Campfire Stories and Ozark Folklore

Whether you want a great campfire story or a taste of the region’s rich history, the Ozarks are full of tall tales.

When Vance Randolph, editor of Who Blowed Up the Church House? And Other Ozark Folk Tales, traveled the dirt roads of MissouriCamping in Branson, MO in 1899, cars, highways, movies and radios had barely reached the backcountry. What the Ozarks lacked in modern conveniences, though, it more than made up for in stories — hundreds of them — some true, some partly true and others simply apocryphal.

Today these folk tales are like patches of a quilt that represent the Show Me State’s distinct cultural heritage. When you travel through the Branson area and beyond, take in the wide-angle views of the rolling hills, and, with a little imagination, you can envision these stories coming to life. Here are just a few to get you started.

The Snipe Hunters

A big man from New York came down to a hotel in the Ozark countryside. Some local boys were sleeping there and decided to play a joke on the man — they invited him out to hunt for fictitious creatures called snipes.

Away they went to the forest near Reeds Spring, about 20 miles from Branson. The boys lit a short candle and set it on a log, then gave the man a tin whistle and a large sack. The whistle was a snipe-caller, they said, and the candle would help draw the creatures into the sack.

The boys left, saying they were going to the forest to beat down the underbrush and scare up some snipe. Fine, the man said. But what they were really doing was ditching him and heading back to the hotel.

When the boys returned to the inn, scratched up from running through the forest, they heard the strangest sound. That whistle. Looking into the man’s room, they saw him there, laughing as hard as he could. He knew the whole time what the boys were up to.

“I got Bob Applegate to follow along in the buggy,” he said. “You wise guys were hollering and tromping down brush when we left!” The man ended up sticking around the rest of the summer, taunting the boys every night with that whistle.

The Fellow That Stole Corn

Pappy noticed that someone had been stealing his corn, so he put a padlock on his wooden corncrib. Simple solution, right? Wrong. The next day, Pappy again found corn missing, and discovered an important clue. Someone had been reaching through a hole between the logs, pulling out one ear at a time. So that night, Pappy set a wolf trap inside the corncrib.

Sure enough, the next morning Pappy found a man standing next to the corncrib, with one hand stuck inside of it. “Howdy,” Pappy said, looking unsurprised. “Looks like we’re gonna get some rain.” He went about his chores as though nothing was out of the ordinary.

A while later, Pappy returned with some neighbors, who acted as though they didn’t see the thief standing there. “Must be some kind of varmint,” one of them said of the missing corn. Another suggested that the culprit might be one of the local boys from down the road.

Eventually Pappy set the thief free, but told him to come inside and eat breakfast. The thief, feeling ashamed, said he had lost his appetite, but Pappy insisted he stay for a meal. Afterward, Pappy returned to the crib and filled up the sack with corn, handing it over to the thief while the neighbors still pretended not to see him. While the neighbors talked about what they’d do to that thief if they ever found him, Pappy walked him out the front gate — like a gentleman would — carrying that sackful of corn. He had learned his lesson.

The Poppet Caught a Thief

One time a group of men in a boardinghouse were robbed while they slept. Someone made off with a lot of loot — in those days, banks were scarce in the Ozarks, so folks carried gold in their pockets. The innkeeper refused to let anyone leave until the thief was discovered, and this did not go over well with the crowd.

A woman suddenly spoke up. “My poppet [an old-time name for a doll] can catch any thief in the world, and it won’t take ten minutes,” she said. The lady then brought out her poppet, rubbed it with the dark juice from a walnut hull, and set it on a table. The men weren’t amused — was this lady crazy? — but since they wanted to get their money back and get out of that tavern, they were willing to do almost anything.

The woman insisted that the men line up, and one by one, squeeze the poppet. When the thief touches it, she said, “the poppet will holler like a stuck pig.” So the men did as told. Yet at the end, that little doll still sat there silent.

The woman then moved through the room, examining each man’s hands. When she singled out one of them as the thief, he pleaded innocence, but it was too late. The mob began threatening him, and he ’fessed up.

“If you turn me loose I’ll give everything back,” the thief said to the men, but added that if they killed him, they’d never know where their gold went. He’d hidden it beneath a woodpile while his fellow lodgers were sleeping. The crowd relented, letting the thief take them to the hidden stash before hightailing out of town.

At a celebratory dinner that night, the innkeeper collected donations from the men to thank the poppet-lady. But he would only reward her on one condition: how did she know who the thief was?

“A thief don’t know nothing for sure,” she said. “Every one of you honest men squeezed that poppet. But the robber figured there might be a trick to it, so he never touched the poppet.”

“All I did was to look for the fellow that didn’t have no walnut juice on his hands!”

The Mare With the False Tail

There was a Missouri horse trader, a long time back, who owned a fine mare with one big flaw. She was missing a tail. Well, not missing, per se. It was more like a little tuft of hair where a tail should have been.

His solution was to find a wigmaker in Kansas City who could fashion him a false tail. She did so, and the man outfitted the mare with a gorgeous saddle and a silver bridle. Then he took her to the fair to sell.

When he found a buyer, the man removed the saddle, the bridle and that cherished false tail. This, of course, made the buyer furious. But a deal’s a deal, the trader said, and anyway the tail wasn’t part of the horse to begin with.

The horse trader would then wait a while around the stables until he saw his buyer again. He’d apologize, saying that what he’d done wasn’t fair, and would buy the horse back if the buyer gave him a few dollars extra. They struck a deal.

And that was the horse trader’s scam. He would take that beautiful mare to shows and sell her, and then take a $20 premium when the disgruntled buyer sold the horse back to him.

This worked fine until one day, in a small Ozark town, he sold the mare to an old man on the roadside for $200. The man didn’t bat an eye when he saw the trader remove the tail. Instead, he laughed. Later, when that crooked dealer was hanging around the stable, the old man never returned like the other buyers had.

The horse trader was shocked. He rode down to the old man’s house and apologized, offering to buy back the mare from him. The new owner, however, would hear none of it. He liked that mare just fine, he said, and refused to take back the full price plus an extra $10.

When the horse trader returned the following day, he was desperate. “That horse is all I got to live on, and feed a big family. Do you want to take the bread out of my little children’s mouths?”

Of course the old man didn’t want to do that. But he did want to teach that trader a lesson. “Give me $300, and you can have your mare back,” he insisted. The trader did so and rode that horse out of town, never looking back.