About a mile down a winding gravel road just outside of Gerald, another world emerges for two days every autumn. When guests leave their parked cars and follow the muddy footprints over the sparkling creek into the site, they enter a snapshot of rural Missouri as it was in the days before the industrial revolution, when pioneers accomplished with draft animals and manpower what is today done with electricity and digital technology.
Oct. 2 and 3 marked the 24th annual Mid-Missouri Horse, Mule and Ox Farming and Historical Craft Days, a festival celebrating those who continue the state’s traditions of basket making, corn shucking, dry stone masonry, soap making and more. The annual show began in 1996 and was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Longtime organizer Gail Cross, who hosts the event on her property each year, said the patrons who come to the event “run the gamut” in age, gender and distance they travel to come to the event. What they all have in common, she said, is a curiosity for and interest in what life was like in a premodern Missouri.
“I think for a lot of people, it’s a break from so much of the chaos that goes on in today’s world,” Cross said. “It’s going back to a time when people made do with their own power and their animal partners. There was no relying on gasoline (and) electricity because it didn’t exist. It was not an easy time, but it was a simpler time.”
For some of the roughly 20 artisans at the festival, the activities presented honor a familial connection, a parent or grandparent who taught them that skill. Don Hall, a St. Clair woodcarver and beekeeper who had a table at the event, learned to whittle wood from his grandfather when he was about 10. Hall has kept up the hobby ever since, carving and painting small- to medium-size figurines and spools.
“Granddad and I — in the hot summertime when everyone was working — would sit out under the maple tree to try to stay cool,” Hall said. “One day he said, ‘I’ve got an old pocket knife in the house. I’m going to learn you how to carve wood.’”
For many of the demonstrators, however, the activities on display are things they learned in adulthood, either from books or other people, as a way to become more self-reliant and to safeguard Missouri pioneers’ agricultural and cultural traditions so they aren’t lost, Cross explained.
“We run the risk of this knowledge disappearing forever once the generation that used these skills commonly is gone if they haven’t been passed down,” Cross said. “This (show) is a celebration of animal power, traditional skills, crafts and life before the industrial era, and how that knowledge is still valuable and relevant in today’s world. ... It’s a labor of love, but it’s something we really feel is important to keep in front of people so it doesn’t disappear.”
Several of the demonstrators belong to the Rural Missouri Spinners, a community of about 20 people, mostly women, who have implemented many of the skills on display into their everyday lives. The group proclaims a shared “love for the fiber arts and the animals that produce the fleece.”
Kathy Harbert, of Rosebud, has been with the group since its founding almost 40 years ago. She said the value of the knowledge the group protects can be seen in a single pair of socks that she owns. The socks, which her mother knit with wool she spun herself, belonged to her father in the 1920s. A hundred years later, Harbert still wears them in the wintertime, the wool as warm today as it was then.
“People today are used to a disposable society, where you go into Walmart and buy socks that will last a year. If I make a pair of socks with wool from my sheep, it will last a lifetime,” Harbert said. “When you had to make your clothes, you really valued them and took care of them. All of us in (Rural Missouri Spinners) love sharing that knowledge.”
Harbert joked that if Walmart went out of business tomorrow, everyone at the Gerald festival “would be just fine.” Harbert could continue making colorful aprons and growing and canning food. Laura Harrawood and Marsha Borgmann could continue weaving baskets, meticulously counting each row of intertwined twigs to ensure symmetry in the finished piece. Dave Schulte could keep providing food with his antique John Deere corn-shelling machine. And Lu Sensenbrenner and Linda Beckley would still be able to make fresh soap with water, lye and tallow, a form of beef fat.
“We want to stress the importance of people knowing how to do things without pushing a button, plugging in a cord or firing up a motor,” Cross said. “Who knows what the future holds? That’s why we do this every year.”
Although they admit it often feels like an ingrained part of daily life, Cross and Harbert pointed out the relative novelty of one-stop shops and mass-produced goods being the norm in the resource-rich region along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The first Walmart Supercenter in the country opened in Washington, Missouri, in 1988. By contrast, the citizens of Cahokia — an ancient Native American settlement in what is now St. Louis that had a population of between 14,000 and 18,000 people at its peak — were weaving baskets as early as the year 1050 in a similar fashion to what Harrawood and Borgmann have been doing for more than 25 years. In the mid 1700s in St. Louis, stonemasons constructed the headquarters of Pierre Laclede’s fur trading company using the same tools and techniques that dry stone masons at the festival exhibited.
Harbert stressed that although the skills on display honor the past, they don’t have to stay trapped in museum glass, the pages of books and heritage festivals. They can evolve.
A good example of that would be quilts, Harbert explained. Early European settlers in the U.S. quilted as a way to squeeze more usage out of worn-out cloth. Today, however, it’s a staple of church groups, a prized generational possession for families and an important symbol of American folklore.
“If you look into some of these quilters groups, they get crazy. I mean, they’ve made new patterns and put together new fabrics in new ways, and it’s intricate and gorgeous. Or some people — say a relative passed away and you don’t know what to do with all their clothes — some people will take their shirts and put them together to make a quilt, or a pillow or a teddy bear. And that’s a way of taking the old and bringing it into your future and into your present.”
As she looks ahead to the festival’s 25th installment next year, Cross said she hopes to welcome new faces who will learn and pass on the homestead skills in the future. Harbert added that she thinks people who come will “fall in love” with these traditions the way she has.
“This has taught me so many things about the value of the way we used to do things, (when) things were built to last. This (event) takes you to that world,” Harbert said. “It’s so satisfying to know you’re preserving something and you’re surrounding yourself with comfort things, good things, well-made things. And you look around and know you’re a survivor. Your great-grandparents were survivors, and you can be, too.”