Roaring River & the legend of the Mountain Maid

Roaring River State Park has a long and colorful history as a crowning jewel for Missourians and her visitors.

We start a new month this week and that means “Spring is just around the corner” — to use an old adage.

April usually brings a complimentary mix of warmer temperatures, a little humidity and the splash of cool, flowing river waters as folks get off the beaten path near Cassville, Missouri, in the heart of Barry County: one of southwest Missouri’s crowning jewels. 

Last month Roaring River got the spotlight as trout season opened March 1st. I have covered several openers in the past through my work at various southwest Missouri newspapers. 

I have also fished the opener a few times and even napped my way through it on a blanket near the lodge and received a horrid sunburn. 

While some might enjoy the instant retreat offered by the rippling river and the shade of the trees that have stood guard there for well over a century, they may not know the substance of the unique history of the community, the state park or the legends that were born in this remote river valley.

The late Senator Emory Melton always told a story about the week that Cassville was the capitol of Missouri’s Confederacy. 

An article he wrote for the White River Valley Historical Quarterly confirmed some of those facts in 1994.

It seems McDowell was the original seat of Barry County when settlers first began populating the area in the 1830s. It was called McDonald then and earned its demotion as Cassville was deemed to have a more centralized location for the growing population.

“The dark clouds which heralded the coming Civil War were gathering on the governmental horizon,” Melton wrote, indicating the angst came as both Union and Confederate supporters in Missouri struggled for control of the federal arsenal in St. Louis. 

Even Missouri’s colorful Governor Claiborne Jackson had some Confederate leanings and put a seat of government in place in Neosho for a while — later moving it to nearby Cassville for a week — to dodge all of the threatening Union activities pressing this direction.

The old Civilian Conservation Corps Lodge has been restored and includes rooms and meeting rooms.

Before all was said and done, the smoke cleared, Missouri was technically preserved for the Union and a handful of Confederate folks were charged with treason as a cloud of gossip and suspicion hung across the area for years to come.

Historians have long agreed that Native American settlements and encampments lined the banks of what we now call Roaring River. 

The deep river valley provided lush vegetation and wildlife needed to sustain the inhabitants through the changing seasons. 

The rock bluffs provided shelter and protection from Mother Nature — whose winds, humidity and varied temperatures were in constant motion.

By the 1820s, white settlers began to creep across the Mississippi River and head westward. Some stayed in the area. Communities, trading posts and settlements began to dot the maps by the 1830s.

Some of the names of those pioneer families showing up in documents in Barry County were: Haddock, McClure, Ruble and Sills.

The colorful history of Roaring River State Park came to a head in 1928 when 2,400 acres of the area were the focal point of a foreclosure auction. 

A wealthy businessman from St. Louis purchased the land and would eventually give the land to the State of Missouri for use as a state park.

L.R. Chambers would take the position of the first Roaring River Park Director in 1929.

The hills and hollers of the Ozarks region lend themselves well to stories of ghosts, haints, witches and things that just cannot be explained.

One such story is the legend of the Mountain Maid. Her name was Jean Wallace. Some people called her “Miss Wallace,” but over the course of time, she became best known as “the Mountain Maid of Roaring River.” 

Some facts have been blurred over time with conflicting accounts of this woman, who put her fortune-telling money in the bank and did not like to be called a “witch.”

She was fair-haired and blue-eyed. Born in 1851, on a pier in New York, her Scottish ancestry connects back to William Wallace, a Scottish knight who fought for the country’s independence. 

She realized at an early age that she had a sixth sense. Reports indicate her father explained to her why she was different from other children. 

She was greatly pained later on in her role as a nurse when she would know the ultimate fate of her patients, explained local preservationist Tracie Snodgrass, who makes her home at McDowell.

Snodgrass is a storyteller, with family roots in Barry County — dating back to Civil War times. A resident of McDowell, she helped create a documentary 10 years ago about the Mountain Maid, Camp Bliss and local stories for Drury University’s folklore course.

There are stories about a broken heart, a prospective suitor who died or even one who left her at the altar. 

Whatever the case, Jean Wallace landed in the southwest Missouri Ozarks in 1892 and began homesteading a 160-acre tract of land. 

She would never marry. She would never hold a steady job. But she would work, barter, grow vegetables and tend livestock as she lived in the Ozarks for almost 50 years. 

She would walk over three miles to get her mail. She walked five miles when she needed to go to Eagle Rock for supplies.

The feisty woman would grow old in the Ozark hills, leaving for a time during World War I to return back east to serve some soldiers in a hospital. 

She was known for having black cats and hating cameras. She did allow a portrait to be taken of her towards the end of her life.

When the Civilian Conservation Corps was enacted during the Great Depression, she would assist her boys with matters of the heart, finding lost items or making life-altering decisions. 

She knew right away when they did not believe in her and would often send them away if she sensed trouble or conflict.

Unfortunately, she would die in a fire when her little cabin burned to the ground in February of 1940. She was 88 years old and was unable to escape the flames. 

Having no living relatives in the area, the residents held a funeral for her — using the $226 she left in a bank box in Seligman for just such a thing. 

The years have not erased her memory as the stories about her presence here have withstood the test of time.

Roaring River State Park, located seven miles south of Cassville on Highway 112, offers a variety of activities for those of all ages interested in embracing the wonders of the outdoors in the heart of the Ozarks.

These things include hiking a variety of trails, camping, picnicking, trout fishing, visiting the Chinquapin Nature Center or strolling through the hatchery, which is 106 years old. 

The hatchery itself was originally constructed as part of a resort dreamed up by Kansan John Bruner. Bruner had fallen in love with the area and was acquiring land in the Roaring River Township after the turn of the century. 

His dream included a lake, a dam, a hotel, a mill and the fully-stocked hatchery. Two mortgages, a fire and a flood brought things to a head in 1928 and he faced foreclosure, according to an article written by Jerry Dean for the hatchery’s Centennial celebration in 2010.

State officials obtained the park from a St. Louis soap-maker by the name of Thomas Sayman. Sayman was 75 years old. His business dealings had originated in Carthage, Missouri. 

He was familiar with the area and had plans of continuing the efforts Bruner had started with the massive resort. His bid of $105,000 was accepted. 

He soon discovered the trout were mortgaged and he did not, in fact, own the fish at all as part of the sale. He had a conversation with the Governor of Missouri and opted, in the end, to give the gift of this “gem of the Ozarks” to Missouri — his home state.

The 1930s would bring 1,500 young men to the park, ranging in age from 17 to 24. They would be a part of Company 1713 of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work-relief program launched by the government during the Depression to improve parks, roads, bridges and communities. 

The CCC effort also kept money moving into local economies. Men received clothing, meals and lodging and eight dollars per month wages. 

In turn, $22 a month was sent to their families. My grandpa, Herman McMorris, lived in Arkansas but did work for the CCC projects around the Roaring River area for a time. I have often scoured old photos for his face.

During the time the CCC boys were working in the park, a flood resulted in the need to reconstruct the hatchery on higher ground.

Visitors can now opt for fine dining at the Emory Melton Inn & Conference Center. They can also find lodging there — or down the hill at the restored Civilian Conservation Camp Lodge. 

Camping is also available, as well as hiking the trails or enjoying a spring picnic.

I will be spending some time there this spring as Cassville and Roaring River are some of Barry County’s finest gems. 

I hope to see you there!

(Kim Estes McCully-Mobley is a local educator and historian. She can be reached at

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