H.K. Silvey celebrates his 90th birthday with party Saturday at The Center

H.K. Silvey won dozens of awards and contests for his fiddle playing. Before a health problem took away his musical ability a few years ago, he played in venues ranging from the Hootin an Hollarin stage to the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Photo above, left: H.K. Silvey, who celebrates his 90th birthday this weekend, is shown with his dog Cap at his boyhood home near Longrun. Photo, above right: H.K. proudly shows off his first car, a 1946 Ford Club Coop, and his first electric guitar. He got the guitar in 1959 by trading it for the fiddle his mother, Dortha Silvey, had bought for him earlier by saving money from the eggs she sold. But later he realized the guitar wasn't his instrument of choice. "I took the guitar to a music store and traded it for another fiddle," he said.

H. K. Silvey will celebrate his 90th birthday Saturday, Sept. 9, at The Center in Gainesville at a 3 p.m. party hosted by his family. Everyone is invited. His actual birthday is Sept. 10, but Saturday works better for scheduling.

H.K. is a familiar face – and talent – for many Ozark Countians. He is a renowned fiddle player who played for Hootin an Hollarin square dancing for 18 years. He's also a former Ozark County commissioner, and he worked in the county's Roads and Bridges Department for several years.  

He was born in 1933, the firstborn child of the late Merl and Dortha Brewer Silvey, "in a little old cabin" near the Rock Springs community, close to Longrun, he said last week. He believes Ozark County's Dr. Small attended his mother at his birth.


Grandmother's homestead

When H.K. was 6, his parents moved onto a farm that had been owned H.K.'s grandparents, J. R. "Riley" and Alta Bertha Silvey. The elder Silveys moved closer to the Longrun store that Riley Silvey owned and operated. 

The farm where Merl and Dortha Silvey moved their family, which eventually included H.K.'s sisters Jean (later Jean Herd) and Wanda (later Ratliff), had been homesteaded by Riley Silvey's amazing mother, Cynthia Silvey. 

"She was never married, but she raised four children and homesteaded 160 acres," H.K. said. "We're pretty sure we figured out who the kids' dad was. As I understand it, he never married her; he had a family of his own, but they stayed close. So my guess is, she had some help from him."

H.K.'s family moved to a different farm, "the old Uncle Billy Robertson place," when his dad bought the 400-acre property when it was sold in a sheriff's sale on the courthouse steps. "He paid $4,800 for it, and he bought it on Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day," H.K. said. 

Although H.K.'s family moved away from it, Cynthia Silvey's original homestead is still in the family and is now owned by H.K.'s cousin Jake Silvey.


'If you ever get to the moon my name is there' 

For his first years at Longrun School, H.K. rode a blue roan mare called Old Blue. "I took along a little bag of feed and fed it to her at noon then rode her home in the afternoon," he said, adding that he was the only student who rode a horse to school.

"That was in warm weather," he said. "In cold weather, when I got to school on Monday morning, I slapped her on the rump and sent her back home. Then I walked to my grandpa's store and stayed with my grandparents during the week and went back home on Friday."

His sister Jean started school a year after H.K. did, and sometimes they rode the horse together. Jean was really smart, he said, and "by the time I was in third grade, she was too." They would later graduate from Gainesville High School together in 1952.

H.K. and Jean had to catch the bus to high school at the Longrun store at 7 a.m.. He remembers carrying a coal oil lantern to light their way on their 2-mile walk from home. "I just hung it up there on the porch of the store, and it was there waiting for me when we rode the bus back home."

After high school, H.K. worked in a Boeing aircraft factory in Wichita, Kansas. At a party the following year, he met Judy Ford, a girl from Oklahoma who worked for the telephone company with four girls from Ozark County. They were married June 25, 1955, and raised four children, Sheryl (now Lawson), Elaine (now Burnett), Brian and Douglas; the family moved to live wherever H.K.’s work with Boeing – and later Martin-Marietta – took them: Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, South Dakota, Washington, Arkansas and Louisiana.

With Martin-Marietta, H.K. worked on the Saturn booster rockets for NASA’s Apollo program. “If you ever get to the moon, my name is there,” H.K. likes to say. The names of all the Martin-Marietta employees who worked on the project were attached to the launch platform that was left behind when the first lunar astronauts returned to their spacecraft for the trip back to Earth in 1969.


Back home to farm – and fiddle

He left Martin-Marietta in July 1973 and moved his family back to Ozark County, eventually starting a dairy farm in Longrun not far from the land his great-grandmother had homesteaded. In 1981, he built a new Grade A dairy barn that he shared with his daughter and son-in-law, Sheryl and Roger Lawson. "They would milk 40 head and be done by six o'clock [in the morning]; then I would milk 50 head and be done by eight," he said. "Then I would go run the road-grader for the county for eight hours and come back home and milk again." 

He worked for the Ozark County Road and Bridge Department for eight years and also served as western district commissioner for one term in the 1980s. H.K. also finished out presiding commissioner Glen Gardner's term when Gardner died in office in 1986.

His daughter Elaine says when the kids were confined indoors on snow days, H.K. would start a checker match, and everyone had to compete no matter their skill level. "He was not the kind of parent to let you win," Elaine said in an article for the May 2023 edition of Old Mill Run. 

For the more challenging snow days, Elaine said, "he would set an alarm clock or a chainsaw on the kitchen table, and we would break it down and rebuild it part by part. I remember learning to precisely make a new carburetor filter using whatever scrap we had around the farm. Dad saved everything, so we could have built an ark if we had needed to," she wrote in the Old Mill Run story.  

From 1973 through 1991, H.K. played fiddle for all three nights of each year's Hootin and Hollarin square dancing, joining Junie Smith, J. D. Morrison, Curt Duncan, Bobby Joe Sullivan, Ray Wallace and other musicians. "All the ones I played with are dead now," he said sadly. 

Some nights, he played for the square dancers from 9 p.m. until midnight "and then went home to Longrun to milk," he said.

H.K. played music for contests, performances, square dances, radio shows and state and national festivals in a wide range of settings ranging from the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol to the foot of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. He can't read music and is entirely self-taught, but during his fiddle-playing years he accumulated a large number of honors and recognitions, and he's won dozens of fiddle contests. After listening to a song a time or two, he could play it. He's been a fiddle teacher with the National Endowment for the Arts, and he taught a weeklong fiddle camp in Branson for nine years.

H.K. survived a heart attack in 1991 and colon cancer in 1992. After that, he quit milking. These days, the legendary fiddler no longer plays his fiddle. Four years ago, when H.K. went to the weekly music jam in McClurg, "I might have had a little stroke," he said. "I got out my fiddle to play, and boy! I couldn't play. I come back home and tried it again two or three times. I was uncoordinated somehow and just couldn't do it," he said, adding, "Now I can't even tap my foot in time with the music."

The end to his fiddle playing came just a few years after the Silveys' son, Bryan, was killed in a 2001 car crash and Judy Silvey died in 2013. Now confined to a wheelchair by debilitating diabetes, H.K. lives in Theodosia and enjoys reading books and visiting with family and friends. His family now includes his daughters and their husbands, Elaine Burnett and husband David, who live near H.K. in Theodosia, and Sheryl Lawson and husband and Roger Lawson, who live in Gainesville. H.K.'s son Douglas Silvey and his wife Alina live in Highlandville. H.K. has seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren with two more on the way.

Editor's note: parts of this story are adapted from the 2022 Hootin an Hollarin magazine, which honored H.K. for his role as parade marshal, and the May 2023 edition of Old Mill Run. 

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