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How Did Our Ozarks Ancestors Feel About Debt (And How Does That Affect Us Today)?

The Walnut Grove Cemetery is located near Ponca, Arkansas. (Photo credit: OakleyOriginals via Flickr)

Welcome back to our Sense of Community series on Debt in the Ozarks. In this final segment, we’re turning back a few pages in our history books to examine what shaped our area’s perception on debt—and whether that perception is at all unique because of this history.

Professor Ed McKinney teaches history at Missouri State University-West Plains. His parents came of age during the Great Depression. They were from Texas County in southern Missouri.

“I’ve often heard the story: they had $40 when they got married. That was their budget to start a marriage with. And they were very cautious about going into debt. I don’t ever remember them going into debt, frankly. If they couldn’t afford something, they didn’t buy it,” McKinney said.

McKinney’s grandfather never owned a farm. Instead, he rented farms and moved his family several times.

“And I asked Dad, ‘How come Granddad never  really had a farm of his own? He always rented.’ And Dad said, ‘Well, he always said that he never had enough money to buy a farm—and that he figured if he borrowed the money, he’d probably not be able to pay it back, and he’d lose the farm and lose everything he’d put into it. So he just wasn’t going to do it,’” McKinney said.

McKinney has a distinct memory from his childhood playing at his grandparents’ place: he remembers his grandma reminding him, “Don’t mess with Grandma’s flowers!”

“She had a washtub with pansies or some kind of houseplants in it under a walnut tree, about 30 feet from the house.  And I was always puzzled by that, because I don’t mess with flowers—or didn’t then.  My aunt told me that Grandma and Grandpa kept their money buried in a glass fruit jar out there in the washtub,” McKiney said.

During the Depression, many banks had gone belly-up, causing Americans like to lose their trust in financial institutions.McKinney remembers another story about his uncle, General Sheridan McKinney, who kept his money hidden in an old tree in the woods. “Uncle General” loaned out money to people he knew, and he charged interest on those loans—he read the newspaper, so he knew the going rate, McKinney said.

McKinney’s colleague in history, MSU professor Brooks Blevins, says the rural Ozarks had a different experience with credit and debt than the area’s city-dwellers.

"In Greene County, the Springfield area, I think what you would have found early on was an economy that worked much more like it did in other, more prosperous places in America, where people had access to credit. Very early on, they were starting to buy things on installment plans, and things like that.  In your more rural, rugged areas, more isolated areas, that may not have been an option for people. And people got more accustomed to, I think, making do with what little they had," Blevins said.

Blevins said the Ozarks isn’t particularly special or unique in how it has historically perceived debt; it’s probably similar to other parts of rural America. It’s the generational divides, he says, that provide the starkest differences in how we perceive debt. The further removed a generation is from that defining era—the Great Depression—the more lax it appears to be on debt.

Dorotha Reavis, a local folklorist and historian in West Plains, was born during the Depression.

"But I didn't know we were poor, because everybody I knew was in the same shape. We wore feed sack dresses. My mama would go to the store with dad to buy chicken feed, and she'd be sure that he'd buy three sacks alike enough to make a dress," Reavis said.

She shows me a framed picture of her when she was five.  That was her best dress, she tells me.

"This skirt was pleated, and it was really pretty--but it was made out of dad's old pants," Reavis said.

Her dad lost his job at the Chevrolet plant in Michigan. They returned home to the Ozarks without a job. He acquired some cattle, but didn’t have a truck to move them. Rather than going into debt to pay for a truck, he did it the hard way.

"So, he got his nephews to help him, and they walked them from nine miles west of West Plains over to West Plains, and 15 miles down to Moody. They walked those cattle," Reavis said.

Eventually her dad saved up enough to buy a welding shop. But he still needed to borrow some money from a relative to buy a house…and that act of borrowing, Reavis says, was a source of embarrassment, and kept a secret. She prefaced this story by saying that “talking too much” has always been a weakness of hers.

“They were so excited when they got that loan paid off, and I couldn't wait to go tell my grandmother that we'd paid off Aunt Laura, because we talked about it all the time. But my mother had never told my grandmother that they'd borrowed money. And, oh! I got in bigtime trouble for telling that they had borrowed money," Reavis says.

Reavis herself maintains this aversion to debt. She says she got a credit card once to make ordering easier from catalogs…but when she tried to cancel it, she says, the credit card company refused.

"That aggravated me. So, I just cut the credit card up and mailed it to them, and I use debit cards now.  I get lots of phone calls [with people] saying, 'Let me talk to you about my credit card,' and I say, 'I don't have one!'" Reavis says, laughing.

Reavis, now in her 80s, is 100% debt free, and that’s how she says she’ll remain for the rest of her years.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Jennifer Davidson.