Rural Missouri Magazine

The home of the white squirrels

by Bob McEowen

A population of white squirrels has brought international attention to Marionville, a town of southwest Missouri.

You can spot them from 100 yards away, a flash of white scurrying through the trees. If people can see a white squirrel so easily, imagine what a target they make for a hawk, or even a common house cat. It’s a wonder they survive at all.

And yet, colonies of white squirrels thrive in several small towns across America, including Marionville, in southwest Missouri. Although residents of Olney, Ill., and Kenton, Tenn., beg to differ, Marionville proudly proclaims itself the Home of the White Squirrel, with emphasis on “the.”

“We’ve had people come all the way from Indonesia, from Australia. Many people come from London, just to see the squirrels,” says Clint Wise, owner of Marionville’s White Squirrel Hollow Bed and Breakfast. “When they see them they say, ‘They’re really white.’ They can’t believe it.”

One has to wonder just how often international travelers journey to Lawrence County to see squirrels. But the giant white squirrel beaming down from a billboard at the edge of town leaves no doubt as to Marionville’s claim to fame. And just to be sure, souvenirs are available at stores around town.

“The Lions Club has probably sold 40 to 50 thousand dollars worth of merchandise the last 15 years — hats, t-shirts, sweatshirts, postcards, ceramic white squirrels, all kinds of things,” says Jim Smart, whose property north of town is home to a large concentration of the blazingly white rodents.

Marionville resident Jim Smart sets out feed to encourage white squirrels. He says 50 to 75 white squirrels live on his property north of town. When he gets too many he traps them and moves them to other parts of Marionville.

Along with other members of the Marionville Lions Club, Smart has put a lot of effort into encouraging and protecting the town’s white squirrels. The club builds squirrel den boxes and distributes them to residents to hang on trees. Members also planted nearly 2,500 nut-bearing trees to provide habitat for future generations of squirrels. They also encourage residents — particularly those living at the park-like Ozark Methodist Manor retirement complex in the center of town — to feed Marionville’s white squirrels.

Smart and other members of the Lions Club have gone so far as to trap feral cats that prey on squirrels and take them to the animal shelter. They’ve also captured less-desirable grey squirrels and run them out of town, releasing them in the woods.

At his own place, Smart feeds the squirrels 365 days a year. “I use about a ton of sunflower seeds a season,” he says.

Smart says he has 50 to 75 white squirrels on his property. When he gets too many he traps them and takes them into town where they’re safe from most predators and protected by city ordinance.

“It’s against the law to destroy a white squirrel. It’s a $1,000 fine,” says Wise, recalling with some pride the ordinance enacted when he was mayor.

With efforts like this, it’s no mystery how Marionville’s white squirrels survive.
“In the wild you don’t get colonies of white squirrels,” says Lonnie Hanson, a resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “With a city like that, with fewer predators and somewhat of an artificial situation, they just seem to be able to proliferate and do pretty well.”

But that does not explain how white squirrels came to live in Marionville in the first place.

“Nobody knows. They really don’t.” Smart says. “The town was incorporated in 1854 and there were white squirrels here when they settled.”

One theory is that the squirrels escaped from a traveling circus, a notion Smart rejects.

Visitors to Marionville can usually find white squirrels during early morning and evening hours near the Ozark Methodist Manor retirement complex at the center of town.

“There wasn’t any circus through here in 1830 or ’40,” he says incredulously.
Another theory holds that an early settler known for experimenting with plant hybrids and crossbreeding of animals is responsible.

It’s not surprising that people can’t agree on how the squirrels got here. People can’t even decide whether the squirrels are albinos or just an unusual breed. For the record, Smart says they’re albinos, with pink eyes and skin. Sometimes, though, he says the squirrel’s eyes appear dark simply due to the way light strikes the eye.

As unusual as white squirrels are, Marionville is not alone in its distinction. John Stencel is a retired zoology instructor from Olney Central College in Olney, Ill., another community that stakes its fame on white squirrels. He says although several towns across North America have a few white squirrels, only three have colonies, which he defines as a steady population of at least 25.

While Kenton, Tenn., is often named among contenders to the white squirrel throne, Smart dismisses that community’s bona fides.

“They’re a little squirrel. They don’t look like ours,” he says.

No, the battle for white squirrel bragging rights seems clearly pitched between Marionville and Olney.

“Olney had a celebration this past year: 100 years of the white squirrel,” Smart says. “Well, we’re long before that. We claim that they got them from here.”

Olney City Clerk Belinda Henton scoffs at that accusation. “Do you really think that somebody is going to go to Missouri and come back to Illinois with squirrels? I don’t believe it.”

Clearly emotions run deep over white squirrels. Although people in both Marionville and Olney brush off any suggestion of ill will between the two towns, defenders of both camps are sure of their own white squirrel superiority.“Lots of times you hear that Marionville has more squirrels than us. I don’t believe that,” says Stencel, who now lives in Iowa. “I’ve been there and I didn’t see too many. Of course, a lot of people have come to Olney and not found too many.”

Indeed, Smart tells an almost identical tale of visiting Marionville’s rival to the east.

A billboard welcoming visitors to town features a photograph of one of Marionville's unusual white squirrels.

“We were at Olney, Ill., this summer,” Smart says. “We did see three or four white squirrels but we didn’t see them anywhere like what we got around here.

“Early morning, down some of these streets, you’ll see 25,” he says. “They’ll be busy. They’ll be in the yards. You’ll just see them everywhere. They’re gathering nuts and burying them.”

Every year Olney musters an army of volunteers from the college and conducts an official count. This year’s tally: 108. No one knows for sure how many white squirrels call Marionville home. Wise says there may be 200 in town, not including those out at Smart’s place. Smart thinks there’s quite a few more.

However many there are, they certainly attract a lot of attention. But Smart, who has hosted two tour buses of squirrel seekers at his home, says people don’t always believe their eyes.

“A couple guys from Oklahoma came by the office one time and said, ‘Where’s those blankety-blank white squirrels.’ They were rough old boys,” recalls Smart, who invited the visitors to follow him to his home.

“They both got out and looked at them. One looked at the other guy and said, ‘We’re not going to tell this.’ They didn’t think anybody would believe them.”

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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