CADDO LAKE, Texas (KTAL/KMSS) – There’s a special place in Texas where Ozark Giraffes gather near the swampy bayous that connect the Red River to the largest cypress forest in the world. And if you’re brave enough to visit the place where cultures and landscapes of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas collide, you might have what it takes to sneak up on a giraffe.
“I am a product of the Ozark mountains, just like the Ozark Giraffes, and when I was a kid, there were lots of them around,” said Steve Garrett, a podcasting whiz and historian from, as he puts it, the place where the great plains, the Ozark Mountains, and Indian Territory collide.
Garrett is referring to Ozark Giraffes architecture, a style found both inside of and surrounding the Ozarks.
“As I got into college in the 80s, I figured out that they (Ozark Giraffes) were particular to our part of the world,” said Garrett. And Garrett has noticed something else about these historic buildings.
Ozark Giraffes are starting to disappear.
Garrett grew up around giraffe houses. He says his favorites are found in Stillwell, Oklahoma; Tahlequah, Oklahoma in the Boston Mountains; and Siloam Springs, Arkansas. These Ozark stone houses are as unique as snowflakes, with no two exactly alike.
“When I was a kid, we knew they were old houses and were kinda funky looking—they look like a giraffe—but then I figured out what those meant to the culture of our area. And it tells a story about the people who belong to the areas where those houses are.”
Ozark Giraffes aren’t animals. They’re buildings. Historic buildings that are native to the Ozarks. With thick, light-colored mortar joints between rocks, the finished buildings look like a backwoods, southern architect went on a summer-long safari and returned to the Ozarks to design homes that combine long necks with lean times. And that’s basically what they are, minus the safari.
“It’s a story of self-reliance and resilience,” said Garret. “Here in the Ozarks, one of the building materials that are readily available is rocks because we have very shallow topsoil and then bedrock, and so they built things out of rocks. In the early part of the 20th century came the invention of Portland cement, and that allowed the use of these stones to build the exteriors of these homes. Ozark Giraffe was also called flagstone, and (it) has a folk craft that went along with it.”
Garrett said that Ozark culture spread during the Depression when 20% of the population of the state of Oklahoma left because of desperate times.
“We understand the story of Oakies and the Grapes of Wrath, and there is a big contingent of former Oakies out in California, but Oakies went different places. They went to Kansas City, and they went south. There was a great exodus out of the Ozarks looking for jobs, and some of them went with the CCC or WPA or wherever the building (project) was. And I think people understand that if there’s a rock, you can get some cement and make something out of it. During the 30s, we were all poor, and we had to figure out how to make things happen.”
And that may be how so many Ozark Giraffes ended up along in Texas bayou country. There are giraffes in Jefferson, Texas, near Caddo Lake, and quite a few are in the towns of Karnack and Uncertain.
When examining the history of the giraffe house, it’s uncommon to find large numbers of Ozark Giraffes houses outside of the Ozarks. But they can be found in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, too. The architecture created by Ozark culture spread to surrounding states, but that doesn’t explain why large numbers of giraffe houses may be found in East Texas.
Garrette thinks he knows how it happened.
“When the Depression came along, you see a lot of these buildings are public buildings. The WPA and the CCC built a lot of buildings—courthouses, city halls, schools—with this style. And it expanded the number of people who knew how to do this… You saw an explosion of Ozark giraffes then because there was time for the families to build their own homes. When you see an Ozark giraffe, that was a family that built that home, with someone who learned the craft. Every time you see one, it represents a family.”
Garrett said it’s important not to lose things regarding historic preservation.
“In the race to improve things, I think that when you take away the things that remind us about how far we’ve come or remind us about what’s really important, we lose something intangible. Ozark giraffes were built 100 years ago for families from 100 years ago. They certainly are dated. But it gives me an appreciation for what we have now and what we ought to strive for. We build disposable housing that looks good for a little while, and in 30 years, it’s run down. But these folks from the hills built these little houses that have lasted 100 years. That tells us about what they valued. They wanted someone to inherit that house. When we lose those houses, I think we lose reminders about what got us here, what brought us here, and what made us great.”
Garrett stresses that Ozark Giraffes are particular to us.
“It says something about us. There are big homes in the South with pillars and Spanish moss, and these are not them, but these homes do say we’re here, and we’re gonna make it. Giraffes went out from the Ozarks, and they’re something to hold onto because it tells us about the struggles that our grandparents went through. And it’s important to remember because it tells us about ourselves.”
He said that when you see one in disrepair because they’re pushing 100 years old now.
“You’ll make note that the roof is going, the porch is going, but the walls are standing and strong. And that says a lot about that folk craft, about how they built their homes, and the technology they were using. Rocks in concrete is two weeks out of the stone age, but it worked. Hillbilly ingenuity—you can look down your nose at it, but it worked for the time, and it’s something that still works. I think we can look back in our history and be proud that we made do.”
A part of historic Ozark culture extends all the way down to a place in Texas where the largest cypress forest in the world is surrounded by a quiet, often overlooked being known as the Giraffe. These old buildings represent the manifest destiny of a nation that still hasn’t learned to understand itself fully. When thinking of Texas, bayous don’t usually come to mind. When thinking of bayous, the Ozarks aren’t something we often speak about; from Karnack through Uncertain and on into Jefferson, there is a mixture of the old and new times. Jefferson was once a port city that connected south to west. But in east Texas history, hillbilly ingenuity from the Ozarks is as physically present as the world’s largest cypress forest and the seemingly endless passage of four-wheel drive trucks.
“These structures are simply taken for granted,” said Garrett of Giraffes in the Ozarks.
Yet Giraffes show the spread of Ozark culture throughout the Midwest, the deep South, and into the humble beginnings of the Southwest. And following the footprints of these old Giraffes back to their cultural source can teach us all a lesson in humility.
“When you see things from the past, it’s important to pause for a moment and consider why it’s still here. And there’s a reason it was built. There’s a reason it’s still here,” said Garrett. “I think giraffes still have something to tell us about who we are, the kind of people that made the place that we’re living, and the kind of people that we can be.”
But Garrett also said that there was nothing special about those people who worked hard and built their own homes that’s not the same material that we’re made of in the modern world.
“They got through hard times and built a great place,” he said. “And we can get through hard times and build a great place.”
Click here to listen to Garrett’s podcast, or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org