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Bald Knobber University

Vonda Wilson Sheets speaking at BKU

Author Vonda Wilson Sheets speaking at Bald Knobber University. Photo courtesy of Tammy Morton Photography

There’s a small study group which meets once per month during the nice-weather months who talk about the personalities and events of Taney County’s 1880s history. I feel fortunate to have been one of the several people who have realized over the past years there’s so much more to the stories and previous studies which needs to be explored, and be a part of these discussions. (For more information on meeting times, see the previous post “Bald Knobber Study Group at WRVHS Scheduled”.)

Yes, I wrote a book, and yes, I know a lot about the people of that era; I’m comfortable enough with them to be on a first-name basis with most, if not all, of them. Yes, I’ve studied the Hartman/Ingenthron and Upton books, as well as any other pamphlet, document, thesis, etc., I could get my hands on. I’m familiar with Doug Mahnkey’s research, and most others who have tried to answer the questions which still arise. And I’m just stubborn enough to keep the two distinct groups—Taney County Bald Knobbers and Christian County Bald Knobbers—separate in every single conversation, because their motives and methods were as different as their occupations, educations, and incomes. (Frankly, the Christian County group should have been called “Cave Meeters” or some such, because they didn’t meet on top of a bald. And if you don’t know what a “bald” is, oh, Honey…we need to talk, at some other time.)

None of this makes me an expert on any of the Bald Knobbers. In fact, there are things I’ve forgotten over the years, which maybe has a different context in light of “new” documents and pieces of the puzzle which have come to light. And, being a fairly honest person, yes, I’ve been accused of being “obsessed” with the Bald Knobbers. I feel that’s slightly untrue; I’m actually obsessed with the “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how.” We have never had all the documents or stories or pictures or newspaper articles or artifacts in one place and time so that anyone could get an accurate accounting of this unique era in Taney County. And until we do, someone has to demand searching and researching and accumulating and documenting all of it. Everything. Particularly since so many do not understand how this unsavory period has continued to influence our local politics and culture, to this day.

None of this history is as black-and-white as the Christian County Bald Knobbers’ masks. (If you didn’t know until now that Taney County Bald Knobbers didn’t wear masks, I expect to see you in the next class, Sweetie.) As Frank McMahon (Serelda Coggburn McClary’s grandson), says, there was good and bad on both sides. Motives were both pure and impure, actions were shady, emotions often ruled over sense.

Every single historical society must have a unique aspect of their area’s history to provide information for researchers and descendants. In 2000, finding that uniqueness and exploring it was the main reason to push the WRVHS to the forefront of local conversations about our history. There were other Bald Knobber groups that were based on the original Taney County group, but that research, etc., is the property of those other counties. Our unique aspect needed to be brought out. There was a play, there was a documentary, there were stories, and more.

As time went by, even I stepped back from learning more. For such a small segment of society, there’s a lot of information, and I don’t believe any one person will ever be able to know or learn it all. There needed to be a repository for artifacts, etc. There needed to be a file on each person, kept in a central location. There needed to be maps. Land records needed to be followed, from the courthouse fire of December 1885 until now. Probate records needed to be read and transcribed. Family stories needed to be brought to light—some families never talked about the subject, others came to believe their stories were the absolute truth. We needed that information, to weed out the misinformation and to try to determine truth.

Things kept turning up that didn’t let me completely walk away from learning more, however. I found a 1960s Xeroxed copy of a Bald Knobber murder court case in the drawer of a dresser in a long-closed-off house about to be destroyed to make room for a grocery store in Forsyth (I don’t remember what year, but early-aughts). Fascinating stuff. I had no reason to think the original wasn’t where it was supposed to be, in the Taney County records room at the courthouse, so I didn’t go looking for it—I had the information needed in my hands. I wasn’t even sure why the house’s original occupants would have had a copy, but no matter… here it was. More than ten years later, the actual original document showed up in someone else’s stashed research, far away from the Taney County courthouse. It’s now where it belongs.

You tell me what to think. These incidents, and many more like them, continue to occur, and more and more, it’s become blatantly obvious that we must continue exploration of this history. I am not the only one who’s interested, nor am I the only one who “knows things.” I am not the only one who gets to have these incidents, either, and for that reason, all of us must come together to find the real story, learn it, and share it. No one person can own it nor be an expert on it, but collectively, we can all be a part of it.

One of the wonderful things about being alive in this century is that we no longer accept that we are responsible for the reprehensible actions or events of our ancestors’ lives. We are not them. Plus, we get to learn from their failures and successes, and make sure we do not make the same mistakes.

The book “The Shepherd of the Hills” is one of those things to learn from, things done right and things done wrong. It is fiction. It came from Harold Bell Wright’s imagination, a story he had to write once he lived on what we now call Inspiration Point. He took characteristics of real people he knew while living here, added in a couple of things that might have happened in the neighborhood, and threw in some Bald Knobber in order to have conflict. It’s what any author does—it’s how we function in the role, good or bad.

His book was an international sensation, a best-seller for the times, similar to what the Harry Potter series has been in our times. Because it was based on a real place, people wanted to see the hills and hollows, wanted to meet the people Wright made so real. Ours is an enterprising culture most of the time, and people were able to capitalize on the reasons visitors came—thus, we have what is now Branson.

The 1880s Bald Knobbers were infamous internationally, largely because that decade was the birth of what became “yellow journalism.” Because the real facts weren’t necessarily fancy enough, half-truths and outright lies were telegraphed all over the world, giving the Bald Knobbers an unsavory reputation amongst [sic] “civilized” folk. So Wright had his “bad guys.” The funny thing is, our ancestors weren’t always ashamed of this history—there’s a yearbook from the 1910s or 20s for the “Branson Bald Knobbers.” (I don’t know when the mascot switch was made to “Branson Pirates.”) In order to make his “bad guys” even worse, Wright added in the Christian County Bald Knobbers’ masks, and many of those Bald Knobbers did go to jail; three men were hung for their group’s actions.

There were also economic factors, and some people even insist that it was a continuation of the Civil War on the local level. Several men on both sides in Taney County were Masons, and that seems to have been an influence as well. All of these factors must be explored in explaining the actions—or inaction—of any and all persons involved.

So Bald Knobber University is necessary. While our tools, lifestyles, and methods of communication have changed in the decades since they rode, human nature has not. Looking at a person’s life from that time and figuring out what we would do in their shoes, so to speak, with any and all facts to hand, explains life in Taney County today at some level. If we do not understand our past, we’ll never understand the future, or sometimes, even now.

There’s some “self-protection” involved as well, in my view. Not for myself personally, but for these people (my people) from then and from now. If we don’t know the answers, and don’t have the knowledge, it allows time to distort the truth…and it’s been long enough, what was spoken only behind closed doors or in personal journals can now be brought to light. If we don’t “own” this information, it allows for distortion, such as Harold Bell Wright’s, to become “the truth”. It’s not. Instead, it becomes our culture, and we still hide and don’t learn.

The main challenge today, in my opinion, is protecting the truth. By not sharing information, by not studying what happened and making it relevant to today, not only are we in danger of making the same mistakes, we’re in danger of allowing someone from “outside” to distort our reality. It’s already happened, and we do make the best of it, culture-wise, but then our descendants don’t realize what was real and what wasn’t.

There are ways to educate and make it real to others. Some day, a big-name person will come in and want to “Hollywoodize” our history—it happens, just watch John Wayne’s “The Shepherd of the Hills”—and if we don’t have the knowledge, we can’t protect our ancestors from being distorted and caricatured. So not only the facts matter, but the “who” matters. We must come to know them in any and every way, so that we can say, “No, it wasn’t like that,” and have it ring true. It’s one of the several reasons I wrote “Absolution.” While it’s classed as “historical fiction,” and some things have been shown to be untrue since, it’s based on what facts I knew at the time, and what I came to believe were the personalities of the people in it (Remember, human nature doesn’t change). Protecting this history was always my goal, and I think I managed to do that to an extent.

I don’t know it all—it’s impossible. Neither does any other one person. But as a group, Bald Knobber University’s continuing study of the people and events in our collective past hopes to bring in others’ knowledge and document everything we learn. Eventually, the hope is an official course in local history, including genealogy, cartography, field trips, and protection of our small places, like cemeteries in someone’s pasture.

At the risk of sounding shrill in my insistence, these things matter to “now,” and are more relevant than ever. I’m grateful for Bald Knobber University, and for what it one day will mean to my great-grandchildren. They will want to know my “why,” and by my being a part of this group, they’ll understand me—and Taney County history—better.

2 Comments

  1. Joy Ann Coonts Firrell

    Do you have anything about them in Douglas County, MO? My grandparents have talked about them when I was small. Both my husband and I families were in Ozark/Douglas County in 1830-today!

    • Vonda Wilson Sheets

      There’s not much, Joy Ann. Dr. Matthew Hernando’s book, “Faces Like Devils,” has the most information I’ve seen in one book, including some on Douglas Co. BK. It can be found online, I believe, or email him at “hernanma@otc.edu”. I myself know very little; every time I think I’m going to start studying a different county’s BK, the Taney County ones get in the way. So maybe you can find out more about the Douglas Co. BK, and teach us? 🙂

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