This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
HAMMOND MILL CAMP – David Haenke’s hands gripped the wheel of his ‘94 Toyota pickup as he traveled into the woods, but he was driven by more than the truck’s motor.
It was passion that propelled him down rural roads in search of more: Understanding, ideas and like-minded people who care about environmental concerns facing the world. And there, tucked among the trees, he found them at the 43rd annual Ozark Area Community Congress early in October.
The annual egalitarian effort (OACC, pronounced “oak”) serves as a gathering point for discussion around the needs of the Ozarks bioregion. A mix of programming and discussion throughout a Saturday — with folks staying the night before and after if they choose — exists to promote awareness and idea exchange to support local ecology and life within it.
“That’s where the word ‘congress’ comes in,” said Haenke, who helped found the event back in 1980. “We are doing this together. We are sharing ideas. We don’t have paid people. We’re doing it inexpensively. And it’s a sort of an ethic that we’ve continued, and somehow that formula has sustained for going on 44 years.”
OACC is a little different each year, but they all begin in a similar way: With a circle, where all attendees gather to introduce themselves — by name and watershed — and share why they made the trek. On the chilly autumn morning, one by one people did just that.
“We ask people, when they come to the opening circle, to identify themselves by their watershed not their county or their state,” said Haenke. “It’s a way of immersing ourselves in the idea of the Ozarks as a culture and as a natural region.”
Thoughts, ages and locations varied, the latter spanning Missouri’s borders and beyond. In many ways, though, their words were the same — around a mixture of hope and concern — and perhaps similar to those who gathered in years gone by.
“There weren’t as many older people then because we were a younger crowd,” said Denise Vaughn, one of a small number of people who have attended every single OACC and is one of its organizers. “There were a lot of kids.”
Those years have led the future to become the present. Yet generations continue: Of the handful of kids at OACC 43, “one was my granddaughter,” said Vaughn.
OACC began out of the back-to-the-land movement, a period in the 1970s and ‘80s when the region saw an influx of people who wanted to live in a more intentional way.
Haenke, once an English teacher in Ann Arbor, Mich., was one of those people. He left that life and with his wife and group of friends moved to the Ozarks, where they’d found cheap farmland in a catalog.
“I was always interested in ways of doing things that were friendly to the land and not harmful to the ecology,” said Haenke. “A lot of folks back in the ‘70s were attempting to do things in these kinds of ways — like organic farming and gardening, and those sorts of things.”
Vaughn shares a similar story, one funded by money she earned while babysitting in high school.
“Neighborhoods were teeming with kids, and I was a popular babysitter. I saved half of everything I earned babysitting,” she said of her teenage years, which were spent around Kansas City. Ultimately, she raised enough for a downpayment on 40 acres of Ozarks land.
“I moved there the day I graduated,” she said of her homestead. “I built a cabin, and had a garden, and did the whole back-to-the-land thing.”
As the back-to-landers met and grew, such connections led Haenke to begin to think of the value in gathering like-minded people in one place. In pre-internet days, such connections were a greater challenge than searching Facebook or sending an email, but in 1980 he helped coordinate OACC 1 at New Life Farm. At the time, the farm — initially located near Drury, a small community in Douglas County — was conducting experiments around alternative energy sources and organic farming.
Even though “modern” communication was limited — “I didn’t really have access to a telephone until the early ‘80s, and that was one I borrowed from the neighbors,” Haenke said — word got around. That first year, he recalls around 125 people showed up.
“It was very enriching and very inexpensive because we didn’t have paid speakers,” he said. “We didn’t have paid cooks. We had it on the property of this New Life Farm, which didn’t cost us anything. It was intended to be a participatory, low-cost way to share ways of living in the Ozarks that were to help people live here who didn’t have a lot of money.”
Its success led to another gathering the next year. And the next. And here we are.
Another early participant was potter Susan Minyard, who sat at a booth surrounded by mugs showing scenes of moonlight nights, snake-like handles, flowers and OACC’s logo. They are her creations: Decades ago, a college class led to a career, one she now executes from Sweetwater, a land trust in Wright County where she has lived since around when OACC began.
“I don’t really think the tone has changed,” she said of the event. “We’re older; a lot of us are older. So things are a little more restful than they might have been in the early years. It was all us back-to-landers, and we were in our 20s and 30s. It was what we wanted. It was exactly what we wanted.”
At OACC 43
OACC 43 began in a grassy clearing at Hammond Mill Camp, a collection of buildings built by the Civilian Conservation Corps work-relief program in the 1930s. It’s on the Missouri side of the state line, only around 30 miles away from crossing into Arkansas.
OACC’s location has shifted over the years. It’s been in Arkansas, and even was held at today’s Drury University in Springfield one year. But in recent years, it’s been at Hammond Mill Camp, which offers a natural setting and an affordable option as organizers try to keep it low-cost to attend.
Among the cabins and chapel and mess hall that still stand today, OACC attendees concluded the opening circle with a song led by Stan Slaughter, also known as The Eco-Troubadour, who has been at every OACC except one. They also remembered the individuals who recently passed away.
That latter effort extended to the chapel, where a memorial was created for quiet moments of reflection. One person it recognized was Steven Foster, a leader in the world of herbalism who had more than 40 years of experience, a plethora of industry awards, 18 books under his belt, and ties with OACC. He died unexpectedly in January 2022.
Many were influenced by Foster’s work, but one with close ties to OACC is herbalist Sasha Daucus, who along with Haenke and Vaughn complete the trio of people who help organize the event each year. She began attending OACC in the early 1980s, and it’s where a foundation began to form for herbalism work that’s now decades deep.
“Steven Foster was such a compelling teacher and really inspired me with how unique and exciting the Ozarks were to someone who loves plants,” she said, also noting herbalist Bob Liebert. “I believe those two people were the ones who really awoke this interest that was that was already there.”
Daucus’ father also had an interest in plants, but it was through OACC that she began to learn more about their medicinal value. An example: She was introduced to echinacea, also known as a purple coneflower.
“It’s an immune-system stimulant,” she said. “It’s one of the most well-known herbal plants anywhere. It’s like a huge, billion-dollar industry. And Steven Foster was one of the main people to establish it as a credible source of healing.”
The session’s segue into the next phase brought sign-up for open sessions, an opportunity for attendees to present on anything they felt called.
A large piece of paper was graphed with time slots and locations, allowing attendees to sign up for a time and place where they wanted to speak.
Those slots were largely in the afternoon, because first was a key moment of the day: State of the Ozarks, a block of time where attendees gathered under an open-air pavilion and were given four minutes to share with the entire group any news, updates or thoughts related to the environment, should they feel so led.
Like introductions, thoughts plotted a range of ideas and outlooks. There were updates on forestry practices and the entities that lead them. One attendee shared about his efforts to help found a natural cemetery. Of efforts to provide a wall of “peace” between groups of local protestors at events in the region. Another individual shared about personal efforts to eliminate use of packaging of any kind.
Daucus also shared about her work with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which in 2023 will focus on the Ozarks. Based on her history in herbalism, founded largely at OACC, Daucus is conducting field research on the topic for possible inclusion in the festival program.
Additionally, she shared about her concerns regarding climate change, and especially what that means for the Ozarks as more people move into the region.
“I also have a belief that we’ll have many more people arriving in the Ozarks and so I really would like us to prepare in some way,” said Daucus. “How are we going to help these people find their way in the Ozarks, to land in the Ozarks, and still be as as as protective of the natural and the cultural environment that’s here in the Ozarks?”
At the mess hall, work was underway for lunch. A line snaked through the hall as folks waited to walk by the counter laden with pots of red beans and rice, sausage, cornbread cut up in the pan, and more.
It’s quite a project to cook two meals — lunch and dinner on Saturday are provided — leading to the only stipend being paid during the event, which goes to the meals coordinator. It also means volunteer labor is needed and sought: At $50 for the entire weekend (and just $35 for individuals not staying the night) it’s a way to help keep costs affordable for attendees.
“The point is that, along with the egalitarian aspect of participation (in the presentation aspect), we also really expect people to come, help prepare food, help wash dishes, help clean up afterwards,” said Vaughn. “If we need something, go do it.”
At one of the long dining tables, Grace Klinger finished her meal along with husband, Rick. The couple from Oklahoma has been attending OACC for years, a tradition begun after a friend introduced them after a fight against pollution at home.
“Technology has gone so fast,” she said of changes in recent years, voicing doubt about “whether we as a species can handle it.”
Fourth-generation farmer Rick Klinger grows kenaf, which is “a warm-season annual row crop in the same plant family as okra and cotton,” states information from the Center for Crop Diversification with the University of Kentucky. The Klingers produce Kenaf to use in alternative building supplies, and OACC gives them a place to share more about what they’ve learned over their years of farming.
Klinger said OACC is also a place to feel calm, especially given her own family roots in the region that date to the early 20th century when her ancestors left.
“It’s peaceful here, and the rest of the world is rabid,” she said. “There’s hope here, and that’s why we come.”
Other reasons why
That spectrum of people, ideas, ages and more goes back to a foundation that unites those who attend OACC, and how they arrived there in the first place.
For Kay Berger and her husband, Ted, of Willow Springs, it was Howell County officials’ methods of dealing with weeds that led them to OACC years ago.
“I think that’s what made us then tap into OACC,” she said of efforts to spread the word about chemical methods of weed control. “We knew we’d find a lot of people here who would be on our side. So we started coming in – of course, it was a really wonderful experience. And we made lots of good friends.
“There’s a lot of people you only see at OACC. We don’t match up with everybody here, but there’s an awful lot of things we do value all together. Mostly it revolves, to me, around the environment.”
Someone who has been at many of those events alongside the Bergers is Jon Kruger.
An OACC attendee for around 15 years, Kruger has visited dozens of intentional communities during his lifetime — including East Wind, a long-running community famous for nut butters and sandals in Ozark County — and eventually settled on property near Isabella with his late wife, Jule.
For him, those connections and sense of community are reasons to keep coming back, especially since such sentiments tie to what he’s attempted through Ozarks Neighborly Exchange, a collaborative workgroup that promotes self-sufficiency through helping each other.
“Meeting new people every year and hearing what they’re doing,” he said of one of the best aspects of OACC.
Education, too, is part of the OACC experience. During 2022’s session, lunch led to a keynote panel discussion on how fire can benefit Ozark landscapes. Its members represented the Missouri Department of Conservation, the National Park Service, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the U.S. Forest Service. Another member, Rich Guyette, is retired but formerly was a forestry professor with the University of Missouri and, according to OACC organizers, “conducted groundbreaking research, studying growth rings in ancient pine tree stumps to document the extent and frequency of wildfires in Current River Watershed forests during the past 400 years.”
Their presence speaks to the spectrum of voices being raised at OACC, ranging from individuals to leading organizations in their fields.
“I eagerly accepted that invite because I knew the people who come to this event are wanting to be good stewards of the Ozarks lands they cherish,” said Dan Drees, a fire ecologist with Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Drees didn’t come alone: Susan Farrington, natural history biologist and prescribed fire burn boss with the Missouri Department of Conservation — and his wife — was also on the panel.
“So of course — if we can help people be better educated about how to be a good land steward, that is a good use of our time,” said Drees.
Off to the side, farmer Ryan Goolsby voiced similar sentiments: “I think it’s valuable to spread that kind of knowledge. Improving agricultural methods is great, improving cultural methods is great, and developing a community in the process is even better.”
The aforementioned open sessions — the individual moments of sharing throughout the camp — continued in the afternoon. Children played in the background, and people came and went, some barefoot, perhaps led by benefits including balance, nerve stimulation and nutrients. Nearby, baskets of vines began to come to life. A man strummed a guitar and allowed others to try as well.
There’s a larger discussion around intentional communities — the good, bad and items for consideration. When asked if there are folks who would be interested in land sharing, hands across the crowd pop up.
That chance to generally meet folks of the same mind is what drew attendee Sacred Feather from Mammoth Spring, Ark., to OACC.
“The Ozarks has kind of been like a home to me,” said Sacred Feather, who came to the region most recently from Oregon. “I just travel around a lot. It’s kind of been a grounding place because I’ve never had any place like it.
“The way that people work as a community to help one another to self-sustainably live is amazing. I haven’t found that in other places. I have found places where people wanted to do that or were close, but never really (achieved it).”
Next came a moment that’s not the norm: An award, and anticipation built as musicians sang and Sacred Feather danced in joy to the side.
Then Vaughn began to speak.
“We are giving an award, and it’s highly fitting because this year, our theme for OACC is caring passionately about the Ozarks,” she said. “The person we’re honoring with this award has cared passionately about the trees, the woodlands and all the things in the Ozarks for decades. This caring has led to some remarkable achievements and discoveries.”
That recipient was panel member Rich Guyette, recognized for his work with ecological research. The plaque Vaughn handed to him shared as much: “For diligent, long-term research in fire science and dendrochronology, shedding light on the ecological history of the Ozarks.”
Smaller groups continued to chat before planning commenced for OACC 44, a process that starts before the current year’s event is even complete. Then was time to go in for dinner. After the food is done, folks came back out for coffeehouse — a talent-show-style event that’s a longtime tradition — to wrap up the evening and pause until the next OACC.
“It’s really, really good music. The kids get up there and tell a joke or two. Sometimes little kids will sing a song,” said Vaughn. “Those three things — opening circle, open-space presentations and coffeehouse — are all examples of trying to include everybody if they want to be.
“We really try to treat everybody as peers. That’s the goal.”
As is educating not only those interested now, but also those who aren’t at the event. That comes through people like Vaughn, who spent years as a journalist writing and today leads projects focused on environmental education; Haenke, who is the primary forest manager for 3,200 acres in the Ozark Regional Land Trust; and Daucus, who credits her herbalism work with what she learned at OACC.
“One of the most fun things about OACC is the people who really think a little differently,” said Daucus. “Sometimes you hear ideas — they may not be ideas that resonate with you, but it’s kind of neat to be in this group of people who are really looking at new ways, or how to apply old ways in a way that’s working in this world, which is changing so fast. And I think that particular way of being is something we need, especially now as the world is changing.”
In line with that change: Perhaps the biggest proof of the ongoing mission doesn’t come through the group’s leaders, but younger generations who are invested in the event.
“I was kind of worried that they were just running around and having fun and not learning anything,” said Vaughn of kids who attended in years gone by, including hers. “We have all these great sessions about the environment, and they just weren’t really all that interested. Which really bothered me, but it all turned out. … Many of those kids do have jobs or careers or lifestyles that reflect a concern for the environment. So actually they were paying attention more than we thought.”