The Seed and the Story: Photography and the Creation of the Ozark St-Francis National Forests

Harvesting oats with homemade cradle along Big Piney Creek. Photo No. 18903A, by Ralph Huey, 1914.

In 1981 the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service published a book by Sharon M.W. Bass’s entitled, For the Trees: An Illustrated History of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests 1908-1978.  Tracing the development of the forest from its early beginnings in 1908 as only the second National Forest and the first protected stand of hardwoods in the country, this book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the Anglo and African American settlement of the region. I recently discovered the book is now available for online viewing through the Forest History Society, a “nonprofit library and archive dedicated to collecting, preserving, and disseminating forest and conservation history for all to use.”

One of the most interesting things about this book is the extensive photo collection, which captures daily life in the region at the turn of the century.  One of the photographers was Ralph Huey, the superintendent for Flat-Sylamore Road, the first road built into the forest.  He captures images of men with their mule teams, Ozark families with spinning wheels posing in front of their cabins, and men with their hunting dogs.  Huey’s images in particular capture the human experience throughout Yell, Pope, and Scott counties, especially the relationship between humans and animals and the struggles and joy of living close the land.  For example, there’s a beautiful image of a man harvesting oats with a “handmade cradle” near Big Piney Creek.

Using blood hounds to catch wood burners. Photo No. 246332, by J. M. Wait, 1930.

One of the most prolific photographers in the book is J.M. Wait, a forest ranger who traveled the area as a fire prevention lecturer conducting programs about the benefits of the forests and the need to prevent fires. During the early and mid 1900s it was common for local residents to set “job fires.” In other words, fires deliberately started so that local firefighters could get paid to put them out.  Much of Wait’s job was to convince the populace this was a bad idea.  While traveling the area with his glass lantern slides and moving pictures, he took time to document everyday life in the region including deer hunters with their kills and men planting seedlings at the tree nursery once located on the campus of Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech University). There are also some wonderful images of the Dardanelle Bridge being installed in 1928.

Mixed feelings about the creation of the forest were common and Bass’s book documents these trials between the agency and the residents, including boundary fluctuations, disputed land claims, and general distrust of a government owned forest.  There’s also a great deal of information about the development of Civilian Conservation Corps and their work within the forest’s boundaries.  Next week’s column will discuss some of the photographs and information found in the later half of the book covering the 1950s-1970s. To read the book and see these images visit go here. 

In closing I wanted to let readers knows of a few updates to recent columns.  Freda Cossey recently donated some wonderful pictures of a sorghum harvest in Harkey’s Valley and Karen Alexander-Stoeckel from Cambira, California who wrote about Decoration Day sent in an update of her pilgrimage to Needmore Cemetery.  Also a few weeks ago I wrote about the Russellville Locally Grown market, a farmers market offering online ordering.  I was informed there is another market in the region also offering this service,  We’ll have more on this market and other related topics in the future.  I’d love to hear from you.  Email me at the link above. And thanks so much for reading!

Dardanelle Bridge. J. M. Wait, ca. 1928.






  1. […] Last week’s column discussed the historic photography found in the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service’s 1981 publication, For the Trees: An Illustrated History of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests 1908-1978.  Authored by Sharon M.W. Bass, this book provides an overview of the creation of the forests and the public reaction to their continued development over the years. Last week I wrote about the photography of forest service workers Ralph Huey and J.M. Wait and their efforts to document life in rural areas both before and during the forest’s early days. […]