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Memories from the Homestead: Wright's letter to Miss Lizzie

 

    In 1926, Springfield, Missouri, native Lizzie McDaniel became the new owner of the famous Shepherd of the Hills Homestead. In her first year as owner, she saw almost 6,200 visitors. Daily, the fans would ask her about various book characters in Harold Bell Wright's “The Shepherd of the Hills” novel. Lizzie began to correspond by letter to Harold Bell Wright to get many of the questions answered.  Here are some excerpts from Wright's 1938 letter to Miss Lizzie. This is quite fascinating. He writes:

 



     "Indeed, I am very glad for this opportunity to settle some of the many conflicting legends as to the characters in my novel.

 

     'Uncle Ike,' the old postmaster in the story, is the only actual character which could be definitely placed as an actual portrait of a living person. 'Old Matt' and 'Aunt Mollie' were near portraits—I mean by that Mr. and Mrs. Ross inspired these characters but that in picturing them in the book I idealized and created characters which they in their lives suggested rather than personified. 

     

      I have been sometimes amused and often embarrassed by the stories told by various people who persist in the misstatement that I used my Ozark friends as models for the characters in my novel. In this connection an incident may interest you. I think it was in the year 1918 that I visited the Shepherd of the Hills Country with some motion picture technical men who were considering making a picture on the scenes in the story. I was standing on the veranda of a hotel in Branson, looking out over the country reliving in my mind my first trip to the neighborhood when a gentleman sitting near said: "I reckon you have read that book "The Shepherd of the Hills." “Yes, I have read the story,” I answered. The gentleman then indicated a young woman passing on the other side of the street. “Do you see that girl?” “Yes. That is Sammy Lane.”  “Indeed,” said I. “But as I remember it, the book was written several years ago. I can understand how the Sammy Lane in the story might not grow old but I should think that in real life she would be by now a much older woman than a young lady.”  “I live here and I reckon I know. That's her alright and they've got Sammy's pony down here and charge tourists fifty cents a head for ridin' it.” He then proceeded to give me much additional information about the story and the story people until at last aroused by something I said in reply he burst forth with, “Who are you, anyway?”  “Nobody, Mister,” said I, “I'm just the feller that wrote the story." He was embarrassed at first then appreciated the joke and we both had a hearty laugh.

 

     The actual setting of the story was as I pictured it in the novel except that I moved the cave from its actual location to Dewey Bald. It was said in the neighborhood that there was a lost cave in Dewey Bald, but I certainly never found it. I had spent many hours in the cave with the Powell boys and Charlie Ross and saw no harm in locating the cave in Dewey Bald.

 

     There was a real Fall Creek Mill operated by Mr. Ross and his son. The Ross house on the ridge overlooking Mutton Hollow was the Matthew's cabin. There was an old trail with a rock which I named Sammy's Lookout.  There was a log house on the slope of Dewey which I imagined to be Sammy Lane's home. There was no Wash Gibbs’ cabin on Roark that I knew anything about and as I have said there was no Wash Gibbs.

 

     My first church was at Pierce City, Missouri. From there I went to Pittsburg, Kansas. I wrote my first book “That Printer of Udell's” while in Pittsburg. I was the pastor of the Forest Avenue Christian Church in Kansas City when ill health sent me again into the Ozark Mountains where I outlined “The Shepherd of the Hills.” I then moved to Lebanon, Missouri, and that winter actually wrote the story.  The summer I lived in the Ozarks and worked on “Shepherd” I lived in a tent on the hill near the old Ross home. I boarded with the Ross family. My tent was only a short distance up the hill from the house. I know of no “Hill Billy Preacher.”  “Preachin' Bill” in my story was a creature of my imagination, and if you remember he never actually appears in the story but is only quoted. His 'wise saws' were inventions of my own.

 

     At the time I was working on this story Mr. Truman Powell was very seldom at his home in the Ozarks. I certainly did not 'derive from him' any inspiration for my book. His sons and I were good friends. Of course, I had heard many stories of the Baldknobbers from the neighborhood folk, but the incidents in the story were all inventions of my own without foundation in any tradition or fact.

 

     It has, of course, been very gratifying to me that my simple story of the Ozark Mountains should be so real in the minds of those who know the Ozarks and the Ozark people. I often think that for me to revisit the scenes of my story would be a great delight, and yet, I am not so sure. So many changes have come to the Mutton Hollow neighborhood that I fear it would not be the same to me."

 

     Well, friends, there you have it. I can definitely say that if Wright were here today for a visit, he would still see the presence of the Ozarks spirit among us all. The farm here at the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead has been open to the public now for 112 years. This year is the 130th anniversary of the Ross family homesteading the 160-acre property. Come on over and spend a day here, catch my guided tour of the property, and I'll share some more details of Wright's visits to the area and the impact of it all.

 

For more information: www.theshepherdofthehills.com.

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