World's Greatest Dog Man
They told me I should go to Joplin and talk with O.L. Beckham, a legendary dog trader who wrote extensively about hounds. "He's the best storyteller in the Ozarks. The best anywhere," they said.
It took more than a decade for me to act on that tip. Luckily O.L., then in his early 80s, hadn't slowed down much. He particularly loved reminiscing about his father, the youngest of ten, an Ozark walking preacher and himself father of nine.
While moving the family back north from working a spell in Texas, his family's wagon got caught behind slow-moving cattle herds. That's when O.L. was born, on April 12, 1907, in brush alongside the Chisolm Trail in Oklahoma.
"My father moved every January first," O.L. recalled. "He would feel a calling to serve some community and load us all into the wagon, even if snow was flying. Anything that didn't fit, he left for the birds to peck over.
"Once he loaded us all up to go from Happy Hollow to an old abandoned cabin in the weeds near Rea Valley in Arkansas. That winter Daddy didn't have anything to feed the team but corn stalks. Them old horses were as weak as water. We had to ford a half-frozen river in the dark of night. This one little horse died right there. Our wagon swung around into a deep hole.
"Luckily it was a high-wheeled farm wagon. My 12-year-old brother had to wade out into icy water chest-deep to let the dead horse go. I still remember mother wrapping me in a coat-I was six-and setting me on her cast-iron cook stove while my brother led that lone blind mare to pull the wagon to shore.
"We got to the cabin at daybreak. Then we all had to go cut wood and pull tin off a barn to cover up the house's open windows. Never did get any glass in that place."
O.L.'s legacy as a storyteller and lover of the outdoors flourishes. As an author of three books, now all out-of-print collectors' items, O.L. joined one of the great traditions of Missouri literature: the solemnization of the dog. O.L. wrote nearly 3,000 stories, most of them about man's best friend. Much of his writing appeared exclusively for readers of Full Cry, which is described as "America's leading tree hound publication."
Since January 1951, O.L.'s column has appeared in every issue without fail. He wrote about eating nothing but turnips 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.