The craziest protest you’ve never heard of…
What Happened When A Missouri County Went Rogue
by J. Mark Powell
Let’s face it: 2016 is the Year of the Angry Voter. On the Left, Right and smack dab in the middle, many folks are fed up with politics as usual. In some cases, that frustration has even led to nasty demonstrations.
Which reminds me of the craziest protest you’ve never heard of. It started as a joke, had moments that were as zany as a Saturday Night Live sketch and ended, incredibly, in victory with the protesters making their point.
So get ready to discover what happened when McDonald County left the State of Missouri.
If there was a competition for the prettiest spot in America, McDonald County would be a serious contender. Tucked in the extreme southwest corner of the Show-Me State, with Arkansas on its southern side and Oklahoma immediately to the west, the sparkling Elk River runs through Ozark Mountain splendor, complete with dramatic cliff overhangs. Plenty of camping and canoeing, fishing and hunting make it an ideal vacation getaway. In the decades before Branson became a tourism behemoth, McDonald County’s economy depended heavily on tourist dollars.
Back in 1961, bad feelings toward the state government in Jefferson City had been brewing for months. It started when the Missouri State Highway Department renamed a major road without bothering to inform area residents.
Things went from bad to worse when the department’s annual Family Vacationlands map for 1961 came out listing recommended places to visit … and McDonald County wasn’t in it. With tens of thousands of free copies of the map distributed statewide, this was more than a snub: it was a serious economic blow.
At first, state officials said the omission was an honest mistake. Then, someone leaked a dirty secret to the news media: McDonald County had been intentionally left out because it had become (in their words) “too commercial.”
That was the last straw.
McDonald’s residents weren’t going to take it lying down. Drastic times call for drastic measures. So in April 1961 they voted to “secede” from the State of Missouri and create McDonald Territory.
It’s important to understand at the outset that this was entirely a tongue-in-check protest. Folks felt McDonald County had to “go big” to get the state’s attention so their grievances would be addressed. That took publicity. April 1961 was the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, which began with Southern states seceding from the Union. So McDonald County piggybacked on interest in that anniversary to drive home its point with humor. At no time did they dispute state authority; they still paid state taxes, state court was still in session and the Missouri Highway Patrol still cruised the roads. Folks just wanted headlines so their squeaky wheel would be greased, that’s all.
And boy, did they get it. Their “secession” was news, with stories appearing in papers from coast to coast and even overseas.
Z.L. “Zeke” McGowan was elected Territorial President. Various other worthies received posts, including Claude “Butch” Wyatt who was named Executive Vice-President in Charge of Grievances (a real resume standout).
Then they set about milking their moment in the sun for all it was worth.
A special two-cent territorial stamp was printed for letters that were delivered from the Territorial Post Office to the U.S. Post Office in the town of Noel (the newly-designated Territorial Capital), where the U.S. Postal Service took it from there.
They erected Territorial signs and formed the McDonald Territorial Border Patrol and Militia (complete with a relic of a truck as its official vehicle). All cars driving into the Territory (especially those coming from Arkansas) were stopped; if the driver and passengers weren’t from McDonald, they were given special “visas” … which were actually clever tourism promotions.
They even wrote a Territorial Song, set to the tune of (what else?) Old McDonald’s Farm, whose chorus said:
“With a blank map here,
and a blank map there;
You can’t find McDonald County on it anywhere.”
The new Territorial leaders drove to Jeff City in May and met with Governor John Dalton, a small-town lawyer who knew a lot about assuaging upset locals. He appointed a “diplomat” to negotiate with McDonald; they responded by presenting a visa so the Governor could legally come visit. Dalton joked he hoped the Territory “wouldn’t get ahead of us in the space race.”
Then he got down to brass tacks: “We realize it was a serious oversight, and we will do anything we can to remedy it … I sure would hate to lose McDonald County; there are some fine people down there.” (Flattery is always a sound strategy.)
But the locals didn’t buy it. “Welcome to McDonald Territory” signs stayed up.
As I wrote earlier, the Civil War Centennial was in full bloom just then, so folks in a nearby county got in on the act. State senator and hardcore Civil War buff Richard Webster, formed a group which issued the following ultimatum in a letter that was hand-delivered to the Territorial Attorney General:
“Now, therefore we, the combined Union and Confederate Armies of Spring River, will march on Pineville [McDonald County’s actual county seat] at 1:30 p.m., Sunday April 16. They will arrive at the seat of the provisional government at 3 p.m. If the territory desires to reunite with Missouri, we will join you in raising the proud flag of our state.”
The ultimatum was, of course, refused. And so the Combined Union and Confederate Armies of Spring River staged a much-publicized mock battle with the McDonald Territorial Boarder Guard and Militia. The “invaders” were repelled and their leaders “arrested,” after which both sides quickly reunited over beer.
It was all great fun … until things suddenly took an ominous turn.
While McDonald Countians were working to get the attention of their state officials, officials in other states began paying lots of attention to them.
A guy named Chief Henry Saugee lived nearby in Jay, Oklahoma. He referred to himself as a Cherokee “chief” (although the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t share that opinion) and met with President McGowan, offering to turn McDonald into a truly independent Native American nation. Sauguee humorously told a reporter (intentionally using cheesy “Indian Speak” from old B Movie Westerns) “Looking for new tribe territory. Hear Noel no more Missouri. Not on map. Want big teepee on beautiful bluff at Big Bridge so can see all valley. Look for elk on Elk River.” (The news media ate up this shtick with a spoon.)
That was harmless enough. Then, semi-serious talk began emerging about McDonald and next-door neighbor Benton County, Arkansas (with some audacious dreamers including adjacent Delaware County, Oklahoma, too) uniting to form a new 51st state.
[Side note: in 1961, all three counties were backwater regions of their respective states. Today, Benton County boasts the headquarters of J.B. Hunt Trucking and a little company you may have heard of called Walmart. Those corporate giants would have made the tiny state an economic powerhouse.]
But that was nothing compared to what happened next.
Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus told reporters that since Missouri had disrespected them, McDonald County was more than welcome to officially join his state. (There are even claims he made a few phone calls to sound out Territorial officials.)
McDonald Territory now had Jefferson City’s full, undivided attention. State officials are politicians, after all, and they appreciated a good publicity stunt as much as anyone. But they could also tell when a rival politician was sniffing around on their turf, and they didn’t like it.
There are varying versions of what happened next. One says state officials quietly sent word down to McDonald County: “It’s been fun, but it’s time to knock it off.” They none too subtly reminded folks that state employees could be fired, state retirement pension checks could be stopped and state funding for various projects could be withheld. If McDonald chose to play hardball, the state could, too.
The locals got the message. By Christmas, McDonald Territory sputtered out of existence.
But the state did offer an olive branch: it announced that starting in 1962, official state-produced maps would only promote national and state parks moving forward; all commercial tourist enterprises would be dropped. It was a sweet consolation prize for the protesters.
Author Michael Trinklein summed up the entire episode as “akin to those Christmas Eve broadcasts that report sleigh and reindeer have been reported on radar.” From start to finish, it was a good-natured farce that made its point, and then quietly melted into McDonald County’s folklore.
Every so often, the Territorial Border Patrol and Militia’s old truck was rolled out for parades, but that was all. McDonald County returned to doing what it still does best: providing wholesome outdoor fun to its many guests.
The Angry Voters of 2016 would do well to learn the lesson McDonald County’s protest discovered in 1961: gentle humor goes a long way in making your point and getting what you want.