Heart of the Ozarks Bluegrass Association celebrates 40 years

The Heart of the Ozarks Bluegrass Association, located in West Plains, south-central Missouri, is celebrating four decades of music. The stated purpose of HOBA is “to further the education and the enjoyment of bluegrass music.” All its officers and board members serve on a volunteer basis, and the association derives its name from not only where it is located, but from the hearts of all those involved who play and love the music of their mountains.

Katie Cahoj, HOBA Treasurer, who wasn’t born when the association was founded, shared, “We are a nonprofit organization that will be celebrating our 40th anniversary, June 1-3, 2023. We host two festivals annually with smaller events throughout the year. Many members of our organization are third and fourth generation Ozarks musicians. Everyone is there because they want to be, and it’s important to them. I am passionate about our organization and the continuation and preservation of Ozarks bluegrass music, and strongly believe it should be more nationally recognized for its soul and uniqueness.”

Cahoj is excited about this year’s anniversary festival, billed as the little festival with the big heart.

“We are very inviting with a family-friendly atmosphere. Grammy-nominated River Bend will be performing. We also have Route 3 performing, who won Bluegrass Band of the Year for the state of Arkansas in 2021. Plus we have two local bands that are pretty near and dear to our hearts, Ozarks Mountain Four and Stringed Union. Two members of Stringed Union serve as HOBA board members.

On Thursday night, we have a gospel show with two bands, and it’s only $5 admission. We have free beans and homemade cornbread for supper until we run out. Other short order concessions are available and all our pies are homemade.

On Saturday morning, we have a donation-only breakfast prepared by board members. Then we have free instrument workshops, beginner and advanced. Members of our association are the instructors. Anyone can receive a lesson.

We have a campground with over 70 camper spots, with 30 and 50 amp hook-ups and options for rough camping. We have restrooms, shower houses, and two areas built for jam groups in addition to the main stage.”

The Heart of the Ozarks Bluegrass Association was the brainchild of the late elementary school teacher, Ethel Willard, of West Plains, MO. During summer months in the ’70s and ’80s, she and her husband, Jim, attended regional bluegrass festivals. 

A former student (and Cahoj’s aunt), Teresa Eldringhoff Romans, remembers…

“In the fall of 1979, Ethel sent for me to come to her class. I was about 12 years old, and as I recall, it got me out math for a little while. She had discovered that my family played bluegrass. She picked my brain for names of other bluegrass musicians in the area and sent me home with a request to get more information from my folks.  

Things developed quickly, because by December we were planning our first bluegrass concert at the Howell County Courthouse courtroom.  As luck would have it, that show got snowed out, but that didn’t deter Ethel. Our first show was held in January 1980 and had a good crowd. A few more shows were held there, and then we eventually moved to the American Legion Hall with monthly shows continuing into the early 2000s. Then came talk of forming an association.

Much discussion was held, and the name Heart of the Ozarks Bluegrass Association was given by Joe Henderson.  Others started the process of incorporating and developing by-laws. By April 1981, we were up and running as an official Missouri non-profit corporation. Ethel was unanimously elected our first president of the board of directors.  

Ethel’s dream was to have festivals. That was a big goal of hers. We held our first festival/bluegrass band contest in 1982 at the Howell County Fairgrounds in West Plains. We then moved to Roger Williams’ stage/RV park/convenience store site in Alton for 1983 and 1984.

Some wonderful members, Junior and Norma Stubbs, sold part of their farm on the outskirts of West Plains to HOBA. Many work days were held to simply make a road into the property and clear it for use. In early 1985, HOBA members Al Eldringhoff and his three sons cut trees off Al’s dad’s place, took them to HOBA member Robert Morris’ sawmill, and milled the wood for the stage. Mark Eldringhoff, Lloyd Atkinson, and Norman Reiger were instrumental in overseeing the building of the stage.  

Our first festival at HOBA park was held in 1985. The kitchen came next with the work and design was overseen by Lloyd Atkinson. The shower house came last with design and build overseen by Virgil Hooker and James Strickland. We purchased more property from Junior and Norma at a later date.”

The Association held a contest for their logo. Beulah Shipley designed the winning entry. Ethel started a monthly association newsletter, and a “name the newsletter” contest was held. Geneva Eldringhoff won with the name, The Bluegrass Courier.  

Cahoj concluded, “Many HOBA members have come and gone. A lot of folks have helped HOBA to grow from a seed into a great organization, run solely by volunteers, with a beautiful bluegrass park. We have two three-day festivals a year, and this year will mark our 40th Spring Festival in June, and our 39th Fall Festival in September. Ethel has since gone on to that big bluegrass festival in the sky. I hope she likes what we’ve been doing down here with her bluegrass club.”

The HOBA Bluegrass Park is located at 1138 Bluegrass Lane, West Plains, MO. For more information on the festival and the association, visit them online or call (417) 257-2154.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.