Jeremiah Buntin: Roaring River’s other ‘Mountain Maid’

Most residents and vacationers in the Ozarks region are familiar with the story of Jean Wallace, the clairvoyant recluse living in her Roaring River cabin in the hills south of Cassville until its destruction by fire in 1940, claiming the life of the Mountain Maid of Roaring River.

But, less people are probably familiar with the story of the other Mountain Maid of Roaring River, Marie W. Olsen. When Jean Wallace relocated to the Ozarks from New York, she did so with her friend, Marie Olsen. A Cassville newspaper from July 10, 1890, recalled, “We had the pleasure of shaking hands with Miss Olsen, better known her as the Mountain Maid.”

Such fragments of early information are fortunate to exist, as most copies of Cassville newspapers before 1893 were destroyed by the town fire of that same year. Another newspaper item in from 1893 in reference to Roaring River said, “Jean Wallace, one of the mountain maids, is having an addition built to her house.”

Both Jean and Marie acquired land in Barry County under the Homestead Act of 1862, where citizens could claim up to 160 acres of government land, providing they lived on and cultivated their plot for a minimum of five years.

Marie Olsen’s plot was located near Roaring River in Township 22 Range 27 Section 26, while Jean Wallace’s plot was located about a mile away in the northwest quarter of Township 21 Range 27 Section 2.

Jean Wallace’s plot can be seen on the 1909 and 1930 Barry County Plat maps available online through Missouri Digital Heritage. Learning to use plat maps can come in very handy in historical and genealogical research. Each section on the plat map represents 640 acres, or one square mile, and the sections don’t change, so a section on the 1909 map will be the same as a section on a 2024 map with modern roads and references.

Although the “Mountain Maids” arrived in Barry County by 1890, their homestead claims were not filed until 1899. Marie Olsen’s claim was filed by her heirs, as she died in 1894 after returning to New York.

According to an 1899 Notice for Publication by the Department of the Interior in the Cassville paper, George Reed and C.A. Munsey of Eagle Rock, Missouri, and I.B. Preston and E.C. Faulk of Aix, Missouri, were listed as witnesses to prove Jean Wallace’s continuous residence. Aix was the name of the post office at Roaring River in the 1890s. The Aix post office was discontinued in 1900.

Images of these land patents can be viewed online at the Bureau of Land Management website. It’s a little bit surprising that land was still available for homesteading in Barry County by that late of a date, but we are talking about the Roaring River area, with mountainous terrain not very suitable for the agricultural pursuits of the day.

It’s amusing to imagine two young ladies from New York City picking out a couple of hills in the Ozarks to call home in 1890, and what reality TV could have done with the concept.

Like Jean Wallace, Marie Olsen was also a nurse. An obituary for Marie Olsen published in the Cassville paper in March of 1894 entitled “The Mountain Maid,” with sections reprinted from the New York Hearld, stated, “Marie Olsen was 30 years of age. She came to this country [from Norway] ten years ago and settled at Roaring River, Mo. She came to this city [New York] in 1886 and entered the New York Training School for nurses. She graduated two years later.”

Another Cassville newspaper item from 1894 stated, “Miss Olsen, known as the ‘Mountain Maid’ died last week in New York City, where she has been employed as a nurse. She was an intelligent, well-educated young lady, whom all respected.”

Given that both Jean Wallace and Marie Olsen were nurses, it would be reasonable to assume they became acquainted with one another through their profession in New York City before relocating to the Ozarks.

The obituary for Marie Olsen in 1894 also made national news because it was “the first theosophical funeral service held in this city [New York] for a woman.” Marie Olsen’s body was cremated by the Theosophical Society at home of Dr. Hjalmar Valentin Barclay, brother to Miss Olsen.

The Webster’s version of Theosophy is “the teachings of a modern movement originating in the U.S. in 1875 and following chiefly Buddhist and Brahmanic theories especially of pantheistic evolution and reincarnation.”

So, it’s basically an Americanization of eastern religions and philosophies, with an emphasis on mystic knowledge and reincarnation. An item from a Cassville newspaper in the summer of 1894 stated, “Mrs. Dr. Barclay of New York City is visiting her motherin- law, Mrs. Olsen, of Roaring River. Dr. Barclay is expected soon, with the ashes of Miss Marie W. Olsen, whose remains were cremated.”

It seems Marie’s mother and brother, Dr. Barclay, came to Roaring River to dispose of her ashes, I’m guessing at the homestead site. When Marie’s brother, Dr. Barclay, died in 1941, his obituary stated his patients had included Andrew Carnegie and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Marie also had a sister, Miss Aagot Olsen, who according to a Cassville newspaper visited her at Roaring River in 1893.

When Jean Wallace died in 1940, her obituary named her friend Miss Olsen as “Miss Poulson” instead.

It’s interesting to see how time changes the story. Instead of a story of “Mountain Maids” the story is now of a single maid. Knowing that Jean Wallace’s friend Marie Olsen was cremated, I now find it a bit strange that Jean Wallace died in a fire, practically cremated, although Jean’s remains are buried at Seligman.

Later accounts of Jean Wallace’s life maintained that she was of the Christian faith, but it is reasonably to speculate that she discussed the topic of Theosophy with her friend Marie, so reincarnation was likely debated.

Marie was described in her obituary as, “Bright, quick witted, vivacious and always self possessed, she was entertaining to the extreme.”

Although Jean Wallace is now the famous Mountain Maid of Roaring River, perhaps by reading this article, Marie Olsen is now remembered anew and lives once more in Barry County history.

Jeremiah Buntin is a historian at the Barry County Museum. He may be reached at jbuntin@barrycomuseum. org.