1961 Ozark Breakaway: The Year McDonald County Seceded from Missouri celebrates Missouri’s Bicentennial

Seth Kinker
Neosho Daily News

This year, Missouri is celebrating its bicentennial on Aug. 10.

But another date, Apr. 12, 2021, marks the 60th anniversary of the lesser known date that McDonald County, tucked in the southwest corner of the state, seceded from the state of Missouri.

Dwight Pogue, who grew up in Noel after moving there when he was in first grade and now resides in western Massachusetts after a 46-year teaching career, has written 1961 Ozark Breakaway: The Year McDonald County Seceded from Missouri to commemorate both.

My children said, over the years, ‘you should write a book sometime about some of the town characters,’” said Pogue on writing 1961 Ozark Breakaway: The Year McDonald County Seceded from Missouri. “So, I thought this would be an opportunity to do something about the secession, documenting the secession and its history. But then I wanted to include a few characters because the people are what made it happen. They were ordinary American’s but not ordinary folks. They were the ones to figure out, ‘let’s do this cleverly and get some press out of it,’ which they did.”

In the early 1900’s, vacationers came to McDonald County with a railroad going through it north to south and the county littered with cabins, resorts, scenic landscapes, pristine steams flowing alongside massive limestone bluffs and commercials caves.

Summer tourism was vital to McDonald County but in mid-July of 1960, the Missouri State Highway Commission removed key tourist centers and made their map showing major U.S. Highway 71 no longer going through Noel.

This was done without warning, leading to a significant amount of loss revenue with vacationers now not being able to find to their destination.

Noel Mayor at that time Dan Harmon, the Chamber of Commerce and the Editor of the McDonald County Press, Dwight’s father Ralph, reached out to the Highway Commission looking for a remedy but just received an apology with no solution to their problem.

“Their idea was good,” said Pogue of the State Highway Department. “They wanted to work on traffic and did consult Arkansas, because that’s where the road eventually ended up, but the problem was, they didn’t tell anybody. They didn’t talk to anybody or include anybody. When they switched it around it had this big impact.”

The next year, on Apr. 3, 1961, the Highway Commission omitted eight of ten towns in McDonald County from their new official Vacation Land Highway Map.

Although seceding was no publicity stunt, the way it was handled by McDonald County allowed word of the event to spread nationally due to coverage from the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), which led it to being covered nationally by big newspapers such as the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times.

Ralph suggested to the mayor that they capitalize on the stereotype of the townsfolk being considered hillbillies by vacationers and outsiders. He also submitted a story about their planned secession to the Joplin Globe on Apr. 8 that was picked up by the AP and UPI. 

“Just before that on Apr. 6, (my father and the mayor) had the guys dressed up as hillbillies,” said Pogue. “(They) took them to Joplin and they were on KODE, the 10 o’clock news. Everyone saw them on TV, that started people in the area talking about it and got all the newspapers in Missouri and Arkansas.”

By Apr. 11, the Noel Chamber of Commerce elected a new territorial government and a territorial militia and border were formed.

Driving the perimeter of the famous McDonald Territory Land Rush that took place on Apr. 30, 1961 are Wanda Strain, Mertie Harmon and Rose Ann Harmon. Loosely modeled after the famous Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, one acre tracts of wooded land suitable for cabins near Elk River were made available for winners of the Territorial Land Rush.

On Apr. 12, 1961, state senator Lee Aaron Bachler introduced a legal document for a resolution to form the 51st state consisting of McDonald County and the neighboring Benton County in Arkansas and Delaware County in Oklahoma.

Apr. 12, 1961 was also the centennial anniversary of the Civil War beginning, with newspapers across the country commemorating that event with a story of McDonald County’s secession on the same page.

McDonald County’s fight was not with elected officials, but with appointed members of the state’s Highway Commission, which allowed them to address the issue without animosity towards their home state.

“We knew it was the highway department that caused the problem and not the elected officials,” said Pogue. “No one got really angry at Governor Dalton or the elected officials. It was really just the fact these appointed officials were the ones that did this and then they were arrogant on top of it.”

Pogue’s book is a comprehensive look at the whole situation from when and where it began in Jul. 1960 to the many events that happened throughout including a territorial land rush, skirmishes and even a plea from the Kennedy Administration commenting on the situation.

Pogue was not only a native of Noel, he was an active participant. As a 16-year old, he volunteered to drive his car, a 1931 Model A Ford five window couple, to transport the famed Territorial Border Patrol when handing out and checking territorial visas to visitors.

Stan Levitt, TV celebrity and newscaster of KODE TV in Joplin, made sure no one jumped the starting fun during the McDonald Territorial Land Rush event that took place on Apr. 30, 1961.

“I inherited documents, photographs and different paper clippings. I inherited quite a bit of information when (my father) passed away,” said Pogue on what else led to him writing his book. “I started thinking, there were some states calling for secession (today) and I had always talked about growing up in Noel.”

“I wanted to do the complete story as a record and have it somewhere because the only thing on Wikipedia was a little story that said it was sort of a publicity stunt,” added Pogue. “There were about two sentences on there about the secession.”

Pogue began the process of putting together his book in the spring of 2019 and it published this spring with the biggest roadblock contacting newspapers and magazines for permission to reproduce their work in his book.

Some of them have long been out of business and he had to find who had the rights to what he wanted to use.

“Once I got into (writing) it I realized it was more about the people and the wellbeing of people and how they worked together,” said Pogue. “That’s why it took so long, I didn’t want it to just be a historical thing, ‘here’s the documents, this is what happened,’”

When asked about how looking back on being a part of a historical event in the state’s history made him feel, Pogue said it was more of a melancholy feeling with being so busy in the years since doing things, going place and teaching.

He added that it really brought him back to what it was like at that time and how people respected and talked to reach other.

“I’m hoping when people read it, they’ll understand (the secession) was done in humor, good nature,” said Pogue.” There was never anger or animosity and that’s why it was successful. It swept America. If we had the approach of just complaining and being angry, we wouldn’t have gotten near the press we got by being friendly with everyone. We met with the governor and pinned a ribbon on him and that was in the paper. All these things happened because it was a good-natured fight and people took it in humor. The success was, that because of the publicity, we had more tourists than ever that summer. Thousands upon thousands came in. all the businesses that had lost money the last summer, made what they lost and more in addition. That was due to the attention it drew.”

To find Pogue’s book, search “Dwight Pogue” or “1961 Ozark Breakaway” on Amazon.