OZARK MOUNTAIN CENTER; Arkansas

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There's a ghost town called Rush in north-central Arkansas that has no particular claim to fame except that Gramy Chicken took a shine to the place and painted it.

Now Granny did such a good job that some folks bought the picture so it could hang in the Ozark Folk Center here. "A fine example of primitive art," they called it. Indeed to Granny Chicken and her kin, and most all the folks hereabouts, artistic talents seem to come naturally.

They've been pretty good at making things here, including making merry with music and dancing, ever since the first settlers arrived from the Appalachians back in the 1820s. But their heritage stretches back further than that -- to the clover-covered fields of Ireland and the heather-clad mountainsides of Scotland.

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You can detect some of this Celtic background in the dancing style and music. Not that these folk are pure Celtic -- they're part English too. But since 1820 they've been isolated from any outside influence -- until 1957 when the first blacktop road snaked its way into the region. With the road came relatively easy access to the outside world, and at the same time the outside world came to this corner of the Ozarks via radio and to a lesser extent, television.

The impact was slow at first, but inevitably it gathered momentum. Soon it became obvious that unless something was done to preserve it, a unique culture expressed in hand crafts, music, and dancing, developed in isolation by a vigorous and hardworking people, would disappear altogether. To prevent that happening, the Ozark Folk Center came into being.

It is handsome complex built of native stone and western red cedar set in 129 acres of woodland. (Some 14 miles away are the famous Blanchard Springs Caverns , a series of magnificient limestone caverns, that anyone visiting the Folk Center would want to take in). The $3.4 million center includes modern tourist accommodations that go (considering the quality) for a remarkably inexpensive $ 26 a night.

Back in the early 1800s some applachian mountain folk trekked west in search of better land. But en route to flatter lands and more fertile soils they discovered this area where the Ozarks form as beautiful a stretch of countryside as you'll find anywhere. Here they stayed, and what they had found ws beautiful , but relatively poor surroundings.

From the start they had to work hard at wresting a living from the land. They hunted, foraged, and farmed very stony soil, making virtually everything they needed from the timber, stone, and other local materials. They were all craftsmen, and they had to be to survive. They remained this way, long after a more convenient and easier life style had swept over the rest of the nation.

Peope who worked this hard, also played hard. Their music was lively and their dancing vigorous. In addition a craft show was traditionally held every spring. These spawned the idea for a folk center, a living museum where the crafts and music of yesteryear could be preserved forever.

During the day visitors can see native craftsmen demonstrating such skills as broommaking, split-oak basket weaving, quilting, soapmaking, pottery, blacksmithing, furnituremaking, gunsmithing, cooking, and herb preparation.

At night, in the 1,000 plusseat auditorium, there is music. The evening I visited the quality ranged from not too bad to outstanding. Several of the performers could hold their own among professional entertainers with ease, and two separate performances on the autoharp were inspiringly beautiful.

The folk instruments involved include the fiddle, the dulcimer, the pickin' bow, the guitar, the banjo, the mandolin, and the autoharp. This latter instrument is the only truly American-invented folk instrument.In my experience, the autoharp coul produce pleasant but pretty mundane sounds. But, in the hands of the two Ozark experts, the mundane became unusual and exquisitely beautiful, a cross, if you can imagine it, between a harp and a pipe organ.

For further information write to the Arkansas department of parks and Toursism, Department 399F, 1 Capitol Mall, Little Rock, Ark. 72201.

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