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The Ozark Mountain "Rabbit Lady"
“The Rabbit Lady” is what everybody called her. She lived down in a valley a few miles from my grandparents in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.
I wasn’t born there, but had spent bits and pieces of my childhood growing up “on the farm”. It was a great place to be a kid. There were creeks for fishing and swimming and mountains to climb. Then I grew up and had to leave. But I always came back to visit whenever possible.
One visit to my grandparents in particular stands out in my memory. It was 1975 and I was serving in the Marine Corps as a photojournalist (news reporter/photographer) and spending my vacation at my grandparents. I mention my profession since it relates directly to this tale and “The Rabbit Lady”.
I hesitate sometimes to mention my folks came from the Ozarks since people tend to view them as stereotyped, uneducated “hillbillies”. Unfortunately, the people involved in this story fit that description to a T. My grandmother, bless her heart, only had a 6th grade education. But that wasn’t uncommon for the area and era she lived in. Times were tough and many children had to quit school to help support their families. I discovered later “The rabbit lady didn’t have but a few weeks of school and her great grandson had none.
From The Ozarks
But I digress. On this particular visit, Grandmother discovered what I did for a living. I showed her a newspaper and the printed columns and proudly declared “I’m the one who writes this stuff”! She looked at it for a second and quizzically questioned, “People get paid to do that”? I had to let that slide…to her it wasn’t real work if you weren’t working with your hands. That’s the life she knew.
Then she told me about the one known as “The Rabbit Lady”. It appears she had a weekly column in a local newspaper. “Great! I thought…a fellow member of the esteemed 4th estate.” Grandmother said she could introduce us since she only lived a few miles away. I couldn’t wait to “talk shop” with a fellow writer.
The next day we went to visit her. Arriving at her farm I couldn’t help feeling I had taken a step back in time to the mid 1800’s. The farmhouse was reminiscent of the one depicted in the popular TV series “The Beverly Hillbillies” only larger. Cabbage was growing everywhere and rows of rabbit hutches edged their way up slight inclines on the mountain sides. “The Rabbit Lady” was busy feeding her charges.
Grandmother and I approached and she introduced me. Unfortunately, over time I’ve forgotten her name. She stopped working and firmly shook my hand. I was surprised at her strength, seeing as she must’ve been at least 90 years old. She didn’t know how old she actually was since she had been born on that farm and never had a birth certificate.
What surprised me next was her greeting. “Shore am puh-leesed ta meet ya’ll young’un.” The accent was as hill billy as they come. I wondered if she could write better than she spoke.
We talked a while and I found out she had never had any formal training as a writer and wrote exactly as she spoke.
It seems the publisher of a local weekly paper had talked with her and was taken with the original “down home” flavor she radiated. He offered her an opportunity to write a weekly column about happenings on her rabbit farm, in her own words and spelling. Thus, the title “The Rabbit Lady” was born.
The lady called for her great grandson to come over to meet me. He was working the cabbage rows which they used in feeding their rabbits. “Howdy”, he said warmly, but it was obvious he had some sort of learning disability. “The Rabbit Lady” explained he had never gone to school because of that.
However, although these mountain folks had little or no formal education, didn’t mean they were dumb by any means. They had wisdom and talents few city folks would ever have. She asked her great grandson to go and get his “house”. He scurried off to get it. I was bewildered…house?
Meanwhile as we waited on his return our host gave us a tour of her business. She began teaching us about raising rabbits. This lady was anything but uneducated. She was as knowledgeable as any trained veterinarian.
The young man returned, out of breath, proudly displaying his creation. It was an exact miniature replica of their farm house. It was exact in every minute detail, down to the finely carved miniature hound dog sleeping on the porch. His attention to detail was amazing. The handmade straw broom, showing wear of the straw, a washboard and wooden tub with clothes to wash…everything was authentic. He explained, “Ah get ta go inta town and sellum sumtimes”, he drawled. According to him, he made a decent income off of them.
I left that day knowing I had experienced life as it was lived in the past. One almost forgotten by changing times.