Archive for March, 2014

  • Blog
  • March 31st, 2014

Sounds of Yesteryear

If you can tell me who the Dixie Dewdrop was or have heard of the Gully Jumpers, Possum Hunters or Fruit Jar Drinkers, then you’re probably old enough to be reading this without the supervision of someone old enough to have voted for FDR.

They were pioneers in country music, back when it was called  hillbilly or more euphemistically country and western and they were light years more entertaining than today’s talentless and bland so-called country entertainers.  I remember when singers like Willie and Waylon and the boys were the newcomers, legatees of the pioneers.

When I was knee high to a tadpole, my folks took me to the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago, a country-flavored variety show that pre-dated even the Grand Old Opry.  I heard Bob Atcher and Rex Allen (who later became the narrator of Disney nature shows), the Hoosier Hot Shots and Arkie, the Arkansas wood chopper.

Some of the Barn Dance was closer to pop than country, but Lulubelle and Scotty were true country and still tickle my musical sweetbreads.  And Bradley Kincaid was the quintessential ballad singer, matched only by the ageless Mac Wiseman.   That early exposure to guitars and country stuck with me until we did forsake the big city for the sticks.

When my dad uprooted us from Chicago and returned to his real roots in Missouri, it was no great leap of musical interest for me to tune the old Zenith upright radio to WSM on a Saturday night when the signal got strong enough from Nashville (usually between 5 and 6 p.m.) to listen to the shows just before the Opry, the Opry itself and finally the Ernest Tubb Record Shop show, by which time in the early morning hours I’d be stuffed with country and ready for bed.

I heard the final years of the Dixie Dewdrop, Uncle Dave Macon, who kept three banjos on stage, each in a different tuning, and sang songs that dated to the Civil War.  He is considered the first star of the Opry, so distant in style from today’s overproduced pop country crooners that he might as well have hailed from a different galaxy.

Some of the very first country stars still were gracing the battered old stage at the Opry.  There was Bill Carlisle, whose brother Cliff had played Dobro for Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music.  Deford Bailey, the first and just about the only black performer on the Opry to this day, still showed off his harmonica skills on occasion.  The Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, were an Opry fixture and had been for years.

And Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys were inventing that wonderful acoustic holdover from pioneer times, while Roy Acuff and Bashful Brother Oswald celebrated the greatest train of them all the Wabash Cannonball and Acuff sang about a great speckled bird that wasn’t an English starling.  Acuff was so popular that Japanese soldiers would taunt Americans by shouting, “To hell with Roy Acuff!”

Then  there were the new guys like Carl Smith, married to June Carter who later would marry Johnny Cash (then unknown), and Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow, both acolytes of Jimmie Rodgers who would combine to organize a festival celebrating the Singing Brakeman every May 26 in Meridian, Mississippi, the anniversary of Rodgers’s death in 1933.  Once I visited the modest Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian and found my way to the peaceful and quiet country church graveyard where Rodgers, his second wife Carrie and their daughter Anita are buried.  Someone had left a guitar pick on the monument—that seemed more appropriate and moving than flowers.

The lead-in shows to the Opry were highlights when the weather was right to skip an AM signal the 500 or so miles from Nashville to Dalton and my old Zenith.  Hank Williams, the real one, had one of those 15 minute shows until he got canned from the Opry for his erratic booze and pill fueled behavior.

Several years later I’d work in Montgomery, Alabama, with a former local radio announcer who had been the announcer on an early morning show featuring Williams, then just a local entertainer.  Ed hated him.  “He’d show up drunk or not at all and I’d have to fill the time somehow,” Ed, an opera (not Opry) fan grumbled.

For all his stoned behavior, Williams left a legacy of country music that endures today, 60 years after he died.  For that matter, Jimmie Rodgers songs still are being recorded today by the likes of Leon Redbone, Emmylou Harris and others 80 years after his death.    Good endures.  Who will remember any of today’s songs and entertainers 80 years after they kick off?

Today’s female singers have little individuality.  They all sound alike and they all are produced with sugary arrangements that have no soul.  The rare Emmylou or Dolly is the exception rather than the norm.  Granted that country music was a man’s game for much of its early life until Kitty Wells came along to stick it to the guys with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” and when you find a singer as individual and enduring as Patsy Cline, let me know and I’ll start listening to them again.

As was all too often the case, Cline died tragically in a plane crash with fellow entertainers Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins.  Then almost at the same time Jack Anglin, half of Johnny and Jack, died in a car wreck en route to a memorial service for Patsy Cline.  And  Dave Akeman (Stringbean) was murdered with his wife by a couple of home invaders.  He was a banjo disciple of Uncle Dave and one of the last true folk banjo pickers along with his best friend Grandpa Jones (who discovered the murder and who, when I quail hunted with him years later, still was deeply affected by it).

When I listened to our Zenith through the long Saturday evening I was pretty much alone among my high school classmates.  I knew no one else who liked country music and, indeed, most of them sneered at the music and anyone who liked it, so I kept quiet.   Even though Dalton was as backwater as you can get this side of Dogpatch, it was considered rube and redneck to listen to that squalling.  Not that I didn’t like Perry Como; I just preferred Ernest Tubb who never saw a note he couldn’t miss by a quarter tone.

Country music hit the mainstream in World War Two thanks to patriotic songs like Elton Britt’s “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.”   No other singer, pop or otherwise could do it the way he did.    And Ernest Tubb brought a tear to every eye in the country with the “Soldier’s Last Letter.”  The Andrew Sisters, while not country, had some of the war’s greatest hits and sang duets with Tubb.

Burl Ives, folk singer and actor, topped the juke box plays with the ballad of “Rodger Young” which I heard a thousand times in my uncle’s north Wisconsin bar.  I’d put a nickel in a game machine and shoot a mechanical machine gun at flitting Japanese Zeros while the adults drank beer and talked about the war.   Between Britt’s paean to the glory of the flag and Ives’s tribute to a fallen hero, we were inspired.  The reality of war was that one cousin parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and broke his back and fought behind the lines for several days until he linked up with friendly troops.  Another cousin island-hopped through the horrific Pacific campaign as a Marine and came home pretty much a broken man.  Then it was called “battle fatigue” and now it’s post traumatic stress syndrome, but no matter the name it’s light years less romantic than any flag-waving song.

Once a week I tune in re-runs of “Hee Haw” the corny country music show that broadcast from 1969-71 on CBS and then had a 20 year run in syndication.  It is a time capsule for me, a chance to see some of those legends of my youth in the flower of their youth.   It showcased a young and handsome Merle Haggard as a guest instead of the wrinkled and bent old man he is now, but Haggard and many of the other “Hee Haw” guests represented the second or even third generation of country music entertainers.  Haggard, now a legend himself, was another devotee of Jimmie Rodgers and did a tribute album of Rodgers songs, as did Elton Britt and Lefty Frizzell.

George Jones and Tammy Wynette sang together on “Hee Haw,” a snapshot of the best of country duets.  Virtually every legend of the day performed on the show.  Roy Acuff came by as did the Sons of the Pioneers.  It was a peek into the past as well as a look at the future, scarcely out of diapers the show gave exposure to Randy Travis, Garth Brooks and others of today’s country music upstarts.

In one memorable segment, Grandpa Jones and Stringbean frailed old time banjo together.  Now both are gone as is most of the cast, including co-host Buck Owens.  Roy Clark, the other host, still is around at 82 years old, but Archie Campbell,  Junior Samples, Minnie Pearl, George (Goober) Lindsey, Jimmy Riddle and others are gone and in danger of being forgotten by today’s kids who, like the kids of my youth, consider country as geek music.

But as welcome as “Hee Haw” re-runs are, nothing will replace tuning an old Zenith to the erratic signal of WSM on a Saturday night to pick up the first staticky sounds of Hank Williams or Roy Acuff.  If, as they say, radio signals exist forever and now are eddying toward some distant galaxy, perhaps in a few light years some extra-terrestrial teenager will tune the galactic equivalent of a Zenith upright radio and pick up faint signals from outer space and and think, “Damn, that’s a good sound!  And I don’t care what my friends think.”


Read More
  • Blog
  • March 22nd, 2014

River of the Deer

The Bois Brule River, Wisconsin’s crown jewel watercourse, remains the only river in my more than 50 years of canoeing where I’ve almost collided with a deer both on and off the river.

Once, while shuttling my car from put-in to take-out, I glimpsed a doe leaping onto the road in front of me.  It was a hot day and my air conditioner was, as usual, on the fritz, so I had the windows open and clearly heard her little hooves clicking on the pavement.  I stood on the brake and she stood on the gas pedal and we missed connecting by a matter of inches.

The other time was in the pit of the darkest night possible—no stars, no moon.  I was in the bow of a canoe propelled by a Brule guide who knew the river like the back of his hand and who promised a unique experience.    It proved to be just that when we drifted into the head of Big Lake, a widening of the stream, and a startled deer thrashed out of the water in front of me, close enough to splash me.  “That’s nothing,” the guide said.  “My father-in-law once had one jump over the canoe between him and his stern partner.”

The Brule threads through my adult life like a Tiffany necklace.  I started canoeing as a young married and since my mother was raised a few miles south of the Brule, it was natural that I’d load up my battered Grumman and head north on vacation.  The Brule was among the first rivers I explored.

It rises in a peat bog spring in Douglas County and the water is richly mahogany with tannin and is icy from the many springs that give birth to the river.  This cold water mixed with a stately bourbon will make you realizeyou’ve never really tasted bourbon before.  I sipped this heady ambrosia from a tin cup on a grassy knoll overlooking the Brule one warm summer night, waiting for it to get dark enough to float and fish for the stream’s notoriously wary brown trout.

It was sultry and guide John Rogers fried potatoes in a crusty old frying pan after seasoning it with bacon.  Woodsmoke mingled with the peaty aroma of the bourbon and branch and the frying bacon.  My mouth watered, but I was uneasy  . I couldn’t believe we were going to canoe down a stream pocked with Class I rapids, without a light of any kind.  John tied a home tied hair mouse on a No. 2 hook with three feet of 12-pound monofilament leader—it looked more like a northern pike rig than something to tempt a wary brown trout.  “They lose their caution on a dark night,” John said.

I hoped he had not lost his.  He used two paddles and would plant one on each side of the stern to hold the canoe at the head of rapids so I could fish the fast water.  We came to the head of a riffle, invisible in the pitch black, but John said, “There’s a small stream coming in from the right.  Cast at 45 degrees that way and picture the mouse swimming across the current and follow it with the rod tip.”

I heard the paddles crunch as he dug them into the bottom, the gurgle of a riffle in front of me, and I cast

It’s called the “River of Presidents because so many chief executives fished on it.   Some may not have fished, although Dwight Eisenhower (who was a candidate, not President at the time) certainly wet a line and according to local legend, was hard to get off the stream to attend to matters of state.  No doubt Grover Cleveland fished—he is of all our chief executives the most ardent, so much so that once a friend, sweltering on a hot day when Cleveland refused to quit bass fishing, remarked to another friend, “isn’t it good that we know how to do something other than fish?”

Mr. Coolidge spent some time at the Cedar Island Lodge one of five presidents to visit the river and fish in it (though some fished it either before or aftertheir Presidency).  It now is a Wisconsin state park and a famed blueribbon trout stream.

First Presidential visitor to the Brule was Ulysses Grant in the1870s.  Grover Cleveland made the pilgrimage in the 1880s,  then came Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower.  Gen. Eisenhowervisited the lodge just after World War Two.  He admitted no reporters(all of whom wanted to know if he would run for President).

According to one Brule history, Calvin Coolidge “became known as an enthusiastic and skillful fly fisherman.”  That’s contrary to his documented history with fishing which is dotted with gaffes that set the nation’s anglers’ teeth on edge.   Mr. Coolidge first put his foot in it with fishermen when he was quoted as saying that fishing was for old men and boys.  This went over like a can of worms at a Trout Unlimited convention.

Advisors advised Mr. Coolidge to get right with Izaak Walton and soon he was catching fish…with worms.  Fly anglers were enraged. Mr. Coolidge finally recognized which way the political wind was blowing and got himself a fly rod.  But as to whether he became an expert with the willowy wand is doubtful.

Herbert Hoover, himself an accomplished fly fisherman, pooh-pooed the angling accomplishments of his fellow Republican President and said only he, Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt could be considered fishing Presidents.  He also took a whack at Coolidge: “”President Coolidge apparently had not fished before election,” Mr. Hoover wrote.  “Being a fundamentalist in religion, economics and fishing, he began his fish career for common trout with worms.  Ten million fly fishermen at once evidenced disturbed minds.  Then Mr. Coolidge took to a fly.  He gave the Secret Service guards great excitement in dodging his backcast and rescuing flies from trees.”

Coolidge spent the entire summer of 1928 at Cedar Island Lodge on the Brule, haplessly flailing the water by day while, it has been rumored, his wife found other ways to amuse herself with one of the locals.  Cedar Island is a famed rustic log home on the bank of the river and while it was pitch dark the first time I drifted by, the second time I was impressed by the homey grandeur of the place and especially by the several old wood and canvas canoes, all collector’s items, that graced the landing.

Candidate Eisenhower, fresh from his role as leader of the European invasion during World War Two, and courted by both parties as a Presidential candidate, decided fishing was more fun than war or politics (often the same thing) and visited the Brule just after the war.  He was tired of publicity and barred reporters, but an enterprising local reporter, William Stewart, and his photographer paddled six miles upstream and bearded the general in the stream.  Ike told them that anyone who would go to that much trouble deserved an interview.

As a health note, Mr. Eisenhower was plagued by heart problems, but he also had a favorite trout recipe which sounds like a sure path to a cardiac event: Titled “Trout Eisenhower,” it involves chunking a pound of bacon in a pan, frying it, mix the drippings with a half pound of melted butter, coat the trout with cornmeal, salt and pepper, and fry them in the cholesterol-oozing fat (shades of John Rogers and his potatoes).

The Grumman had lost its silvery sheen by then and was lumped like a battered club fighter who should have been in another line of work.  It, like all aluminum canoes, grabbed rocks as if it were trying to avoid being dragged into rapids.  A few years earlier a friend and I had stopped a float short of the Brule’s two major rapids.  I decided to float that stretch and at least scout them out before I committed.  If the imagined roaring rapids scared me off I could portage or line the canoe over Lenroot and May’s Ledges and no one would witness my chickenhood.

I had a guidebook that rated the Lenroot Ledges at a Class Three, doable, but dumb to do alone.  If I crashed I’d be a long way from help. Time to man up, as the saying goes which leads men into doing really stupid things.  I still had time to renege—the book said there was a green cabin on the left before a sharp bend that led into the ledges.  There were several rock ledges, spaced across the river in ranks, like a riverine Maginot Line.  I’d have to angle across the river, dropping over a ledge, ferrying hard for the next one.  It would be Advanced Canoeing, at least for me.

So I tooled down the Brule, not a care in the world, breathing the clean northern air, soaking up sunshine.  I came to a sharp bend and drifted around it and the current grabbed me and flung me over the first of the Lenroot Ledges.  They’d painted the damn cabin!

That’s the Brule—river of surprises where you might run into a President, a browsing deer or a lurking rapids.  I’ll be back……


Read More
  • Blog
  • March 10th, 2014

The House on the Hill

By Joel M. Vance

Author’s note: The Guitar House is among Boone County, Missouri’s most historic buildings.  Writer Ward Dorrance named it Confederate Hill when he lived there from the 1940s to 1953 when he was “outed” as a homosexual and basically driven from his University of Missouri teaching position, from Confederate Hill, the elegant home he cherished, and from his home state to which he never returned.  This is an excerpt from an unpublished biography I did of Ward Dorrance titled A Life Split in Two, this segment mainly concerning his time at Confederate Hill. 

Confederate Hill

Confederate Hill, in its glory years, was a way station for visiting writers, like the Tates [Allen and writer wife Caroline Gordon], Katherine Anne Porter and others, but also for such luminaries as actor Vincent Price–who was related both to Confederate Gen. Sterling Price, and to Miss Florence Price-Willis, Dorrance’s benefactor.

Dorrance had brought a baby seal, stuffed with lead shot, home from his military service in Greenland, to use as a paperweight.  Vincent Price put his hand on the seal during a party and exclaimed, “Oh, my God!  They stuff their mice!”  Another Price story has Dorrance discovering Price standing in the middle of a bed in his underwear reciting Shakespeare.  The theory is that there was alcohol involved and the whole story smacks of the truth.

The late Bruce Debo remembered the eagerness with which Dorrance greeted his cherished friends.  “They’d get about halfway up the driveway and here would come Ward with a great big bounding leap off the porch.”  Much of the glory of Confederate Hill while Dorrance owned it could be attributed to Miss Florence, Dorrance’s patron.

She was the niece of Gen. Sterling Price, daughter of William Henry Willis (who married Emma Price, daughter of Sterling Price’s brother R.B. (Bev) Price.  Miss Price-Willis was born in 1879, died in 1960.  She never married and it’s safe to say that Ward Dorrance was as much her family as her blood relatives.  Miss Florence, as Dorrance invariably referred to her, would play a huge part in Dorrance’s life, both as a friend and, when push finally came to shove, as a benefactor who financed his flight from Missouri, first to England and finally to Georgetown where he died in his 90s as a retired English professor from Georgetown University.

Given their mutual Confederate backgrounds, her residence for a time in France, and their mutual interest in the arts, it was almost inevitable that Miss Florence and Dorrance meet and become friends.  Miss Florence, 25 years older than Dorrance and probably nearing 60 when they met, adopted the patrician professor and would remain his benefactor until her death.

A telling anecdote involves Imogene McKinnon, then a graduate student and a contemporary of John Prince, Caroline Gordon’s nephew and in later years Dorrance’s caregiver.  She was invited to tea with Miss Florence, Prince and Dorrance.  “She was the epitome of a Southern gentlewoman,” Ms. McKinnon said.  “I’d never seen so many manners in my life.”

She made the mistake of asking for the recipe for an appetizer, something that a Midwesterner would do as a matter of courtesy…but apparently heresy in the Old South.  “There was a long silence,” she says.  “Then Miss Florence said, “Well, since you’re leaving anyway I guess it’s all right.”

In 1976, Dorrance wrote to his friend Lilbourne Kingsbury about fussing with a pickle recipe concocted by Miss Florence’s mother (apparently the reluctance to share recipes didn’t extend to the favored son, Ward Dorrance).  “It sent my mind back to my life in the train and ambience of Miss Florence (a very critical passage in my life–I loved her very much and she influenced me deeply.”

In a letter to an acquaintance, Dorrance says, “…as I type this letter I am seated in a chair which once belonged to Miss Emma [Florence Willis’s mother].  The back of it, heavily carved, reaches a point above my ears when I stand beside it.”

Miss Florence donated that piece of furniture and several others to Dorrance, including a canopied bed, which supposedly belonged to King Phillip of France.  The bed was for the guest room.  “It was a canopied bed made of ebonized pearwood,” said Debo.  “The room height was 11 feet and we had to take six inches off the canopy to get it in the room.  It had the original silk canopy–it was in tatters, but it still was there.”

Miss Florence had one of two pistols owned by Sterling Price, a .35 caliber Navy Colt, engraved with ivory handles, that today would be worth a small fortune.  Debo built a secret compartment in a commode in Miss Willis’s house and, for all he knows, the pistol resided there and may still be there, a legendary lost artifact (like the Parker Invincible shotgun, one of only two ever made, that was found in a supposedly empty closet by a person who bought an old home).

The romance of that possession certainly wouldn’t have been lost on Dorrance, for whom the

Ward Dorrance, World War Two Coast Guard

Ward Dorrance, World War Two Coast Guard

Civil War was a tragic romance anyway.  Miss Willis would wear Price’s sword buckle as a brooch.  The Price story was one that Dorrance would have wished for himself.   Sterling Price was a Renaissance Man.  He was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1809 but migrated to Missouri in 1831 where he soon bought a 400-acre farm south of Dalton in Chariton County which he named Val Verde.  Except for his frequent absences to fight wars, it would be his home for most of his life.

Price first was a Missouri legislator, then was elected to Congress in 1840, but resigned in 1846 to take a commission as a Colonel and lead a regiment to fight in the Mexican War where he proved a successful military leader.  After that war, he became military governor of Chihuahua for a short time, then returned to Missouri where he was elected governor for two terms, the second of which was interrupted by the Civil War.  Price, until then a loyal federal, had to make a choice and he came down on the side of the Confederacy.  He lobbied for the state to be classified as a non-combatant zone, but found himself and other South¬leaning sympathizers branded as traitors to the Union.

Governor Lilbourn Claiborne, a Southern sympathizer, named Price head of the state militia and Price subsequently became a major-general in the Confederate Army in May of 1861 and by September had fought the Battle of Lexington (which today is the occasion for a local celebration) where he captured more than 2,600 Federal troops.

After a couple more victories, the Confederacy began to lose ground in Missouri and Price’s army finally folded at the Battle of Westport in what now is Kansas City.  Price and some of his staunch followers, along with Gen. Jo Shelby and some of his men, fled to Mexico where the Emperor Maximilian gave them some land to create a government-in-exile which they hoped would be patterned on Virginia.

But Maximilian soon was overthrown and the dream of a new Confederacy collapsed for his Anglo friends.  His health failing, Price returned to St. Louis where he died in 1867 from cholera.  In an ironic twist, the hearse that carried his body to the cemetery was the same one used earlier to transport the body of Abraham Lincoln.

Given that background it’s no wonder that Ward Dorrance was attracted to Miss Florence.  She fit his romantic image of the Old South like a glove.  And she had money, too, all things that his own background, no matter how much romanticized, lacked.  After Dorrance left Missouri so precipitously in March, 1953, Confederate Hill languished for more than five years.  Here’s where a bit of Confederate Hill mystery enters.

According to Dorrance, he finally sold it Oct. 23, 1958, to Mr. and Mrs. Harvey McCaleb for $29,500.  There is some confusion here because a family named Walters bought Confederate Hill in 1953, but that’s not what Dorrance said.  There’s no doubt that B.D. and Lala Walters and their two sons owned the house from 1953-1956.

They did extensive renovations inside and kept a scrapbook which, unfortunately, has been misplaced by the Boone County Historical Society.  They installed some dreadful wallpaper, portraying English country scenes, scraps of which remained when the latest major renovation began.   Why Dorrance would say that he hadn’t sold the house for four years is anyone’s guess—especially since he wrote that to [his close friend] Bill Peden, who lived in Columbia and would have known better.

At any rate the McCalebs took over Confederate Hill in 1958 and lived there until Mrs. McCaleb died in an automobile accident in June, 1997 (her husband, Harvey, died in 1976).   She had a deep interest in preserving the old mansion and was a member of the Boone County Historical Society and chair of its historic sites committee.  Bill Crawford, a friend and fellow member of the Boone County Historical Society, said, “She put everything she had into keeping the place up.  It nearly bankrupted her.

After her death, Confederate Hill became a local cause, competing for public money with the home of J.W. “Blind” Boone, a black musician from the ragtime era who gained national fame.  John William Boone actually had few ties to Columbia. He was born in Miami, Missouri, son of an escaped slave, and grew up in Warrensburg.  A musical prodigy, he was blinded by disease when he was six months old.  He started a band at six and was sent to St. Louis by Warrensburg citizens to a school for the blind.  In St. Louis he started hanging around the brothels, learning black music which predated ragtime.

After a long and successful concert career, he did finish his life in Columbia.  The Columbia Boone Home, for all its historic significance, had been altered from its roots far more than Confederate Hill and many in town wished the money had gone to the old mansion, not the Boone Home.

But social pressures mandated that the money go to a racial symbol rather than a racist one (Dorrance, for all his virtues, was a classic Southern racist).  The Columbia City Council already had given tacit approval to the Boone project when Confederate Hill became a possibility and then-Mayor Darwin Hindman said he was committed to the Boone project though he remembered visiting Confederate Hill with his parents as a child.

A neighbor of the Hindman’s had been a French Department colleague with Dorrance and the Hindman family would visit Confederate Hill with her.  But, despite his childhood connection with the place, Hindman felt that the Boone project was more important since it is a vital part of Columbia’s black heritage and there is no other monument to that heritage.  “Still, I sure would love to see someone come and do something appropriate with Confederate Hill,” Hindman said.

For a time that seemed likely.  The home went on the market for $549,000 after Mrs. McCaleb died.  Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Bradley bought the place and began to fix it for use as a catering and conference center–which would have preserved both the home and the 26-plus associated acres.

Bradley estimated it would take $750,000 to buy and renovate Confederate Hill and a year after the purchase, he admitted defeat and put the home back on the market.  Unfortunately his contribution to the “restoration” was to tear up the original flooring, which has vanished.  It’s a minor miracle that the magnificent walnut staircase, the showpiece of the home, was untouched except for one missing finial.  That staircase was added in the 1880s.


Premier Bank took over the house after the Bradleys had almost gutted it and the outside began to deteriorate as well.   In early 2002 Confederate Hill was bought by Mr. and Mrs. Noel Crowson, who had renovated five other old homes and buildings.  Their plans either were to turn it into a bed and breakfast or to live in it.  They bought six acres of the 18 remaining from Dorrance’s time.  The rest belongs to Habitats for Humanity.

Confederate Hill’s apparent salvation was serendipity—a young Web administrator from Columbia, Kendra Holliday, had heard about Confederate Hill (“that haunted house”) and prowled around it.  She found an open door and went inside.  “I just fell under the house’s spell,” she said.

Then, on a trip along Interstate 70 toward St. Louis, she passed an antebellum home in Montgomery County which had been restored by the Crowsons and where Mrs. Crowson ran an antique store.  On impulse she stopped and made contact with the couple.  She told them about Confederate Hill, their interest was sparked and they bought the old home.  For one who is into ironic connection, it’s worth mentioning that David Guitar was a business partner with John Baker, brother of Sylvester Baker who had built the Baker House—the place that Ms. Holliday stopped to see.

And Noel Crowson’s first name also is the first name of Dorrance’s fictional alter-ego lead character in his novel The Sundowners.  (It’s a further irony,  among the many in Ward Dorrance’s life that preservation of his beloved Confederate Hill by the city was thwarted by a project to preserve the legacy of a black man.  Dorrance must have whirled in his grave.)

(For more on the current history of Confederate Hill, see the Afterword.)

“He [Dorrance] didn’t want to hear about Confederate Hill,” remembered Margaret (Petch) Peden, widow of Dorrance’s close friend and colleague at the University of Missouri, Bill Peden.  “Bill would mention something about the house–how it was being taken care of–and Ward would say, ‘I don’t want to hear about it.’”

Dorrance, by then nearly blind from macular degeneration, wrote to Bill Peden in 1975, “Will you please make a point of assuring Tom McAfee [a mutual acquaintance/poet] that I am touched so loyally to be remembered (by a man whose face I cannot call up), but, in my circum-stances, cannot correspond (with a person I know so little)?  I have just spent half a morning making out a letter in longhand, under a heavy magnifier, from which I gather that he is soon to bring out a volume of verse & has become a power on the Press, for which I do congratulate him.  But the god-damned callous tactless son of a bitch says my heart would rejoice at the present beauty of Confederate Hill — the twist, on the contrary, of a rusty knife in that said heart.  I have begun the habit of destroying most letters without opening them.  Pity I slipped up there.”

On the verge of restoration Confederate Hill was a shambles of faded elegance, in bad need of repair.  Some floors were gone, the joists covered with sheets of plywood.  The wallpaper was mostly gone and in some places missing and cracked plaster created an abstract pattern.  The great curving staircase, Dorrance’s pride, still glowed in the dim light coming through dirty windows, but it was a graceful sweep surrounded by ruin.

The outside needed paint and some gingerbread trim had fallen and was rotting.  No one mowed and the herb garden and formal garden were empty beds, gone to weeds and grass.  Some bricks were missing from the garden wall and the dovecote, built by John Prince and Dorrance, was empty of doves and full of wasps.

If you were to walk through the sere bent over grass of late winter to the back side of the property, you would have seen, lying almost hidden in the grass, a great steel post, lying on its side.  What would be a yardarm if the post were erected, extended out from the post and, secured by two lengths of chain was a black sign with white lettering: “Confederate Hill.”   Nothing signified the decline of the old mansion/farmhouse more than this pathetic fallen giant.

In 1951 Dorrance pleaded with Katherine Anne Porter to come for a visit.  She could do her work unmolested while Dorrance puttered in his garden.  “Hence we built three walls, a sunken court, walks and a dove cote,” he said.  When I visited the decaying old mansion before the Crowsons bought the place I couldn’t resist and must confess to petty theft–I took a loose brick from atop the west wall and it is on my desk, my only tangible artifact from the crumbling estate.



Afterword: The Crowsons mortgaged everything they had to revive Dorrance’s home to its former elegance and after a $750,000 restoration and an unsuccessful time as a bed and breakfast which began in 2004, they gave up and the title reverted to the bank in 2007.  The house once again was vacant, save for occasional vandals.  For a time the home was threatened with demolition to make way for a shopping mall, but in 2010, Mrs. Elena Vega and her husband Pat Westhoff bought the historic home for a bargain 155,500 and have restored the utilities and are undoing the damage by neglect of the past half dozen years.  Among their projects is restoration of a summer kitchen which well could have been a slave cabin during the David Guitar years. 

              Meanwhile, though psychic investigators have tried to summon him, the ghost of Ward Dorrance remains conspicuously absent.

Read More
  • Blog
  • March 2nd, 2014

Bad Government Never Sleeps

By Joel M. Vance

Missouri’s Legislature is considering a constitutional amendment that would gut the Conservation Commission’s  autonomy, in place since 1936.  Basically it would give the Legislature the authority to screen and second guess any wildlife or forestry regulation.  Yeah, like your average dim-witted representative knows more about fish, wildlife and forestry than the nationally esteemed professionals at the Conservation Department.

I went to the House Joint Resolution 57’s hearing on the proposal and it was a discouraging look at how the state is regulated by its elected representatives—much like lifting a rock and seeing a seething mess of creepy insects in the moist dirt.  I left them with a statement for the official record which I doubt will not be read by any member of the House or Senate.  But in case any are accidentally reading this blog, assuming they can read, here is my statement:


HJR 57 is simply bad legislation proposed by those who would overturn more than three quarters of a century of successful resource management in Missouri.  Everyone in this room knows full well that the Missouri conservation system has served the people and the state admirably for those more than seven decades and for you even to consider altering or destroying a system that works so well is shameful.

          Some legislators simply can’t stand the fact that they can’t get their hands on the money or the legal power that the citizens granted the Conservation Commission and Department.  It gravels you and you’d try anything to corrupt that autonomy.  It hasn’t worked before and God willing it won’t again.

          I was at the hearing when the Legislature proposed to overturn the one-eighth cent sales tax for fish, wildlife and forestry and only the bill’s two sponsors spoke for it, while the late Marlin Perkins and a host of other conservationists shamed anyone considering that idea.  It never got out of committee and this one shouldn’t either.

          Why would you even consider tampering with a program that is nationally recognized as the best in the country?  Why would you want to destroy what was created and financed by citizen initiative? 

          I have faith that there are enough honestly motivated and concerned legislators on this committee and in the Senate to deep-six this onerous resolution before it sees the light of day. 


              Saying I have faith was my feeble attempt at civility.  Actually I have no faith at all in the honesty and concern of the Missouri House for anything that does not feather its own nest and their motivation is to do that feathering no matter the cost. HJR 57 is a proposed Constitutional amendment that would gut Missouri’s 77 year old conservation program which was conceived and activated by citizen initiative because a non-political system never would have passed been passed by our untidy House.

I wanted to say, “A pox upon your House,” but figured that would just pollute the already polluted waters.

The Missouri House, dominated by right wing Republicans, has introduced a bill so onerous that even Arizona’s goofy governor Jan Brewer who never met an extreme measure she didn’t like, was forced by overwhelming opposition to veto a similar bill—one that would have allowed any business to refuse service to anyone who offended their religious beliefs, without having to document or explain what those beliefs were.  It was designed to deny gays and lesbians their civil rights, but easily could have applied to blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics (of whom there are many in Arizona) and anyone a business owner just flat doesn’t like.  Government authorized prejudice and discrimination.  The law would not have survived the first court challenge and neither would Missouri’s version.

So the Missouri House will be wasting time and money debating this bill, along with another unconstitutional one that would mandate that any federal law enforcement officer who attempts to enforce federal gun laws, would be arrested and jailed.  Both are patently unconstitutional, but that doesn’t stop our shit-for-brains legislators who do these silly things on our tax dollar and unfortunately get away with it because enough voters are dumb enough to elect them.

That ongoing time-wasting process is why the porky bronze bust of Rush Limbaugh resides with those of other noted Missourians in the Capitol, folks who deserve to be there like George Washington Carver, Stan Musial, Harry Truman and Gen. John J. Pershing (of course John Ashcroft is there too so Limbaugh has a fellow undistinguished Missourian to help him tarnish the deserving bronzes).   There is a constant if muted grumble from the many who think Limbaugh is a human septic tank demanding to get his porcine likeness out of the state’s seat of government.  Of course considering how trashy the Legislature is, he probably represents it as it is these days better than two deserved honorees, Gen. Omar Bradley or Sam Clemens who, as Mark Twain, no doubt would have had something pithy to say about the whole bunch of rascals, the bronzed ones and those simply tarnished.

The committee had to carry the hearing over to a second day because there were so many opponents they couldn’t squeeze them all in.  I left them with a second statement, but did not testify since several of the committee members seemed intent on badgering anyone testifying in opposition and I don’t need the aggravation.  But here’s my second statement:


At this resolution’s first hearing on Tuesday, Mr. Chairman you said you were trying to find a reason why we were there.  It was the most pertinent question asked all day.  It should be telling enough that the only proponent was the legislator who introduced the resolution and the opposition was as far as I could tell, unanimous. 

Another committee member tried to play “what if” with one of the testifiers, asking what if the Conservation Commission set a six deer per person limit and would he be opposed?

          Had it been me I would have asked the representative, “What if your constituents were to mount a recall on you, would you be opposed.”  It was a straw man designed to bully an opponent of a proposal into a theoretical position that he didn’t have time to consider on a situation that would never happen.

          The real point is that the Legislature simply wants control over Conservation regulations and I don’t think the people of Missouri would stand for it.  For more than seven decades Missouri conservation has stood nationally as the benchmark for such programs.  Missouri is the best because it is rigorously professional and untainted by political interference.  Does it make sense to tamper with a proved program that’s almost three quarters of a century old?  You surely have heard the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

          As for a lack of oversight, I’d mention that all Commission meetings are open to the public and in fact I have gone to a meeting to complain about things.  I got listened to just like any citizen who wants a hearing.  I worked for the Department for 22 years and know that public input can and has changed regulations.  The professionals I worked with are national leaders in their field, but they also recognize that what the initiative and referendum has given it also can take away.  It’s a system that works.  I’ve been retired for 20 years but I believe in the value of the conservation program to the state and its citizens.  Don’t mess with a good thing.

          Thank you.


*                                       *                                         *

Thanks for nothing, you jerks.  That was a statement of sweet nothings and rose blossoms compared to what I wanted to say.  The chairman, I sensed, realized what a non-productive and useless venture his fellow legislators were proposing and maybe he will (or did) pound some commonsense into them.

Two committee members savaged conservation defenders on the second day of hearings to the point that several of us who had planned to give statements opted not to because who wants to be embarrassed in front of a roomful of people just so lightweights can bask in their power.  I always feel like shouting out, “Hey you work for us and we pay your salary, in case you have short term memory loss.”   Something happens to many ordinary people when they get elected to office and it isn’t pretty.

One committee member badgered a conservation defender by conjuring a straw man related to the Department of Transportation, the only other state agency with Constitutional authority.  He claimed that MoDot would not erect sound barriers in the poor sections of his district while they routinely did so for the rich folks, claiming a lack of money for the poorer areas.  Is this a legislator who cannot find money for his flock, a shepherd without a sheep dog in the fight?

This interrogation was despite the fact that the victim had nothing to do with MoDot, sound barriers or St. Louis, other than to root for the Cardinals.  But logic and good manners fly out the door when some of these guys saddle up their high horses.

As of right now there is no action on the resolution by the committee and perhaps it will die a quiet death where it is.  But the Legislature never is content to abide by the will of the people and will try again in some other way (or perhaps the same—this is the third try at the same idea—to erode or destroy Missouri’s conservation program.

The old saying is that rust never sleeps and neither does the corrosive Missouri Legislature when it comes to trying to ruin a good thing.




Read More