Landscapes Remember

By Bonnie Stepenhoff | February 2, 1998
From Missouri Conservationist: Feb 1998

Nature and the human past are intertwined. Even Native Americans, who occupied Missouri before European settlement, altered the landscape. Mound-builders shaped the land to make burial sites and ceremonial places. Indians periodically burned land to make game easier to hunt. The earliest inhabitants of Missouri left tools and pottery behind as evidence of their ways of living.

Scholarly investigations on Conservation Department lands have revealed much about Missouri's early settlers. In 1985, archaeologists James E. Price and Cynthia R. Price excavated the Fancier site at Owl's Bend, near the Current River. According to James Price, the site dated from the 1790s to 1810, making it the earliest known European-American occupation in the Current River Valley.

The Prices' research, sponsored by the National Park Service and Southwest Missouri State University, uncovered rifle balls, gun flints, European-English ceramics and other items, indicating that trappers or traders occupied the site about the time of the Louisiana Purchase. James Price described the discovery as "terribly exciting and yielding some great information about Missouri at an early date."

Craig Sturdevant, archaeologist, also has conducted investigations on Conservation Department lands. He notes that there is a Civil War site on the Lamine River Conservation Area. "A major battle took place in the river valley," he says. "Someone has to point them out to you, but you can see the earthworks."

The Conservation Department also is preserving another Civil War site at Chalk Bluff on the St. Francis River, near the Missouri-Arkansas line. Archaeologists have completed a study of Civil War physical features that remain there. The site has a wood road, buried about three meters deep, that led to a ferry crossing. The remains of trenches and embankments are on adjacent property. Skirmishes at Chalk Bluff on May 1-2, 1863, ended General John Sappington Marmaduke's Confederate raids across the Arkansas border into Missouri.

Most human activities leave marks on the land. Stumbling across an old cemetery, with crumbling and unreadable headstones, can be a sobering reminder of the fragility of human life and the shortness of memory.

People strive to build monuments to past glory, but unintentionally leave behind sad reminders of their struggles. There are several brick structures and a cemetery full of unmarked graves at the Sloan Conservation Area, Dade County. They are silent testimonials to the days when some people's last resort was the poor house or poor farm.

From 1890 until the 1940s, the Dade County Court sent homeless people to live on the Dade County Farm. In 1904, 12 inmates occupied the farm, on which they were supposed to raise crops and support themselves. But researchers learned that none of the residents of the Dade County Farm was able-bodied. Charles A. Ellwood, a professor of sociology at the University of Missouri, reported that nine of the inmates were insane, two were feebleminded, one was blind, four were crippled and one was paralyzed. These unfortunate people ended up on the poor farm because there was no place else for them to go.

By 1933, the county had built two brick dormitories and a dining hall for residents and a white frame house for the superintendent. Under the New Deal's Works Project Administration (WPA) program, federal workers built new entrance gates on the farm property. In the winter of that Depression year, 16 inmates lived on the farm. Of these, according to records, three were mentally disabled, one apparently blind, four paralyzed and three incapacitated by advanced age.

Social Security, disability benefits and other government programs of the 1930s and 1940s helped to make the poor farm obsolete. By the end of the 1930s, the number of occupants dwindled. Elois Sloan, a longtime Dade County resident, recalled that five women and one man lived at the county farm when officials closed it down.

In 1947, Elois Sloan and her husband, Dr. O.D. Sloan bought the farm at an auction on the courthouse steps. Although the Sloans used the land for a dairy operation, they carefully preserved the old county buildings. Forty-five years later, Elois Sloan donated the property to the Conservation Department.

A team of historians and archaeologists, led by Craig Sturdevant, studied the Dade County Farm and submitted a report of their findings. Researchers measured and photographed the buildings and uncovered information about the farm in county and state records. The Conservation Department commissioned the study in order to document the property and preserve its history.

Conservation Department policy mandates archaeological and historical investigations whenever development plans threaten sites that may contain evidence of past human habitation. In 1980, the Conservation Commission made protection of cultural resources a high priority. The agency's attitude rests upon the principle that "Missouri's cultural resources are nonrenewable, of growing importance and of special concern to scientists, students and others interested in development of man's cultural systems."

The Conservation Department follows federal guidelines for identifying and protecting cultural resources. In the period of rapid economic development after World War II, the federal government recognized increasing threats to historic and prehistoric properties. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended in 1992, established procedures for surveying historic buildings, structures and sites throughout the United States. In cooperation with state historic preservation offices, the United States Department of the Interior's National Park Service regulates federal activities that might have an impact on historic properties and encourages public and private agencies to preserve significant sites.

State and federal agencies work together to gather and save vital information on cultural resources that become the casualties of progress. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Program files this information as part of its statewide cultural resource inventory, a data bank that has been growing since the 1960s. Researchers studying the history of Missouri can use this information to sharpen their understanding of the state's fascinating past.

The National Park Service also keeps files on significant buildings, structures and sites in Missouri and other states. The most significant properties receive listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The process of nominating properties to the National Register involves intensive research, both in the field and in libraries and archives, to determine whether, and in what way, the property represents a significant event, theme or person in American history.

Like every other human agency, the Conservation Department has left marks on the land. Fire observation towers of wood and steel remind us of the Conservation Department's efforts to protect forests. Early metal towers came in kits, like huge erector sets. The oldest metal tower on Conservation Department land still stands in Deer Run Conservation Area, with shipping information visible on it.

Bruce Palmer, a Conservation Department information specialist, reports that the first fire towers were wooden structures. In the late 1920s, the forestry division of the United States Department of Agriculture erected the metal tower at Deer Run. Beginning in 1937, the Conservation Department constructed metal towers for fire suppression and prevention in the Ozarks.

The men who kept watch in these towers in the 1930s lived a solitary life. They had to battle not only fires but the attitudes of people who didn't see the need to protect Missouri's timber.

Modern technology rapidly is replacing the romantic old fire towers. "In parts of the Ozarks," reports Palmer, "where there are lots of remote and wild areas, the fire towers are still used." But, he says, with larger populations, telephones and better communications in most areas, the Conservation Department receives reports of fires before they are big enough to be visible from towers.

These changes and detection by aerial patrols have put many fire towers out of service. Some of these old towers are gone now. Others are falling into disrepair. These old structures remind people of the need for constant vigilance in protecting our wild places.

Whether we like it or not, the natural and the human environment are inseparable. It would be a great mistake to try to completely erase human traces from any part of the landscape. We need to protect the natural world, but we also need to protect reminders of the human past so that we can learn from them. triangle

The Land and the Law

Archaeologists study fragments of weapons, tools, pottery and other manmade objects found underground, above ground and under water. Artifacts derive meaning from their placement in the landscape. Removing artifacts from the ground, without proper documentation, robs them of their significance. Archaeologists excavating sites keep painstaking records of their activity, disturbing each site as little as possible.

State and federal laws restrict the collection of cultural property. Larry Grantham, archaeologist with the Missouri Division of State Parks, warns that the law prohibits any collecting of geological, botanical or archaeological specimens from state parks. Artifacts found on state-owned lands are considered state property. Collecting artifacts without permission of the property owner is stealing. State law protects human burial sites. It is a felony to disturb, destroy, molest or damage a burial site. The federal Archaeological Resource Protection Act prohibits removing artifacts from federally-owned property.

Human cultural remains are part of the landscape. Collectors who remove them from the land deprive future generations of the chance to discover, appreciate and understand them in the settings that give them their meaning.

For further information on the preservation of Missouri's cultural heritage, contact the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, 65102.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer