Voices of the Ozarks – Billy Ray Starkey and Rory Starkey

Want to subscribe to Voices of the Ozarks in your podcast app? Just copy this link: http://ozarkregional.org/blog/?feed=podcast, then paste it into your podcast app’s add a feed field. You can also click the podcast icon on the sidebar to subscribe in Apple Podcasts.

Billy Ray:  My name is Billy Ray Starkey. I was born in Marquand, MO 2-18-1946. I was born near the Castor River in a house near Green Hollow. I think it was the last existing house there at that time. I’m here with my son Rory

Rory: I was born April 9, 1971 in Cape Girardeau.    

Billy Ray shares that his parents did not own their farm. He thinks the house was torn down in the mid 1970s or 80s. He lived in Marquand most of his life and went to school there at Piney Union which was a one room schoolhouse. There were no busses so they walked. Later he went to the school in Marquand. He mentions that his dad had worked with he WPA program and that they had used teams and wagons to haul rocks for the gymnasium for the school. It still stands today.

Rory asks his father to share the names of family members and Billy Ray does. He says his dad’s name was Dolph Starkey and he was the son of James Starkey. They were raised just outside of Marquand at the edge of Bollinger county. 

Dolph was born in 1909. Dolph and his older brother Robert Starkey (born in 1887) both helped build the floor of the gymnasium. An even older brother of Dolph’s was Clarence and he may have been born in 1883 and served in WWI. An aunt Letha is mentioned as well. She later moved to Fredericktown and married a Williams.

Billy Ray lived in Marquand for many years. Eventually they moved to Fredericktown and he lived on Saline Street. He now lives in Marquand again. Rory mentions that when Billy Ray was in his teens he’d moved to Michigan for awhile. Rory points out that for his dad’s generation it was fairly common that they often left rural areas and found work in cities, particularly for work in the auto industry. Often it was a move from the south to the north. Billy Ray points out that it is now the opposite and that there is more industry here than in Michigan. 

He says that most of his siblings went up there for work and some stayed. They still have family up there. There were 5 boys and 5 girls in his family. Billy Ray was next to the youngest. 

He did not finish school. He went as far as the first two weeks of the 11th grade then dropped out. He left home when he was 16 and has been on his own ever since. He had a handshake agreement with Gradey Beckett, the owner of a construction company based in Tennessee. They had an agreement that if he got hurt on the job he’d pay for his hospital bill but that he couldn’t sue him. They shook on it. The job was doing construction in Flint, Michigan. 

He talks about living with his sister in Michigan until he got his job and his own place where he paid $16 a month. He made enough and saved and bought his first house at 19. His land lady, Ms. Blaine, was an older woman and she rented to him because he reminded her of his grandson. She was alone and she welcomed the company. His room was upstairs and he went through the house to get there so they would often visit. 

He tells a fun story about how two pigs got him to Michigan. His parents couldn’t afford to loan him or give him the money. Fortunately while living at home he had helped with milking the cow and with the pigs. One of the baby pigs was injured and needed special attention. He raised it up a family member wanted it to butcher for meat so he traded it to him for two younger pigs. He finished raising those two and sold them a little while later. He used that money to buy a ticket on the Gray Hound Bus which he caught up on the Court Sq in Fredericktown. The ticket cost $18 and he had a little left. 


He says he never borrowed any money from his parents that he can remember. He moved to Michigan around 1964. He remembers when JFK was shot in 1963 and tells the story of hearing it on the radio while sitting in his dad’s 49’ Chevy at the Demmon Grocery Store. He went into the store where his dad was visiting with some men and he told them all that the President had been shot. Breaking the news to the men seemed very important to him and he remembers it very well.

He mentions that when JFK many were worried about him being a Catholic and what that might mean about how he would govern the country. There was concern about what influence Rome would have. He says he was very fond of JFK and to this day has a picture of JFK and Jackie that lights up. He briefly mentions about voting and political parties. He says he’s an independent. 


Rory brings up small churches as communities or parts of communities that are a heritage that might be lost. They talk about the church that Billy Ray was raised in which had been built by a woman who founded and led the church, her name was Pool and they called her Sister Pool. Billy Ray remembers the family walking to church, sometimes he’d be on his dad’s shoulders. Supposedly one of the longest-lived revivals in the area was at that church. Some of the revivals would go on for many weeks, 5 to 6. They talk about a revival that happened after the earthquake in New Madrid and people thought the end was coming. 


That revival is supposed to have lasted a year or so. That revival and time period was thought of as the “Second Great Awakening”.

Billy Ray is asked about his return to Fredericktown and going to work for Miner’s Lumber Company. He says he actually came back to Marquand. Then worked for Revel’s and Miners. After that he worked for awhile in Jackson for a siding company.

Around 1972 he worked in the top of the Court House when nobody else wanted to because there was so much pigeon manure up there. He talks about Cecil Burch running Miners Lumber Co and he mentions Cecil’s wife, Anne. He mentions that the hospital needed a food cart for meetings. Cecil asked him if he could build one which Billy Ray did. They used it for many years and he said he saw it there still in use just a few years ago. The mention the fact that Miners was located where City Hall is now. He says he think’s that when they sandblasted the building at one point the painted sign for Huffman’s Lumber which preceded Miner’s was revealed and may still be visible. He’s not sure if it was Huffman’s or another. He says Fredericktown has change a lot since then.


Billy Ray is asked about the changes he’s seen in Fredericktown. He says there are many. He remembers being at what used to be the A&W which is now the A&M Restaurant. He was working for Miner’s at the time and building a barbecue building for the A&W. 

He mentions Cobalt Village and that they were going to remove the smelting tower, it was 500 to 600 feet tall. It was costly to replace the light that was at the top to warn planes. He talks about how they would blast steel in one place to weaken it so the tower would fall. While he was building the barbecue building for the A&W he could hear them setting of the charges as they worked on the tower demolition. After three to four days of hearing the charges being set off he heard a series of successive charges so he went out and saw it fall in the distance. He says it was like they had dropped a bomb where the tower fell and impacted the ground around it. It was a part of the horizon and landscape that, once gone, was very noticeable. Another that he points out was the removal of the fire tower Cottener Mountain fire tower that wasn’t in town but was a noticeable landmark in the area. 


He says that there used to be a drive-in theater that was in the area behind the old Walmart. He and Rory talk about the Pig being one of the few businesses that has survived through the years. Billy Ray says they would come up from Marquand, go to the Pig and take the food over to the drive-in. He then mentions the movie theater on the Court Square and says there was also a Mobile gas station near it. Also, he says there was a very small “hamburger joint” near the gas station, around Court Square and North Main. He says it was behind the old jail, across from the current Sherrif’s Department. 

He’s asked about the Womack hotel which he vaguely remembers but does not remember when it closed. 


He’s asked about the Colbalt mine/tower that was destroyed and if the foundation still persists underground. He’s not sure. 


He talks about one of his uncles  working around the trees when 51 HWY was built. He’d take a rope to the top of the heavy trees and tie them off then the other guys would cut it then they’d use the rope and a team of mules to pull it over. 


Rory talks about the changes that stand out to him as someone who was a child here in the 1970s. He says that there used to be distinct villages such as Cobalt Village, Mill Creek and others. He mentions Reggie Starkey had a furniture store in Cobalt Village, there had been a grocery store. He says there were two grocery stores in Cobalt Village. At Mill Creek there was DeSpain’s grocery was still running until the late 80s. He points out there were quite a few little grocery stores like that and Billy Ray mentions the meat market. They talk about the IGA that was in town.

Billy Ray mentions Teen Town and Rory says that it was a WPA project, specifically the stone and rock wall. The villages as places with their own identity and schools is discussed further. 


Rory brings up two mausoleums that are in the Catholic cemetery in Village Creek. One is the Schulte Lane family and the other is Pierce which is discussed as a family that was here because of the mines. There was some discussion about the perception today of Fredericktown as being poor but that during the period of active mining it was prosperous. He brings up examples of the significant financial investments of those times such as Marvin College and the quality of the construction of that campus.


Billy Ray mentions a specific example of Judge Walker and Castle Walker. He says there was a nearby house that had a large, two pillared porch that he worked on. When they dismantled parts of the house they found an old pistol. 

He further mentions other historical artifacts he’d found while working in Michigan such as a photo of men working at a CCC camp (Civilian Conservation Corps) that the men had signed on the back.


Photos as documentation of history and the importance of adding information such as names is discussed. Rory suggests that in the future we’ll have a problems the the loss of information due to digital storage. Photos, letters and such things all being online only. Billy Ray chimes in that the loss of old-fashioned letter writing is another example of historical records that are no longer being created. 


Rory is asked about what led him to leave Madison County to travel and move to half way around the world. He says that it began with social studies, history and geography in the 8th grade. He made the decision that because he could go anywhere in the world that he would do that. During his college years he traveled to Saipan and worked for a Christian missionary school. He taught third grade for two years. He’s been teaching ever since and has taught 3rd, 4th and 6th grades too. He’s lived there for 25 years, about half his life. He comments that even being that far away he’s met several people from Madison County while there.

The tell the story of Billy Ray visiting him there during the holidays and the different decorations that include all the local, natural elements such as various ocean animals such as turtles, dolphins, and fish. 

The talk about his experience teaching in rural Philippines which had higher poverty and the lack of night time lighting and access to books. The books would be damaged by termites and they often didn’t have enough. It helped Rory appreciate the surplus he was used to. Billy Ray would send toys and books from Madison County. 


Rory talks about the importance of collecting oral histories. He mentions that many elders are not literate. Also, that much of what is known about any given area is what is collected from the wealthier upper-class. It’s often this privileged perspective that tends to be prioritized. Other voices get filtered out and are lost. He gives an example of the difference between the perspectives of the different groups: “He’s telling you how he built the building, the other person is telling you how he paid for the building.”

To get a better balance oral histories need to be included.

Billy Ray mentions working in Imperial and Kimmswick. For example, the well known restaurant, The Blue Owl. Billy Ray and his brother-in-law were the ones that did the work of renovating that building and several others in that community. But the story of that side of the work doesn’t get told. The business aspect of the story is prioritized, the story of the carpentry is lost.

Rory also brings up the Civil War in the U.S. and the different stories, perspectives and persistence of division in modern culture. He highlights some of the details and dynamics that are often not known. The ones that win the wars tell the story. He brings up tribalism as an aspect of modern history and cultural dynamics. He brings it back to the importance of perspective.