Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power And Populist Defiance In The Ozarks

Author: J. Blake Perkins
Publisher: Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017. 296p.
Reviewer: Robert Cochran | July 2018

What’s most compelling in Blake Perkins’ study is not its thesis, clearly (and repeatedly) stated as it is, but its method, which in instance after instance deftly integrates its general claims with detailed accounts of individual actors in the events under discussion. If this fluent melding, rather than a restriction of spatial or temporal range, is what Perkins means when he describes his work as “microhistory” (3), he has made a powerful case for the utility of his practice.

The overriding claim of Hillbilly Hellraisers can be succinctly stated in both negative and positive terms. Perkins is concerned throughout to subject to scrutiny the hoary notion of an immemorial general antipathy to the exercise of federal authority on the part of Ozarkers. Mountain residents, he insists, are not and never have been culturally or politically homogeneous, but have responded at different times to different expressions of national authority in widely varying ways, depending most often on their perceptions of economic impacts, but also at times relying on religious beliefs and attitudes toward race or class.

A responsible history, given this variety, must scrap sweeping generalities, no matter how venerable, and bend patiently to the forces at play in each instance. This is what Hillbilly Hellraisers does. The closest thing to a general claim threading through Perkins’ attention to specific conflicts is the observation that what have been understood as hostile reactions to outside intrusions were often in fact directed at controls exerted by “local elites” over the use and direction of federal assets.

Again and again this point is hammered home. Discussing in his second chapter, “First Tastes: Moonshiners and G-Men,” the 1897 killing of two U.S. deputy marshals by Pope County (Arkansas) whiskey distillers, Perkins deploys italics to emphasize his point: “Contrary to the dominant perception of the moonshine ‘wars’ as primarily clashes between parochial rural denizens and government outsiders . . . , a closer look at the violent altercation in Pope County more accurately reflects the contest for power between locals within the region” (36).

The same point is stressed, again with the emphasis of italics, in “”’Silk-Hatted Fellers’ and Their War,” the following chapter’s discussion of Ozark resistance to World War I conscription regulations. “Local political and town business elites almost always dominated the draft boards,” Perkins writes, and “were prone to use their pull to get exemptions for their own sons and relatives, political friends and business associates.” It was this “local system,” not the national regulation, that became the focus of rural and small farmer discontent: “Much like the battles over moonshine in the rural Ozarks, conflicts that sprang from the World War I draft were largely intraregional affairs” (70).

Perkins’ fourth chapter, “The Damn Government’s Tick Trouble,” focuses on the less well-known resistance of Ozark smallholder farmers to USDA attempts to combat tick-borne Texas fever by requiring bi-weekly dipping of cattle in districts not certified as tick free. Again, prosperous farmers concentrated in Arkansas’ northwest (Washington and Benton) counties, aiming for “the choice-grade, top end of the beef market” and able “to invest in higher-quality [but tick-susceptible] breeds, fenced grazing pasture, and nutritious feeds,” generally supported such measures.  Their poorer brethren in the mountain counties, however, raising native “scrub” cattle immune to tick fever on open range “for the low-end canned beef market” (103), were decidedly less welcoming.

Violence broke out in every case. Federal agents died. Moonshiners shot marshals, the families of draft resisters shot lawmen attempting to arrest their sons, and smallholder cattlemen dynamited dipping vats and shot government inspectors who directed their operation. And this is where Perkins’ study establishes its general claims most effectively, by linking them in each instance to specific actors and incidents. The reader is provided with detailed introductions to moonshiner Harve Bruce (43-44, 58-61), draft resister Tom Adkisson (82-86), and tick dipping opponent S.D. Lambert (115-116), along with many of their like-minded neighbors.

Their most high-profile opponents are presented in similar depth, and it bolsters Perkins’ case that these figures were in nearly every case prominent locals rather than newly arrived representatives of outside authority. Harve Bruce and his moonshiner accomplices were most ardently pursued by John T. Burris, a “well-to-do“ Pope County resident and “devout Baptist and prohibitionist” who “worked as a skilled mason and carpenter and later ran a sawmill and gristmill” (44). The posse organized by the Cleburne County sheriff to raid draft resister Tom Adkisson’s farm was made up largely of townsmen, residents of the county seat: “S.A. Porter, one of the original four possemen who accompanied Sheriff Duke and took part in the initial shootout, was a physician in Heber Springs. Porter Hazlewood, the posseman who was killed in the shootout, appears to have been an aspiring gunsmith or a firearms dealer in town” (87).

Convinced as they were that illicit liquor sales were “the main culprit behind vice, crime, and social disruption in their communities” (44), and that patriotic support for President Wilson’s WW I war effort was being undermined by “’a nest of American Bolsheviki . . . in the hills along the line of Washington and Crawford counties’” (74), as the Fayetteville Democrat put it, local business elites and prosperous farmers, in Perkins’ presentation of the various conflicts, tended to welcome the arrival of outside authority, backed by federal statute and paid for by federal funds.

In subsequent chapters, Perkins brings his story forward in time. His fifth and sixth chapters, “Bring On the Dam Progress” and “Growth Politics and Rural Disappointment,” turn their attention to the New Deal efforts of the 1930s and the large-scale dam-building projects of the 1950s and 1960s. His seventh chapter continues the story through the late 60s and into the 70s, with Ozark responses to War on Poverty and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) programs. Once again his analysis finds, in place of a generalized antipathy to federal presence, a fine-grained variety of local response rooted not in reflexive attitudes but in rational calculation of guaranteed present costs weighed against promised future benefits. As before, town elites and prosperous farmers welcomed the arrival of government assets, so long as their allocation and distribution were entrusted to local control.

New Deal Programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were widely popular—they “provided much-needed employment for young men” (129). The dam building projects also enjoyed the support of “most rural Ozarkers” (145), despite the fact that “the lion’s share of the permanent economic benefits generated by Norfolk and Bull Shoals Dams went to the town of Mountain Home” (156).  This result was not accidental—Heber Springs, in Cleburne County, “harnessed most of the economic growth fueled by the Greer’s Ferry Dam” (156). These outcomes followed the pattern established by earlier deposits of federal money in the region—local control of allocation and distribution meant that those who had the most got still more and those who had the least got still less.

Ironically, given old caricature of reflexive resistance to government authority centered in grizzled codgers holed up in remote hollows, the most generalized and most fervent resistance in the Ozark region arrived only recently, when control of federal monies by town elites was challenged by War on Poverty programs explicitly designed “to circumvent state and local political establishments in order to take assistance directly to the poor” (192). This shocking violation of precedent and custom jolted both state and local establishments into furious action. Old sectional and racial fears were stoked, the widely divergent views of newly arrived Midwestern retirees and hippie back-to-the-land Luddites fanned the flames—and the ancient stereotype roared into new life as the Ozark Tea Party.

Perkins ends his study with a 2009 Tea Party rally in Mountain Home. He follows his usual practice in providing names and backgrounds for the event’s major organizers, quoting the platform speakers at considerable length. Uncle Sam, by this time embodied in Barack Obama, came in for quite a pasting. But this is a new kind of resentment: “It was conservative business elites and their supporters in the twenty-first century,” Perkins writes, “who launched and led a Tea Party movement that aimed to guard their local control in the low-wage industrial-, tourism-, and agribusiness-based order” (218). The phrasing is clumsy here, with way more than a mouthful of hyphens, but Perkins’ point is clear. Traditional Ozark smallholder farm life is largely gone by this time, he concludes. Its battles—over moonshining, over conscription, over tick dipping and dam building—were lost a long time ago. The angry folks at the Mountain Home rally are mostly not farmers. Mostly they are, Perkins’ narrative would suggest, the low-wage workers on his list, in the act of being urged by local movers and shakers to attribute their frustrations to distant malefactors in Washington.

Ironies abound in all of this, and Perkins’ study has prepared us to appreciate them. Mountain Home in 2009 is a town of more than 12,000 people, up sharply from the 1930 village of 650 on the shoulders of a “growth center strategy” (183) centered on two dams built with Uncle Sam’s dollars.

Some readers will find Perkins’ argument overstated in places; others will find its thematic connections tenuous in spots. The anecdotal accounts I’ve praised will be seen by some as loaded with more argumentative weight than they can bear. From all points on this spectrum of responses, however, Perkins should earn applause for his spirited, well researched, provocative study.

Robert Cochran, Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies, Department of English, University of Arkansas

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