Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Dogpatch Opening

Construction of Dogpatch, a theme park located at Marble Falls, Arkansas, about eight miles southeast of Harrison, on US Highway 7, began in 1967, and the park was not entirely finished when it held its grand opening on May 18, 1968, although most facilities had been completed. The theme of the park was based on the fictional town of Dogpatch from the comic strip Lil Abner by cartoonist Al Capp, and Capp was one of the stockholders in the venture.
The park, which was open for many activities even before the grand opening, featured an old-time village with an inn, an old mill, and a hillside stable. Most of the buildings that made up the village were old log structures moved to the park from the surrounding Ozarks. The mill used an old mill wheel that was also salvaged from the surrounding countryside. The mill, put into operation as Mammy Yokum's Grist Mill, let visitors see the old-fashioned method of grinding corn and wheat. The stable offered stage coach rides and trail rides on horses and burros. A narrow-gauge railroad was also constructed to carry passengers around the park.
A cold stream running through the park fed two small lakes that were stocked for trout fishing by visitors. No license was required, and fishing equipment was provided. The fisherman merely paid for the amount of fish he hauled in, and he could also have it cooked at the village restaurant. Picnic tables and benches were scattered throughout the park, and hiking trails wound through the 825-acre complex.
In addition to the park itself, a hospitality center was built at Dogpatch Cavern a short distance to the north on Highway 7 to greet visitors as they approached the park.
On May 18, Al Capp was present to give a dedicatory address, and other dignitaries included Arkansas lieutenant-governor Maurice Britt, US representative John Paul Hammerschmidt, Miss Arkansas, and folk singer Jimmy Driftwood.
All shops were open for the grand opening day, and activities included skits by Dogpatch characters, performances by various musicians, square dancing, and a fish fry.
In his address, Capp, reflecting on how his cartoon characters and his fictional town had been transformed into life-sized reality, said, "It is terribly exciting to see everything suddenly arrive real after just being a little sketch on paper." At the conclusion of Capp's speech, a large statue of General Jubilation T. Cornpone, one of the main characters in the comic strip, was unveiled to serve as the centerpiece of the park. Gazing at the statue as the cover fell away, Capp remarked, "Don't that just make you proud to be an American?"
The theme park did pretty well at first, and the name of the Marble Falls post office was changed to Dogpatch. But attendance, even the first year when the park drew about 300,000 visitors, never quite lived up to the expectations of its promoters. Attendance gradually declined during succeeding years, and Dogpatch never seriously challenged Silver Dollar City as the premier attraction in the Ozarks. Lil Abner, Daisy Mae Scruggs, Jubilation T. Cornpone, and company shut up shop for good in 1993, and name of the post office was changed back to Marble Falls a few years later.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Bois D'Arc

Bois D'Arc, Missouri, in western Greene County is an interesting place, because of its name, if for no other reason. Bois D'Arc was named after the bois d'arc or bodark tree, sometimes called the Osage orange because of the large, inedible fruit it bears, or the Hedge apple, because many such trees were used to form windbreaks or hedges. Bois d'arc is French for "wood of the bow," and the bois d'arc tree was used by the Osage Indians in early-day America for making bows. The tree was used extensively for making hedge rows in the Greene County area and elsewhere in the Ozarks at the time Bois D'Arc came into being. Many such trees had been planted, in particular, in the immediate vicinity of the selected site for Bois D'Arc. Thus the name of the tree was adopted as the name of the town.
According to Perry Mason, a longtime resident of Bois D'Arc in 1956 when he wrote a short piece in the Springfield Daily News about how the town got its name, the name was also selected in part because its residents wanted a name that was in keeping with the neighboring towns of Ash Grove and Walnut Grove, which were also named after trees. Mason said Bois D'Arc was founded about the time of the Civil War. Other sources suggest that there was a post office named Bois D'Arc in the area as early as 1847 but that the town was not actually founded until 1872, when a man named John Bymaster moved to the current site of Bois D'Arc and had the post office, which was located a couple of miles to the southeast, moved to the new town, known as New Bois D'Arc at first to distinguish it from the old post office site. By 1876, however, the exact name of the place had apparently still not been settled, because on that year's plat map of Greene County the town that became Bois D'Arc is identified as Little De Bois, meaning Little Woods.
In 1878, the railroad came through Bois D'Arc, and the place began to grow. By 1883, the town boasted five general stores, two drug stores, two blacksmith/repair shops, a carpenter's shop, a shoe shop, a hotel, a Masonic and Odd Fellows' lodge, and one saloon. The only church and the only school were located a couple of miles outside town, but plans were underway to erect both a church house and a school house in the booming little town.
In fact, Bois D'Arc did go on to have a thriving school system for many years, and the high school's athletic teams were quite competitive during the early to mid-1900s. However, the town began to lose population with the emergence of the automobile as the dominant mode of travel, because Bois D'Arc was located on an out-of-the-way county road rather than a main highway. By 1956, when Perry Mason wrote his piece for the Springfield newspaper, the town had dwindled to one grocery store, one filling station, a blacksmith shop, a feed mill, and a drug store, in addition to the school and a church or two. Within a year or two after this, Bois D'Arc lost its high school, when the district consolidated with Ash Grove. Although an elementary school remained at Bois D'Arc, the loss of the high school hastened the town decline, and today little remains at Bois D'Arc except the elementary school, a post office, a fire station, and a few residences.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

A Killing at Prosperity

Prosperity is a former mining town in Jasper County, Missouri, about seven miles east of downtown Joplin or about four miles southeast of Webb City. Nowadays, it is mainly known for the old, two-story, brick schoolhouse that was abandoned about 1961 when Prosperity School consolidated with Webb City. The building, said by some people to be haunted, served as a bed and breakfast for a while but now sits vacant again. I didn't know about this incident until recently, but Prosperity was also once the site of a somewhat sensational killing.
Somewhere around the early part of 1903, Benjamin Aylor, owner of the Eleventh Hour Mining Company in Prosperity, lent Joplin miner Gordon Allen $1,500, with Allen mortgaging some mining machinery adjoining the Eleventh Hour Mine as collateral. Aylor was the son of J. W. Aylor, who was said to be the wealthiest miner in the district, and 30-year-old Ben Aylor was wealthy and successful in his own right. Allen had once been quite wealthy himself but had lost most of his money through "unfortunate mining ventures."
When Allen had not made any payments on Ben Aylor's loan after several months, Aylor foreclosed on the mortgage and took possession of the mining machinery. Allen, who felt he hadn't been treated fairly, grew angry and started making threats against young Aylor. On October 16, 1903, he drove to Prosperity in a buggy and confronted Aylor outside the office of the Eleventh Hour Mining Company. Still seated in the buggy, Allen directed some angry words at Aylor and then brandished a buggy whip as if he was going to lash Aylor with it. Before he could do so, though, Aylor whipped out a pistol and fired five shots into Allen's body, killing him instantly. After the shooting, Aylor went back to work loading ore without saying a word to any of the bystanders who'd been attracted to the scene. When he finished the task at hand, he went into his office and called the sheriff to turn himself in.
Aylor was arrested and put under guard but not placed in jail. A coroner's jury a day or two later failed to agree, with two members arguing justifiable homicide and the other four holding out for an open verdict (saying that the death was suspicious but assigning no cause). Aylor was eventually charged with second-degree murder and lodged in jail.
At his trial in December, the prosecution paraded several witnesses to the stand who had been at the Eleventh Hour Mine on the day of the shooting. Several testified to hearing shots and seeing Allen lying dead immediately afterward, but none of them had actually been an eyewitness to the shooting. The defense witnesses, on the other hand, were mainly men who testified as to the numerous threats Allen had made toward Aylor in the days and weeks leading up to the shooting.
Aylor took the stand in his own defense. He, too, testified as to Allen's prior threats, and he said that Allen had come to his mine on the day in question in a belligerent mood. He said he pulled his pistol and started shooting when he thought Allen was getting ready to whip him. He admitted that he continued emptying the weapon at Allen even after the man had tumbled from the buggy, but the jury nevertheless acquitted him after only ten minutes of deliberation.  
   

Saturday, December 29, 2018

She Shot to Kill: A Very Merry Little Woman

On the evening of May 24, 1899, twenty-nine-year-old Robert Blunk, who worked as a switchman at the Frisco Railroad yards in Springfield, Missouri, came home drunk and started abusing his wife, twenty-eight-year-old Alice. Blunk, whose "reputation as a husband" was "anything but commendable," had often been known to mistreat Alice. This time he said he was going to quit his job and leave Alice, and he even threatened to kill her.
The next day, Alice made up her mind that, if Robert started abusing her again, she was going to do something about it, and she armed herself with a .32 caliber pistol. Wrapping the weapon in paper, she walked downtown carrying the pistol in her hand. She met her husband on College Street just west of the public square, and they started west together on College. Alice learned that Robert had quit his job and drawn all his pay, as he'd threatened, and the couple almost immediately started arguing over his refusal to turn over any of the money to Alice. Robert became more and more abusive as they went along, calling her vile names. As they passed Market Street, he noticed her carrying something in her hand and demanded to know what it was. She told him he'd find out soon enough. When they neared Main Street, he cursed her and struck her in the face. Alice took a step back, unwrapped the pistol, and fired two shots. One passed through Robert's coat without injuring him, but the other struck him in the hip. Still on his feet, he and Alice began wrestling over the pistol. Two firemen standing nearby then stepped in and disarmed the young woman. Decrying her husband's abuse, Alice beseeched the firemen to let her finish him off, but they instead called to a nearby police officer, who took Alice into custody.
Later on the evening of the 25th, a Springfield Republican reporter visited Alice in the calaboose. She told the newsman: "We have been married now for three years and how I have ever stood his abuse as long as I have I don't know. Why I have worked and done everything for that man, and a suit of clothes that I bought with money that I made by sewing he sold yesterday. Wednesday night he threatened to kill me and struck me several times.
"Yesterday," she continued, "I just got a revolver and thought that if he attempted anything of that kind I would take part in it myself. I carried my revolver in my hand, but hardly expected to meet him. When I did, he was in his usual condition. I asked him for money that he drew and he struck me. Stepping behind him, I fired twice, and am sorry that I did not kill him. And I swear I will," she concluded, "if I ever get a chance," even if she hanged for it.
After listening to Alice's story, the reporter opined that, because of all the cruelties she had endured, the shooting was "justifiable as well as in self-defense." He described Alice as "a very pretty little woman." Her maiden name was McCoy, and came from a respectable family of Ozark. Later the same night, Alice was released on $300 bond to appear in court the next day.
At her initial court appearance the next day, word arrived from Robert Blunk that he did not want to prosecute his wife. Although he was in pain and unable to attend the hearing, his condition was not considered serious. Blunk told a Springfield Leader-Democrat reporter that there was no one to blame for what happened but himself. He denied physically abusing his wife but admitted that he had given her plenty of provocations for her anger. He also denied that he planned to leave town once he was able. Despite Blunk's expressed desire that authorities go easy on his wife, her bond was continued, pending a preliminary hearing. In contrast to the Republican's description of Alice, the Leader-Democrat considered her appearance "careworn."
After her release on bond, Alice returned to her husband and took over his care, trying to nurse him back to health. She made it clear, however, that she was only doing so out of a sense of wifely duty and that once he recovered sufficiently, "their paths must henceforth lead in different directions." She said she regretted the shooting, but she still maintained that she was driven to it.
In early June it was reported that Robert Blunk had taken a relapse and, despite the fact that his condition at first was not deemed serious, "fatal results" were now feared. At the time, Alice was still "devoting all the wifely care within her power" to nurse her husband back to health but still declaring that she would not live with him once he recovered. The Republican concluded that Mrs. Blunk would no doubt be prosecuted as a routine course of law but that much sympathy was expressed for her and she would probably not be convicted.
A day or two later, another report circulated that Blunk was not dying after all and that Alice was continuing to care for him.
After a couple of more weeks of care, Blunk was able to appear in court, and Alice's preliminary hearing was held on June 19. The Republican, reporting on the proceeding the next day, took a dim view of what Blunk had to say: "Yesterday, the big, strong, burly man, whom she nursed back to life, sat in court, apparently without feeling, and told the story of the shooting with no mitigating circumstances to ease her lot. He forgot to tell the court of his barbarous and unmanly conduct towards her."
Alice, on the other hand, was "a medium sized woman with bright black eyes and hair, slender, pale and nervous," who "did not look like a desperate character, or a woman who would wantonly attempt to take human life," said the Republican. "As she sat on the witness chair telling her story to the court, clothed in a neat pink dress and fanning herself complacently with a large black fan, she appeared anything but wicked and heartless. There was a choke in her throat and a tremor in her voice as she said to the court, 'I've been a perfect, true, honest, upright wife, and when he struck me it didn't hurt where the blow fell, but it wounded my heart; there's where the wound was, and it is there still. I didn't marry him to desert him. I married to live for him."
Alice went on the tell of her husband's constant drunkenness, the many abuses she had suffered at the his hands, and "the black and blue bruises she had carried about for weeks at a time." She said she had been driven to desperation by his abuse, especially on the night before the shooting, and hardly knew what she was doing when she shot her husband.
Despite much sympathy for the defendant, she was bound over under $300 bond to await the action of a grand jury. When the grand jury met in late July, however, they declined to indict Alice, and she went free.
True to her word, Alice refused to live with her husband after he regained his health. At the time of the 1900 census, she was living in Springfield with another young woman. Although Robert was still alive, she listed her marital status as "widowed." Robert also followed through on his vow to leave Springfield and was living in Nevada, Missouri, in 1900. Six years later, in 1906, Alice finalized her split from Robert Blunk by obtaining a divorce in Greene County Court.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

A Gay Lothario and an Over-protective Old Man

An incident happened in the southwest corner of Polk County, Missouri, in June of 1895 that "caused a commotion" at nearby Walnut Grove, just across the Greene County line. About the middle of the month John Slatter, living about four miles north of Walnut Grove, paid a visit to the adjoining farm of Aaron Estabrook. Old Man Estabrook came into the house and caught his daughter-in-law and Slatter in "a compromising position." Estabrook "took quick action in the matter," said the  Springfield Democrat, "and, getting a bead on Slatter, opened fire." The ball struck Slatter in the right arm between his shoulder and elbow.
Mrs. Estabrook "made a clean cut denial of intending to do anything wrong, and a warrant was, therefore, served on Slatter charging him with attempted rape." Aaron Estabrook, meanwhile, was charged with assault with intent to kill. "The case of the elder Estabrook is a rather peculiar one," observed the Democrat. "If he had been the husband of the woman, it would have been 'perfectly regular,' but as he is the father-in-law it is a question to be solved how much right or provocation he had to shoot.
"It is most likely, however," concluded the Democrat, that the whole matter will be hushed up and little or nothing more heard of it." And that's exactly what happened. Both Slatter and Old Man Estabrook were scheduled to have their preliminary examinations before a Polk County justice of the peace on June 22, but even the Democrat, which had taken such an interest in the minor scandal, didn't report the outcome of the hearing.

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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Warrenton's Katie Jane Memorial Home Fire

I've written in the past on this blog about destructive fires, especially business district fires and school fires, in the Ozarks and surrounding region, but I know of only one fire in the immediate Ozarks area that claimed a multitude of lives. (By "multitude," I mean more than just a half dozen or so.) That one fire was the West Plains dance hall explosion/fire in 1928, which claimed somewhere around 38 lives, I think. However, if we look beyond the immediate Ozarks region to include the entire state of Missouri, there has been at least one fire in the Show-Me State that was more deadly than the West Plains disaster. (Maybe more than one. I haven't tried to research the topic extensively.)
On February 17, 1957. a fire broke out at the Katie Jane Memorial Home, a nursing facility for the elderly, in Warrenton, Missouri. Initial reports said at least 71 people perished in the blaze, and later estimates upped the figure a notch or two. At the time, it was the worst fire in Missouri history in terms of the number of victims, and, as far as I know, it still holds that dubious distinction.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and about 100 visitors were at the home in addition to the 150 or so patients/residents. The fire broke out about 2:30 p.m. in a first-floor sitting room and quickly spread to other parts of the 2 1/2-story brick structure, which had formerly housed the Central Wesleyan College. The fire swept down hallways and from room to room, feeding on wood furniture, wood floors, curtains, rugs, and other flammable materials. Almost all of those who died were elderly and infirm patients at the home.
Headlines in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch told the horrifying, heartrending story: "Screams of Elderly Patients Were Quickly Stilled by Flames" and "Rescuers Worked in Eerie Silence Soon After Fire Engulfed Nursing Home."
Several survivors told harrowing stories of their attempts to rescue others from the burning building. A Lutheran minister who was conducting a Sunday service for about 20 people told of leading his congregants to safety and then going back into the building to save other people. His first trip back into the building was successful, but then he got trapped by the fire and had to be rescued himself by climbing through a window and down a ladder. A nurse led several old men to safety, but when she tried to re-enter the building, the front entrance was already engulfed in flames. A neighbor who lived just a block or so away hurried to the scene with a ladder and began rescuing people. He told of one old woman who didn't want to abandon her belongings, and he had to coax her out the window. "I used some pretty strong language," he said. "I got hold of her and dragged her out over my shoulder."
Investigators blamed the fire on faulty wiring. The home had recently been inspected in order to have its license renewed, and the license was being held up, partly because the wiring had yet to be inspected by a competent electrician. After the fire, Missouri governor James T. Blair, Jr. called the fire "a terrible tragedy" and said he was going to appeal to the legislature for stricter inspection laws in the state.

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Funeral of Mass Murderer Bill Cook

After Bill Cook, who killed the Mosser family in Joplin, was sentenced to death in California and was scheduled to die in the gas chamber, a funeral director from Comanche, Oklahoma, Glen Boydston, contacted the Cook family and offered to bring the body back for them if they would agree to let him hold a small service in Comanche before bringing Bill on to Joplin for burial. Boydston said a wealthy Comanche resident had offered to foot the bill as a tribute to his own wayward son, now deceased. Bill's father, William Cook, signed papers agreeing to the arrangement because the family didn't have the money to pay to have the body transported. When Badman Bill, as he was sometimes called, was executed on December 12, 1952, at San Quentin, Boydston was there waiting to take charge of the body.
But what happened after the undertaker got the body back to Comanche wasn't quite what the Cook family had bargained for.
When Boydston pulled up outside his funeral home early Sunday morning, December 14, a large crowd was waiting to greet him. The body was then displayed in an open casket inside the funeral home with the tattooed words "Hard Luck" still plainly visible across Cook's knuckles. Curiosity seekers streamed by all day Sunday, eager to get a glimpse of the notorious killer. "Mothers carried babies in their arms and fathers held their sons by the hand," said an Oklahoma newspaper, "as they stopped to look at the body of the killer from the Joplin slag pits."
One little boy told a reporter that he'd read about Cook in the newspaper and that he'd talked his mama into bringing him to the funeral home to get a look at him. A man said he came because he just wanted to see what "a real bad man" looked like. Women visitors, though, outnumbered men, and several them remarked on Cook's physical features. One woman said, "What a fine looking boy. He has beautiful hair. He doesn't look like a man who would do such a thing." The crowds on Sunday were still coming in droves when Boydston's wife finally locked the doors at 9 p.m.
The next day, Monday the 15th, the curious crowds kept coming and even increased. From all sections of Oklahoma they came and even some from surrounding states like Texas and Colorado. Seven busloads of kids from a school in Texas stopped by, after some school official apparently decided that viewing the corpse of a heinous and notorious killer would make an edifying activity for a field trip. By the end of the day on Monday, an estimated 10,000 people had paraded through the funeral home to view the body.
By Tuesday, so many people had come to take a gander at Cook's body that the funeral directors stopped trying to count them. "The number just got away from us," said one representative of the funeral home. On Tuesday evening, though, it was estimated that 15,000 people had paid a visit since Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, in Joplin the Cook family heard a radio report Tuesday evening about the carnival atmosphere in Comanche and the huge number of people who'd been allowed to view Bill's body. They called the Joplin Globe in anger requesting that word be disseminated demanding that the public display of Bill's body and plans for a public funeral in Comanche the next day be immediately halted. The family was particularly upset by reports that a collection box had been put out near the coffin for donations, because they said they did not want to try make money from Bill's death and they didn't want anybody us to do so either. They said Boydston had violated the agreement he had made with them to hold only a small, private funeral in Comanche and not to seek publicity. The Cook family left for Comanche later Tuesday night with plans to drive all night and personally "put a stop to" the funeral service slated for the next day.
When an Oklahoma newspaper reporter called at the Boydston funeral home in Comanche Tuesday night and informed the attendant of the Cook family's anger, the attendant said Boydston himself was home resting because he was so exhausted from the past few days' activities but he added that only $31 had been collected in the donation box and that it had been used to buy flowers.
Representatives of the Cook family arrived in Comanche early Wednesday morning and threatened a lawsuit if the funeral scheduled later that day was not called off. Boydston, saying he never meant any harm, immediately canceled the service, and the body was taken to Derfelt Funeral Home in Galena, Kansas, later on the 17th. After dark that same evening, the body was taken by back roads to Peace Church Cemetery at the northwest edge of Joplin for burial, arriving about 8:40 p.m. Although one newspaper headline called it an "eerie night service," the burial was, by most accounts, a small, private, brief, and simple service attended only by family, close friends, a minister, an undertaker, and one Joplin newspaper reporter, about fifteen people in total. The Rev. Dow Booe of Galena, minister of Joplin's First Gospel Workers' Church, delivered a short sermon before Cook was lowered into an unmarked grave next to where his mother had been buried almost twenty years earlier, the whole service lasting about ten minutes.

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