Readers of books on Ozarks culture and geography are probably familiar with Leland and Crystal Payton, whose earlier works, “Damming the Osage,” “Mystery of the Irish Wilderness,” “The Beautiful and Enduring Ozarks,” and others, explore elements of the Ozark experience in a reflective and sympathetic though unromanticized way.
Now the Paytons are out with a new book,” James Fork of the White: Transformation of an Ozark River,” which treats the James Fork (or James River, depending on your choice of nomenclature) much as “Damming the Osage” dealt with its river: exploring its culture, its notable inhabitants, its controversies, its geography and hydrology, its history, and ultimately its submersion into a manmade lake, in this case Table Rock Lake, which swallowed up many miles of what had been one of Missouri’s great float streams.
The James gets less attention than other Ozarks rivers; it doesn’t have the national recognition of the Buffalo, Current, or Eleven Point, nor the long sinuous might of the Osage.
But the stories gathered from along the James, and the variety of its topography as it flows west from near Seymour, skirts the southern edge of Springfield, then abruptly heads south through Galena to its meeting with the lake near Kimberling City, make for a book that should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in the Ozarks, its streams, or its people.
“James Fork of the White” is an oversized book, 352 pages with full-color illustrations from start to finish. Many of the illustrations are photographs by Leland Payton, whose work has documented the Ozarks for decades.
Payton’s photographic gaze is contemplative, sometimes wry, and often focused on the human artifacts that have marked the landscape over the generations: old bridges, buildings, the remnants of milldams and springhouses, signs, and sometimes (though not insistently) an actual human.
The overlook-at-sunset-in-autumn photo is not to be found – or if found, is likely to be a tad off kilter. Just as valuable in the illustrations are the vast numbers of historical images the Paytons have collected, including postcards, maps, clippings, pamphlets, labels, and other ephemera.
Taken together, the historic images and the contemporary photographs create a rich visual portrait of the James River watershed.
The text of the book, as with “Damming the Osage,” consists of brief vignettes about people, incidents, and landscapes within the region, grouped together into chapters that converge on a broader topic: the geography of the region, the upper river, the Springfield section, and the famous float trip stretch from Galena to Branson, for example.
Each chapter covers a number of topics within that broad subject area, each typically taking two to four pages before moving on. Like the images, the text covers an immense variety of subjects. There were some I was dimly aware of, some I was familiar with, and many, many that I’d never heard of before.
The Paytons, who live in Springfield, have made this river a particular project of documentation, and this book covers everything from forgotten industries and settlements to recent controversies over pollution and development.
I found the saga of the creation of Table Rock Dam and its lake particularly interesting. I suspect I am not alone in assuming that Table Rock originated in the wave of flood control public works projects of the mid-twentieth century, part of the “big dam foolishness” chronicled in Elmer T. Peterson’s book of the same name, but I was surprised to learn that the dam had its roots much farther back.
The book details the plans of multiple entrepreneurs to dam the James as early as 1908, plans which were thwarted and resuscitated over the decades as the winds of politics and economics shifted.
“James Fork of the White” treats the creation of Table Rock Lake with evenhanded understanding. The lake has brought immense economic development to Branson and the surrounding area, but that development came at the cost of the permanent inundation of hundreds of miles of valleys, farmland, and settlements.
The James Fork’s legendary Galena-to-Branson float, itself a tourist attraction in its own right, was lost to the more mechanized allure of deep flat water, stocked trout, and big bass fishing.
“James Fork of the White” is a book I will return to again and again, both for the richness of its images and for the variety of its information. For residents of Springfield and the White River valley, and for anyone interested in Ozarks history and culture, this is an indispensable book.
James Fork of the White is available for $35, postage paid, from the publisher, Lens & Pen Press, at http://beautifulozarks.com.
(Steve Wiegenstein is a novelist and professor at Columbia College, and a born and raised Ozarker. His family roots go deep in Madison, Iron, and Reynolds counties. His most recent historical novel, “The Language of Trees,” the third in a series on the Utopian community of Daybreak in the St. Francois River valley, has gained wide praise in positive reviews.