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Gargoyle Country: A Geologic History of Greene County

Gargoyle Country Book Cover
The Watershed Press

 In our ongoing local history series, Sense of Place, we delve into the human history of the Ozarks to discover why things are the way they are today. In this segment, KSMU’s Emma Wilson explores the geologic history of Greene County and how it has impacted human development in the area.

[Sound: Cars driving on a highway]

Geologist Jerry Vineyard looks north up Highway 65 from Battlefield Road.

“From here you can see the essence of gargoyles, strange looking things that pop out of the ground like this,” Vineyard says.

Now, these are not the gargoyles you might find perched on a cathedral buttress. They’re giant dark gray spires of rock emerging from the earth. These limestone features exist all over this region and are the namesake for Jerry Vineyard’s new book about the geology of Greene County.

“It’s amazing to think what a huge growth of biological life this represents.”

This so-called Burlington limestone was laid down during the Mississippian Period around 350 million years ago when Vineyard says a warm inland sea covered much of the Midwest. The massive Burlington Formation reaches from Iowa all the way to northwest Arkansas and is almost entirely made up of crinoid fossils. Crinoids are marine animals about the size of a bonsai tree. When they die, their remains stay attached to the sea floor or rock eventually became layer upon layer of the limestone that has shaped this regions’ physical and economic landscape.

“These things develop slowly by solution under the ground surface, so you never know they’re there until you decide ‘Oh, hey I think I’d like to build a hotel!’ And you go out and pick a spot and start digging and ‘thud,’ ‘clank,’ you hit one of these gargoyles.”

Vineyard’s new book, Gargoyle Country: The Inspiring Geology of Greene County, doesn’t only focus on the formation of our karst topography, but also how humans interact with it. The geology of this region directly affected settlement patterns and the way communities developed. Vineyard says that people in this area have always benefited from the geologic features found here. Before white settlers came to the region, local Indians would have crafted tools and weapons using the rock from the chert veins and nodules found in limestone.

“Today, the chert is of no value whatsoever because we don’t need arrowheads. But we certainly need limestone because from limestone we build highways, we build building foundations, we build structures of all kinds.”

The limestone mined in this region has been essential to its development and economic vitality. Until relatively recently, Greene County was a major exporter of lime, the main component of wall plaster. You can still see the lime kilns at the site of the now-lifeless town of Phenix, in the northwestern part of Greene County. Along with limestone, Galena lead, zinc, and small amounts of coal have also been mined in the region.

The book is published by the Watershed Press, an extension of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks. Loring Bullard is the director of the Watershed Committee; he says that educating the public about the geology of the region is essential to understanding our water resources.

“The fact that we have karst topography means that our geology is pretty open. We have a lot of caves and conduits that can move water rapidly from the surface down into the ground water supply.”

Bullard says that this book will reach a wider audience than the more academic text about local geology they published in 1986.

“If we want citizens to protect these resources, they have to have some appreciation and understanding of them.”

The book also contains a field guide to interesting geologic formations in Greene County so that readers can go see and feel the geologic history of the Ozarks. Gargoyle Country can be purchased at the Watershed Committee’s offices or at local bookstores.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.