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 eleven nonfiction books, two novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Springfield: The Seamy Side of the Queen City, Murder and Mayhem in Missouri, and The Siege of Lexington, Missouri: the Battle of the Hemp Bales.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Hot Springs

I just returned from a weekend vacation with my wife in Hot Springs. Although not technically in the Ozarks, Hot Springs is located in the neighboring Ouachita Mountains and has a very interesting history. I'm not sure how geographers distinguish between the Ouachita Mountains and the Ozarks. The Boston Mountains, I believe, are considered to be the southern range of the Ozarks. However, if you go a little farther south, even though you have never left mountainous territory, you are considered to be in the Ouachita Mountains, a separate range. What's up with that? Anyway, back to the town's interesting history. On this blog, I've previously discussed towns, such as Eureka Springs, that grew up in our region during the late 1800s because of nearby mineral water springs. Hot Springs, however, predated Eureka Springs and most of the other mineral water springs of the Ozarks by almost half a century. People started trekking to Hot Springs to "take the cure" as early as the 1830s. The town became one of the first, if not the first, resort spa in America. I'm even more fascinated by the criminal history of Hot Springs than by its mineral water history. By the late 1800s, the town had become not only a famous mineral-water town but also a mecca for gamblers. During the 1880s, Frank Flynn controlled most of the gambling--the town's organized crime boss, so to speak. In the mid 1880s, Alexander S. Doran, a former Confederate major, came to town and opened up his own gambling house. He and Flynn clashed almost immediately, and they ended up in a gunfight. Flynn was wounded, but Doran soon left town, relinguishing any claim on the town's gambling interests. A couple of years later, Doran was killed in a shootout in Fort Smith (an incident that is the subject of a chapter in my upcoming book, Desperadoes of the Ozarks). Meanwhile, Flynn continued to control gambling in Hot Springs. Law enforcement officials not only looked the other way where gambling was concerned but actually supported it because of the revenue it brought in. Hot Springs gambling eventually led to a notorious shootout in 1899 between city police and the county sheriff's department. On the surface, the city police seemed to support the gambling interests while the sheriff's office appeared to be trying to crack down on the vice, but the battle was really over which side would control the gambling. Later, during the gangster era of the 1920s and early 1930s, gangsters like Al Capone hung out in Hot Springs when they wanted to take a break from their regular gangster activities in Chicago and elsewhere. In fact, there's a Gangster Museum in Hot Springs today.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

John David Mefford in Joplin

I knew even before I started researching my Wicked Joplin book that a couple of colorful characters from the Kansas-Missouri border region during the Civil War ended up coming to Joplin after the town got its start as a booming mining camp in the early 1870s. Namely, I was aware that Charles Fletcher "Fletch" Taylor, who was a lieutenant under Quantrill during the Civil War, came to Joplin very early on in the town's history and, in fact, served a term on the city council during the 1870s. Taylor's residence in Joplin partially explains the legend of Frank and Jesse James's connection to Joplin, because Taylor was the James brothers' immediate commander during 1864. The James boys probably did visit Taylor in Joplin at least a time or two after they became notorious, but the legend of their close connection to Joplin has probably been exaggerated. I also knew vaguely that Charles R. "Doc" Jennison, the notorious Kansas jayhawker, came to Joplin in the late 1870s and lived here into the 1880s. However, I was not aware of the prominent role he played in early-day Joplin. Despite being one of the town's biggest gamblers, he was also considered a leading citizen.
The character that I knew nothing at all about, as far as his residence in Joplin is concerned, prior to writing the book is David Mefford. He was neither a guerrilla like Taylor nor a notorious jayhawker like Jennison, but he was still a character of some note during the Civil War, operating against Tom Livingston and others along the border as a captain (later promoted to major) in a Kansas cavalry unit. He, like the other two men, came to Joplin during the 1870s. He was a saloonkeeper both in Joplin and in Galena, Kansas, and also tried his hand at mining, as did nearly every other man who came to Joplin during its early days.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Maiden Lane

Anyone who is familiar with Joplin knows that one of the main north-south streets in the town is Maiden Lane. Anyone who has lived in Joplin very long has probably also heard the legend of how the street got its name. Supposedly it was named Maiden Lane because it served as Joplin's principal red light district during the town's early mining days.
In researching my Wicked Joplin book, I turned up no evidence to support this legend. In fact, I can say almost unequivocally that there is no truth to the legend. The main area for prostitution in Joplin from the very early days of the 1870s through the 1910s (shortly before Prohibition put a damper not only on Joplin saloons but also on the town's other vices) was the downtown area, not a street almost one mile west of downtown.
It seems plausible to me to speculate that Maiden Lane probably got its name because during Joplin's early days it was the site of the town's horse racing track in what was then the extreme southwest edge of town. In the world of horse racing, of course, a "maiden" is a horse that has not yet won a race, and there often are races held especially for maidens. The road that we now know as Maiden Lane would have been the "lane" down which the "maidens" would have traveled to reach the race track.
The oval race track to which I referred in the previous paragraph was located at about 17th and Maiden Lane across from the present-day Price Cutter store, and it was built in the late 1870s. However, even in the early 1870s there was a straight one-half mile race track for horses in Joplin that ran on a diagonal from near the entrance of present-day Fairview Cemetery (then called the City Cemetery) to near present-day West Central Elementary School on 7th Street. So, almost from the town's beginning, Maiden Lane was the place for "maiden" race horses.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Butterfield Overland Stage Reaches Springfield

In October of 1858, when the first eastbound stage coach of the newly formed Butterfield Overland State Line reached Springfield from San Francisco, over a hundred local residents, according to the Springfield Advertiser, were there to greet it when it drew up in front of Smith's Tavern and Hotel just off the public square on Boonville. The stage had made the trip in what was considered an incredible time of less than twenty-two days, and an air of excitement attended the arrival. The stage got to Springfield at 3:30 on the afternoon of October 8 carrying six passengers, all of whom had come all the way from California. After changing horses and coaches at Springfield, the travelers continued on their way on the last leg of the stage journey to Tipton, Missouri, where they would then board a train for St. Louis. That evening, after the stage had already departed for Tipton, Springfieldians celebrated the momentous occasion of its arrival in their town with a fireworks display.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wicked Joplin

My latest book, entitled Wicked Joplin, has just been released by History Press (the same company that published my Newtonia book). As the name implies, the book is about the notorious history of Joplin when it was a booming mining town with lots of gambling, saloons, and other vice.
The first chapter is mainly about the very early history of Joplin prior to incorporation in 1873 and the first couple of years after incorporation. During the pre-incorporation days, Joplin experienced what came to be known as the "reign of terror." Because the closest law enforcement officers were at the county seat of Carthage twenty miles away, the rowdy miners infesting the mining camp of Joplin pretty much had things their own way, and the anything-goes atmosphere attracted not only a lot of rough characters who were habitually getting into fights but also a lot of gamblers, prostitutes, and other ne'er-do-wells.

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