Ozark Folk Center State Park: A 'Living Museum' of Pioneer Ways

Article follows the photos:
Ozark Folk Center Herb Garden
Ozark Folk Center Herb Garden
Crafts displayed at Ozark Folk Center
Crafts displayed at Ozark Folk Center
Ozark Folk Center State Park
Ozark Folk Center State Park
Basketmaker at the Ozark Folk Center
Basketmaker at the Ozark Folk Center
Auditorium at the Ozark Folk Center
Auditorium at the Ozark Folk Center
August 6, 2002


Ozark Folk Center State Park:
A 'Living Museum' of Pioneer Ways

*****
By Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Scattered atop and around a wooded hill, just north of Mountain View, the Ozark Folk Center became the 30th state park in 1972. Since its opening the following year, the Center has offered a rare glimpse of traditional Ozark folkways with music, songs, dancing, cabin skills, workshops, contests, special events and celebrations. For more information call (870) 269-3851 or visit www.ozarkfolkcenter.com.

MOUNTAIN VIEW -- When the Ozark Folk Center opened in 1973, it was hailed as "a home for traditional mountain music and crafts." Today it has become one of the last fortresses for a way of life that has virtually disappeared. It is a "living" museum of pioneer days in the Ozarks.

"The artists who populate the crafts village and stage the musicals make the Center a refreshing slice of American history," said Bill Young, the park's superintendent. "The story of the culture and heritage of the Ozarks never changes, but the park is always evolving in order to give visitors a better idea of the way our ancestors worked and played."

The Folk Center stands alone as the only state park in the nation dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of Southern mountain folkways and music. The idea for the Center grew from the success of the Arkansas Folk Festival, started in 1963 by the Arkansas Foothills Craft Guild and the Rackensack Folklore Society. When it was decided that the folk musicians and crafters needed a permanent home, John Opitz, a regional director of the Area Redevelopment Administration (ARA), which is a federal agency charged with boosting economic conditions in rural areas, started formulating a plan. The new craft guild, folksinger Jimmy Driftwood and the Rackensack Folklore Society, along with local political leaders endorsed the center idea.

Politics Behind the Park

Opitz combined the proposal for a folk cultural center with the construction of a new water and sewer system for Mountain View. If the center could be approved, the water system for it and the town would follow. The first attempt for ARA grants failed in late 1963, but with the help of Congressman Wilbur D. Mills and others, the Economic Development Administration (which had replaced ARA), approved more than $3 million for the Mountain View project in 1968. Under the terms, the City of Mountain View would repay 20 percent of the loan over a 50-year period.

The proposal for the Folk Center came during President Johnson's "War on Poverty" and, in terms of per capita income at the time, Stone was the second poorest county in the state. In short, the proposal for the folk center was before Congress at the right time.

The Advanced Projects Corporation of New York won the contract to build and operate the folk center as a private enterprise. Construction started in the fall of 1971, but the contractor went bankrupt the following summer. At the request of the local Folk Cultural Commission (which had been created by the city to handle the grant/loans/lease agreements) and Gov. Dale Bumpers, the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism assumed the lease in 1972, when construction was about 75 percent completed.

When the Ozark Folk Center State Park was officially dedicated in May 1973, the $3.4 million-facility contained a 1,060-seat music theater, 16 craft shops, a welcome center, a restaurant with a private banquet room, a food outlet in the crafts area, a conference center and a lodge (offering 60 units today), all of which are still in operation today.

Controversy concerning the Folk Center's direction kept the park in media headlines for a few years, but eventually the park was able to concentrate on its mission to preserve, document, display and interpret the cultural and social history of the Ozarks.

Music, Crafts, Gardens and More

Preservation is a key word at this unique park. This "living museum" recaptures the essence of a bygone era with live demonstrations and hands-on exhibits. Sprightly sounds of banjos and fiddles, the alluring aroma of hot pies and the sight of master craftspeople quietly explaining their art to visitors are all part of the Folk Center experience.

Focal point of the sprawling hilltop park is the huge musical theater where the traditional sounds of mountain dulcimers, guitars, banjos, fiddles and other acoustic instruments are combined with songs that may date from the Elizabethan Period to pre-World War II. The faster tunes often bring "jig" or square dancers on stage during the evening performances.

Scattered across the ridge behind the music hall are the small hexagonal buildings that make up the crafts village. Master craftspeople demonstrate a wide range of pioneer skills including furniture making, basketry, blacksmithing, broom making, pottery, printing, gun and knife works, and needlecrafts. In addition, the village boasts a one-room schoolhouse, log house, picnic swing, art gallery and tintype photography.

The Committee of 100 women was established soon after the park opened. Composed of volunteers from throughout the state, the group has been instrumental in promoting interest in the Folk Center, funding apprentice programs, providing equipment needs, displays and especially the Heritage Herb Garden. In 1984, Tina Marie Wilcox became the park's first gardener and Jim Long was hired to plan and landscape the new herb garden. The project was a joint effort of the Committee of 100 and the Department of Parks and Tourism.

After a year of hard work, the new garden was dedicated in 1986 in honor of the state's sesquicentennial anniversary. Today it is recognized as one of the premium herb gardens in the South, with plants from around the region represented on the terraced hillside.

An original herb plot contains old garden and medicinal plants of the 1820-1920 period, plus native beneficial plants. Native wild flowers, dye and textile plants, culinary and fragrance herbs, plus others make up the other gardens. The Committee of 100 funded the latest addition, a flowing stream with pool, in 2001. Special herb festivals, demonstrations and workshops are scheduled throughout the season.

Music Remains the Lifeblood

The music remains a vital part of the Folk Center story. During regular performances, all music predates World War II because that event marks a number of changes in American culture. "Any modifications in our music guidelines should be done in a manner that remains true to the Ozark Folk Center mission of preserving and perpetuating traditional folk music," said Music Director John C. Van Orman. "It would be a mistake to desert the vast body of traditional folk music that has gone largely untapped."

The American Roots Music Series has provided additional color and variety to the yearly calendar. Cajun, bluegrass, early country, blues, vintage western and string bands are among the traditional music styles that have been featured during the special weekend performances.

Elderhostels are scheduled each month with folk themes ranging from "hill culture" to "crafts and songs." The calendar is packed with a variety of workshops, festivals, musical competitions and tributes to legendary musicians. Unique learning programs, such as the Ozark Folk School and Design-Your-Own Craft Workshops, are popular offerings each year and holiday seasons are welcomed with colorful mountain celebrations. Gospel concerts are staged one Sunday night each month (two performances in October).

Blanchard Springs Caverns, developed and operated by the U.S. Forest Service, was also opened to the public in 1973. The caverns and Folk Center quickly became "twin destinations" and the economic impact of the two, combined with other Mountain View area attractions, has made tourism the number one industry in Stone County. From being next to the poorest in the state, Stone County now generates almost $45 million yearly from tourism and provides more than $8 million in travel-related payrolls.

For more information about the park, call (870) 269-3851; lodge reservations 1-800-264-3655, or visit www.ozarkfolkcenter.com.

####


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"