Levi Morrill: Notch, Missouri Postmaster and Uncle Ike in The Shepherd of Hills
Tucked away off Highway 76 just north of the entrance to Silver Dollar City is an old one-room clapboard building. Next to it, a two-story house, which must have been quite grand in its day, sits abandoned. The roof of the porch has caved in, and ragged curtains hang at the windows. There’s also an old smokehouse on the property, a building that was constructed several years after the other structures and the remains of a trail ride that operated there in the 1980s and 1990s.
The older buildings, on the National Register of Historic Places, were once the home and business of Levi Morrill. It was here that Morrill and his wife, Jennie, after moving from their home in Lamar to the southern Missouri Ozarks, established the Notch Post Office in 1895. They operated it out of their home and later in the small, one room structure, which also served as a grocery store, that Morrill built next door.
Morrill was made famous in the 1907 novel, The Shepherd of the Hills, by Harold Bell Wright in which the author modeled his character, Uncle Ike, after the Notch postmaster.
Curtis Copeland, president of the Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters, said, while the post office is small, its significance to that region of the Ozarks is huge.
"The impact of The Shepherd of the Hills in this community--we're still feeling the effects, the positive effects, of tourism and interest in the Ozarks. Other than Old Matt's Cabin, which is over at Shepherd of the Hills, this is the only remaining structure that was an actual place in that novel," said Copeland.
The Notch Post Office, as did any post office in those days, served an important role in the lives of early Ozarks pioneers. It’s where they’d get their mail, catch up on the news and chat with their neighbors. There was no Highway 76 then—just a dirt wagon trail that ran in front of the Morrill’s house and business and that forked just north of the property. That fork or notch in the road, Copeland said, may be how the community got its name. The Old Wilderness Trail was the major thoroughfare for the area. Morrill hired local folks to deliver the mail on horseback to towns along the road such as Garber where trains would pick up outgoing letters and packages.
Garber earned a spot in The Shepherd of the Hills, too, according to Copeland.
"Some of the quote, unquote characters in The Shepherd of the Hills novel, that was where they ended up at. For instance, John Ross and his wife, known in the book as Old Matt and Aunt Molly, they migrated down to Garber and spent the remainder of their years down there," he said.
Morrill’s friend, Truman Powell, whom Morrill had followed to the Ozarks, is the shepherd in The Shepherd of the Hills. He established the Stone County Oracle newspaper, which is where Morrill worked when he first arrived in the area. And he discovered Fairy Cave, now known as Talking Rocks Caverns.
While the Morrill Homestead is a part of early Ozarks history that’s frozen in time, Copeland said the area surrounding it would have looked much different when the Morrills arrived.
"Because of the railroad coming through, there was probably a lot fewer trees than we see now, believe it or not," he said. "The tie hacking industry to create railroad ties was a major source of income from these rural farmers, which were usually just subsistence farmers to keep food on the table, not a whole lot of places for crops and so forth."
At the time, Branson was just a tiny settlement where Reuben Branson had established a post office. When the railroad came through in the early 1900s, according to Copeland, it put Branson on the map.
But tourism was already taking root in the area. Morrill’s neighbors, William Henry Lynch and his two daughters, Genevieve and Miriam, began giving tours of Marvel Cave in the late 19th century. And by 1907, when The Shepherd of the Hills was published, people were coming by train to see the cave and the Ozarks that were described in the novel.
The post office was closed in 1925, and Levi Morrill died in 1926. In the middle part of the 20th century, Levi Morrill’s son used the family property at Notch not only to make some money but also to share his father’s story.
"His name was Oscar Morrill. He had the gift shop here and liked to visit with folks about his father's role as Uncle Ike and so forth. He even wrote a book about this post office and Uncle Ike, and Lane has continued that tradition of promoting the Ozarks and his community," said Copeland.
Lane is also a Morrill, and it was his great grandfather who established the Notch Post Office. He owns the approximately 160 acre property, still in the family 123 years later, and is involved in the Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters, which is working to save the old post office building. It’s fitting for an organization, which was started in 1931 by Otto Ernest Rayburn, an author and early Ozarks booster who worked to promote the area.
"The mission that they had all those years ago still holds true today," he said. "Now, that original organization had several hundred members and then later on in the late 50s and so forth it started to fade away," Copeland said.
About a year ago, Copeland and a few other people decided to revive the Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters whose original members included Rose O’Neill and Vance Randolph.
"We wanted to be one of those organizations that's proactive and finds some projects and actually does some preservation of Ozarks history and culture," he said.
Copeland said once the post office preservation project is finished, they hope the property will serve two purposes. One is to preserve what he calls a snapshot in time.
"It's a very good example of community and postal service and architecture and so forth of that time in our Ozarks, but we also want it to--it's going to be available to the public," he said.
Eventually, Copeland said, they might try to raise money to preserve the Morrill home.
He envisions a parking area with an educational kiosk, which will be accessible to anyone who wants to learn about local history.
Saturday, November 3, the Society of Ozarkian Hillcrofters will host an Old Country Fair to raise money for the Notch Post Office preservation project. The event, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Michel Homestead east of Branson, will feature traditional Ozarks music jams, antiques sales and an auction, BBQ and traditional foods, Ozarks history exhibitors, Civil War reenactors and traditional games.
Copeland is hopeful they’ll raise the money needed to be able to start work on the post office soon. In an area that’s seen explosive growth over the last 25 years, he says it’s nice to see a piece of history still intact.
"It's like any kind of historic thing, anything that has that nostalgia," he said. "That nostalgia's important to folks. Progress is important but also remembering where we came from, and the Ozarks has a unique culture, and it's got a lot of influences from Appalachian culture and so forth but still yet it's unique in it's own way, and if we can help to preserve that, even just a little piece, I think that's important."
According to Copeland, Lane Morrill hopes to preserve the property in its natural state.