Otto Ernest Rayburn, an Early Promoter of the Ozarks

By Simpson, Ethel C. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Otto Ernest Rayburn, an Early Promoter of the Ozarks


Simpson, Ethel C., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


OTTO ERNEST RAYBURN (1891-1960) spent virtually his entire adult life publishing magazines about the Ozarks region. He envisioned the Ozarks as an American Arcadia, with breathtaking scenery and a stalwart AngloSaxon culture, and published thousands of pages promoting its attractions. Gradually, however, it dawned upon him that the more people knew about his Arcadian paradise, the less like paradise it would be.

Rayburn never made much money at publishing regional magazines. He persisted, however, for more than forty years and earned a place among the romantics, scholars, and promoters who, in the first half of the twentieth century, recorded the culture and lore of the southern mountains, hoping to draw attention to those regions while warning against the commercial exploitation of the interest they were doing their best to generate. In Rayburn's wake the Ozarks, like the Appalachians, the southern plantation, or the American Indian, have become a commodity for sale to tourists and a subject for academic research.1

Indeed, Rayburn has left academic researchers a very clear paper trail of his own life and work. He published an autobiography, Forty Years in the Ozarks, with an introduction by Vance Randolph, his friend for many years. Randolph defined Rayburn as a "dedicated regionalist," for whom folklore was "a recreation and a way of life," and added, "There is no denying that, in the period between 1925 and 1950, Rayburn did more to arouse popular interest in Ozark folklore than all of the professors put together."2 In the end, though, Randolph is surely the more consequential figure, despite his selfdepiction as a hack writer and mere collector. Rayburn himself regarded Randolph as "our leading Ozark folklorist."3 Though they mined the same material, Randolph was more methodical and far less romantic than Rayburn and not so utterly devoid of irony.

Like many another passionate Ozarker, Rayburn was born elsewhere, in his case in Davis County, Iowa, on May 6, 1891. He grew up in Kansas. According to his autobiography, in 1909-1910 he attended the academy of Marionville College, Marionville, Missouri, without realizing he was in the Ozarks. A few years later he read Harold Bell Wright's novel, The Shepherd of the Hills, and "walked off the level land never to return."4

Rayburn bought a forty-acre tract of land near Reeds Spring, Missouri, in the spring of 1917, where he built a cabin, Hideaway Lodge. In June he enlisted in the army and served in France. He was discharged at Camp Funston, Kansas, in May 1919. For the next few years he taught school in Kansas and Arkansas and spent the summers camping and writing on his Ozarks property.

In 1924 he got ajob in Madison County in northwest Arkansas. He was hired as school superintendent for the Kingston Community Project, or, as he called it, Kingston-in-the-Ozarks, sponsored by the Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church. Whereas the Kingston public school had formerly extended only through the elementary grades, contributions from the Brick Presbyterian Church of Rochester, New York, provided funds for high school teachers' salaries, library books, and laboratory equipment, as well as for health supplies and a nurse. It was just the thing for the young, idealistic Rayburn. He was attracted to Kingston by its isolation, "a community that has a splendid highway in but no road out" with a population of "stalwart men and women who match the mountains in whose shadows they live."5 (Rayburn would maintain this lyrical style throughout his career.) For Rayburn those six years in Kingston counted as one of the most rewarding periods in his life. Warren H. Wilson, a contributing editor to Mountain Life and Work, described Rayburn's contribution to the Kingston school in his introduction to Rayburn's own article on the project:

"Rayburn fled from the prussianized education system of Kansas. . . to the freer atmosphere of Arkansas. …

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