reproduced., with permission, from American Profile
©2001 — with thanks to Joyce Caruthers,
Ellen Gray Massey embraces Ozark culture as a writer, teacher, and speaker.
by Vicki Cox
photo by Dean Curtis
Mention moonshine or shiftless hillbillies, and Ellen Gray Massey’s smile turns ice cold.
“I want to get rid of Ozark stereotypes,” says the Lebanon, Mo., teacher and writer. “I want to show the hardworking, intelligent people, and the beautiful region I know.”
For more than a half century, Massey’s praise of the Ozarks has filled high school, university, and Eldershostel classes, 13 books, 55 magazine articles, 125 dramatic readings, 239 speeches, two television documentaries, and a two-act musical.
“Ellen has a sensitivity for this culture nobody else has. She’s found her place—living in, working in, and studying the Ozarks,” says Bob McGill, Eldershostel director in nearby Branson, Mo. “It’s her passion.”
Massey’s affection for the region began on a farm in Nevada, Mo. After her father’s job relocated the family to Washington, D.C., summer vacations on the farm overshadowed the Smithsonian, inaugural parades, and the Library of Congress. The rolling hills, spring-fed rivers, and warm-hearted Missouri neighbors brought Massey back as a home extension agent, farm wife, and teacher. Then, Massey began sharing her perspective.
“I love Ozarkers’ self-sufficiency, wit, and pioneer spirit,” explains Massey, who taught English for 23 years. “When I heard students say there wasn’t anything interesting in the area, I wanted them to appreciate their heritage.”
At Lebanon High School, Massey created classes about the Ozarks, taking students into the hills and valleys of southwest Missouri. They floated its rivers and explored its caves. With cameras and tape recorders, they interviewed people in the region making molasses, weaving rugs, and butchering hogs. For 10 years under Massey’s supervision, students published Bittersweet, a quarterly magazine about Ozark folklore, and produced two anthologies. The projects earned Massey induction into The Writers Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mo., in 1995.
“She really got us interested in our family history,” recalls former student Kirk Pierce, who writes historical features for the Lebanon Daily Record.
When Massey left the public schools in 1986, she channeled her love of the Ozarks into writing. Publishers rejected her novels, plays, and children’s fiction for five years—until she found a new way to tell her stories.
“I decided I could say what I wanted about the Ozarks,” Massey says, “(if) I set my stories in the region, and my characters use Ozark culture to solve their problems.”
The idea worked. In the first of her 11 published novels, Moon Silver’s heroine solves a mystery by researching the customs of a regional Indian tribe. EquestriCat’s heroine trains fox trotters, horses specifically bred for the rough Ozark terrain. Kansas jayhawkers attack Missouri farms in Borderland Homecoming. In The Burnt District, a historical novel released this year as both electronic and audio publications, Massey’s heroine outwits both Union soldiers and bushwhackers terrifying her community.
Between novels, Massey self-published a biography of Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey, an early 20th- century Ozark poet and journalist. “I didn’t want her to be forgotten. She captured the Ozarks beautifully,” Massey says.
Researching Mahnkey’s poetry inspired Massey’s documentaries on farm life, Hollyhock Tea and My Farm’s Not For Sale, for KOZK Public Television in Springfield. Her Missouri Arts Council talk, Use It, Wear It Out, Make It Do or Do Without, portrays tenacious Ozarkers overcoming hard times.
Aware of her expertise about the region, Springfield’s Drury University invited Massey to teach her favorite subject. Her Culture of the Ozarks graduate class always has a waiting list.
“Growing up in a place doesn’t mean you know anything about it,” says Sherri Balla, an Ozark native who took the class. “I didn’t have enough pride about where I lived. My whole perspective changed after her class. I feel privileged to live here.”
Massey’s five-day Eldershostel classes in Branson and Potosi, Mo., introduce the Ozarks’ geography, history, and society to out-of-state visitors whose knowledge of the region often begins and ends with corncob pipes and souvenir postcards.
“I knew absolutely nothing about the Ozarks,” says Irene Hanson of Oak Park, Ill. “Ellen’s graphics and photographs, her family connections to the land and people were mind-boggling. I learned Missouri and the Ozarks are two of the best kept secrets in the United States.”
Vicki Cox is a freelance writer in Lebanon, Mo.