Courtesy of McDonald County Historical Society
Welcome to McDonald Territory
By Rose Hansen
When the Missouri Highway Department distributed its annual Family Vacationland Map on April 3, 1961, a resort manager named Norman Smith Jr. noticed something funny. The details of his entire county, McDonald, had been excluded, which was strange because its vacation town Noel—prized for a scenic highway cut into limestone cliffs and Elk River’s serene waters—was the getaway destination of the time.
He circulated a petition at the McDonald County Republican Club and complaints were forwarded to the county representative, Boyd Walker.
The following week, Walker introduced a resolution in the Missouri General Assembly ordering the Highway Department to withdraw the offending, taxpayer-funded maps. He called the omission of the county “serious and extremely detrimental.” But the resolution was shuffled into the House Committee on Miscellaneous Affairs, where legal nuisances were often smothered.
Residents were outraged. Now what?
The solution was simple: If at first you don’t succeed, secede.
A day later, McDonald County declared itself independent from the state of Missouri. It would go down in history as one of the best decisions the county would ever make.
Courtesy of McDonald County Historical Society
McDonald County Territory Border Guards
The McDonald County Territory border guards were required to check visitors for passports and visas.
“It was tongue-in-cheek,” says Lynn Tatum, president of the McDonald County Historical Society. “A ‘Don’t Mess With Us’ protest, a statement by this Ozark community.”
It’s worth noting that McDonald County has always been a bit rowdy. When an unpopular ruling was made by the court in 1863, enraged residents allegedly burned the courthouse and its records to the ground. Now, nearly one hundred years later, the rebellious county was seceding. The stunt made front-page news across the country.
Immediately after declaring itself the McDonald Territory, a provisional government was elected with Z. L. McGowan as president and Robert Pogue, publisher of the McDonald County Press, serving as Press Secretary. Other officials included Dan M. Harmon, vice president; Robert Yocum, attorney general; Senator Lee Aaron Bachler, secretary of state, and more.
“Welcome to McDonald Territory” signs were posted at the border. A printer was commissioned at Noel for passports. About 100,000 territorial stamps and 50,000 visa cards were designed, engraved, and printed. Three hundred men were called to arms “against the tyranny of omission” to form a border patrol for keeping “undesirables” like Missouri state tax collectors out of the territory. There was even talk of contacting the United Nations for $4 billion in foreign aid relief. Offers began flooding in from Arkansas and the nearby Cherokee nation. On April 12, Bachler introduced a proposal to form a tri-state committee for Benton County, Arkansas, and Delaware County,
Oklahoma, to join McDonald County in establishing a fifty-first state.
“I subscribe fully to and am a pioneer in the world of new frontiers,” Bachler said while introducing the resolution. “Progress is being made nationally. McDonald County is my place of birth, and in this controversy, I must go with her. I cannot reroute my affection.”
Residents were charmed. The future looked bright.
“When we secede, everybody will want to live here; we will be tax free and sell nickel beer,” says Rivers Wiley, a Noel service station operator. He called the secession one of the “greatest pieces of advertising we have ever had.”
McDonald County quickly became one of the most widely publicized resort areas in the nation. Coverage of the secession—including photographs of President McGowan sharing a peace pipe with Cherokee Chief Suagee of Jay, Oklahoma—landed in newspapers from St. Louis to New York City to Moscow. The territorial border guards granted television interviews and posed for cameras while costumed in over-the-top mountain man garb and muzzleloaders. As the media circus turned, government officials in the state capital became tangled in red tape.
Governor John B. Dalton acknowledged the map dispute as a serious oversight but deflected responsibility to the Highway Department, which was unable to supply a satisfactory explanation beyond human error. Then Robert Barron, who supervised publication of the guide, told the press that the exclusion of McDonald County’s towns was no accident.
“It was intended,” he said, “because of commercialization.”
Residents hotly disputed this claim. At the time, few roads in McDonald County were fully paved and the area was arguably less developed than many other vacation hotspots in the state.
“It is impossible for me to understand Mr. Barron’s statement,” said Ira England of Anderson, chairman of the McDonald County Resources and Development League. “He is completely uninformed. Our beautiful Ozark scenery, clear streams and abundant game and fishing area are the least commercial of any place in the Ozark region.”
McGowan later told the McDonald County Press: “What really happened, I think, was that somebody was playing politics in the State Capitol. The fellow who announced that the area had been left off the map intentionally was actually telling the truth, and the rest of the boys up there didn’t want that. They thought he was talking too much.”
Such conflicting reports at the state level fueled local frustrations and accusations of government dishonesty.
Courtesy of McDonald County Historical Society
McDonald County Annexation
Ray Henry of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, appeared as an envoy from Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to discuss annexation of McDonald County to Arkansas with President Z. L. McGowan.
At an April 15 meeting in Anderson, Mrs. Robert F. Chambers of Goodman encouraged her rebellious countrymen to keep fighting.
“We should drop the word secession but continue with the movement,” she said. “We are the underdogs of the state. We should ask for donations from all over the country. We are poor people in a poor country. We are still a territory and fighting to be free.”
“The stunt has exceeded our wildest expectations; we have created a monster,” Yocum said at the same meeting. “We should be more judicious in our approach and should put more emphasis on attracting tourism, trade, and industries.”
Yocum was about to get more emphasis than he could have predicted.
The next day, a historical club in Jasper County called the United Sons of the Union and Confederacy issued an ultimatum: stop the secession or risk war. The next day, the seventy-man army invaded Noel. An estimated four thousand spectators flooded into town to witness the mock warfare that followed. Two “generals” of the invading forces were captured. Peace arrived shortly after Ralph Hooker, age sixty-five, suffered minor burns from a Civil War musket that hadn’t been fired in nearly a hundred years.
“The darn gun blew up on me,” he said. “I’m going home.”
The sentiment rippled across the county and the secession petition was withdrawn. As upset as some people were about the Family Vacationland omission, the vast majority wanted to stay in the state and keep receiving their pensions. Although the secession could not stand, the county continued bolstering the media hype and members of the provisional government kept their titles.
According to a May 1961 press report, Senator Edward V. Long wrote: “In my mail this week was a visa entitling me to a safe visit to McDonald Territory (formerly McDonald County, Missouri). The card was signed by Z. L. McGowan of Noel, president of the new provisional government. The McDonald incident was a bright spot in a week filled with ominous incidents. I sincerely believe that America’s ability to laugh at its own foibles is one of its sources of strength.”
The stunt brought comic relief to a nation faced with serious change and uncertainty. At the height of the McDonald County secession attempt, the Bay of Pigs invasion was unfolding. In 1961, John F. Kennedy became the thirty-fifth president. That same year, the Soviets beat the Americans in sending the first person to space, the freedom riders boarded buses to challenge segregation in the South, and East Germany began building the Berlin Wall.
The following year, McDonald County was back on the 1962 Family Vacationland Map with photos of its scenic terrain depicted in full color. According to Gerald R. Massie, editor of the publication, the previous year saw record-breaking tourism profits above $632 million. Press coverage of the McDonald Territory undoubtedly contributed to that success. For years to come, the county capitalized on the hype of secession with mock visa checkpoints, fishing derbies, fashion shows, old car parades, train heists, and more.
Eventually, though, nearby Branson funneled visitors away from that remote corner of the state. Today McDonald County, even at the height of summer, is a sleepy outpost no longer at the center of Missouri’s tourism industry. In time, the secession became an event colored by self-deprecating humility.
“We had some fun with it. I remember people out there making semi-serious proposals. At the time, I was twelve years old and in the background was this secession thing going on and that was just part of summer,” says Rocky Macy, whose family owned the River View Court near Noel. “Right now we’ve got an angry undercurrent in the country politically. I think it’s important for people to have a voice and for government to respect the people and listen to them. I didn’t feel like it was a serious movement at the time, but I think things like that can become serious real quick. We are always seeing things coming from beneath rising up.”
Considering the colonial revolt that sparked United States independence in 1776, secession is a quintessentially American story. Since then, there have been more movements, the most bruising of which was the Civil War. Sectors of every generation carry their share of political frustrations, but as one decade rolls into the next, that anger often turns into indifference and then mere curiosity. But as Macy suggests, perhaps there’s a deeper lesson at the heart of McDonald County’s secession, a moral complexity too easily overshadowed by the light of its comedy.
“The secession was not initially a publicity stunt, although it turned into a great one. It had real meaning to the people of McDonald County. The territorial uprising will be regarded in history as a time when a small community organized and made the statement, ‘We count, too. We don’t want government without representation,’ ” Patric Stevens wrote in Inside McDonald Territory, a special publication for the McDonald County Historical Society.
Stevens has a point. It’s easy to underestimate the power of the ordinary citizen—until they join forces and speak up. The 1961 secession wasn’t just theater; it was also a political conversation between citizens and the elected officials meant to represent them.
So what if Missouri was never going to show McDonald County the door? The county showed Missouri something far more significant: itself.