The woman’s eyes sparkled as she pulled on her young child’s hand toward the cabin. “There’s Miss Mary,” she said. “She taught me to make ink out of pokeberries.”
Many young people have learned the mysteries of pokeberry ink, pinch pots and button games in the Mary Gillihan’s children’s programs at the Ozark Folk Center. Since 1974 Mary has been sharing her curiosity about the world and interest in the ways of the past with visitors. “Now I’m getting the children of children who went through my Young Pioneers program,” said Mary.
In spite of her years of experience sharing the past, Mary Gillihan’s enthusiasm for life often makes her seem as young as the children she works with. Her intensity and appreciation for the drama of life have made her an admired and appreciated interpreter at the Ozark Folk Center.
Along with many other young people, Mary first visited the Ozark Folk Center in 1973, when it opened. She and her best friend traveled down to Mountain View. “We canoed on the Buffalo, camped in the National Forest,” she said. “I knew I wanted to work here from the first.”
Mary loved the place and the ideals of the Folk Center instantly. She gave two week’s notice to her job at the flower shop, packed up everything and moved to Mountain View. While she was waiting for a job to open up at the Folk Center, Mary worked as mother's helper, cleaned houses, babysat and worked at Stone County Electronics.
After a year, she was offered a job at the Homespun Gift Shop. When Mary started at the Folk Center at least 90% of the people who worked there were natives of Stone County or the surrounding area. At one point there was a move to find and fire anyone at the Folk Center who was not native.
“Tommy Simmons (the first director of the Ozark Folk Center) saved my job,” Mary said, laughing. “He said ‘someday she won’t talk nearly so fast or sound like that.’ I was willing to learn a lot. I listened to anything anyone wanted to tell me. I like Stone County for what it was and is.”
Mary gave the orientation to park visitors, who then bought their tickets for the park. Red Gillihan and Irvin Freeze played music near the Gift Shop. When they learned that Mary knew Red River Valley, they asked her to come out and do a song or two. Red kept telling Mary that he had a son that she should meet. It took a while for them to get together. Neither of them was interested in being fixed up. Mary and Robert Gillihan have now been married for 33 years. Music has continued to be a large part of their life. They discovered that many of the ballads and much of the music that Mary learned in fifth grade in Southern Illinois were similar to the music that Robert learned in Stone County. They have continued to play together and perform by themselves, as Harmony with Dave Smith and with other groups.
In 1975 Mary started working in the School House where she developed children’s programs and started a Youth Week. In 1988 she became the park’s interpreter. She started leading the Elderhostel program at the Ozark Folk Center in 1992, enjoying both ends of the age spectrum. About six years ago, Mary began offering day camps at the Folk Center. “Mrs. Branscum used to say it kept her young to be around young people,” said Mary. “I like to mix traditional things with contemporary things.”
Several years ago, Mary was at an interpreter’s workshop where people were discussing day camp and homeschoolers. “I made the jump and put the two together,” said Mary.
Now she offers several day camps every year and is looked at as a leader in the field. She recently presented a program at the National Association for Interpreter’s conference titled, “What I learned at Day Camp (as the leader)”. One of the day camps she offers is specifically for home school families. “The kids learn to make pasta, they learn about serving a meal and how to clean up,” said Mary. “The classes with parents are about collecting family history and advanced paper folding. The home school day camp is just three days to make it easier for families to attend.”
As one little girl said after day camp in June, “I never knew I could have this much fun with a button and a piece of string.”
There are still a few openings in the Home school Day Camp to be held this October 5-7. For more information or to register, call 870-269-3851