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Monday, October 24, 2011

Your Heart Would Ache Could You Be Here . . .

“Teresa dear, your heart would ache could you be here and see these mothers coming for clothing for their little ones.  There is so much need for them to help themselves . . .”

The rugged terrain that families of the Ozarks had to travel on a daily basis likely increased the level of poverty in the Boston Mountains during the first half of the twentieth century. Even when a year-round job could be had in Fort Smith, Van Buren or on the other side of the mountain in Fayetteville, it was always a struggle to get to the jobsite or the factory in the middle of winter. In those days, just to get a truck out of the holler, to climb up steep snow packed roads without sliding down into a canyon, was a major undertaking. Ice or snow could shut everything down for weeks, and not many steady employers could tolerate such prolonged absences from the job.

This was the world Clara Muxen drove into that foggy day so many decades ago; the world she became a part of when she settled in the Boston Mountains, and, it appears from her letters, the reason she became intent on building the Craft School of the Ozarks.

Teresa . . .” something should be done to teach these people a way of making a living. May God grant that the school will help them to learn a skill that will be profitable to them.”

Clara Margaret Muxen was 58 years old when she arrived in the Ozarks. A retired educator, she sought to lift the local people out of poverty.  Being a devoutly religious woman, she also worried over their spiritual well being.

Miss Muxen not only founded the Craft School of The Ozarks, in the ensuing twenty-one years following her fateful arrival, this single woman founded Our Lady of the Ozarks, Virgin of the Smile Shrine, located next door to the craft school, a shrine Danny Thomas has paid homage to, as well as the Winslow Thrift Store; an amazing legacy for one woman.

It is not often we encounter someone who has the faith and fortitude to make such a tremendous physical difference in the local community as Miss Muxen did.

She was so taken with empathy for the area’s poor, that she would dedicate the remainder of her life and all her material wealth and well being, to address the needs of the families of the Boston Mountains.

The Craft School of the Ozarks was to be her ultimate gift to the community; the jewel on the mountain that would shine so brightly and lead those in poverty to a more sustainable, even profitable, life style.
So with pencil and paper in hand, a gift from her brother and the support of numerous friends from across the country, Clara Muxen began to set in motion a dream that had once been only in her head.

A dream that would inevitably come so close to her heart’s desire, so close to her vision, so close . . . that it is painful to look into her future.

But Miss Muxen knew none of that then, all she knew was the soreness of her muscles from pouring cement, the sweat on her cheek from the midday sun, and all she heard, as she leaned back to rest, was a symphony ringing out over the hills of the Ozarks, of hammer hitting nail, and nails hitting good solid wood.  

Monday, October 17, 2011

Sixty Bags of Cement and a Prayer for Dry Weather

“My dear Teresa:  This is a hasty note to tell you that the floors and the steps of the cement porches have been made and that all went well . . .”

I can only imagine what it must have been like when Clara Muxen arrived in the poverty stricken Ozarks of the 1940’s. The rugged terrain of the Boston Mountains, while breathtakingly beautiful, can be difficult to traverse today, let alone sixty years ago, especially in the winter months when everything can suddenly come to a stop.  The slopes of our mountains are forested and, with their deep valleys and steep terrain, they can be a challenge for anyone to negotiate. Small clearings on mountain crests, valley bottoms, and crevices, seemingly carved out of the landscape with a knife, are the only areas that can be utilized for building. In the 1940’s through the 1960’s when Miss Muxen worked with local craftsmen on the construction of the Craft School of the Ozarks, the mountains were sparsely populated, with much of the land belonging to the Ozark National Forest.

Miss Muxen’s hand-written letters weave a tapestry of threads that are at once beautiful in form yet abstract in vision, leaving the reader with more questions than answers.

What would possess a retired woman in her sixties with a history of compromised health due to tuberculosis attempt such a huge project on her own: that of designing, fundraising and physically participating in the building of what she called the Craft School of the Ozarks?

The design of the building itself is amazing. Reviewing Miss Muxen’s hand-drawn plans for the building, you’ll find each space, each room, each floor, is designated for a particular purpose, a particular goal.  She includes pages of hand-written supply lists: how many light fixtures she will need, how many circuit boxes, how many rope pulls, how many bags of nails and yes, how many bags of cement it will take to complete the porch areas.

“My dear Teresa . . . the floors and the steps of the cement porches have been made and that all went well. No rain until the cement had time to harden and no cold weather until all danger of freezing was past.  They look so nice . . . It took sixty sacks of cement – twenty more than the contractors figured, besides additional labor, but the extra costs were offset by the good weather and the splendid job done . . .”

“I worried over those steps so very much for fear of bad weather at the time of pouring the cement. That would have been tragic as all the labor and materials would have been a complete loss . . .”

The one thread we find throughout this weaving is the intention, desire, and prayer for the poor people of the Ozarks: the elderly, the young mothers and their children, the fathers out of work following the depression. 

Whether it was religious fervor or humanitarian zeal, Clara Muxen had a vision for this mountain and for the people carving out crevices in the hard landscape . . .

“May God grant them that this school will help them learn a skill that will be profitable to them . . .” Clara Muxen March 15th 1951

Friday, October 14, 2011

Clara Muxen: The First Miracle

The First Miracle

I imagine the fog was thick, as their V-8 pulled around the last curve near Artist’s Point, south of Winslow.  Parking to stretch, Clara Margaret Muxen, her ailing mother and her brother, made a discovery that would change not only their lives but the lives of many others in the Boston Mountains in the 1940’s, a discovery, in fact, that continues to change lives today.

It may have been the color of the sky, the water down in the valley, or the sun streaming through the fog, but whatever it was, Clara Muxen would later tell friends of her epiphany: “I knew this was the place for my school.”  The school that she spoke of was what she later lovingly referred to as the Craft School of the Ozarks in Winslow, Arkansas, known today as Ozark Folkways on Highway 71, south of Fayetteville.

Miss Muxen was said to have been a tall, rather masculine woman who began her adult life as a nun.  It was only after she contracted tuberculosis and upon her brother’s offer and, it seems, insistence that she agreed to leave the convent and travel to a sanatorium in Switzerland where she remained until her health improved.  Following her convalescence, Miss Muxen devoted the rest of her life to teaching children and adults in the field of education.

On that spring morning when she stepped out of the car and into the Arkansas Ozarks to stretch, she was a retired educator in her early sixties, a sociologist in search of a way to help the poor of the Ozarks, and a pious religious woman who had apparently been praying for a miracle for some time.

That prayer, the one that led to the miracle that morning, would be the first of many that she and others across the nation would lift up on behalf of the Craft School of the Ozarks over the next twenty years of its construction; a prayer that began a dream, a dream that was sadly was not completely realized in Miss Muxen’s lifetime, but a dream that lives on today through Ozark Folkways.

No one knows exactly what led Miss Muxen to this dream, this calling, but what we do know, is that she had a great desire to lift the poor of the Ozarks out of the throes of poverty, and this Craft School of the Ozarks was to be the instrument she would use to devote to that cause . . . 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Located just south of Winslow, Arkansas in the beautiful rollercoaster of the Boston Mountains, the Ozark Folkways building was constructed gradually from the late 1940's through the early 1960's at the behest of Miss Clara Muxen, a retired educator from Iowa. Her unrequited dream for the building was that it be used as a craft school, but she died before its completion and the large, native stone building sat unused for many years.

In 1973, the rapidly growing Ozark Native Craft Association took up residence and thrived there as a member-based social welfare craft group until the late 1980's, when employment opportunities in northwest Arkansas expanded due to intense economic development in the area. By 1997, income had dwindled to a third of its former gross and a new interstate highway was being constructed that would bypass the area. The board of directors recognized the cue to adapt and made the decision to shift focus away from retail, to concentrate future efforts on the preservation of and education in regional heritage and crafts. By spring of 2004 the sprawling retail portion of the building had been reduced by half, a free resource library and museum established, and later that year the organization was approved for 501(c)(3) status under the new name of Ozark Folkways. 

The long-term goal of  this rebirth, is the creation of the "Clara Muxen Folk School of  The Ozarks" a respected and competitive arts and craft school which will include an "artist in residency" program, summer activities for the community and a year-round curriculum of classes and workshops for children and adults of all ages.

As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the creation of new sources of income, namely grants and charitable gifts, are of central importance to our survival. Equally important is an expansion of the community we serve. 

In the past, Ozark Folkways has behaved primarily as a service to the people of Winslow and a few surrounding communities. Today, due in large part to the expansion of the internet and social media, we are fast becoming a resource to the larger regional community of the mid-south, as we continue to move towards the creation of an educational center for the teaching and preservation of folk arts and craft. 

Presently home to several arts and crafts groups and guilds, including Boston Mountain Quilters and the Wool and Wheel Handspinners, Ozark Folkways continues to add new venues each year. In 2010 we are offering classes and workshops in basket-making, spinning, weaving, painting, creative writing, and pottery.  

With our rebirth and rededication to the original goals and mission of our founder, we are moving closer  to Miss Muxen's long-ago dream of a craft school in the Boston Mountains, and so the dream lives on.