general store next to the school from 1919 to 1923. "We'd be as quiet as can be. There was no music, just silence as best as I remember."
Jig and square dances brought friends together in each other's homes. "We just invited the neighbors who wouldn't drink or fuss," Ruth says. The ones who made home brew were left out of the Hibners' parties.
The school house served as the church on Sunday and was always ready for a revival. Ruth remembers a time when her brother Buster Hibner and her nephew Jackie Klepzig stopped to hunt on the way and left their day's bounty outside. After they sat on the front row, an odor slowly permeated the room. "I smell a pole cat," said the preacher, "but I kind of like to smell it." The preacher wasn't going to let a little skunk scent get in the way of saving some souls.
Hunting pole cats, however, was serious business. "Skunk was never thrown away," says Willard Osburn. His grandmother Clarcia Osburn was a midwife and herbal doctor. She is credited with saving many people licensed doctors had given up on.
Willard remembers having gobs of pole cat grease smeared on him. "The skin would absorb it," he says. "When it was mixed with other things like kerosene or turpentine, it would break up phlegm in the lungs. "I guess it worked," Willard says. "I'm still here."
"The woods are full of remedies if you know what you are looking for," Clarcia would tell her grandson. Witch hazel was gathered to treat skin diseases. Slippery elm bark was used for poultices for skinned up knees and elbows, and sassafras tea was a spring tonic.
The old ways ended in the early 1950s. The land at Peck Ranch exchanged hands several times in the 1940s and was finally sold to the Con servation Department. The residents were given time to move and allowed to take their improvements with them. Although many bought land nearby, it was often harder to give up the tight-knit community than it was to tear down the fences and buildings.
The houses and outbuildings were carefully taken apart so the lumber could be used to rebuild. For example, a 72-foot barn made of hand-hewn pine logs was moved piece by piece to Winona more than 20 miles away and reassembled, says Crandell Clark. He worked for the Conservation Depart-ment building roads and trails on Peck Ranch.
Orville Norris was another former resident who joined the Conservation Department. In 1953, he helped fence 11,000 acres to protect about a dozen wild turkeys that remained. The population quickly grew, and the young were used to stock other areas.
The turkey program was a success. Orville remembers the day they caught 83 at one time. Now more than 380,000 wild turkeys live throughout the state.
Even though the land is now back to turkeys, deer, woods and glades, the people are not forgotten. "Every spring branch had a homestead by it and was named after the family who lived there," says Mitch Miller, wildlife management biologist at Peck Ranch. Mitch is keeping this history alive by maintaining a map of the homesteads. At the reunion last year, Mitch asked each family to indicate where they used to live. He encourages others to stop by the Peck Ranch headquarters and help him fill in missing information.
Descendants and former residents enjoy coming back, he says. "There's a lot of history tucked away in the hills and hollows, we don't want to lose it."
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