Mapping the Ozarks as a Cultural Region by County Boundaries
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Mapping the Ozarks as a Cultural Region by County Boundaries

In the minds of its residents and scholars alike, the boundaries of the Ozarks have always been fluid. Dependent on their purposes, geologists, geographers, government officials, historians, economists, folklorists, and the residents themselves have each posited either implicitly or explicitly differing borders for the region. For example, geologists have sought to establish boundaries that accord with the physical features of the region while folklorists have drawn borders that accord with their observations and intuitions of the presence of a particular dialect, folk medical cures, and a host of other cultural traits. Since neither of these kinds of maps correspond to politically drawn boundaries (such as state and county borders), they all suffer from a conspicuous limitation.1 In constructing a cultural portrait or history of the Ozarks, they do not permit the use of a large body of demographic, economic, and cultural statistics by counties. This data is available in the US Censuses, election returns, university consortiums, the collections of organizations (such as ARDA—Association of Religious Data Archives), and various agencies of the states in which the Ozarks are located.

To remedy this deficiency, this essay proposes a base cultural map drawn along county lines for the year of 1890. While our discussion is not limited to 1890, two factors dictated the choice of that year for the base map. One was that Arkansas continued to create new counties, even as recently as the decade of the 1880s, thereby making comparisons with earlier counties in that state more difficult; and two, for the first time in 1890, the US Census Bureau reported the number of religious “adherents” by county. Since 1890, the names of counties in both states have remained extant, though Arkansas has slightly altered the boundaries of a few of its counties.2 Our map is [End Page 1] particularly useful in making direct comparisons of Ozarks counties in 1890 with later dates. It also allows students of the Ozarks not only to make use of statistics to describe more precisely some of the region’s socioeconomic, political, and cultural features, but it also offers the opportunity to compare the Ozarks with the surrounding “Non-Ozarks” region of Arkansas and Missouri. Furthermore, it contributes to a major question in Ozarks scholarship: To what degree do the Ozarks differ from other agricultural regions in the United States?3

In order to employ county boundaries to our analyses of Ozarks culture, we have assigned each of the counties of Arkansas and Missouri to one of three regions: (1) the Ozarks; (2) the Peripheral Ozarks; and (3) the Non-Ozarks. The counties designated as the Ozarks each possess a widely agreed-upon set of characteristics—in particular, topography and agricultural productivity, but also such cultural characteristics as speech dialect. Clearly, employing the same criteria, the Non-Ozarks counties can be easily identified as well. Those counties in the Peripheral category share to one degree or another the characteristics of both the Ozarks and Non-Ozarks. The available county-based data may also reveal changes in the features of each region over time. For example, railroads, better roads, air travel, and communications technology have partly obviated the importance of a rugged terrain in shaping the characteristics of the Ozarks. Hence, this essay represents a novel attempt at applying county-based data to a set of variables that help to clarify the similarities and differences between the Ozarks, the Peripheral Ozarks, and the Non-Ozarks over time.

Our preliminary findings are that mapping the Ozarks by county boundaries both confirms and challenges the extant conclusions regarding the region. Due principally to the rugged physical character of the Ozarks, this article supports the commonly agreed-upon generalization that Ozarks counties have been historically less agriculturally productive than the adjacent rural counties. This is particularly true of crops such as corn and wheat. But, on the other hand, Ozarks counties have perhaps been (and are) better suited for poultry production. Witness the growth of Tyson Foods, for example. Lower agricultural productivity in part accounts for the higher levels of poverty in the Ozarks than surrounding...