I am from “fly-over” country. The Missouri Ozarks are not at the end of the world, but you can catch a glimpse of it from there. Being isolated physically and culturally has been both good and bad news. The bad news is that it has been described as one of the most deliberately backward areas in the world. That is an observation that I agree with wholeheartedly having personally experienced the results. The good news is that same stubborn resistance to change has preserved some charming customs and slowed the disappearance of others. In addition, it has led to creativity and innovation. If there is a problem no magician is going to appear and fix it, so it simply requires a “work around”.
Take entertainment, for example. When resources are limited, one has to think of a way to ease the boredom and liven up your life. Men who spit and whittle and women who gossip are reliable to provide titillation stories and the grapevine is so fast that the internet seems slow in comparison. There is always a cousin, aunt, uncle or other relative to spread the news. Artists and musicians are thick as ticks. If not engaged in a practical matter, there is a creative gene that is always urging one to make something beautiful out of the air. As Cousin Gene said, “We have to make our own entertainment.” Earthquake Day was such an idea.
One gray fall day in 1971 Harlan Stark and his partner, Dick Keezer had a conversation. Harlan, an always questioning newspaper man with a degree in geology and Dick a pianist and photographer were looking for an idea to do something fun in the winter doldrums. Harlan noted that there had never been proper recognition of the Great New Madrid Earthquake. By coincidence, that series of quakes began on December 16, 1811. Perfect. The ideas came thick and fast. Make a list of interesting and fun people to invite, plan a short program, find music and….the best possible venue would be Salt Peter Cave high above Big Sugar Creek in McDonald County. I did not attend the original celebration. I was living in Minnesota at the time, but I got reports from a reliable source, my sister, Zella.
The most powerful series of earthquakes known to have occurred in the United States began on December 16, 1811. There is an eerie story about how Chief Red Cloud predicted it was coming. The quake was so massive that it forced the Mississippi River to course backward for 3 days and rang church bells in Boston. The death toll is unknown, but not likely very high in number as the land was virtually empty. Since DeSoto and his men landed and explored the area in the 1500’s European diseases had decimated the Native American population and white settlers had not ventured that far inland at the time. Quakes continued into the spring of 1812, but they were less damaging. Today, the New Madrid Fault is monitored carefully and if it slips it will be a major catastrophe.
The first party was a great success. They managed to keep the celebration beneath the radar for 5 years. A secret celebration of a cataclysmic event. The guest list grew. Salt Peter cave is a local landmark with a large overhanging entrance that was used in a major scene in the 1938 movie “Jesse James” filmed in and around Pineville. It remains the single noteworthy event to occur in the area if you don’t count that little disturbance called The Civil War.
A small hitch happened the 6th year of the event. They got raided by the Sheriff and a Highway Patrolman who had been tipped off that there was likely an orgy or pot party going on when passers-by saw several cars parked near the cave. They clambered up the steep slope to the cave entrance only to find good solid citizens (and voters) having a good time. Not smoking pot, but imbibing some beverages that might have contained a tad of alcohol. No fools, they joined the party and were reported to have had a very good time. The sheriff helped carry tables down from the cave according to Harlan’s newspaper report. The years rolled by and the annual get-together was a steady draw for a hard core group determined to honor an event seldom thought of by others.
Salt Peter cave was not easily accessed, so by 1980 the party moved to Truitt’s Cave in Lanagan. It had been a very successful white table cloth restaurant in the 1950’s, but the owner’s got tired and closed it down. I attended my first Earthquake Day party that year. I brought along my guitar. Others brought various instruments and there were many enthusiastic singers and polka dancers. The years rolled by and the cave became unavailable so Earthquake Day moved to the dance floor of the Shangri La Motel and restaurant.
My husband retired and we returned to McDonald County in 1994. Of course, we were invited to the now long term celebration. I got carried away and designed Earthquake Day sweat shirts for Harlan, Dick and Zella. I ran out of steam and failed to make one for myself, but was proud of my efforts. The shirts were dark green with a profile of Missouri stitched on the front. At the epicenter of the quake (New Madrid, Missouri) I created a starburst explosion. Clever, I thought.
Eventually, the celebration moved to the community center in Neosho as Harlan and Dick lived in Newton County there and it was more convenient for them to make arrangements and the Shangri La had sold and deteriorated into a bucket of blood bar and a motel that possibly rented by the hour.
Harlan passed away from cancer in August 2009. The last Earthquake Day event was a celebration of his life. It was a sad occasion and I was honored to have been a part of a 40 year span of gathering to remember and hail a cataclysmic event and turn it into a celebration of American resilience.
It was the end of an era. The end of a grand attempt to make our own entertainment. So far as I know, no one has been able to predict the next gigantic catastrophe.
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