Longtime Missouri photojournalist Dean Curtis launches book on Shannon County’s wild horses
Dean Curtis is a longtime photojournalist based in the Ozarks, once serving as the Springfield News-Leader photo editor. Seven years ago, he was inducted into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame.
But for the past 12 years, Curtis has been taking images of herds of wild horses in Shannon County — and he recently published his first book of photography. KSMU’s Gregory Holman caught up with Curtis during an interview at KSMU Studios.
Gregory Holman, KSMU: Dean Curtis is a longtime Ozarks photojournalist — I should say, he and I both [previously] worked at the Springfield News Leader at different times — and Dean's photos have covered all of the wide variety of subjects that daily news has to offer. In 2015, he was inducted into the Missouri Photojournalist Hall of Fame. For a dozen years now, Dean has been taking photos of wild horses in southern Missouri, focusing on herds along the Jacks Fork and Current rivers. This fall, Dean published his first book of photography, titled "The Wild Horses of Shannon County, Missouri" — a 128-page volume available for purchase at missouriwildhorses.square.site.
Dean, welcome to Ozarks Public Radio.
Dean Curtis, photojournalist: Well, Greg, thank you. I am delighted to be here.
Q. So as far back as anyone can remember, there have been wild horses in Shannon County, and that's a little more than 100 miles east of Springfield. Dean, what do we know about the history of these horses?
A. Well, when I talk to people, they think they've been around longer than 100 years, just little bands of them. But mainly during the [Great] Depression, there was also a terrible drought. And I think if you look at the National Weather Service records, in '34, and '36, I think, it was terrible. And when I talk to Rick Mansfield, a historian, he said that farm families actually had to move their livestock down by the Current River just so they would have some water for them. And the Depression and the drought forced many of the families to go back and seek work in the St. Louis area and the metropolitan areas, and they couldn't take their livestock with them.
And I know in those days, they had what was called "open range." They did not have to fence in their livestock until, I believe, the early '60s, and the land is such there that they could let them turn loose in a hauler that was had plenty of water for them, and they would get them when they would need them. Well, when they moved back, they just sort of left their horses to be.
And the story goes from Jim Smith, who was the founding member of the Missouri Wild Horse League — and we'll talk about that a little later — that there were was a band of seven fillies and another farmer had this really wild Appaloosa stallion they could not break and got away and joined the band of the seven fillies — and that's why they have kind of a whitish look and a strong Appaloosa bloodline.
Q. Now, the history of these herds is also a little complex. This year is the 26th year since a federal law was passed that allows the herds to remain in Shannon County under the care and protection of Missouri Wild Horse League that you were just referencing. So in the 1990s, [and this is according] to reporting by the Springfield News-Leader and Nine PBS of St. Louis. There was actually a protest, including roughly 3,000 people — about 500 of them on horseback. And all these folks wanted these wild horses to remain in Shannon County. People love these horses, right? Did you work with that Wild Horse League on this book?
A. They were a great resource for some of the history, and you know, I so admire their passion for really fighting to preserve the horses. Now, if you go back, the park system was founded or set up in 1964. The land had become part about 80,000 acres, I do believe, became part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. And you know, a lot of local families had to leave their land because it was now owned by the Park Service. And still, the wild horses still roam free. And they sort of went unfettered. They had different park superintendents that at the time, in the early 90s, maybe late 80s, one of the park superintendents considered them feral animals and a non-native species. And they sought their removal. And once, you know, this got out to the locals, there was tremendous outrage — because this was a part of their culture, I think.
Q. And certainly a very beloved feature of Shannon County ever since then. Your first brush with the Shannon County wild horses was back in 2010. And I'm just really curious what you remember about this first moment seeing these wild horses? Let us see it and feel it through your eyes — what's that moment like?
A. Well, I found them along the Jacks Fork River, and I kind of knew they were in the area. We had done some stories in the Springfield News-Leader about them. And you know, it's a section of river that I canoe and camp on quite frequently, and I had never seen the horse — always wanted to — rounded a bend, and there was some white in the bushes. I thought, "Those are the horses. Those are the horses."
And I pulled over, got my camera out, I always had my camera on canoe trips. And it was just the briefest encounter. They were there one minute, gone the next. They got skittish. And it wasn't until the next year, when I was camping on the same stretch of river, where I was sitting around, you know, with my friends by the campfire. And we heard the wild horses and I grabbed my cameras and went off into the woods — and I had hiked that area a bit, so I kind of knew where they might be. I spotted them in one pasture.
And it didn't take long for them to get wind of me, and they ran off across a river to another pasture. And then I crossed the river, took my time, really trying to get as close as I thought I could [get] to them and made my way through the trees. And there were some tall weeds by the river bank, and I made my way through them and was able to get within 100 yards or so of them. And they knew I was there. And they immediately started to run across the pasture and then they stopped. And I just sat down and watched them for a good long time.
And after a while, a few of them got curious. And they came towards me and closer and closer. And I was just in awe and kind of the whole herd followed them and they got within, oh, 20 or 30 feet of me. And I didn't know what to expect from them. And so I sort of removed myself and went back into the weeds, and they just sat there and grazed contentedly.
And then I got a little braver, and a little closer. And before I knew it, I was in the pasture hanging out with these beautiful horses. And after a bit, they decided to go into the trees and then to get a drink in the river. And there was a giant black stallion that was the lead stallion of the herd that sort of kept himself between me and the herd.
And I was sort of between the trees and the herd. And then they came back into the woods. And trailriders were going back into the pasture and it was like, I was part of the herd and we were hiding from the trailriders. And it was the most glorious afternoon spent with these horses. It seemed like it was all day, but it was only probably an hour. And I was hooked.
Q. So getting in at 100 yards is pretty close — people are warned, typically visitors are warned keep their distance. These are wild animals, they might kick, no telling what might happen.
A. They should keep their distance. Now, the Shawnee Creek herd, which I usually photograph, is very used to people, they hang out, there are so many trailriders, and they're next to a campground. So unfortunately, you know, they're very curious animals, and they're more used to people, and they're likely to approach people. But you know, I encourage people not to try to pet them or feed them. It's always disappointing when I see that.
Q. So in addition to taking more than 100 images for this photo book, you also wrote the book and designed the book yourself. Tell us a little bit about how the book came to be.
A. Well, you know, I had been photographing these horses for quite a long time. And I would put my photos on Facebook, of course. And I'd always have people say, "well, when are you doing your book? when are you doing your book? "Well, I figured, well, it's time to do my book. And you know, I had all the photos, but I didn't want it to just be photos, because people have questions. It needed to talk about the history of the horses that we just talked about. It had to be a little bit about the Wild Horse League that really monitors the numbers. And they are charged by the law to keep the numbers at 50 or below. That's what the agreement was with the Wild Horse League and the National Park Service, and it became legislation in 1996. So they have an important role in keeping the numbers that are manageable.
So I started, they were a great resource to interview and I also ran into a few local historians like Rick Mansfield was a great resource, and then I talked to attorney Doug Kennedy from Poplar Bluff, who was instrumental in working with the Wild Horse League. And it was [Kennedy] that helped them have their first injunction to stop the removal. They later lost in an appellate court, but he was crucial in getting them to set up as a nonprofit. And then to help guide the legislation that was passed.
Q. Dean, are you still out there taking photos of these wild horses from time to time? And beyond that? Do we know anything about the future of these herds there in Shannon County?
A. Yes, I am. You know, when I'm not doing radio interviews, I like to spend my free time out there. It is just so wonderful to try to even find them — and not only the horses, the land is so spectacular in Shannon County. And there's many days I don't find any of the horses, but it is still enjoyable just to see the beautiful land that Shannon County has to offer.
Q. Just the living planet in our corner of the world. If you're just joining us, we've been listening to Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame member Dean Curtis. Dean has been photographing wild horses in the Missouri Ozarks for about 12 years, and recently came out with his first photography book, "The Wild Horses of Shannon County, Missouri." It's available online for purchase at missouriwildhorses.square.site.
Dean, thanks so much for joining us on KSMU.
A. Well, Greg, it was a pleasure to be here. I will have one last in person book signing at Bedford Camera on South Campbell, this Saturday, Dec. 10, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. So I hope to see you folks there again.