Opinion rex nelson raising hell in the ozarks nwadg youtube gas monkey

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Historian Blake Perkins begins and ends his book on the history of defiance in the Ozarks with events I remember well. He starts with a violent episode in Lawrence County that ended the life of extremist Gordon Kahl in the summer of 1983. He ends with the rise of the Tea Party almost three decades later.

"On June 3, 1983, federal and local lawmen surrounded the remote home of Leonard and Norma Ginter near Smithville, Ark., a rural village in the Ozarks foothills," Perkins writes. "Authorities had received a tip that the Ginters were harboring fugitive Gordon Kahl, a militant tax protestor and antigovernment extremist who had recently made the FBI’s most wanted list for killing two lawmen.

"As heavily armed officers closed in on the Ginters’ house, Leonard and Norma were safely and quietly taken into custody while the local sheriff, Gene Matthews, and a federal marshal wasted no time pursuing Kahl. Inside the house the lawmen exchanged gunfire with an obstinate Kahl, who had long promised the feds he would not be taken alive. Sheriff Matthews presumably killed Kahl with a shot to the head, but he too was riddled with bullets through the back and shoulder.

"After the federal marshal removed the mortally wounded sheriff from the house, the army of officers standing ready on the outside unloaded a barrage of gunfire and tear gas through the walls and windows, eventually sending the Ginter home up in flames. Kahl’s charred remains were later recovered from the ashes, and the Ginters were sentenced to five years in federal prison."

I was editor of the Daily Siftings Herald at Arkadelphia that summer and was drinking coffee with deputies at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office when word came that a sheriff in the northern part of the state had been killed. When it became clear that Kahl also had been killed, the deputies gave me his FBI wanted poster as a souvenir. I still have it.

Perkins writes in the book’s conclusion: "In March 2009, Mountain Home resident Bill Smith–a self-described ‘Ozark guru’ who proudly lists ‘hillbilly slang’ as his primary language–advertised plans for the newly founded Ozark Tea Party to host a local rally on April 15. The rally was scheduled in conjunction with national Fair Tax activists’ ‘Nationwide Tax Day Tea Party,’ a demonstration organized to demand the abolition of all federal income taxes.

"A non-native, Smith was an Air Force veteran, an ordained minister and the owner of a business consulting firm who had come to the Ozarks most recently from Kansas. … According to their own count, about 1,500 people from northern Arkansas and southern Missouri attended the Ozark Tea Party’s tax-day rally at the town square in Mountain Home, located somewhat ironically only a few miles from two of the federal government‘s New Deal-era dams and lakes. When the young organizer Richard Caster took the stage to kick off the event and asked those in attendance how they were doing, one man hollered out above the rest of the noisy crowd: ‘We’re broke.’"

Having crossed the huge concrete Bull Shoals and Norfork dams last Sunday, I appreciate the fact that Perkins mentions these federal projects once were viewed as the salvation for one of the country’s poorest areas. The lakes, the resorts built on their shores, the world-class trout fishing below the dams, and the tourists and retirees indeed helped revitalize the area.

By 2009, though, residents of a town that owes its growth to the federal government were attacking the feds as the enemy. Perkins points out numerous such contradictions in our state’s history. In an era when people search for easy answers, Perkins makes it clear that the history of Ozarks’ defiance isn’t black or white. It’s gray.

For instance, he writes that the national media coverage of Kahl’s death "conjured up popular images of Arkansas’ isolated hill country as a bastion of antigovernment sentiments. This perception, after all, dated at least to the legendary wars between hillbilly moonshiners and federal revenuers in the 19th century. . . . In truth, Kahl was from North Dakota and the Ginters, whose Yankee accents sounded odd to the locals, had moved to the community from Wisconsin. Moreover, the radicalism of Kahl and the Ginters, who were members of a far-right-wing white nationalist organization called the Posse Comitatus, represented no more than a tiny sliver of the rural population."

The owner of the country store at Smithville told reporters that the extremists "are not your average Arkansas people." Perkins writes: "Still, this sensational gunfight in rural Smithville seemed too much for most journalists to resist placing it within a longstanding narrative of rural whites’ hard-nosed defiance against federal power throughout American history."

Perkins says that contemporary resistance to the federal government "reflects far more of what is new in the Ozarks than what is traditional. Rural resistance to federal power has certainly transcended time, but the specific impetuses and dynamics of that defiance have changed remarkably from the late 19th century to the present."

Perkins notes that the region has moved from one of small farmers who distrusted capitalist elites to a mix of town business leaders, local elected officials and Midwestern immigrants whose brand of conservatism is far different from the old Ozark strain of populism.

I thought about this as I traveled south on Arkansas 5 from Mountain Home to Cabot (crossing another huge federal project–Greers Ferry Dam–that helped transform a region), looking at the Confederate battle flags and Trump signs in yards along the way. I bought weekly newspapers at Calico Rock and Mountain View just to confirm that local residents are still raising hell.