The Ozarks Playground Association

The Ozarks Playground Association (OPA) was founded in 1919 to promote tourism in the Ozarks. Headquartered in Joplin, the association published maps and brochures highlighting towns, resorts, attractions, and points of interest for visitors. The association eventually dissolved in 1979. Several of the maps and brochures have survived, but to this day, it is unknown what happened to the organization’s papers, i.e. minutes of meetings, correspondence, etc.

If you know of a family member who was involved with the OPA or know about any individuals who may have OPA material, drop us a line. Although it is of relatively little monetary value, the papers of the OPA (if the papers still exist) are an invaluable part of Ozark history, and need to be preserved for future generations.

The Spook Light

Although the Spook Light is not located within the city limits of Joplin, it’s worth recounting some of the folklore and first-hand accounts of the strange phenomenon. Even though the Spook Light no longer draws in hundreds of cars during the summer, ask any native of the Four States about the Spook Light and they’ll probably have a story, or can share a story that they heard from one of their friends. Much of the recent press surrounding the Spook Light has been rehashed from earlier accounts, so we will focus our attention to early published accounts.

In the late summer of 1934, Clara E. Gordon and her family were on their way home to St. Louis after visiting the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde when they stopped at “Idle-a-While Camp” just off Route 66 in Carterville. The proprietor suggested they go out and see the “Indian Lights” south of Joplin. The Gordons, the camp owner, and two guides set out for the Spook Light. Right after they got out of the car, “an orange-colored light appeared in the center of the road about three hundred feet beyond.” They walked toward the light, but it disappeared. The group jumped back in their car and sped toward the area where they saw the light, but did not find it. “We remained at the place two hours,” Gordon recalled, “and during that time the lights came at intervals of from four to seven minutes and remained shining for that long, then vanished or faded away regularly.” She noted that the light was “never a white light or natural color but usually of orange or a greenish hue.” Upon her return to St. Louis, she tried to research the phenomenon for an answer, but failed to say if she believed in one theory or another.

In January 1936, reporter A.B. McDonald of the Kansas City Star published his own account, “The Mystery Light of the Ozarks on ‘The Devil’s Promenade.’” McDonald and a handful of locals from Neosho drove out to the area to search for the source of the light. He interviewed a farmer named Tracey who claimed, “I’ve been studying it for four years and the more I watch and study it, the more puzzled I am about it.” Thousands of cars, Tracey said, had passed his home in search of the light. During the summer, he observed, there were sometimes one hundred cars parked, waiting. On a normal night, there were usually 15 to 20 cars parked along the road.

McDonald and the group set out on the foot after parking their cars. One young woman exclaimed, “Heavenly day!” as she saw the spook light for the first time. McDonald observed the phenomenon and noted that it reminded him of the glow “I had often seen when driving along a road at night where there was a hill ahead and a car behind the hill was approaching toward its summit, the glow from its headlights
illuminating the air above the summit several moments before they cameinto full view.” Margaret Tuller, a Newton County home economics demonstration agent who accompanied McDonald, was disappointed the light did not split into two separate lights. According to Tuller, who professed she had spent hours studying the phenomenon, “The two lights are always one straight above the other. Sometimes they remain apart until both disappear, and sometimes they merge together again into one light.”

On a tip from the Joplin Globe, McDonald visited James Nutz, a Joplin mechanic, and Raleigh Carter, the owner of an engraving shop. The two men believed they had solved the mystery. Nutz and Carter asserted the light was coming from a light on top of a gravel pile near a zinc mine just outside of Quapaw, Oklahoma. When the reporter asked how fixed lights on top of a gravel pile could move, the men said that the light, in their opinion, did not move at all, arguing “It simply appears to move as you look at it through the foliage of the trees between you and it, and the same moving of the foliage of the trees
makes it seem to disappear and return again.”

The intrepid reporter found the most convincing argument came from Logan Smith, foreman of the composing room at the Neosho Times, who argued the lights were the results of cars traveling along Route 66. When asked about seeing two lights, Smith pointed out that, “[If] you stand in a road and look at a car coming anywhere from two to five miles away and you will not see two lights, you will see only one. At that distance, the two lights are merged into one.”

When McDonald asked Smith about the stories regarding the Spook Light that pre-dated the invention of the automobile, Smith responded, “Those stories all remind me of the story of revivalist Sam Jones and the frogs. Or in that other fable of the mouse that went in to the ear of a person came out his mouth a full grown elephant.” In 1946, the Kansas City Star published an article by Charles W. Graham. Graham, curious about the Spook Light after reading a first-hand account by C. Paul Spidell of Baxter Springs, Kansas, visited the region to conduct his own investigation. Graham contacted Colonel Dennis E. McCunniff at Camp Crowder in Neosho, and obtained the assistance of Major Thomas E. Sheard, the post signal officer. After a series of on-the-ground tests and aerial flights, Graham, Sheard, and others involved in the investigation were satisfied that the Spook Light was nothing more than car lights.

In his 1947 book, Ozark Superstitions, folklorist Vance Randolph touched briefly on the Spook Light. He mentioned Logan Smith of Neosho being of the belief that the lights were those “of automobiles driving east on Highway 66.” Newton County agricultural agent F.N. Darnell “and a group of surveyors from Joplin, also incline to the view that cars on the distant highway are responsible for the mysterious lights.” Yet Fred C. Reynolds pointed out his grandfather, “a pioneer doctor at Baxter, Kansas” had seen the lights “long before there was any such thing as a motor car.”

Another prominent Ozark folklorist, Otto Ernest Rayburn, published Ronald Ray Bogue’s article about the Spook Light in an issue of his magazine, Ozark Guide. He recounted a few of the popular legends surrounding the origin of the Spook Light, including the story about the ill-fated Native American lovers and another about an old settler who lopped off his wife’s head in a drunken fit. Unable to find her head, he disappeared, and is thought to roam the countryside with a lantern looking for it. Rayburn recounted a story from a woman who claimed to have gone with her husband and another couple to look for the Spook Light. After arriving at Spook Light road, she said they got out of the car and sat on the fender, waiting. After thirty minutes, “There appeared a soft white light in the sky about one hundred yards down the road. Slowly it grew brighter and closer, zigzagging across the road. Finally it got so close and bright that my girl companion and I scurried back into the car. Although it was summer, we rolled up the windows and locked the doors.”

The women watched as the light came toward their husbands. The men tried to get into the car, but finding that their wives had locked the doors, scrambled to get under the rear of the car. The light “sat down on the radiator of the car and its brilliance was dazzling. My friend cried and hid on the floor of the – I sat hypnotized by the light, trembling with fear, yet unable to move.”  After a period of time, the light blinked, and then disappeared. The woman declared, “I haven’t been back to see spook light since then, and I’m not going in the future, either.”

Old-timer Bill Mizer boasted, “I’ve been around here since 1886, and I have heard all the stories, but this story about the light, and the first time it was seen was in 1903.” Mizer went on to say that a widow first noticed the light and thought it was someone trying to run her off of her property. A group of young men decided to find out what was happening. Mizer, along with Jake Leach, Edgar Zirkle, W.L. Buzzard,
Hiram Elliott, and John Ventle, and “maybe others” set out to investigate. Thinking it was phosphorous rising from a clump of cattails on the widow’s property, the group settled in nearby to watch.“We didn’t have long to wait before we saw the thing that had the widow frightened,” Mizer recounted,  “The first time I saw the light, my hair raised several inches from my scalp, and I had a hard time keeping my hat on my head.” The light floated around, but when the wind came up, it disappeared. Shaken, the young men returned the next night, and observed the same thing.

Mizer noted, “After a month or so, the light stopped reappearing with regularity, and we had almost forgotten about our experience, but early in 1905 reports had started coming in again about the light.” He still was not sure what the source of the light was, noting, “I tell you – when you’re sitting out there in the dark, and this ball of light floats around for a while, and disappears, you begin to wonder.”

In a tiny pamphlet entitled, “Ghost Lights,” Garland “Spooky” Middleton, the second owner of the Spook Light Museum, published statements from individuals about the Spook Lights. Louise Graham of Galena, Kansas, said, “While coming home from a school carnival at Quapaw, Oklahoma, we got the thrill of our lives. The light had evidently grown tired and weary and decided to do a little hitch-hiking on our bus. The light perched on the rear window as though trying to get in the bus. We were scared half to death – women screaming and all. The light was so bright it temporarily blinded the bus driver and he had to stop the bus. Just as we stopped, the light went away. I’ll never forget that bus ride.”

Leonard Stoner of Quapaw, Oklahoma, said, “I’ve lived around Quapaw for 61 years. I’ve seen a number of teams investigating the source of the ‘Ghost Light,’ but none of them have ever found out what it is. I was here before there were any cars in this district and the ‘Ghost Light’ was there then.” Frank Allen, Jr., an African American resident of Joplin, proclaimed, “I ain’t been [to see the Spook Light] and I ain’t going and you can be sure they won’t be any segregation problems on that road.”

One humorous account from an anonymous resident of Tulsa recounted, “My parents reside in Neosho. While visiting them we drive out to see the spook light quite often. Old settlers down here say their ‘night life’ falls into two categories – Those who have kidney trouble and those who go to see the spook light. One old widow told about having to move to Neosho from Spooksville. She said, ‘The light makes me
nervous and irregular.’ I think she must have meant ‘irritable.’”

If you have a Spook Light story, we’d like to hear it!

A Spring in Joplin

The Ozarks have always been abundantly blessed with springs, creeks, and rivers. Although Joplin’s neighbor to the south, Neosho, is hailed as the “city of springs,” Joplin was once home to the notable “Ino Spring.”

The Ino spring was located a half-mile west of Joplin near where two men, Frazier and McConey, had a brick ward in the early 1870s. The site became popular as Joplinites would drive out in the summer to cool off at the spring. The spring was described as a “stream of sparking water” that gurgled up from the side of a “slight uprising in the ground, not exactly a hill, but a knoll forming one side of a shallow gulley.” Joplin’s old-timers remembered the spring and it was tradition that “when the Indians roamed the prairie where Joplin now stands that they quenched their thirst” at the spring. By the turn of the century, it was “surrounded by numerous mining plants with immense pumps.”

The name of the spring came from the nearby “Ino” (I Know) Mining Company in upper Leadville Hollow. Reportedly the Ino mine was drained of water of almost 200 feet, but the little spring kept flowing. As Chitwood Hollow opened up to mining, it became known as the “Ino Spring.” Teamsters, lead and zinc haulers, coal haulers, and others stopped to water their horses at the spring as well as supplied water to the nearby Chitwood mining camp.

By the turn of the century, the citizens of Joplin were calling for pure water. In response, an unknown enterprising entrepenuer decided to haul water in from the Ino spring, despite competition from the Redell and Freeman “deep well wagons.”

It is unknown now if the spring still flows, we can only hope that it does.

Source: Joplin News Herald

A story from Joplin courtesy of Vance Randolph

One of the most important figures in recent Ozark history is Vance Randolph. Randolph, born just across the stae line in Pittsburg, Kansas, first visited the Missouri Ozarks in 1899 when he and his parents visited the O-Joe Club in Noel, Missouri. Enthralled by the people and places of the Ozarks, Randolph spent the rest of his life traveling throughout Missouri and Arkansas collecting folklore, tall tales, superstitions, and folk culture. Randolph was no stranger in Joplin. He claimed that the best bar in the region was at the Connor Hotel.

Vance Randolph
Vance Randolph

Of the hundreds of stories he collected, this one comes from Mr. Reggie Courtney of Joplin, Missouri, on March, 1926:

“Once upon a time there was a fellow who was always telling big stories. Folks used to say he wsa the champion liar of the country. But them tales of his wasnt’ really lies, and everybody knowed it. They was just big windy stories, and folks used to come for miles around to hear him tell ’em when he got going good.

One day a bunch of the boys was setting in front of the store at the crossroads when this here windy fellow come riding along on a mule. “Howdy, Emmett,” says the postmaster. “Light down, and tell us one of them big lies of your’n.”

But the fellow didn’t stop only a minute, and he looked mighty serious. “No time for foolishness today, boys,” says he. “Old man Slinkard has fell off’n the barn, and it looks like his back’s broke. I’m going after Doc Holton.”

After Emmett went down the road towards town the boys just set there and looked at one another. They all knowed Old Man Slinkard and most of them was kin to him. Pretty soon they all got on their horses and rode over to the Slinkard place, to see if they could do anything to help out. It was pretty near four mile, through mighty rough country. They was all hot and sweaty and tired before they come in sight of the house. And the first thing they seen when they got there was old man Slinkard out a-plowing his corn.

“Well I’ll be damned!” says the postmaster. “He never fell off’n the barn at all! That goddamn Emmett lied to us!” The other boys was all pretty sore too, but they couldn’t pass up a chance to pour it on the postmaster. “I don’t see where you got any kick a-coming,” says one fellow. “Didn’t you ask him to tell us one of them big lies?” The postmaster he says yes, but he didn’t figure on riding no four miles in this heat just for some fool idea of a joke.

“Well, I don’t see how you can blame poor Emmett,” the fellow says, “because he just done what you told him.” And then they all laughed like fools, and that’s all there is to this story.”

Source:  Hoosier Folklore, A Quarterly of Folklore, vol. IX, No. 2 and Vance Randolph: An Ozark Life by Robert Cochran.