Marideth Sisco Shares Ozarks Stories from her Farm

May 29, 2007

In this installment of our series, Marideth Sisco speaks to us from her farm north of West Plains. She tells us more about her family history and shares several Ozarks stories.

Hello I'm Marideth Sisco, for These Ozarks Hills. I don't know if I'm quite as old as the hills, but I'm a bona fide Ozarks native. My mother's family, the Gentrys and Fergusons, were English and Scots and one Cherokee. They were mostly Republicans, mostly storekeepers and postmasters and a host of other shy and responsible people who love me but who wish I would neither sing so loudly nor talk on the radio.

--My father's people, The Siscos, came up from New Orleans to settle in Carroll County, Arkansas. They were English and Spanish, mostly, and one Cherokee. They were thrown out of Spain for trying to overthrow the king. In America, with no king to overthrow, they were forced to become sheriffs, auctioneers, and public speakers, mostly Democrats, who were apt to burst into song or other hijinks at the least provocation.

Up until they died, my parents maintained a lively and fractious alliance between these factions, and took great delight in going to the polls every election to cancel each other's votes.

Growing up in the Ozarks, moving away and coming home, I've seen it from both sides, and I know it's not always meant as a compliment when someone says "You're not from here, are you"

You may have heard about the farmer who chided a man who'd only lived here 20 years and said he was beginning to feel like a native.

You'll never be that, the farmer said

Well, no, the man said, but my children...

No, the farmer said.

What? What do you mean, the man protested. They were born here.

Well, the farmer said, if your cat had kittens in the oven, would you call 'em biscuits?

I cut my teeth on stories about bushwhackers, and bank robbers, and my Aunt Juanita telling about visiting her sister when she lived in that house at Newtonia that had been the Union army headquarters, and going to sleep counting the bullet holes in the walls. Now it's a historic site. Then it was just Aunt Beebe's house.

I became a journalist because of those stories. When I wrote on the history of Thomasville, in Oregon County, the folks at the history magazine Ozarks Watch asked to reprint it. But when they did, they took out all the stories about the people, they said that's not history. That's just folklore.

Well, as smart as that fella at that magazine was, and no matter how well I liked him, he was definitely not from here. I recall he used to tell about going out to do fieldwork and being invited to these country people's houses for dinner and he would laugh at the idea that someone could stir mustard and chop onions into mashed potatoes and call it a salad.

And I would be thinking, Well, sir, if it's all they have to eat and they have worked hard to get it and they're willing to share it with you, I figure they can by God call it any thing they please.

But he was a good man, with good intentions, and he loved this place or he wouldn't have stayed on, and neither would his children. Maybe one of these days we'll quit calling them biscuits.

About 10 years ago or so, we went back to Newtonia to see the old brick house where Beebe lived. The family who lived there had just mowed the lawn. And we all got a surprise, for we had lived with a mythology that told us no African American people had ever lived in our area. But outside the iron pickets of the family cemetery, there was another cemetery, with fieldstone markers, with no names or dates. That's where the slaves were buried, you see. They were outside the fence. They weren't from here.

You, know, I'm just another hillbilly with an opinion. But at 64, I already remember an Ozarks that is fast passing away, and when this generation of people is gone, the stories we tell of this place may someday be all we have left of it.

Back in '91, some hikers touring the Alps found a man who had been frozen in the ice for more than 5,000 years. On his skin were tattooed acupuncture points, marks made 3,000 years before the Chinese invented it. And we call it experimental medicine. If we hadn't found these fragments of a man, we'd never have known that.

Fragments. Sometimes that's all we have, like pottery shards giving us clues to lost civilizations. Here in the Ozarks, though, there's still a unique and sometimes quite peculiar culture very much alive, just waiting to be explored. In the months to come, that's just what we'll be doing, here on These Ozarks Hills.