Over the past 25 years, I've written more than 500 freelance articles for various local and regional newspapers and magazines throughout the Ozarks. Below are a few of my favorites:
Article published in Ozarks Farm and Neighbor, southwest Missouri's farming newspaper, September 20, 2010
CAMP DAVID OF THE OZARKS: A DIFFERENT KIND OF OZARKS HARVEST Laura L. Valenti
Like a lot of small farms scattered across the Ozarks, Daniel and Cindy Smith’s rural Phelps County home has a handful of goats, a few horses, dogs and cats. Unlike most other rural residents, however, the Smiths made a donation of ten acres a few years ago to support a vision started by their son, Ben and his wife, Grace which has become Camp David of the Ozarks.
Directed by Ben and Grace, Camp David is a Christian summer camp specifically designed for the children of men and women who are in jail or prison.
“There are an estimated 40,000 children in Missouri with one or both parents incarcerated,” Ben Smith shared at the end of another successful week of camp. “Without someone stepping in to help, what’s the future for these children?” He left the question hanging in the air.
Statistically, two out of three children in the juvenile correctional system are children of prisoners. Ben, Grace and their five children, ages 12 to 2 months, spend their summers serving some of these children.
“The rest of the year,” Ben continued, “is spent fund-raising, building and recruiting over 100 staff, including ten leadership team members who volunteer their whole summer to serve. We also find sponsors for all of the campers who attend the four day camps. The search for sponsors never ends. Currently, we need 50 more sponsors at $100 each to complete the 2010 camping season. Each child has two sponsors.
Ben continued. “I believe if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If we, the Christian community do not reach out to these children now, why should we be surprised if they end up following in their parents’ footsteps? Camp is one way we help stop the crime cycle.”
Their vision has caught fire, not only with the immediate Smith family but with 105 other staff and volunteers. They include their extended family, grown siblings, relatives from Florida to Michigan, friends and others who simply believe in what they’re doing. All donate a part of their summer to come and work as staff at Camp David.
Their first summer in 2004 they hosted 18 campers, one week for boys, one week for girls. In 2010, as the camping season draws to a close, they have welcomed 180 campers, 10 times their first summer’s numbers, just seven years later. And that does not include the support staff, another phenomenal aspect of Camp David, which is actually a camp within a camp.
“The original idea was to provide a Christian camping experience to the children of prisoners,” Grace explained. “As many of the campers came back year after year, we began to realize the impact it was having on them. Another surprise was how it changed the counselors and Christian teens who come to camp to serve these kids by washing dishes, doing laundry, working as wranglers—what they learn here will serve them in the future as parents and as adult community members.”
Campers enjoy a variety of activities including a campfire, s’mores, archery, team games, singing, Bible studies and scripture memory verses, crafts, an obstacle course, horseback riding, swimming, fishing, a birthday party, letters from and bedtime stories read by camp grandmas.
“Another exciting thing,” Ben continued, “has been to see former campers come back as support staff. The kids are amazed to learn that no one here is paid. This is all about serving God and that’s what we are sharing with them, the difference God can make in their lives. They can choose a full life, without drugs, jail or prison. At Camp David these kids aren’t just crime statistics, they are real children each with their own individual needs.
“We’ve been blessed by our community here in Rolla and from all over as so many lend a helping hand by donating and helping us to build cabins, our dining lodge and other structures. Just to see the buses lined up when they bring the kids to camp or when they take them home--buses from Baptist, Assembly of God, all different churches, shows what Christians can do when we work together. The same when we build here, Catholics, Protestants, all different denominations come and for that we are so grateful. We can always use volunteer workers and builders here at Camp David.”
Camp David of the Ozarks harkens back to a time when church camp was a regular part of an Ozarks summer. In the 21st century, the Smith family and their friends are in pursuit of a different yet exceptional Ozark harvest amongst an especially needy group of Missouri’s children.
Article published in Springfield News-Leader newspaper, February 3, 2008
Jay Reynolds: Singer Sewing Machine Collector ExtraordinarieBy Laura L. Valenti
In 1998, while recovering from knee surgery, Jay Reynolds bought his first Singer sewing machine. At the time, he had no idea he was embarking on an odyssey that would include new friends across the US and around world. “I was looking for something to keep me busy,” he explained recently at his workshop located near southwest Missouri’s famous trout fishing mecca Bennett Spring. “I took that machine apart, cleaned and repaired it, put it all back together…and I was hooked!” And within just a few short years, Jay Reynolds has become a major collector and a true expert on sewing machines of all sizes, types, makes, and models. His current sewing machine collection includes nearly 200 machines of all sizes and ages, electrics and treadles, most of them, Singers. His favorites include an eleven pound aluminum machine produced in the 1950’s, to one of the first Singer machines ever made, to a huge 1923 industrial machine. “The Featherweight 221 is still much sought after by quilters,” Reynolds explained, “because it’s so light and portable. It also has a little table, designed just for this machine that’s made for apartments and other small spaces.” “Now this machine,” Reynolds continues, as he steps over to a black monster, the exact opposite of the diminutive Featherweight, “ the Singer Class 7-34 is a straight stitch machine that was designed to sew heavy layers of canvas, for making tents, harness and horse collars, as well as automotive roofs, mud flaps, whatever was needed on the new automobiles that were taking over the country at that time.” He laughs at the realization that much of what he works with now is caught in a historical time warp. Finding parts for his machines is an on-going challenge that keeps him on the Internet, with new contacts, all over the US as well as in England, Scotland, and Germany. Jay and his wife of 47 years, Sharron moved to Bennett Spring from Paola Kansas in 2002, after his retirement from the Kansas City Power and Light Company. He also enjoys fly fishing and meets new friends on the stream at Bennett Spring on a regular basis. While Jay cannot quite explain his fascination with sewing machines, his passion for them is practically contagious as is his love for the beautiful items they produce, like the flannel quilts he also makes. Fortunately, his wife, Sharron is appreciative and has a real understanding of his interest in collecting the machines. Sharron is an avid collector of Fostoria heirloom Vaseline glass, a distinctive art form captured in glass that fluoresces when seen under the right lighting conditions. “I’m glad he has a hobby that he finds so interesting, especially now that he’s retired,” she smiles when asked about sharing her home with so many sewing machines. “It’s something he enjoys, that keeps him busy.” It is also a hobby that produces benefits that others can enjoy. “After I did my first quilt at my wife’s direction,” Jay Reynolds laughs, “I learned to listen to her about how to do certain things.” At last count, he had completed twelve king-sized quilts, five single quilts, and thirty lap throws, all made from old flannel shirts, which he purchases from church clothing banks. “I kept track of my hours on those first quilts, and figured I was working for seventeen cents an hour. That’s when I realized, you make quilts just for the love of making them!” And that love can be easily detected as he talks about the oldest machine in his collection, because in addition to collecting, Jay Reynolds has become a true student of the history the machines represent. “Isaac Singer got his patent in 1851 but the company didn’t start keeping track of their serial numbers until 1871. This machine was built sometime between 1865, the year the Civil War ended and 1871. The cabinet unfolds to become the sewing table and all the panels are solid walnut. The machine itself was hand-trimmed with gold dust and has inlaid pieces of mother of pearl. I even have the original owner’s manual. Can you imagine the lady who had been sewing by hand all of her life, and is then presented with this beautiful little machine for the first time? Learning the history of these machines is as fascinating as repairing and sewing on them.” Passing that love along is also part of the joy of this collector. “Sometimes, people call from this or that thrift store or resale shop to tell me they’ve received a machine that no longer works. Usually, like one I received not so long ago, it’s something simple, like a machine that takes a special needle. When you put a regular needle in that model, it breaks it off. As soon as I got the right-sized needle in it, it worked just fine.” Not so long ago, Jay Reynolds came home to find four sewing machines on his front porch with a note from a neighbor, “Hope you can use these for spare parts.” Not every machine that crosses Jay Reynolds’ threshold, stays in his collection. He has repaired several machines that he has then passed on to area churches and schools that are teaching sewing. “Very few young people are learning how to sew these days, and that is so sad,” he laments. “If I can help the next generation to learn more about sewing, I’m ready!” Reynolds’ son, daughter, three grandsons and two granddaughters all sew and quilt. Last year, he donated two machines to the Dixon Middle School where they teach a special class in sewing for students who choose to participate. Business teacher Barbara Trump explains. “Our class is called 8th hour, and is a time for students who are struggling to receive extra tutoring. For those who are excelling, they can choose extra classes, including our sewing class. Traditional home ec classes are no longer offered in many schools and so these donated machines make it possible for us to offer these classes, which also ran this past year in summer school. The kids learn to make simple items, like patchwork pillows, aprons, purses, even boxer shorts and pajamas, but we really appreciated Mr. Reynolds’ donations of the machines, which makes the classes possible.” It is the combination of Jay’s appreciation of both their design and their history which has fueled his sewing machine collection activities as well as his basic desire to “keep ‘em running” for many of his quilt-making friends. It is, after all, the many quilters who have provided Jay with a network that now has his interests in machines and quilting reaching far beyond the Ozarks. “We, my wife and I, have been making quilted lap throws for the cancer center at Blue Springs. We’ve made the connection there through the Twilight Quilters Guild out of Blue Springs, folks we met along the stream here at Bennett Spring.” In addition donated quilts, Jay has repaired machines that are being sent to Central America as part of the donations sponsored by Convoy of Hope. “Sewing machines are a hobby, something fun to do for us here in the United States,” Jay explained, “but they tell me for poor people in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua, a sewing machine can provide a way of living, a major source of income. Now that’s a whole different way of thinking about these machines!” Don Wollard, a Christian mission volunteer from Bolivar, Missouri, who helps collect food, medical and school supplies, as well as sewing machines, had more to say. “I went down to Jay’s house and toured his place, and these machines are really his livelihood. Last year we sent four in one of our big containers to El Salvador, and this year, he has twelve ready and waiting. I hope to pick them up soon, and get them on their way to El Salvador. We’ve sent some to Nicaragua, too. We’ve gotten really good machines from him, all Singers, and it’s been a big help to us.” Passing on the legacy of sewing and its history, whether here at home and in underdeveloped countries, is just one more part of Jay Reynolds’ love of the creativity his many sewing machines have long inspired. For more information on Singer sewing machines, contact Jay Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org
Article published in Missouri Life Magazine October 2007
Just Little Pieces of Wood By Laura L. Valenti
Many a cure has been recommended for high blood pressure, but perhaps none has produced more beautiful results than the hobby Vic Eckmann took up at his doctor’s behest. “The stress of farming had my blood pressure up too high. My doctor told me I should find a relaxing hobby and that got me started in woodworking about fifteen years ago,” Vic stated while standing in his workshop, located near Bennett Spring outside Lebanon in southwest Missouri. Now a retired farmer, Vic creates intricate pictures in wood. All different types of wood pieces fit together to create the sometimes simple, sometimes truly exquisite pieces of art. “Each color in the design is a separate piece of wood. Finding the woods is the hard part,” Vic explained. “The walnut, maple, oak, and the cedars are not so hard to come by, but the butternut, aspen, and catalpa are often difficult to find. Still, I prefer to use the natural woods rather than do any staining of the wood.” While his workshop has a wood stove, Vic often works without the benefit of the heat. “Heating up the stove changes the wood,” he continued while wearing a double jacket in early spring, inside his workshop. “It makes it expand and when you’re sawing something that fine, even a little bit of a change means a lot.” Vic’s art in wood is starting to establish quite a reputation for him, as an artist whose works are traveling far from his home in southwest Missouri. As an active member of the National Wild Turkey Federation, wild turkeys are one of Vic’s favorite subjects. In 2006, he and his wife, Sue traveled to the organization’s national convention in Nashville where they took pieces depicting both a jake, which is a young male turkey, and the NWTF logo. Vic also makes trophies for Bennett Spring’s local Hillbilly Days competitions, held each year the third weekend in June. “I have a craft booth at Hillbilly Days but with time constraints, I don’t do other craft shows.” Vic works part-time at the nearby Bennett Spring Trout Hatchery, where he can be found most weekends caring for and stocking hundreds of trout in the park’s fishing stream. He may not have time to travel, but people are literally beating a path to his door to commission his works in advance or to buy something he has already made. Currently, his wooden pieces of art can be found in homes and offices in Texas, Tennessee, South Dakota, Virginia, and Illinois as well as his own state of Missouri. Of all his works, Vic’s favorite piece, “Hidden Forest”, hangs in his own living room. “That one has 900 pieces of wood in it and took more than five years to complete,” Vic concluded as he looked at the forest portrait that depicts tall trees and various forest animals, including a raccoon, tree frog, lizard, and deer. Whether it is the complicated pattern found in “Hidden Forest” or the simple beauty seen in one of his latest, “Mother With Child”, Vic Eckmann’s art in wood leaves a lasting impression with the viewer, and yes, his doctor was correct. Vic’s blood pressure is back down where it should be.
Published in Ozarks Magazine January 2008
ROSEWOOD FARMS: A CHOCOLATE-Y FAMILY TRADITION
By Laura V. Valenti
The tantalizing aroma of Grandpa Joe's chocolates, a blend of American and European chocolate-making traditions, greets a visitor upon entering Rosewood Farms Ozarks Country Gift Store.
While every corner at Rosewood Farms is piled high with delightful surprises from woven rugs, embroidered pillows, wooden signs, fragrant candles, and enameled pots, pans, and dishware, it is the chocolates that bring so many to this out-of-the-way shop, tucked along Highway 5, halfway between Grovespring and Hartville, Missouri.
Grandpa's dream "My Grandpa Joe went to candy making school in California in the 1940's." John Boyster explains the history behind his family's fascination with fine chocolates. "He always dreamed of opening his own candy store, but never got the chance. He died in 1966. When we found his recipes, we took about a year to develop them into something we could produce here on a regular basis. We have four generations of family involved and we use only the finest ingredients. Grandpa Joe's chocolates are made the way chocolate used to be made."
"What that means," adds John's wife, Melody, "is that we use only premium ingredients like real butter and real fruit in our recipes. We don't add wax or a lot of other additives, like you find in some commercial chocolates. And the best part is that now research suggests that chocolate with its anti-oxidants may actually be good for you!"
Dark chocolate, which has a higher percentage of cocoa, is actually considered the healthier variety, says Melody. Milk chocolate is sweeter and, of course, has milk in the recipe and many people still prefer that familiar American taste.
While tastes vary, the fact remains that the Boysters are working hard to keep up with the ever-growing demand for their popular products.
35 options "We produce 35 different crèmes, truffles, caramels, toffees, and brittles. This year we've added coconut brittle and bar varieties. We also added another 2,000 feet to our candy-making kitchen," John continues. "I think people appreciate the way we make our chocolates, and now we ship them world-wide. They're made from secret family recipes that will always be part of our family."
The demand for those recipes keeps five Boyster family members cooking chocolate as a full-time job, seven days a week. For their annual open house in early November (this year November 5 - 10) they also make fudge. Open house visitors are treated to free samples of fudge, toffee, and brittles as well as hot cider while they shop. Other store delights include cappuccinos, lattes, and other gourmet coffees, as well as the Boysters' very own Farm Frappe, a frozen blended beverage that comes in 25 flavors.
"We do not strive to be the biggest," Melody Boyster concludes, "but we definitely strive to be the best! Taste, quality, and treasured family recipes are what set us apart from our competition."
History Originally from Arizona, the family began to produce wooden gift items as a secondary business to their dairy farming operation there nearly 20 years ago. John made the wooden items, and Melody painted roses on the finished products, and thus, a dream with its own name, Rosewood, was born.
“We opened here in Missouri in 2000 with a single room, which has grown to several.” John waves his arm to take in his surroundings in the 4,000-square foot-store. Today, John and Melody along with daughters Holly and Jessi, daughter Heather and her husband, Lyle, and son, Tod and his wife, Jennifer, operate Rosewood Farms.
"When we started in the gift business, we were on the road, delivering gift items, all around the Southwest, working 18 hour days," says John. "We even hauled items back to Arizona the first few years we were here, but we don’t do that anymore. We wanted a better life for our family and a special place so people would come. We have been very blessed. The people keep coming and we're thankful."
Rosewood Farms, 7345 Highway 5, Hartville Missouri 65667, located eight miles north of Hartville and six miles south of Grovespring, Missouri.417 741-6915. Monday - Friday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. grandpajoeschocolates.com.
Laura Valenti is a freelance writer who lives at Bennett Spring near Lebanon, Missouri.