Catherine Sweazey Barker (1901–1961)

Catherine Sweazey Barker was a social worker and author who lived in Batesville (Independence County) in the 1920s and early 1930s. During the height of the Great Depression and shortly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal in 1933, Barker took a position as a social services employee with the Batesville office of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) to help impoverished Ozarkers in Independence County and neighboring counties secure government aid and assistance. Drawing on observations from and experiences with rural families during her time as a FERA employee, she wrote a nonfiction book titled Yesterday Today: Life in the Ozarks, which was first published in 1941 and reprinted with a new introduction in 2020.

Catherine Sweazey was born in Verdin, Illinois, on May 20, 1901, to George Beaty Sweazey and Anna Furry Sweazey. Her father was a science teacher and relocated the family in 1904 to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he became the principal at Salt Lake Collegiate Institute, a private preparatory academy operated by Westminster College and funded by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (or Northern Presbyterian Church). Ten years later, he became the academic dean of Westminster College in Salt Lake City. He also served as a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church’s Synod of Utah and was active in state politics. Catherine Sweazey and her brother George E. (their younger brother James P. died as an infant in 1907) grew up in a family and community that valued higher education, progressive politics, and the social gospel.

In 1917, the Sweazeys moved to Missouri, where Catherine Sweazey’s father became the academic dean at Westminster College in Fulton, then an all-male school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States (or Southern Presbyterian Church). Sweazey graduated from high school in Fulton and enrolled at Western College for Women, a Presbyterian institution in Oxford, Ohio, where she majored in English literature and social science. After graduating from Western in 1923, she returned to Missouri and married Lincoln Barker, one of her father’s undergraduate students at Westminster who had also completed some graduate work at Princeton Theological Seminary and Washington University in St. Louis. Shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to Batesville, where Lincoln Barker was hired to teach philosophy and psychology at Arkansas College (now Lyon College). He also later served two different tenures as dean of the faculty at Arkansas College.

The Barkers lived in Batesville for more than a decade. Catherine Barker gave birth to two sons: Donald L. in 1924 and Robert S. in 1925. She was especially active in the local Presbyterian church, in social and educational functions at Arkansas College, and in various women’s and civic organizations in the community. She took a federally funded position as a social worker with FERA after the New Deal agency’s commencement in May 1933 and spent much of her time over the next several months traveling to and working with poor farm families in some of the most remote parts of Independence and surrounding counties. Her primary duties involved helping needy families secure relief assistance and providing education on matters like hygiene and healthcare, home economics, and childcare. She resigned from FERA in May 1934 when her husband accepted a position as dean of the faculty at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

During the next seven years, Barker gave public lectures on the Ozarks and its people to church and civic groups in and around Salt Lake City and penned Yesterday Today: Life in the Ozarks. The book was undoubtedly inspired by a combination of what she had seen as a social worker in Arkansas, her enthusiasm for the New Deal’s potential, and her awareness of a growing fascination among middle-class Americans with treatments—both nonfiction and fiction—of the “isolated” and “primitive” Ozarks that had emerged during the Great Depression. Her book aimed to give an authentic account of the “Ozark mountains” where “there are still remnants of eighteenth-century life and culture.” Barker insisted that “I am not writing of things I have read nor of things I have heard, but of things I have seen, of people with whom I have talked recently, of conditions I know to be true at present.” Despite similar depictions of the Ozarks as an isolated region whose people had been bypassed by American modernization, Barker’s Yesterday Today differed significantly from folk-culture enthusiast Vance Randolph’s and other authors’ romantic portrayals of a hardy, self-reliant, and simple hill society. Instead, she wrote the book, in part, to stir national attention and sympathy for a “poverty-stricken” and “retarded people” (meaning lacking in modernization) who posed “an urgent problem” in the United States. A New York Times reviewer commented that Barker’s book should send a “shock to national complacency and a challenge to the need for real ‘progress’ among men and women who well deserve a better chance.”

Yesterday Today’s publication by Caxton Printers in Caldwell, Idaho, in September 1941, however, was largely overshadowed by the release of Otto Ernest Rayburn’s Ozark Country in New York City publisher Duell, Sloan and Pearce’s American Folkways series a few months later in December. Praised by Rayburn himself as “an accurate and vivid portrayal…[that] captures the real spirit of the people,” Barker’s book, however, never attracted the same level of acclaim as that of many other works on the region during America’s Depression-era “Discovery of the Ozarks.”

A few months before Yesterday Today’s publication, Barker and her husband left Salt Lake City for Tennessee, where Lincoln was hired as a psychology and education professor at Maryville College. Catherine worked closely there with the local chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). She also developed a close relationship in Maryville with Susan Wiley Cooper Walker, a wealthy widow of one of Gilded Age monopolist Andrew Carnegie’s former business partners in Pittsburgh. Barker assisted Walker with writing a memoir, which was published in 1943 as When I Look Back and Think.

In 1960, the Barkers moved yet again, this time to South Dakota, where Lincoln took a faculty position at Yankton College. Less than a year later, Catherine Barker died of breast cancer at fifty-nine years old on January 2, 1961. She is buried in the Yankton City Cemetery.

Catherine Barker had remained fascinated with the Ozarks long after she left Arkansas. Many years after her death, while going through some of the family’s belongings, one of her grandsons, Steven Barker, discovered a 435-page unpublished manuscript in a typewriter box; Barker had been working on the novel during the latter years of her life. Titled Dinner of Herbs, this work of fiction chronicles a boy named Johnny and his story of growing up and falling in love in a geographically and culturally isolated hollow in the 1930s while the broader world around him modernizes, bringing the ancient ways and values of local mountain culture into sharp relief. Steven Barker independently published his grandmother’s novel posthumously in 2020 as Dinner of Herbs: Life and Love in the Ozarks.

For additional information:
Barker, Catherine S. Yesterday Today: Life in the Ozarks. 2nd ed. Edited by J. Blake Perkins. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2020.

Barker, Catherine. Dinner of Herbs: Life and Love in the Ozarks. N.p.: Steven Barker, 2020.

James Blake Perkins
Arkansas State University-Beebe


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