May 1, 2010 Silver Dollar City offers glimpse into Ozarks past
By Andy Ostmeyer Globe Metro Editor
BRANSON, Mo. — Leslie Jones told his apprentice — a young Donnie Ellison — that Ellison could never expect to become a master craftsman unless he started from the ground up.
Jones and his wife, Gussie, had made white oak baskets in the Ozarks for years, selling for as little as a quarter the large baskets that had sometimes taken them hours to make.
Good baskets start with the tree, Jones taught Ellison.
If Ellison was ever to learn to make bushel and other sorts of baskets, he had to first find the right kinds of trees — white oak is preferred — but not just any white oak would do.
White oaks on Ozark hillsides facing north and east were needed. Trees there received less sunlight and didn’t dry out as quickly, and they also were sheltered from the wind, which means wood in them wasn’t twisted.
“Once I brought back a piece of timber and it wasn’t white oak, it was black gum. You couldn’t split it,” said Ellison. “Oh, I tried. I was just trying to prove to (Jones) that I knew what I was doing. He just sat there and laughed, and said, ‘Go ahead and split that.’ I didn’t end up with nothing.”
Ellison learned the rest of the craft, too, through trial, error and sweat.
For a while, Ellison said, “I did nothing but split logs and shape up the wood with a draw knife, and cut the strips and hand the strips to them.”
Thirty-eight years later, Ellison, now 61, is a master craftsman of his own. He has worked at Silver Dollar City all those years, and is one of 100 resident craftsmen — nine of them classified as masters — demonstrating skills that have long since become obsolete in a world where people can just run to Wal-Mart to grab what is mass produced.
These craftsmen have made Silver Dollar City, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, more than a business or an amusement park with water-soaking, teeth-rattling rides. Silver Dollar City also is a living museum, a cultural storehouse where the skills of our ancestors are on full display.
“I don’t know of any place that does log hewing besides us. Or shingle sawing. Or shingle splitting,” said Peter Herschend, one of the co-founders and co-owners of Silver Dollar City, now part of Herschend Family Entertainment.
SDC craftsmen, for example, use a 1915 J.S. Case Steam Tractor to power their Bremen Horizontal Shingle Saw, which is more than 100 years old, in order to cut cedar shingles.
At the Wilderness Road Blacksmith Shop, the smithy still pounds out iron nails, which were harder to come by before Big Box stores.
There’s a steam-powered duplicating lathe, also more than a century old, where craftsmen make everything from rolling pins to biscuit cutters.
The candlemaker still uses animal fat called tallow. That fat was boiled in large kettles over an open fire. Wicks made of linen or cotton were dipped in the tallow. And just as early Ozark basket makers learned how to select the right white oak trees, early candle makers learned to keep their tallow candles in metal boxes, lest mice eat them.
Visitors also still find lye soap — used for cleaning everything from people to dishes to clothing — made from lard and lye made from wood ash.
And there is Ellison, weaving strips of white oak together.
You’ll find just about everything but moonshine being made in Silver Dollar City today.
“The word ‘heritage’ really means something,” Herschend explained. “It is the window to see how the men and women who actually preceded us had to live.”
He emphasizes the word “had.” These skills were necessary for survival in the hardscrabble Ozarks, which even into the 1940s had few paved roads and large areas without electricity.
Herschend credits two men with making Silver Dollar City a living museum: His father, Hugo, and Peter Engler, a master woodcarver from Branson.
Herschend said his parents, Hugo and Mary, who were originally from Chicago, came to the Ozarks because they appreciated the beauty of the place and, as they got to know them, the people. Ultimately, the family ended up leasing Marvel Cave in the 1950s.
Hugo had the “genesis thought” about preserving the crafts and lifeways of the region, Herschend said, but died in 1955. In the earliest days, Silver Dollar City remained focused on the cave, and it wasn’t until a few years later that the craft theme evolved.
“We were much more in the entertainment business,” Herschend said.
But in 1963, under the direction Pete Engler, the park began holding the Missouri Festival of Ozark Craftsmen, which eventually evolved into the National Harvest Festival which Silver Dollar City now bills as the “granddaddy of all crafts festivals in America’s Heartland.”
The show brings more than 100 craftsmen to the park every fall. (It is set for Sept. 11 to Oct. 30 this year.)
One of those regular visitors over the years has been Violet Hensley, now in her 90s, who is known as the “Whittlin’ Fiddler” of Yellville, Ark. She whittled her first fiddle at the age of 15.
Herschend works to keep some of the crafts alive via an apprentice program, training the next generation in the ways of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
“It’s a hard program to maintain,” Herschend said. “People are not falling all over themselves to do it. These are physical skills.”
Ellison today is looking for an apprentice, someone willing to learn where to find the exact right white oak, and build a career out of sweat and calluses.
“There ain’t many people wanting to get into this,” he said. “It’s hard to do.”
But worth it.
“The people who are looking for true crafts, that’s what it’s all about, Silver Dollar City,” said Ellison.
Visitors to Silver Dollar City also get a glimpse into the past through some authentic buildings, too, such as the Wilderness Church. The log chapel was built in 1849 near Galena and in 1955 it was dismantled, log by log. Those logs were marked with chalk and brought to the park and later painstakingly reconstructed.
There’s also an 1843 saddlebag cabin that was found near Forsyth. Opal McHaffie Parnell gave the cabin to the Herschends and solicited their promise they would preserve it.