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Discover Mid-America — May 2006

Named after Paddy

Among the pines at Paddy Creek Wilderness area near Rolla, MO. (photo by Patrick Dobson)

For some, spring is the time to take a deep breath. Fall and winter have meant toil in close rooms artificially lit or in cubicles whose decorations now seem contrived. The forced air and radiator heat has cooked our brains and dried our skin. But now fresh prairie breezes promise escape. The orange light of winter turns yellow and we crave renewal and release.

When the mood strikes, as it does every year at this time, I head toward Missouri’s center. There, in the heart of the Ozarks, is the 7,000-acre Paddy Creek Wilderness area — a dream of a place where one can lose human-made sound and find, for a moment, the solitude of a heartbeat.

It’s a typically American place: Used, it gave life. Used up, it broke hearts and dreams. Allowed to rest, it arises reborn and is a place of rebirth.

Once belonging to the Osage, the entire area was logged to the karst limestone in the 1830s to build St. Louis. In fact, the wilderness is named for Sylvester Paddy, an Irish immigrant who made his fortune from the area’s timber. Farmers used the folded up karst limestone ridges and rocky bottoms of Upper, Middle, and Lower Paddy creeks for farms and open range until they had worn the topsoil away and wrung the last dimes from it. The rocky little creeks ran milky and ruined. The springs were sour and saline. The farmers had killed all the bears, mountain lions and wolves. The deer were nearly all gone. The eagles, hawks and kites, as well as many of the songbird species, had been shot from the sky.

Then, in the 1930s, the federal government began buying the land, taking it out of reach of a system of capital whose ethos held little esteem for the land or the people who worked it. With the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Forest Service, the forest grew back, punctuated with glades and open fields where the topsoil was too meager for tree growth. Ponderosa and white pine dominate the rocky outcrops along ridges, and hardwoods — oaks of various species and hickories, as well as butternut, American elm, and walnut — blanket the uplands. Cottonwood, ash, swamp oak and sycamore grow in the bottomlands, where grape and Virginia creeper tangle the edges near the streams. The Missouri Department of Conservation brought back the deer, and the large birds are back.

The warm-blooded predators, however, have not been allowed to return. Nor could they, since Paddy Creek isn’t really all that big. As far as wilderness areas go, it’s just a tiny museum piece, a little area that, perhaps due to its difficult physical geography or the ways humans drained it, was not worth the time and effort to manage for future capital gain.

But to say that it is not enough doesn’t mean Paddy Creek should be discounted. Not at all. The Big Piney Trail winds 17 miles through the wilderness, offering plenty of opportunity to get away from care and worry for a while.

There is something quite special about letting a piece of ground alone to grow as it will, while understanding that the act of leaving it alone is a willful act — an intervention. In addition, even more special is to see how human the Paddy Creek Wilderness is.

The tracks of humans are everywhere.. The military from nearby Fort Leonard Wood used the woods for training for years, and the logging and farmers’ roadbeds are all still visible — ribbons of treed-in gravel and vine-covered ditches that one loses in the hardwoods if one isn’t looking too hard. Concrete foundations lay like scattered cards though the woods near stands of tiger lilies that once marked flower gardens. Stone chimneys reach up through the center of cedar groves; the cedars indicating worn-out dooryards and farming tracks. Here and there, one wanders through a pine plantation where towering white pines stand in stock-straight rows darken thick mats of needles below. And everywhere are remnant stock tanks, tiny ponds, now mostly cattail beds that become downright biblical with frogs in the spring.

What makes Paddy Creek a wilderness is just us saying so. We have done ourselves a grand favor by setting it aside. What’s more is that there is no spectacular landscape here — no mountains, no deep valleys or gorges, no whitewater streams. It is just pretty, a place to kick back in a trickle of a stream and watch the sky move.

While the Big Piney Trail is a draw for those wishing to get away, Paddy Creek has two trailheads with family camping. The Paddy Creek Recreation Area located on Paddy Creek on the east side of the wilderness has 21 single camping sites and two double. Picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets. No drinking water. The Roby Lake Recreation Area has several camping sites in a wooded area next to the lake. Both trailheads can be accessed from highway Missouri Hwy. 17 (exit south off of I-44 west of Rolla), and both are marked. The road to Paddy Creek Recreation Area is about four miles north of Roby, and the Roby Lake access is just a mile north of town. For more information, visit the Mark Twain National Forest Web site at or call the Houston-Rolla Ranger District at 417-967-4194.

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at

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