Sycamore Log Church

Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks

A Bluegrass Biography of Guy Howard (excerpt) by Hayden Head, phd


Guy Howard, the Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks

John Wesley Jarvis

Ray and Sara Jarvis, father and mother to John Wesley

Roll Saxon

Three Saxon brothers

Lew Jarvis, uncle to John Wesley

Note from the editor: Dr. Hayden Head’s exceptional work of fiction, reprinted here with permission, includes strong language and dark themes. The historical story of the Sycamore Log Church is at right.

Curtains pull back, revealing scenes of the Ozark hills throughout the seasons. Some show Brother Howard standing on a hill. Others show hill folk in period attire.

Guy Howard: My people, there is so much sorrow. You see the beauty of the Ozarks and believe you are in Eden You hear the story I’m to tell and believe you have entered hell. But I promised the Jarvis’s I would do my best to make their son’s death mean something and so I tell it.

I had been preaching a revival at the Sycamore Church and tragedy began on the final night.

Ray and Sara Jarvis had attended every night with their son John Wesley.

The curtain rises to reveal the interior of the Sycamore Log Church. Enter Ray and Sara Jarvis.

Here they are, Ray and Sara. I did think it was unusual that John Wesley wasn’t with them, but they said he was coming. They also told me they were concerned about him and hoped he would publicly profess Jesus as Lord on the last night of the revival.

Another curtain descends; it has a forest interior painted on it, wild and brambly except for a path. A set is moved in that consists of a few rocks and a smoldering fire.

He wasn’t bad, they said. But he had just turned 14, and every parent of a 14-year-old boy knows what that means; he’s certainly not a man, but he’s not a child either, and he can’t quite figure out how to enter into manhood.

The whisky came from the Saxons — they were moonshiners and bullies.

Four men enter with two jugs, one much smaller than the other, and take their places on the set.

And they were to blame for what happened to John Wesley.

Light fades on Guy and rises on the Saxons sitting around the fire and drinking from the large jug. There is conversation, of a sort, more grunts, really, most of which affirm the excellence of the libations. The time is late afternoon. John Wesley enters by himself.

Roll Saxon: Well, looka here, boys. Iffen it ain’t Mr. Little Jarvis. What you doin’ out here in the deep woods, little man?

John Wesley: This here’s a path and I got some place to go; besides, I ain’t so little. I killed a twelve-point last fall and done helped Pappy dress a black bear ’round Christmas time.

Bill Saxon: That so? Must’ve been a cub, knowin’ your old man.

John Wesley: You leave my Pappy out of this. We ain’t done nothin’ to you. Ain’t that the way it’s s’posed to be out here? Leave one another alone? Jarvis’s got no quarrel with you Saxons.

Roll: Why, we ain’t quarrelin’; just havin’ some fun. I reckon it’s this here that makes us . . . kinda rough around the edges.

John Wesley: I gotta go; my folks is waitin’ for me.

Jack Saxon: I bet that means “church”; ain’t nothin’ else goin’ on around here but church meetin’s. Don’t you want a little joy juice to get you through all that talkin’ and singin’ and prayin’ and such?

Roll: Ah, now Jack, cain’t a feller that size drink this here manly drink! You just go on to your meetin’; we’ll still be around when you’re man enough. Unless you want to show us you’re a man now. Kill two birds with one stone, as they say. Make the preachin’ more tolerable at the same time you’re showin’ what you’re about. Why, you gotta do it sometime—if you’re gonna get any respect hereabouts.

Roll takes a swig and realizes there is none left.

In mock sorrow, he holds the jug upside down.) Well, looka here, boys, we done kilt the whole jug! But not to fear—I drew off a pint’s worth of new brew. Why, you’d be the first to try it, boy—kinda like a ‘nitiation. In fact, I’ll make you a deal—you take six drinks, and I’ll let you have this fine little jug and all what’s in it. Now that right there is Christian charity.

JW: Pappy and Mamma wouldn’t like it. They’ve done warned me.

Roll: Against what? Growin’ up?

The Temptation of John Wesley Jarvis (See lyrics below right).

As the music continues, Roll Saxon becomes more satanic; that is, he becomes something more than a backwoods moonshiner. He is the tempter in the garden and the destroyer of happiness.

Lights fade with John Wesley taking another drink and proudly sticking the cork back in; he exits, and the curtain rises to reveal the interior of the church again. Guy is preaching while Ray and Sara sit somewhere toward the middle of the congregation.

Guy: Perhaps my favorite series of verses in Scripture is in Philippians, chapter two, where Paul says we should have the mind of Christ Jesus, who gave up equality with God to become one of us, even to the point of dying like a slave on the cross.

How can we understand such humility? If we examine our lives, we see that we are always trying to be somebody, to be important, and we do this even though we know that all our work will fall into dust and ashes.

Whether we build a cabin or a mansion, in 20 years or 200 years or even 2,000 years, it will be nothing but rubble. Jesus, who really could have boasted because He is God, never did so. Instead he took his place among sinners because He loved them. He takes his place among us because He loves us.

John Wesley stumbles into the back of the church.

And when we live for Jesus, we no longer have anything to prove, because He gives us His humility. Finally, we are at rest. And we can be happy! For the first time in our lives, we can be happy! That’s the great truth of Christianity that we forget.

John Wesley: (singing) I’m so happy, here’s the reason why: / Jesus took my burden all away—ay! / Now I’m singin’ as the days go fly / I’ll fly away old glory; / I’ll fly away—in the evenin’!

Guy: John Wesley, are you all right?

JW: Never been better, Preacher Guy. Hey, yore the preacher guy. He’s the preacher guy! Kinda funny, now I think about it.

Guy: Ray, Sara, you’d better tend to John Wesley.

Ray: Come on, son; what’s gotten into you? Smells his breath Oh, John . . . come on, let’s go home. Sara?

JW: But I like it here; I like the preacher guy.

The Jarvis’s exit. Guy steps down from the pulpit to address the audience. The curtain descends.

Guy: What people have forgotten today is that [improperly made, unsafe] moonshine whiskey was never a joke. Sometimes it ruined a man or woman slowly through addiction over a number of years. And sometimes it destroyed them in a day or two through fusel blood poisoning. Folks don’t mention that when they’re laughing about moonshine.

The lights come up on John Wesley thrashing in his bed; Ray and Sara stand at the foot of the bed, helpless and weeping. His eyes are a bloody mess; there is blood on the pillow and on the sheets. Other family members are standing around the bed.

JW: Oh, Jesus! I can’t see, can’t see! Where did they go? Burning, burning… O my Jesus, my eyes are burning!

Guy enters; he touches the shoulder of one of the men standing by the bed and leads him away from Ray and Sara.

Guy: How long as he has been like this, Lew?

Lew: Fever started yesterday, and this here started this morning. God-almighty, I’ve never seen nothin’ like this. His eyes, they just . . . just—I’ve gotta tell you, preacher, if my nephew dies....

Guy: Has the doctor seen him?

Lew: Yeah, said it was fusel blood poisoning, but Ray guessed that yestiddy. It was that damned Saxon whiskey; John’s done cried out their names at least a dozen times.

John Wesley howls in pain.

JW: He said six swallers, no more’n six swallers wouldn’t do . . . I am too a man; I killed me a buck! Don’t need nothin’ . . . Oh, God, it burns me! The liquor’s burnin’ me inside out!

Ray and Sara try to put their hands on him to comfort him, but John knocks them away in his flailing.

Lew: I’m gonna kill those sons-of-bitches, preacher; I’m gonna kill ever damned Saxon. John Wesley don’t deserve this and neither does Ray nor Sara. They are good people.

John thrashes wildly one more time and lies still. Ray slowly raises the sheet over his face.

Ray: Rest now, son. It’s all over, it’s all over. He bends over to kiss the top of his forehead.

Sara: Oh, my son! (wails) Oh, Ray, our boy is gone.

Ray: Shhh, mother, shhh. Pray, now. He was a good boy; we’ll see him again. We’ll see him again.

Sara: But, oh, Ray, my Lord, Ray! He never made his profession before God and man. He was gonna but he never did. The Bible says you have to believe in your heart and profess with your lips... (frantic) Help me! Oh, God, help me! Help my son!

Guy: Sara, no, you can’t . . . God sees into the heart, and no man can judge the work of his Spirit there, no man, not even a mother. The Bible says that “whosoever believeth will not die but have everlasting life.” John Wesley believed. You know he did. He accepted Jesus when he was a boy. Jesus will not lose one of his sheep to the enemy; He promises us that. And John Wesley was one of his sheep. Sara, you will see John Wesley again.

Sara: Well, (panting) we’ll let it be. We’ll let it be. Thankee, Brother Howard. We’ll let it be. (pause) Brother Howard, (gesturing to the bed) can you make this mean somethin’? If it only saves some other mother’s boy from drink, I’ll know my John didn’t die fer nothin’.

Guy: Sara, Sara, only a mother steeped in faith could say what you just said. The mother of Jesus must have felt the same way when she wept beneath the cross.

Meanwhile Lew has entered another room of the cabin. He lifts a rifle from the wall, breaks it to see if it is loaded, clicks it back together, and cocks it. He picks up a jar and shakes out a number of bullets which he puts in his shirt pocket. Guy hears the sound of the rifle being cocked and leaves Sara to enter the next room.

Guy: Lew, what do you think you’re doing?

Lew: I told you, preacher. I’m gonna kill ‘em, ever’ last dog of ‘em, I’m gonna kill ‘em. Maybe that’ll save the lives of more boys.

Guy: Let me just walk with you to the bottom of the hill.

Lew: All right. I’ll let you do that much.

The men exit from the cabin and begin walking across the stage.

Guy: Now, listen, Lew. Those two people in that cabin are suffering enough. Don’t you add to it by starting a feud. We both know you are right: Every one of those Saxons should pay for what happened tonight. But God will repay them: vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. And what’s more important, the Lord takes that vengeance away from us. Damning your own soul will not bring John Wesley back. Do you hear me?

Lew: I hear you, Brother Howard. But I have to tell you I ain’t so much worried about my soul as I am about addin’ to Ray and Sara’s sufferin’. I don’t want to do that.

Guy: Go back in the cabin, Lew; Ray will feel better when he sees you aren’t riding. Hang that gun back over the mantle. I’ll be back in after I get a drink at the well.

Lew returns to the cabin while Guy begins to hoist the bucket.

Voice: (loud whisper): Preacher!

Guy: Who is it? What do you want?

Voice: Come over here; I ain’t gonna hurt you. I gotta talk to you.

Guy walks over to the edge of the trees; Roll Saxon steps from behind a tree.

Guy: Roll Saxon! What are you doing here?

Roll: How’s the boy?

Guy: He’s dead.

Roll: Er they sayin’ I done it?

Guy: Everybody knows you are responsible; the boy said your name. I told you to stop making whisky! You promised me before God you’d give it up! Now you’ve killed that boy as surely as if you had shot a bullet in his heart.

Roll: Oh, Lordy, preacher; I didn’t mean that to happen; I never meant that!

Guy: Listen, Roll; if I were you, I’d start running, and I wouldn’t stop until I put at least a 100 miles between me and that cabin. The fury will start to build come morning, and I don’t think you want to be at the center of that.

Roll: Yessir. Thankee, preacher. I’m sure enough sorry. (Exits behind the trees at stage left.)

Guy: (To the audience) I wondered later if I should have sent him running. Maybe he could have been convicted, but at the time I was more afraid of night riders and vigilante justice. Anyhow, I went back to the cabin and tried to console Ray and Sara best I could, but what can any man say?

I knew what it was like to lose my wife, but I could have felt all the sorrow in the world and not lessened their grief one bit. In fact, they asked that I leave—they just wanted to be with family. So it really wasn’t all that late when I got back to Branson.

There were some young men still playing music on the square. It sounded bitter sweet in the damp spring air.

The cabin at stage right is rotated away, and a storefront replaces it. In front of the store are four musicians with instruments. They are winding up one number and beginning another when Guy turns back to the stage. The song is “Mountain Dew.”

Guy: Good evening, Zeb, boys. Hey, would you fellows do me a favor and play something else?

Zeb: Oh, sure, preacher. Didn’t mean no harm. How about something churchy like: “I’ll fly away old glory, / I’ll fly away, in the morning; / When I die, hallelujah by and by . . .”

Guy: No, no—I don’t want a song about dying either. Do you know any songs about life? The good things in life?

Zeb: Hmmm. You mean that ain’t about drinking and such?

Guy: Right.

Zeb: I cain’t think right off hand, Brother Howard. I’m afraid that drinkin’ and dyin’ just about exhausts our repertoire. Never really thought about it before...

Guy: May I see your guitar?

Zeb: Sure.

Guy: Let me try this one on you... (Guy takes a seat by the boys, tunes the guitar and sings “When God Made the World,” lyrics above right.)

Zeb: That was mighty pretty, Preacher, mighty pretty. Ain’t sure I could make it all out—and I ain’t never seen the sea, but I’ll take your word for it.

Guy: (Handing over the guitar) You know that God means for us to be happy?

Zeb: I thought He just wanted us to go to church. And cease our cuttin’ up and carryin’ on.

Guy: No, Zeb! He wants you to play music and laugh with your friends . . . He just wants us to be thankful to Him and compassionate to others.

Zeb: Well, that’s just fine. Good night, preacher.

Guy: Good night, gentlemen.

The storefront begins to rotate with the musicians still seated on the front porch. They begin playing “Mountain Dew” again. Guy smiles and shakes his head.

Guy: How did we ever lose sight of the simple fact that God wants us to be happy? To fall in love and sleep warm and eat well—and to help others do the same? Life is full of suffering—everyone knows that. But God is not the source of that suffering; He is our Comforter. That’s why he gives us His Spirit…

Sycamore Log Church

by Joshua Heston. Transcription by Stephen Meek.

The cicadas sang to the hot summer air of the holler, air redolent with cedar. Down below, Roark Creek slowed to a trickle. Another summer was passing, another generation slowly turning by. This isolated place, not far from the tumult of Branson, Missouri, has been home to the Sycamore Log Church since 1933.

Back then, the nearby citizens of Garber (now a ghost town) needed a church. In mid-October, a brush arbor camp meeting was held here. As the weather turned cold, the camp meeting Christians saw the need for a permanent church.

Laura Sutton donated the land. Great sycamore logs were draggged from the creek by mule. The support beams were built of cedar, the pulpit a great three-pronged walnut stump. In those first early days of the church, the floor was dirt and, after rains, the pulpit would sprout green. The hand-made shingles were of oak. The total cost of the building is recorded at a whopping $18.

Later, a plain board floor was added. The corrugated metal roof went on in the 1960s. “It’s very peaceful, as you can tell from just being here,” shares Pastor Ruby Hopper, originally of Harrison, Arkansas. “It is very calm.

“The Sycamore Church presents a home atmosphere where people can feel relaxed. They can participate in Sunday School, ask questions, make comments. And for our worship service, we offer the opportunity to sing and we still have the old-fashioned hymn books.”

Generations of Ozarkers have worshipped here. Laura Sutton’s grave is out behind the church. There are picnic tables nearby and the church hosts a community fish fry in the fall. There is now electricity but still no running water. Lavatories are old-fashioned outhouse just up the rocky trail leading up the holler.

Ruby, who grew up on an Arkansas dairy farm, began pastoring here in 2012. Her husband, Alfred, has “lived in Taney County all my life ’cept for two years in Califonia.”

“We’re back to the basics,” says Pastor Ruby. “I have our Sunday school directly from the Bible and the preaching is done directly from the Bible.” “The King James Version,” amends Alfred, quietly.

“We want people to know we are here and we’d love for them to come and visit. Take a break from the hustle and bustle of Branson every once in awhile. We’d love to have everybody join us for service.”

A number of country music stars — including Johnny Cash — have signed the church’s guest register and the place is often booked for weddings. The members are also proud of the church’s connection with Guy Howard, “Walking Preacher of the Ozarks.”

“He had a tremendous impact here. They called him the ‘Walking Preacher,’ because he walked everywhere he went. It is my understanding that when he moved to the Ozarks from Iowa, he walked. He was recently widowed and he had young children. So they packed their suitcases, he and his son carried the suitcases, and they walked,” says Pastor Ruby.

Despite the heat, inside the church the air is calm and strangely cool. There is a sense of peace in this little holler, as though the place were touched by God Himself.

How many revivals were held here? How many morning services? How many Christmas messages? An old wire is yet stretched across behind the pulpit, ready for a Christmas curtain to be strung, waiting to be pulled to reveal Ozark children dressed as shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and “Mary” carrying a doll wrapped in old rags or a hand-me-down quilt, representing the King of kings Himself: Baby Jesus. So many memories have concescrated this place.

Perhaps it’s true: the most majestic of truths are found in the most humble of places. And outside, the cicadas still sang.

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The Temptation of John Wesley Jarvis

  • Someday you’ll have to prove that you’re a man;
    Don’t you want to show us that you can?
    Forget about yore Mamma, boy,
    Deep down you understand,
    Someday you’ll have to prove that you’re a man.
  • Have you been with a woman?
    Yeah, you know what I’m sayin’—
    The kind of woman that’ll treat you right;
    Have you stood for your honor
    When some feller’s put it down;
    Did your old daddy teach you how to fight?
  • I’ll bet my last two dollars
    That you cain’t take six swallers
    Of this moonshine I brewed in my own still.
    You prob’ly heard that whisky
    Will make a feller frisky,
    And if it don’t, hell, I don’t know what will.
  • That’s it, take a good long tug
    Of the likker in this jug—
    I bet you almost feel your whiskers grow;
    The morning will not let you
    Recall the dog that bit you
    So tonight you can let the good times roll.
  • Hold on now, boy, you mustn’t
    Take more than half a dozen
    Good ol’ swallers—why, you might lose control;
    It wouldn’t be too prudent
    To intoxicate my student,
    And, of course, I’m concerned about your soul.
  • — Hayden Head, PhD
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When Got Made the World

  • When God made the world,
    He made it good, He did;
    He told us to love it
    As we should, and then
    He made the snow to glitter
    When it’s flying on the wind;
    He made the fire to crackle
    On the hearth and asked us in
    Because it’s good:
    The fire is good.
  • When God made the sea,
    He made it bright, He did;
    He made the waves to
    Curl and crash in white, and then
    He set the ocean breathin’
    ‘Til it blends into the sky
    And calls us from our grievin’
    ‘Til we lift our hearts and sigh
    Because it’s good:
    The sea is good.
    When God made the corn,
    He made it sweet, he did;
    He made the fields to
    Shimmer in the heat, and then
    We harvest in October
    And we grind the grain to meal
    And suddenly discover
    That our hearts begin to heal
    Because it’s good:
    Our work is good.

    When God gave us life,
    He made it fine, He did;
    He mixed the clay with light
    And made it shine, and then
    He breathed into our nostrils
    So these bodies rise again;
    We’ll join with the apostles
    As they bring the kingdom in
    Because it’s good:
    Our work is good;
    This world is good;
    Our God is good.
  • — Hayden Head, PhD
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The Log Church

  • They have builded a church of sycamore logs
    Down in the Ozark hills
    Near by the rippling water,
    Near music of whip-por-whils
    A sacred shrine in the mountains
    Where the old fires of holiness glow
  • And from the ridges and rocky hollows
    Came a people I used to know
    Gathering at early candle light
    Just as we used to do
    When we bashfully sat together
    Young lovers, ardent and true.
  • With sly jokes of the marrying parson,
    Our kind old uncle John Speer,
    Who baptized, and buried, and married us for nigh unto 40 years
  • Oh, take me back to my Ozarks,
    To the little log church on the hill,
    To find my lost faith and courage
    And old friends who love me still.
  • — M.E. Mahnkey
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