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Preserving our Local History: The Art of Oral Storytelling

Here at KSMU we work to preserve the history of the Ozarks by providing in-depth stories about historical places and events as part of our Sense of Place series. In the first installment of this two-part series, KSMU’s Emma Wilson explores the tradition of storytelling and the preservation of oral histories in the Ozarks.

At the Ozarks Celebration Festival this year, tucked alongside tents full of homemade crafts and folks playing traditional music, a storytelling stage featured natives of this area sharing tales of their lives growing up in the Ozarks.

“We do volunteer storytelling in schools, nursing homes, festivals.”

That’s Nancy Shelton, coordinator of the Storytellers of the Ozarks. The group focuses on telling personal stories as well as those passed down from generation to generation. They perform mostly for children. She says that passing along history orally helps kids connect with the stories in a more personal way than if they read the same story in a book.

“I’ve had kids tell me two years later about a story they heard. They couldn’t remember my name but they remembered the story. And somehow when you’re a kid and you’re listening to a story, I think, it feels like the teller is talking directly to you, and it’s a real strong connection.”

Dr. Brooks Blevins is the Endowed Associate Professor of Ozarks History at Missouri State University in Springfield. He’s authored six books, mostly about local history, and worked on numerous oral history projects. He says that recorded oral history is one of the most important resources for historians.

“It adds a life to history that you can’t always get from reading old newspapers and magazines and stuff like that. There’s a certain vibrancy to oral history and immediacy when you hear peoples voice and they’re telling their own story in their own words.”

“I’m just kind of a storyteller. I don’t know a whole lot of history,” said Charles King, a third-generation Barry County native, he is chock full of stories of his childhood as well as those stories passed down to him from his grandfather, another self-proclaimed storyteller. He may claim to know little about history but doles out story upon story rich with details about the past. His great-grandmother was a teenager living in Barry County during the Civil War. We thought we’d let our listeners sit in on a portion of his story about her.

“There were a lot of ornery people in this country during the Civil War--just absolutely worthless--and they went around with the pretense of guerilla warfare but actually they were just stealing stuff and killing people. She was there at home with the baby and apparently this guy beat on the door wanting some food. She told him they didn’t have any food. He looked the situation over [and] figured that this is just a teenage girl here by herself. Anyway, he tried to crawl through the window and she had a loom cue. And when he got his head and shoulders through the window, boy, she sent him to heaven.”

When a person listens to—and preserves—stories like Charles King’s, they’re able to actually “flesh out” the history that’s presented in many books. You may read and understand that guerrilla warfare was common in the Ozarks during the Civil War but hearing about King’s great-grandmother killing one of these guerrillas with a loom cue puts a face to the story. Dr. Brooks Blevins says that preserving these oral histories is even more important in the Ozarks since there have been fewer written resources preserved in this area.

“If you don’t record oral history--if you don’t physically tape record these stories and memories people have--then it disappears, when they die, it’s gone.”For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.