Ozarks History

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

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Location: Missouri

I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Koshkonong-Brandsville Peach District

I've previously written on this blog about the apple industry and the strawberry industry in the Ozarks, but there was also a thriving peach industry in the region during the early 1900s. Probably the most more prominent area for commercial peach growing was the Koshkonong-Brandsville district in the south-central part of Missouri. Peaches had been grown for personal consumption in the Koshkonong area (and throughout the whole state) since early pioneer days, but commercial growing did not begin until the 1890s. At that time, the land was cleared and developed by outside capital specifically for peach growing.
Comprising parts of Howell and Oregon counties, the Koshkonong-Brandsville district extended along the Frisco Railroad from Pomona on the north to Thayer on the south, a distance of about forty miles. Nearly all the orchards were located within five miles of the railroad with loading points from one to three miles apart all along the railroad, because the peaches had to be transported to market in a timely fashion before they spoiled. Thus, the district was roughly ten miles wide by forty miles long, although not all of the acreage within that area, of course, was devoted to peach growing. In the fall of 1913, there were about 8,000 acres in the Koskonong-Brandsville district with fruit-bearing peach trees and another 10,000 acres where new trees had been planted but were not yet bearing fruit.
It usually took three years from the time a tree was planted until it started bearing fruit. When the tree was three years old, it would usually yield about three pecks to one bushel of fruit. One acre could sustain approximately 100 trees, and in 1913 farmers could expect to get about a dollar a bushel for their fruit. So each acre would yield from $75 to a $100 during the third year. This figure went up in succeeding years. For instance, a four-year-old tree could be expected to yield about three bushels, or about three times what it produced in year three. In 1911, when prices were higher than they were in 1913, some growers made as much as $800 an acre from their orchards.
Nearly all peaches shipped from the Koshkonong-Brandsville district were handled by the Koshkonong-Brandsville Peach Growers Association, which was affiliated with the Ozark Fruit Growers Association headquartered at Springfield. Growers had to abide by certain restrictions imposed by the association, pertaining to how the peaches were cultivated, pruned, sprayed, and so forth. Nearly all the peaches grown in the district were of the Elberta variety. In the 1913 season, the association shipped a total of 398 train carloads of peaches, 380 of which were Elbertas. A few were of a variety that produced fruit earlier than the Elberta, and a few were later. 1913 was considered a disappointing year, but many growers still averaged better than $100 an acre for their orchards.
Most of the fruit produced in the Koshkonong-Brandsville district was shipped from either Koshkonong or Brandsville, but Pomona, West Plains, Olden, and a couple of other small communities also had shipping sheds. Most of the fruit was sent to northern cities like Boston and New York.
Harvesting the peaches required an army of pickers, and during the season people flocked to the area seeking employment. Most came by train, but many arrived in wagons and pitched their tents. Most of the picking occurred during the mornings, and after the day's work was done, many of the workers would go into town, usually Koshkonong seeking what meager entertainment there was to find. In 1913, about all Koshkonong offered in the way of amusement was a traveling theatrical show, horseshoe pitching, or a game of mumbley-peg.
Land in the Koshkonong-Brandsville district, for those interested in going into the peach growing business, sold for $25 to $75 an acre, depending on such factors as whether the land was cleared or not, exactly where it was located, and the terrain. When clearing the land, a new grower could expect to sell his timber to the lumber industry for enough money to pay the cost of the clearing.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Mary Stepp, Notorious Springfield Madam

A year or so ago, I wrote on this blog about Martha Misner, the queen of the Springfield madams around the turn of the 20th century, but there were a number of other notorious women operating in the city around that time as well. One was Mary Stepp.
I wrote in my Wicked Springfield book about an incident involving Mary Stepp that occurred in 1900, but she was an even more notorious character than I realized at the time. She was already well known to Springfield police as a "female brute" when her home was raided on January 24, 1898. Officers found Mary and another scarlet woman entertaining two men while Mary's eight-year-old daughter and another young girl looked on. Mary was arrested, and authorities planned to take Mary's daughter, Dutchie, away from her and place her in a girls' home. While Mary was out on bond the next day, however, she sent her daughter to stay with her sister near Kansas City. Charged with keeping a bawdy house within 100 yards of a church, Mary agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and was given three months in jail.
In early December of 1898, Mary and another woman were arrested for causing a disturbance at the local Salvation Army. They came into the place intoxicated and made themselves obnoxious to the "peace loving lads and lassies" on the premises. Mary Stepp, commonly called Mother Stepp, was described at the time as a "well-known character" who was a "curious mixture of good and bad--mostly the latter." She was known for her "debauching carousals," but she was also known occasionally to lend a hand to someone in need.
In the spring of 1899, Mary again faced a charge of keeping a bawdy house, and the case went to trial in early May. The jury split 4-2 in favor of conviction, resulting in a mistrial. The Springfield Leader-Democrat lamented the fact that nothing could apparently be done to keep the "old crone" from running a house of ill repute out of her "dilapidated shack" on Phelps Avenue. Mother Stepp, according to the newspaper, had lived in Springfield for years and had been arrested "times without number" but had never faced serious jail time.
In July of 1899, Mary reportedly tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of morphine after her lover left her. Learning of Mary's deed, the man came back and helped nurse Mary back to health.
In mid-May of 1900, Mary was arrested and convicted of disturbing the peace of the Mrs. T. J. Young family. Mrs. Young accused Mary of using loud and indecent language in their neighborhood on North Evans Street, known as "Cully Row," because a man named Cully owned most of the houses there.
In the fall of 1900, Mary got involved in the case that I wrote about in Wicked Springfield. Around the first of August, she had taken in a fifteen-year-old girl named Lizzie Rice with a promise to cure her of the "mumps." Lizzie had run away from her home near Rogersville about a year earlier. According to Mary's later testimony, Lizzie had taken up the sporting life before she came to live with Mary, and it was a venereal disease, not the mumps, that she treated the girl for. Not long after Lizzie came to live with Mary, Mr. Young, Mary's neighbor, reported to a police officer that Mary was keeping an underage girl in her home and using her for immoral purposes. The cop visited Mary's home, but Mary denied the girl was underage and said she was already a whore before she came to live with her. A month or so later the officer, after determining the girl was still living with Mary, arrested both of them. Lizzie's father was notified, and he came to Springfield to take the girl back home. Mary was charged with keeping an underage girl in her house for the purposes of prostitution. She was convicted at her trial the next year and sentenced to two years in the penitentiary.
Mary came back to Springfield in late 1902 after serving 18 months at Jefferson City and being released under the three-fourths good behavior rule. She vowed to stay out of trouble and generally succeeded in doing so. The last trace I've found of Mary was in November of 1908 when she made a complaint against another Springfield woman for disturbing the peace. Mary's main complaint was that the other woman had referred too strongly and too loudly to Mary's previous record. Mary declared that she had not been in court since being released for prison six years earlier. Mary wanted the police to make the woman quit talking bad about her, but she didn't want to have to appear in court to accomplish her purpose.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Willow Springs Creamery

I wrote last time about the Carnation Milk Products Company at Mount Vernon, and I mentioned that Lawrence County was a center for dairy farming during the first half of the nineteenth century. Actually, though, dairy farming flourished throughout much of the Ozarks during this time.
Another dairy products plant built in the Ozarks a few years after the Mount Vernon plant was the Willow Springs Creamery constructed at the corner of Main Avenue and Phelps Street in Springfield in 1927. This was not the first Willow Springs Creamery in Springfield, but it was considerably larger than the previous one that had operated in the teens and early twenties and maybe earlier. There was also a Willow Springs Creamery at Willow Springs at this time, but I don't think the Willow Springs Creamery company was actually headquartered at Willow Springs, and I'm not sure whether the company borrowed its name from the Missouri town or not. If anyone knows the answer, please enlighten me.
At any rate, the new creamery at Springfield opened in late June of 1927 in a building about 100 feet wide and 200 feet long, and it had two stories. It employed about fifty workers, although this figure fluctuated based on the season, economic factors, etc. The Springfield creamery was devoted to producing butter and buttermilk, and it had a projected output of 10,000,000 pounds of butter per year.
The Willow Springs Creamery was not the only milk products plant in Springfield at the time. For instance, the Merchants Creamery located on Commercial Street produced condensed milk. The new expansion of the Willow Springs Creamery, however, made Springfield the 4th largest butter manufacturing center in the Midwest, behind only Omaha, Sioux City, and Kansas City. Although the Willow Springs plant shipped butter all over the country, the butter that the company sold in the Ozarks was marketed under the brand name "Ideal."
During the late 1920s and 1930s, the Willow Springs Creamery was known in Springfield for its sponsorship of local baseball teams perhaps as much as or more than for its milk products.
Despite the growing milk industry in the Ozarks, one spokesperson for the industry observed at the time the new Willow Springs facility was constructed that he did not think there was any danger of overdoing the dairy business in the Ozarks and that there was still room for growth. He said the main problem was not in farmers milking too many cows but in the production and marketing techniques they used. The main challenge was producing milk with high butterfat content and getting it to market in good shape.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mount Vernon: The Carnation City

Nowadays, Mount Vernon, Missouri, is known for being the seat of Lawrence County, for its Apple Butter Makin' Days festival each fall, and for being home to a Veterans' home and a VA clinic (formerly a VA hospital), among other reasons. At one time it was known as the "Carnation City: Home of the Contented Cow" or just the Carnation City for short.
In 1923 the Carnation Milk Products Company began looking into Mount Vernon as a possible site for a new condensary to produce evaporated milk. A public announcement of its decision was planned for July 9th of that year, and "one of the largest crowds ever assembled on the courthouse lawn," according to the Springfield Republican, turned out to hear the announcement. Company officials had expressed concern as to whether there was enough interest in dairying among area farmers to justify the venture; so when the announcement was made that the company would indeed follow through with its tentative plan, a loud shout went up among the gathered crowd. The condensary was projected to cost $200,000 and it was projected that it could process 100,000 pounds of milk a day purchased from area dairy farmers.
Construction on the plant began right away and was going strong by September. It was completed the following spring at a cost of $250,000, and the condensary opened on May 1 with no special ceremony to mark the occasion. It was Carnation's first plant in Missouri.
The plant processed 25,000 pounds of milk the first day. Dairy farmers brought their milk to nineteen different collection stations throughout Lawrence County, and it was then taken to the plant in Mount Vernon by company trucks.
Area farmers, spurred by the promise of a market, took to dairy farming in earnest, and the dairy industry in Lawrence County was soon growing more rapidly than in any other county in Missouri. The Mount Vernon area was especially known for its Jerseys and Holsteins.
The company was still going strong in January 1928, when the Republican reported that Lawrence County now had about 1,100 dairy farmers who milked a total of about 17,000-18,000 cows. The plant received about 60,000 pounds of milk per day on average, although the previous summer, at the peak of the season, it had received as much as 146,000 pounds in a single day. Many farmers were building new barns and silos and otherwise expanding their operations. Dairy farming, the Republican proclaimed, had "turned a community that was practically bankrupt into a prosperous and progressive center within four years."
As large, commercial dairy farms in other states gradually displaced family farmers as the main producers of milk products during the middle part of the 20th century, the Carnation operation at Mount Vernon evolved from an evaporated milk plant to a soft drink bottling company. And the bottling company finally closed after a fire destroyed much of the facility in September of 1974 and company officials decided, because of economic factors, not to rebuild.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Another False Lynching

Lynchings were relatively common during the 1800s and early 1900s, but falsely or incorrectly reported lynchings were also not altogether uncommon. I know this was the case in Missouri, and I assume it was true elsewhere as well. Sometimes the reported victim had, in fact, escaped the would-be lynchers or otherwise survived the lynching attempt. And sometimes a crime took place and newspapers reported a subsequent lynching when mob action against the perpetrator of the crime had not even been attempted but rather only rumored.
An example was the case of Katie Jacobs, a twelve-year-old girl living near Verona who was sexually assaulted by a black man on January 21, 1894, as she was on her way home after Sunday morning church services. The man raped her and then gagged her and tied her to a tree with her own clothing. As he left, he told her he had a nearby partner who would soon be there to take his turn at raping her and that the second man would kill her if she tried to scream or get loose. A black man did show up and assault the girl again, but authorities later concluded that it was the same man who’d simply changed hats and otherwise tried to disguise his appearance.
There were several false reports in the immediate wake of this incident, including one report that a black man had been apprehended and burned at the stake. Two black men were, in fact, captured at Purdy as suspects, but they were soon released when it was determined they had nothing to do with the rape. Two other suspects were arrested at Nevada and one as far away as Willow Springs, but they, too, were quickly released.
On January 24, H. B. “Pete” Barclay, a black man from Weir City, Kansas, was arrested at the Gulf Railroad station in Springfield, largely on the grounds that he’d come into town from a westerly direction and had been seen at the Billings train station, which was not terribly far from Verona. He was taken to Verona but was released after Katie Jacobs said he was not the man who had assaulted her.
In late May, a black man named Andy Boyd was arrested at Pierce City on suspicion of being the person who’d raped Katie. When he was taken before the girl, she said she thought he was the man but that she couldn’t be sure. He was locked up on suspicion, nonetheless. At his preliminary hearing in June, Katie seemed more certain that he was the man who’d violated her, and Boyd was bound over for trial on a charge of rape. When his trial came up in late August at Mt. Vernon, the jury decided that, although they thought he was guilty, there was a reasonable doubt. They therefore voted to acquit.
As far as I’ve been able to determine, nothing else ever came of this case, but nonetheless “two unknown Negroes” were listed in a 1922 report of the Missouri Negro Industrial Commission as victims of lynching near Verona, Missouri, on January 22, 1894. And, indeed, this bit of misinformation has continued to be passed down to the present day and is still listed on certain websites that purport to keep track of all known lynchings in America.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Murder with a Hint of Scandal

The murder of wealthy Tulsa businessman Samuel C. Davis in Joplin, Missouri, on the night of December 18, 1916, was a mystery to lawmen who investigated it in the days that followed. Was it just a burglary gone wrong? Was Davis targeted by his business enemies? Or did the motive involve romantic jealousy? No one ever knew for sure, because the case was never solved.
The forty-four-year-old Davis, half Creek Indian, worked as a cowboy as a young man but settled down to become a respected citizen who made a small fortune in oil, gas, and real estate investments. He and his wife resided in a stately mansion in Tulsa, and their daughter married the son of Tulsa's mayor.
But Davis's world began to spiral out of control in early 1916 when divorcee Daisy Carter, a former professional swimmer, approached him about securing a home loan for her. The two became romantically involved, and Davis began drinking heavily. He spent lavishly on his paramour and provided her with homes in Tulsa and Joplin.
When he started divorce proceedings against his wife, she filed charges of adultery against him and Daisy. In June of 1916, Davis and his lover were bound over for trial on the adultery charge, but the charge was apparently dropped as a result of the divorce settlement in which Mrs. Davis was to receive $84,000 and other valuable property.
On Monday evening, December 18, Davis and Ms. Carter went to a movie theater in Joplin, accompanied by Daisy's mother and also her housekeeper. After the movie, they returned to Carter's house on North Jackson in Joplin and were surprised by a masked intruder with a revolver in his hand. Davis whipped out his own pistol, and the two shot at each other. Davis's shot missed, but the intruder's did not. Davis fell and died almost instantly. The three women closed the door to the room where the intruder was and held it shut, but they opened it and let him escape after he threatened to shoot through the door.
Investigators had no clear theory of the crime at first, but they soon discounted robbery as a motive, because nothing had been disturbed in the house, even though the intruder was known to have been there close to half an hour before the movie goers arrived home. Lawmen adopted the theory that the assailant was an enemy of Davis who had lain in wait for him, but what kind of enemy no one ever knew for sure. Davis's divorce had been scheduled to become final later in the week, and he and Carter were supposed to get married the following Sunday. Was it the intruder's purpose to make sure they didn't? Or was it someone who hated Davis for another reason?

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Walter Hartley, Ozarks Bad Man

Walter Hartley left behind a long history of criminal behavior when he was finally killed in a shootout with law officers on May 18, 1934, near Dugginsville, Missouri, just across the state line in Marion County, Arkansas. The "Ozarks desperado" had a record of bank robbery dating back over ten years.
Hartley was about twenty-five years old when he first got into serious trouble in January of 1924 for holding up the Cabool State Bank, located just a few miles east of the Dunn community near where he'd grown up in rural Texas County. Hartley and a sidekick, Ernest Atkinson, entered the bank wearing false mustaches and brandishing revolvers just after closing time on the 21st. They herded three bank officials into the vault, locked it, and then scooped up all the loot contained in the cash drawer. They got about $2,500 but overlooked over $10,000 in an open safe. The crooks made their getaway in a Ford roadster but were captured late the same afternoon at the Cabool train station, where they were waiting to catch a westbound train.
Hartley was tried at a special January term of the Texas County Circuit Court. Found guilty of bank robbery, he was sentenced to ten years in the state pen but was discharged under merit time on October 1, 1929, after serving barely over half his term.
Hartley and his first wife, Blanche, split either while he was in prison or shortly after he got out, because Hartley, now about 35 years old, married a 17 or 18-year-old girl not long after he came home from Jeff City. The young woman, though, apparently did little to corral her husband's restless, criminal spirit. Hartley was arrested in January of 1932 and charged in Christian County with robbing the Bank of Sparta, along with an accomplice, on November 6, 1931, and with robbing the Bank Highlandville by himself on December 11, 1931. He was also suspected but not charged in the September, 1928 robbery of the Bank of Chadwick.
Tried first for the Highlandville heist, Hartley was convicted in early February 1932 and sentenced to 20 years in the penitentiary. The case was appealed, however, and Hartley was released on $20,000 bond.
While still free on bond, Hartley was charged in July of 1933 as a participant in the robbery of the Bank of Hammond in Ozark County two months earlier. Held initially at Gainesville in default of $20,000 bond, he was transferred to the West Plains jail in neighboring Howell County. Shortly after the transfer, he escaped and fled the territory.
Hartley was recaptured in Oklahoma in April of 1934 during a dragnet that had spread over that state in search of Clyde Barrow in the wake of the Barrow gang's notorious shootout with police in Joplin, Missouri.
Brought back to Missouri, Hartley was lodged in the Ozark County Jail at Gainesville on the Hammond Bank robbery charge. Less than a month later, on May 12, 1934, Hartley brandished a knife and overpowered Sheriff S.W. Daniel when the lawman came to feed Hartley and another inmate. Hartley took the lawman's gun and made his escape.
Hartley became the object of a widespread manhunt. He was located on the morning of May 18 by Sheriff Daniel, a deputy, and Missouri Highway Patrol officers Nathan Massie and Ben Graham, holed up in a house south of Dugginsville. Surprised, Hartley came out firing, and the officers returned fire. Hartley dropped to the ground, apparently dead, and Graham and the deputy left to get their vehicles. While they were gone, Hartley suddenly revived and again opened fire on the remaining two officers before fleeing into the underbrush. Graham and Massie finally located the fugitive again later the same day and mortally wounded him in another exchange of fire. Hartley died 45 minutes later while being transported back to Gainesville.

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