World's Greatest Dog Man

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Published on: May. 26, 2010

for weeks on end in winter, picking cotton for 50 cents a hundredweight, having his father take O.L.'s meager savings to buy the boy an ax for a Christmas present, then telling him to go cut a load of wood after opening the present.

"Beckham commanded loyalty among our readers because he was an entertainer who knew how to draw a crowd," commented Seth Gault, editor of Full Cry.

"He loved to write about the rough times of growing up and all the different people he met as a dog trader," Gault said. He could let his mind ramble and come up with everything from philosophy to humor."

Beckham's greater fame may be due to his reputation as a dog trader. A 1976 article in the Kansas City Star proclaims O.L. to be "The King of Traders' Row" for his achievements as a dog, horse and cattle dealer.

He was as tough as a wood hauler's boot. On my last visit to his place south of Joplin, the Hardly Able Ranch, O.L. was recovering from his third stomach operation in seven weeks. His wife Frances, daughter Rose, her husband Tim, other nearby kin, hunters and friends were continuing the Friday evening, all-day Saturday dog swaps and hunts at the end of each month.

As the snow swirled outside, the old friends talked about how the Ozarks have changed, how much they still love special places and people now long gone. O.L. recalled his first childhood trade-a peanut for a rusty knife blade.

When his family moved to Joplin, the center of a roaring mining district, O.L., 16, began working at a smelter, hauling 120-pound lead pigs. Soon O.L. had muscles big as loaves of bread, just like the other men.

But the lead made O.L. sick, a blessing in disguise because it didn't kill him outright. Laid up for several years, O.L. taught himself to write stories based on his struggles growing up in the Ozark backwoods.

He also worked his way into the dog business.

"'Give-me' dogs for coon hunters were my real bread and butter," O.L. explained. "Just your good old tree hound, that's for me. Nothing fancy. I've sold a couple of dogs at $1,500 each, but I've given away as many dogs to kids as I've sold for top dollar."

A long-time coon hunter in St. James, Dean Martin, said, "Beckham bought and sold more dogs than any one person in the world. He's just an extremely likeable guy who every coon hunter knows."

Beckham also knows a lot of magic tricks, according to hunter Howard Byington.

"He could do tricks with just a loop of string or an old handkerchief," Byington said. "It was amazing. I watched him at an annual gathering at Kenton, Ohio, where he had a big crowd around watching his tricks and laughing."

At my visit to the Hardly Able monthly sale, Rose Barwick described her stepfather as a great influence on many people. "When other kids brought things to school for show-and-tell, I would bring my dad. He was such a dynamic guy, it's only natural that I would become a coondog trader myself.

"So much has changed since Dad started out," Barwick explained. "Coon hunting has become a dying way of life, as fewer and fewer places are open for us to hunt, as the countryside gets cut up into smaller places. People don't welcome us like they used to.

"Most every small farm used to have dogs. The kids were taught to hunt to put meat on the table and bring back a piece of game for every bullet they took. People knew little more than hard work then. Now we're concerned the next generation doesn't understand how important it is to conserve our wild game and ways of hunting."

The King of Traders' Row agreed. His energy renewed as coon hunters arrived at his ranch, and he recalled how a few decades earlier, a carload of hunters came from Ft. Smith just to see two raccoons he had captured while hunting.

"That's how bad things got many years ago," O.L. pointed out. "We can't ever let that happen again. Coon hunters are some of the best conservationists in the country."

O.L. died on June 1, 1995, but his fame as a storyteller continues to enthrall tree hound enthusiasts.

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