Back to the Land

Back-to-the-landers Gary and Cindy Davidson with their homegrown turnips and cabbage, 1974. Courtesy Nancy Marshall

Living off the land was a necessity for the settlers who moved to Northwest Arkansas in the 1800s. They had to build shelter and farm in order to survive. But over the years there have been individuals and groups for whom self-sufficiency was a deliberate choice brought on by economic, political, or ideological reasons. Today urban and rural homesteading is in vogue, especially with a younger generation who want to live a DIY lifestyle.

To some degree these modern homesteaders are revisiting the back-to-the-land movement that stemmed from the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. Whether because of disillusionment with government or society, a need to return to basics, or some other reason, in the early 1970s young people began moving to rural areas in large numbers. There they attempted to build their own homes, grow their own food, and live simply. While some found success, for others their idealism and energy couldn’t overcome the challenges they faced.

When I was an undergrad at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville I worked with another student on a small research project which recorded the oral histories of local back-to-the-landers. As I listened to their stories, I couldn’t imagine having the gumption to leave behind all that was familiar and comfortable for what would surely be a hardscrabble existence. Maybe that’s why I find back-to-the-land stories fascinating.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing artist and business entrepreneur Cindy Arsaga for several years and was surprised to learn that she, too, once lived off the land in Northwest Arkansas. Recently she recorded an oral history interview with museum outreach coordinator Susan Young. Cindy also shared photos from her friend and fellow homesteader, Nancy Sullivan Marshall.

Shortly after Cindy Cadwallader graduated from Central High School in Little Rock in 1972, she married Gary Davidson. They and a group of like-minded friends lived together in a house in North Little Rock. Most of them considered themselves born-again Christians.

Our idea was to buy some land and build a house on it and make a commune. . . . I was just 18 years old and everybody else was roughly the same age so we were…young and looking for what we wanted to do next. . . . We just didn’t want to live like everybody else did. We wanted to do something different.

That winter they made plans and gathered supplies. A friend told them about inexpensive land in Madison County, a place which was then attracting many back-to-the-landers. In the spring of 1973 Cindy and Gary loaded everything they owned into a 1954 Chevy truck and drove up the Pig Trail (Highway 23) to a 40-acre parcel of land just off of Slow Tom Mountain Road, near Witter.

Gary and Cindy Davidson's tent, Madison County, Arkansas, circa 1974

This was home sweet home for Gary and Cindy Davidson when they moved to Madison County, Arkansas, in 1973. Courtesy Nancy Marshall

Together with friends Dawn and Robbie Carder, Nancy and Tim Sullivan, and John Toliver they built platforms for tents, cooked over an open fire, and got to know their neighbors. While the men built a foundation for a house, the women traveled daily to Fayetteville to work at Brough Commons, the main dining hall on the University of Arkansas campus. And then fall came.

It was starting to get cold. I think about November [neighbor Glen Haught] came walking down the hill one day. . . . [H]e sat down and said, “You guys are going to freeze. You have to come live in my house with me.” We couldn’t believe that he would want all of us and the dogs and cats . . . but he did. So we eventually loaded all of our stuff up and moved into Glen’s house and spent the winter with him.

Now you might think that there would be a clash between young hippies and old-time rural farmers, but that wasn’t so in Cindy’s case.

Those people just took us under their wing. They loved it that we were there. . . . I’m sure they thought that we were crazy but they . . . were never mean to us. They were so sweet to us. They wanted to help, they wanted us to not freeze. They wanted to teach us their ways, ‘cause we were interested and their kids all moved away. . . . So I think they were just amazed that we were there and that we really cared about it. They embraced us, we embraced them. We loved them. They were great.

Glen Haught home, Madison County, Arkansas, circa 1973

From left: Glen Haught, John Toliver, and neighbor Lester Estep outside of Glen’s home, 1973-1974. Courtesy Nancy Marshall

Cindy appreciated her neighbors’ resourcefulness and open-heartedness. Generations earlier, Glen Haught’s kinfolk helped settle the area in the 1800s. In many ways Glen and his neighbors were already living the back-to-the-land lifestyle. Maybe that’s why the two groups didn’t clash.

They lived on next to nothing and they were just as happy with that as anybody could be. They didn’t need a lot; they got a lot from the land. They just connected with people in such an open, charming way. . . . They told us everything they could. They filled us up with all their information and taught us how to raise chickens and taught us how to have a garden and how to hunt ginseng.

In the spring they planted a garden at Glen’s house but the stress of their lifestyle was taking its toll. The group was breaking apart. In part it was because of their Christianity—some people were more into it than others. But relationships were strained, too. These young couples were living a hard life at the same time they were learning to live with each other. And the isolation of rural Madison County didn’t help. In the end their back-to-the-land commune wasn’t working. People started to leave. Cindy and Gary were the last to go, moving to a more conventional life in Fayetteville late in the summer of 1974.

It was just such a relief to be back among people. . . . I was ready to start my life. And it wasn’t going to be living in the woods in Madison County. But that had been such a formative experience that I felt enabled to go out into the world and do something. And I think it was just from having done that and accomplished it and lived through it. . . . I think it was all about growing up.

Cindy Arsaga, 2013

Cindy Arsaga tells her story to Shiloh Museum outreach coordinator Susan Young, July 2013.

Marie Demeroukas is the Shiloh Museum’s photo archivist and research librarian.

Ozark Mountain Folk Fair: History in Our Backyard

Remains of a fire ring at the Ozark Mountain Folk Fair site, 2013.

Ever since we moved to Arkansas, my husband and I have tried to spend a little time every weekend clearing land on part of the family property where we plan on building a house. In the process of this, we’ve uncovered a variety of debris, from an old beaded moccasin to artisan glass wine bottles, as well as the remnants of countless fire rings. As way of explanation, my husband mentioned a music festival his father told him about that took place here forty years ago. I imagined a small get-together of a few hundred people and then naturally was distracted by other thoughts, such as getting out of the way of the brush hog.

Capped well at the Folk Fair site, 2013.

It wasn’t until we were hiking a little further up, and we stumbled into the water spigots and the well that I started to seriously reconsider the context of this music festival. Any event that requires its own source of water, namely, the pricey undertaking of drilling a well, is no small thing. As a researcher, I followed my instinct to dig in and see what other information I could unearth. What I found was an event that not only represented the mix of cultural currents that flowed through Eureka Springs in the early 1970s (and still does today) but also the trail of historical connections woven by the paths of people associated with it.

Ozark Mountain Folk Fair organizers, 1973.

Ozark Mountain Folk Fair organizers, 1973. Courtesy Patrick Griffith

The Ozark Mountain Folk Fair held Memorial Day weekend of 1973 was the first and only outdoor music festival held at the ten-acre Oakhill Eco-Park in Carroll County, north of Eureka Springs and just south of the Missouri state line. I have been told that conflicts over money, namely that “No one, including performers, was paid,” contributed to it being a unique event. Various musicians including John Lee Hooker, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Big Mama Thornton, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Earl Scruggs, and many others performed at the three-day festival that represented a variety of musical genres, such as bluegrass, folk, blues, and gospel. Organizers had prepared for a crowd of 60,000 people, though the Lawrence (KS) Daily Journal reported that as many as 150,000 people showed up despite the rain and subsequent mud to see the show. The overwhelming crowd was unanticipated and as a result, local service stations temporarily ran out of gasoline. To compare, Wakarusa, the folk-music festival held annually on Mulberry Mountain in Franklin County had about 50,000 people attending in 2005, or to think of it another way, the present population of Fayetteville totals just over 75,000.

Constructing the Ozark Folk Fair Stage, 1973.

Constructing the Ozark Folk Fair Stage, 1973. Courtesy Patrick Griffith

The Eco-Park was designed by Albert Skiles, a local Fayetteville architect who has gone on to design many modern and environmentally friendly homes along with well-known buildings including the expansion of the Dickson St. Liquor retail store in Fayetteville and the Little Portion Chapel near Eureka Springs. Little Portion Chapel is run by the Brothers and Sisters of Charity of the Little Portion hermitage/monastery, founded by John Michael Talbot. Talbot was formerly the guitarist for Oklahoma City-based band Mason Proffit, who was among the many acts in the line-up at the Ozark Mountain Folk Fair.

According to Joseph Kotarba in Baby Boomer Rock’n’ Roll Fans, following his performance at the Oakhill Eco-Park, Talbot came to the conclusion that the rock and roll lifestyle was ultimately not for him and he began the spiritual quest that eventually led him to open Little Portion. Eureka Springs is also well-known for its culture of devout believers—the famous Christ of the Ozarks statue was erected just seven years previous, and the premiere performance of the Great Passion Play was staged only five years earlier in 1968. Despite the contradictions in these seemingly very different cultures, the harmony was effectively achieved as a local street ministry group led by Dale and Laura Nichols attended the festival to hand out copies of the New Testament to concert-goers.

Fair-goers carpet the hillside on Memorial Day weekend, May 1973.

Fair-goers carpet the hillside on Memorial Day weekend, May 1973. Courtesy Patrick Griffith

When viewing pictures of the masses of people who covered these tranquil hills, it is stunning to consider the vast numbers of lives and musical talent that coincided beneath the tall shade trees that weekend in May. Nowadays, when we uncover a bottle or an old piece of jewelry in the dirt while we’re clearing land for our new house, I think of all those people, as one Lawrence, Kansas, resident put it, having “One heckuva party.”

April Griffith was the Shiloh Museum’s library assistant from 2012–2015.