Archive for folklore

Bullfrog Valley

Bullfrog Valley meanders alongside Big Piney Creek in Pope County, Arkansas for about five miles, marking the spot where the river begins its slow descent out of the Ozark hills and into the floodplain of the Arkansas River. The valley begins at Long Pool—a popular take-out and put-in spot for boaters and fishermen.

 

Long Pool stretches about a quarter mile as it bends to head south. The only obstacle during this long patch of green, calm water is a set of three house-sized boulders set far to the river right just before the river swings around to create one milder Class II rapid. The rapid is a kind of shudder, before the river widens into the lazy Class I section canoeists call the “Long Pool to Twin Bridges” run. Long Pool is one of those places where the topography gives humans a name for itself.

 

In the Ozarks, as in most places in America, settlers named places after themselves or, as in the case of Bullfrog Valley, after other humans. My maternal grandmother, Mildred Opal Light Waldo, tells a story about Chief Bullfrog, the Cherokee, who lived and died here “back in the old-time days.” She never says what caused Chief Bullfrog’s death, but she makes a point of romanticizing it: he was buried, with honor, under a tree at one end of the valley.

 

When I asked her which end, she shrugs off the question, because that isn’t the point. The point is that Chief Bullfrog was a legend, and legends exist outside of time and place. No one remembers which end of the valley Bullfrog’s family picked for his grave because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the people liked him enough, or remembered him well enough, to name the valley after him.

 

Long Pool is different. Maybe no one claimed ownership of the spot, or maybe the convenience of naming the place after its topography was too easy and obvious. Maybe the settlers found no sense in getting creative about it: no need to or manufacture symbolic gestures or create ambience, the way they did with other spots in the area.

 

Booger Hollow, the east entrance into Bullfrog Valley, is named for the bad luck travelers had there during the American Civil War. The dark overhang of cliffs and trees on either side of the road made it a great hide-out for highwaymen and bandits. It was, at the time, also a major thoroughfare on the road from Harrison near the Missouri border and Russellville on the Arkansas River.

 

Everyone traveling by wagon had to cross through Booger Hollow on their way in or out of the most remote part of the Ozarks. Cemeteries punctuate the hollow on both ends, which surely gave the place an otherworldly feel. On the southwest end of Bullfrog valley, Silex Mountain (named after an early Anglo settler) marks the valley’s border on the northern bank.

 

Only Long Pool, and nearby Bald Nob Mountain, are named for their topographical features. Bald Nob has a pun-ish nature about it, though. It’s not as straightforward. It could have just as easily been called “No Tree Nob” or “Rock Nob,” if the intention was to describe the hill’s treeless summit. “Bald” has a decidedly human ring to it. At Long Pool, the river created the name and the locals didn’t see any need to romanticize the selection.

 

They clearly didn’t see any need to fancy up the river’s name either, other than to differentiate it from Little Piney Creek and from the now-faceless settlement called just “Piney” that sits at the confluence of Big Piney Creek, the Illinois Bayou, and the Arkansas River. Big Piney Creek slowly settles into its slower pace at Bullfrog Valley, flattening the landscape at gradual intervals. The valley completely opens up about a mile south of Long Pool, near the Bates family hog farm, just north of Grimmet Springs. Grimmet Springs, like Bullfrog Valley, is no longer a place exactly. Not in a sense that most Americans understand, anyway.

 

These days, Grimmet Springs is a burned out shell of an old wood shop building, just steps from a natural spring. This spring gurgles up from porous limestone underneath the forest floor. It sits only a few feet from the highway, hidden in a heavy overgrowth of pines, oaks, and dogwood. The road follows the edge of a hollow, so the landscape sharply rises just beyond the spring. The bottoms of Bullfrog Valley stretch out immediately across the road, beyond a pair of wear-worn farmhouses.

 

There is no grocery store within twenty miles, unless you count the snacks on hand at Moore Outdoors, a canoe-rental shop at the intersection of Hwy. 164 and Long Pool Road. Cell phones don’t work here. There is only one quasi-public building besides the Moore Outdoors shop: Booger Hollow Recreation Center, an ancient Masonic-esque building, that sits alongside the road as it enters the valley from the east.

 

There aren’t many people living in Bullfrog Valley, and there never have been. This was always a backwoods place, even in Chief Bullfrog’s days. Chief Bullfrog, as much as we know, was one of the first outsiders to settle here on a semi-permanent basis. Chief Bullfrog would have arrived around 1820, with the first exodus of Cherokee from their ancestral home in the eastern southern states of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.

 

Before that, the entire area of Johnson, Pope and Newton Counties were only counted as hunting grounds for various Native American groups including the Osage and the Choctaw. A few small bands of various Native American groups lived at least part-time in caves and overhangs in the Ozarks, but there were no large settlements in northern Pope County, Arkansas. A few intrepid French and Spanish explorers and trappers had been through the area before Chief Bullfrog, but none of them settled down for good.

 

If Chief Bullfrog was a real person, it’s likely he farmed here, as most of the Anglicanised Cherokee did at that time. Farming would have been a relatively new endeavor in this hilly area, which was mostly known for its abundance of game. Arkansas was entirely wilderness then, seen by its white American overseers as far enough away from civilization to send a whole series of Native American tribes into exile there.

 

The naturalist Thomas Nuttall didn’t make his descent of the Arkansas River until 1819, just a year before a breakaway group of Cherokee took the Americans up on what seemed like a good offer: land in the Arkansas River Valley for their long established farms 2,000 miles away. At least it would get the Americans off their backs, and maybe in the familiar hilly landscape, they could start over.

Life is never that idyllic, of course. The first group of Cherokee that settled here did not get along well with the Osage, and were constantly fending off raids. The major part of the Cherokee settlement in Pope County focused on Piney, at the confluence of the Illinois Bayou and the Arkansas River. For a man trying to recreate a life of farming and occasional hunting, Bullfrog Valley probably looked like an excellent choice.

 

It was too far away from the main settlement to be of any real consequence to a raiding party. The valley is protected by narrow hollows on two sides. If you are trying to avoid the marauding locals, Bullfrog Valley would have been strategic. The Big Piney was big enough and low enough up to Long Pool that a canoe could easily navigate its way up and down to the main settlement, offering a market for farm goods and easy access to the local society. The bottomland along Big Piney offered up plenty of lumber and fertile soil. Bullfrog Valley would have made a resource-rich, if immensely isolated, farmstead.

 

Not much has changed, really. This is still the wilderness and farming is still the major occupation for the few full-time residents. Along the road through Booger Hollow sits a neatly fenced and tidy cattle farm, marked by a large sign near a 1960’s ranch-style house that sits on a low rise overlooking bottom land stretching several hundred acres to Big Piney Creek’s bank.

 

From the road, a traveler can see a mix old wood-frame houses, house trailers, and neat modern houses like the cattle farm, or the Bates Hog Farm property at the northern start of the valley. A visitor would have to be heading toward Long Pool to even encounter the Bates farm: deliberately traveling upward, further into the hills, on a one-way road.

 

If you stick to the main highway through here, the last sign of civilization in Bullfrog Valley is the well-tended Owens Cemetery, situated across the road from Moore Outdoors.  After that, the valley really does feel like the end of the earth, especially because the one paved road through the area dead-ends at Long Pool. Surrounded by steep mountainsides and accessible only via a steep winding road, it feels literally cut off from the rest of the world.  

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Hillbilly Weddings

The phrase “hillbilly weddings” is a search term that keeps popping up on my blog stats. It pops up so often that I figured I would go ahead and indulge those of you who are desperately looking for information on hill folk nuptials.   I get a lot of “what does a hillbilly look like” too, but I think that one is going to take a little more thought to answer properly.  

Vance Randolph is still considered the pentultimate collector of old time Ozark hill folk knowledge.  In his book Ozark Magic and Folklore, he details several superstitions associated with hill folk marriages.

Timing of the Wedding

Randolph writes that the timing of a marriage is determined via phases of the moon and “zodiac signs,” which means that the process is quite variable.  However, he notes that “Many old-timers believe that marriages consummated at the full moon, or when the moon is waxing and near the full, are the happiest and most prosperous . .  . Many hillfolk believe that June weddings, consummated when the moon is full, are best of all.  However, marriages in January are highly regarded . . .according to the old rhyme ‘marry when the year is new/Your mate will be constant, kind and true'” (186-187).

May weddings are apparently bad luck. Rainy or snowy weather is also bad luck, as is marrying when “the wild hawthorn or redhaw is in bloom” (187).   Randolph says that still others think that marriages should happen only in the sign of Scorpio, when “the sign is in the loins” (187).  

Weddings and Weather

Weather on the wedding day is extremely important to predicting the nature of married life. A sunny morning and a rainy afternoon, for example, predict the tenor of the marriage.  It will be happy at the start and miserable at the end.   Randolph also notes that the day after the wedding is just as important for this purpose.  “The day after the wedding, when the ‘infare’ dinner is held at the home of the bridegroom’s parents, is known as the man’s day, and the same weather signs indicate his future happiness or unhappiness” (187).  This passage also points out a custom missing from most modern marriages. The ‘infare’ that Randolph mentions here is apparently a sort of inverse of the rehearsal dinner, hosted by the groom’s parents at their home.  

Rings

According to Randolph, couples should never buy their rings from a store to ward against the ring having absorbed bad energy. They should order it from a catalog instead (187-188).

Wedding Ceremony  and Garments

Randolph collects several instances of superstitions about stance during the ceremony itself. “A couple being married should stand with their feet parallel to the cracks in the floor, as to stand crosswise invites bad luck and evil spirits” (188).   A bride should always step with her right foot after the ceremony, as to step with the left invites bad luck.   Seeing a “toad in the path” immediately after the ceremony is considered good luck as well.  

Brides should always make their own wedding dresses, because otherwise, friends and family members will secretly put pieces of their own hair into the dress hems.  This is, according to Randolph, a kind of curse or “conjure” that “benefits the owner of the hair at the poor bride’s expense” (189).     After dressing, a bride should not look into the mirror until the ceremony is over in order to avoid bad luck (190).   Grooms are advised to wear their new wedding suit for several months after the wedding, but there is apparently no such requirement for brides.  The only stipulation is that my not sell their wedding garments (191).

Randolph also quotes several rhymes that make up superstition about dress color.   The shortest one he quotes comes from Harrison, Arkansas.  “Blue is true/Yaller’s jealous/Green’s forsaken/Red is brazen/White is love/and Black is death” (189). 

Housekeeping

Apparently it is extremely bad luck to set up a new house with a brand new coffeepot. All coffeepots must be used (191).

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Wedding Customs & Everyday Folklore

I’ve been a little lax in my posting this week because, well, I’m getting married on Saturday.  I’m having more nervousness than I thought I would, considering this isn’t the first time I’ve walked down an aisle. I haven’t been particularly feeling nervous, but my uclers are having a totally different experience. I’ve been cleaning feverishly and downing stomach meds for the past two days trying to fight off an ulcer flair-up. 

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about wedding customs. Of course I did a pretty extensive web search and discovered several standard busted myths about weddings. For example, the white dress has nothing at all to do with “purity” or anything to do with religion.  In fact, it was a Victorian invention that helped signify the family’s wealth because white can only be worn once.   My grandmother Waldo often talks about girls from Bullfrog Valley, Arkansas simply wearing their best church dress for their marriages because most of them couldn’t afford to send off for fancy white fabric, much less a fancy pre-made dress.

I thought about dress color pretty seriously before we started the whole wedding business. I’m not a first time bride. I just don’t feel right wearing white, since it has come to symbolize something to do with “sexual purity” and “virginity” in our culture.  I mean, who are we kidding here? I’m a thirty-something woman in the United States in the year 2008. I’d rather dispense with the whole charade of “virginity.” 

Not picking white is easy. It’s picking the right color that is hard.  Gold? A dark creamish color? Green?  I ended up finding inspiration in NYC when I was there in January. I bought a cute little blue tea-length dress off the rack at Macy’s. It’s perfect.   I was happy. 

Until I was having one of those off-hand conversations with a couple of students one afternoon. 

“What are you doing Spring Break, Ms. B?” They asked me. 

“Getting married,” I said. 

“Ooh, congrats! What does your dress look like?”  The girsl wanted to know.

“It’s real casual. It’s a little blue party-dress type thing,” I said.

“Blue?  Who ever heard of a blue wedding dress?”  One of the boys said. 

“Well, it’s not the first time I’ve ever been married. I didn’t think white was appropriate.” 

“But brides just wear white,” he said.  “I never heard of anyone wearing blue, even the fifth time they get married.” 

Then, later, an older student (in her late 50’s or early 60’s), who had overheard our conversation, stopped me the hall and whispered in my ear.  “Ms. B, you have to wear white at your wedding. It’s bad luck not to wear white.”  

I smiled at her, “Well, not everywhere and not all the time, even in this culture.  But I’ll think about it.” 

“You should think about it. Really. I feel it is terrible luck,” then she headed on to her next class.  

For a long time, scholars have said our folk-lives in the U.S. are on the verge of vanishing, thanks to television and a generalized rise in mass media.  Anyone who has written about the Ozarks in the last 100 years has spent time bemoaning the loss of an “original culture” within the region, which they generally define as a “hillbilly pioneer culture.”  Technology, they say, has pretty much wiped out the folktales, the folk beliefs, the folk customs of the area (See  Milton Rafferty, Blevins, and Hawkins on Ozark life and culture).  This isn’t the only “local culture” being wiped out by the evil hand of mass media.

But I see things a little differently.  Folk customs and cultures morph and change, but do not vanish entirely. The bits and pieces that we pick up along the way may not represent a good picture of the whole culture in the end, but they persist. My student who was so convinced I’d bring bad luck upon my head if I chose a blue wedding dress is a perfect example.  For whatever reason, that folk belief is strong for her and she clings to it. The symbolism of the color is important, and so she wants to make sure that she passes on that information.  

Weddings are one of those venues that produce such outbursts folk wisdom.  In fact, when it comes to weddings, many people feel obligated to pass on their folk beliefs.   Any bride who has ever had a friend or mother-in-law say “Oh but you must have . . .”  knows what I mean.  Any bride who has felt compelled to have something at her ceremony or reception that is completely irrational and has no basis in tradition she can articulate knows what I mean. 

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