An Ozark Journey: The Old Salt Road, part 3
Editor’s note: Part 2 of The Old Salt Road, published in last week’s Times, ended with the road nearingwhat is now HH Highway at Isabella, which became a prominent community near the end of the 19th century. This week, in part 3, we follow the Old Salt Road northwest toward the Little North Fork of the White River.
It’s hard to imagine taking a heavily loaded, oxen drawn, wooden-wheeled wagon loaded with salt in anything close to a straight line through the hills and hollows of Ozark County. Yet, J. W. McClurg did carve a road that was amazingly straight when it’s plotted on a map.
Although Isabella later became a prosperous settlement, it was not even a crossroads when McClurg made his first journey through that area in 1842.
A natural ford existed on the Little North Fork where it joins Barren Fork. This ford was about 3 miles due north of the spot in Isabella where Highway HH now intersects Highway 160. Over time, it became known as Haskins Ford. Both Isabella and Haskins Ford emerged as important landmarks on the Old Salt Road toward the end of the 19th century.
Up to this point, McClurg and his crew had dealt mainly with avoiding steep hills and crossing small creeks. What lay ahead on the second half of his journey through Ozark County was a battle with nature itself. The Little North Fork ran on a generally straight course northwest from Haskins Ford to the northern reaches of Ozark County at Toledo. Through eons of erosion, the stream had cut a path through some very difficult terrain. The result was a constantly changing and alternating series of bluffs and bottomlands. As one traverses this waterway, the bluffs generally appear as the steep, outer wall of a bend around bottomland on the river’s opposite side. (See the topo map, page 13.)
Of course, a wagon can’t deal with the bluffs, so it was necessary to cross back and forth from one bottomland to another as the waterway carved its snake-like route through the countryside. This was actually the straightest and most convenient path, at least when the water level was at a normal stage, as it eliminated most of the bends in the river.
County Road 863 today follows the general route of the Salt Road from Isabella past the Willis Donnelly property to Haskins Ford. There, the road passed near what would later become the community of Dillia and then crossed to the west side of Little North Fork headed upstream toward Thornfield. It was just slightly above the ford where Barren Fork emptied into the Little North Fork from the east.
According to Silas Claiborne Turnbo, James Forest built a mill about a mile north of this ford in 1837. If so, and Turnbo was remarkably accurate on most counts, that would have been the first mill in Ozark County and one of the few landmarks that was actually in place when McClurg passed by.
Not far upstream from Haskins Ford, the Salt Road crossed back to the east over the Little North Fork at a point known to folks now as the “Steel Tracks.” There it started its bottomland-hopping trek up to the place we know today as Hammond.
We know it crossed from the east bank to the west bank at Della Ramsey Hollow then from the west bank back to the east about a half-mile north of that point at Panther Hollow. Yet another half-mile north, it crossed back to the west bank at Sand Rock Crossing, which was about a half-mile below Slick Rock.
The crossing at Slick Rock had to be a heart-stopping experience with a cart and team of oxen. The crossing is aptly named. It consists of a huge rock formation that is extremely difficult to walk on. Not only is the rock super slick, the river narrows there and the flow of water speeds up.
Calvin Williamson, who grew up in Nottinghill in the 1930s, related to me a couple years ago his youthful memories of crossing Slick Rock in an automobile. I thought relatively little about it at the time—not being “well-educated” at that point. My education came last week when Ozark County Presiding Commis-sioner John Turner and I visited Sand Rock and Slick Rock in his “open air” Jeep and found out just how slick the latter really is. Heart-stopping is not at all an exaggeration!
We approached from the east side and parked at the edge of the rock. John got out and very cautiously waded to the other side. It looked OK to me, so I started across behind him. It took only a couple steps to realize the gravity of the situation.
In our earlier days, my wife Doris and I enjoyed dancing to some pretty fast music. That rarely happens these days, but flashbacks do occur. One happened right there on Slick Rock when my feet were flying in every direction, and I wasn’t keeping very good time to the music.
Seeing my predicament, John turned back and said, “Let’s take the Jeep across.” He got little argument from me. We climbed into the Jeep, and off we went in four-wheel drive through the tumbling water. At the opposite bank, where the old road met the stream, there was an abrupt rise in the elevation. When we hit that bank, the Jeep would normally have hopped over it without the slightest trouble. But with zero traction on that slick rock, it stopped on a dime.
There we sat, at the upstream edge of a small rapids and starting to slide. John quickly threw the Jeep into reverse (I’ve never seen him move that fast before).
I was totally calm, of course—well, almost—but expected to go swimming any minute as the front of the Jeep started pointing downstream. That old Jeep earned its salt that day (pardon the pun) as we backed gingerly across Slick Rock and decided maybe not to try that again!
With satellite imagery, available through Google Earth, it’s possible to see old roadbeds that are not easy for the naked eye to discern at ground level. In the photo shared here (below, left), one can see the Salt Road roadbed as it passed through the Slick Rock crossing.
From there, the road continues northwest along a bottomland for a little less than a mile before crossing again to the west bank at Hammond. This spot became fairly well populated after the arrival of the Salt Road.
Initially, the spot was known as Melissa. A post office by that name was established in 1856 and operated sporadically through the Civil War years. Joseph Haskins was postmaster from 1869 until its closing in 1875. The post office reopened in 1894 as the Hammond post office and finally closed out to Thornfield in 1975.
The mill at Hammond was built in 1907 by some of John Turner’s in-laws and is still standing today—though the Little North Fork is no longer diverted to its mill pond.
In our next and final segment about the Old Salt Road, we’ll trace the route from Hammond to the Ozark/Douglas County Line and view its path from there to Springfield.