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Fred Starr was an educator, farmer, sometimes-politician, and writer who spent the second half of his life working in, observing, and writing about the Ozarks. He was best known for essays that were published in Arkansas and Oklahoma newspapers for more than thirty-five years. They were a mixture of Ozark folklore, often-funny stories of life in the hills, and his own homespun philosophy, told in unpretentious and conversational prose.
Fred Starr was born in Waco, Georgia, on September 11, 1896, to William D. Starr, who was a farmer, and Alice Murphy Starr. He was the sixth of their nine children, with six brothers and two sisters, one of whom died soon after birth. He and his family moved to Oklahoma in 1911, then in 1915 moved again, this time settling in Arkansas near Magnolia (Columbia County). There, in 1918, Starr married Fannie Markham; they divorced in 1928. Their daughter, Martha Loyce Starr, born in 1920, later married Charles Morrow Wilson, a well-known writer from Fayetteville (Washington County).
In the 1920s, Starr earned his teaching credentials in western Oklahoma and began teaching there. He married fellow teacher Florence Clark, and in 1934 they, with their infant son, moved to Greenland (Washington County), where he had been hired to teach school. In the next few years, Starr and his wife had another son and a daughter, the latter of whom died in infancy.
Though Starr called himself a “furriner” when he took up residence in Greenland, he was an amiable one who had much in common with his Ozark neighbors, even if skeptical about their superstitions. Starr began writing about their lives, beliefs, and wisdom, and his short essays were regularly published in the Tulsa World as “Plain Tales from the Ozarks” and in the Northwest Arkansas Times first as “Plain Tales from the Hills” and, later, as “Hillside Adventures.” Edited collections of the columns were published as books in 1938 (From an Ozark Hillside) and in 1942 (Pebbles from the Ozarks).
In the 1940s, as Starr continued to write his column, he took on increasing responsibility in education. He was principal of the Farmington (Washington County) school for three years; after that, he was for several years superintendent of the Elkins (Washington County) school district.
In 1954, Starr was elected to the Arkansas General Assembly, narrowly defeating David Burleson in the Democratic primary runoff. Starr had no opposition in the general election, and he easily won reelection in 1956. During his years in the state legislature, it passed many laws to try to thwart the federally mandated desegregation of the state’s schools. Starr voted for all these bills, as did almost all state legislators, even though he said he opposed most of them. He explained that he voted for the laws because his negative vote would not have stopped them but could have caused retaliation harming the interests of his constituents.
In his later years, Starr devoted much of his time to writing. He published a trilogy of nonfiction books that chronicled his life after arriving in the Ozarks, the ways of his neighbors, his love of the mountains, his philosophy, and his complaints about the disappearance of the old ways. The first book of the trilogy, Of These Hills and Us (1958), a small volume on Starr’s years in Greenland, was the most popular of his books, going through three editions, the last in 1971. The second book, Gifts from the Hills (1960), is more self reflective and philosophical but also is full of hill anecdotes and glimpses of his life as a farmer and parent. The third book, Climb the Highest Mountain (1964, reprinted 1968), focuses on life in the hills, with witty anecdotes and philosophical ponderings. The book laments the effects of modernization on hill folks.
Starr’s final two books were fiction. In 1969, he published To Keep a Promise, a novel set during the Great Depression in southwestern Arkansas. His last book was Of What Was, Nothing Is Left: A Suspense-Packed Tale of Arkansas (1972).
Starr died on November 24, 1973. He is buried at the Baptist Ford Cemetery, on the edge of Greenland, near the Hively place and another farm where he and his family lived for more than three years in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as described in Of These Hills and Us.
For additional information:“Anthology Author.” Northwest Arkansas Times, May 21, 1938, p. 1.
Clark, Caroline. “All This and a Grandpa Too.” Tulsa World, September 10, 1967, p. 7.
“Fred Starr.” Northwest Arkansas Times, November 26, 1973, p. 4.
“Fred Starr Dies at 77.” Northwest Arkansas Times, November 25, 1973, pp. 1, 2.
“Starr Addresses Journalism Class.” Northwest Arkansas Times, September 27, 1938, p. 5.
Starr, Fred. Gifts from the Hill. Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1960.
———. “In the Legislature.” Northwest Arkansas Times, February 19, 1957, p.12.
———. Of These Hills and Us. Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1958.
Dan DurningBirch Bay, Washington
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