Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, 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 seventeen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History, and Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Harmonial Vegetarian Society

I've written previously about experimental, utopian communities of the 1800s in America in general and southwest Missouri in particular. Examples I've cited include the town of Liberal in Barton County, which was founded as a haven for free-thinkers, and the Reunion Community in Jasper County and the Friendship Community in Dallas County, which were founded by Alcander Longley as experiments in what he called "practical communism."
Apparently there was only one such experimental settlement in the Arkansas Ozarks. It was founded by physician James E. Spencer about 1857 in Benton County two or three miles east of Maysville. Spencer called the site Harmony Springs, while the group itself was called the Harmonial Vegetarian Society. It was patterned after the earlier Oneida Community of New York state. Unlike Longley's communities and the town of Liberal, the Harmonial Vegetarian Society professed Christianity. One thing that the Harmonial Vegetarian Society had in common with the Missouri experimental communities, however, is that it was an object of scorn from some locals. For example, since the Harmonial Vegetarian Society set aside no particular day for religious services, the members were accused of breaking the Sabbath and were charged with the offense in Benton County Court. Goodspeed's 1889 history of Benton County even claimed that the Harmonial Vegetarian Society renounced marriage, although there is no evidence of this. Lack of local acceptance may have contributed to the demise of the Harmonial Vegetarian Society, but the fact that Spencer left the group after about three years probably had more to do with it. The final blow came in the spring of 1861, as the Civil War came on, when Brigadier General N. Bart Pearce took over the property at Harmony Springs to use as a training ground for his troops.

Monday, January 23, 2012

President Truman in the Ozarks

President Obama visited Joplin last spring in the aftermath of the tornado, but presidential visits to the Ozarks, as a rule, have been pretty few and far between. I suppose President Truman visited the Ozarks while in office more than any other president. Perhaps that is to be expected since he was, of course, born at the edge of the Ozarks in Lamar.
I have written previously on this blog about Truman's visit to Bolivar on July 5, 1948, to dedicate the statue of Simon Bolivar. At the time it was called "Bolivar's greatest day," although the most memorable thing about the day to the president himself was apparently the unbearable heat. Truman supposedly was wont to use the expression "hotter than hell," but after his visit to Bolivar he instead used the expression "hotter than Bolivar" anytime he commented on extreme heat.
The heat of the Ozarks, though, was not enough to keep Truman from making at least one other trip to the region in the middle of a summer season during his presidency. On July 2, 1952, he came to northern Arkansas to dedicate both the Norfork Dam and the Bull Shoals Dam. He spoke at the Norfork dedication in the morning, then rode in his motorcade to Bull Shoals, where he helped dedicate the dam there in the afternoon.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Permilla Stephens

The story of Permilla Stephens is illustrative of how people suffered during the Civil War. She and her husband, John A. Stephens, were Union citizens living in Springfield at the time of the war. During Zagonyi's charge in the fall of 1861, Mr. Stephens, who was a schoolmaster by profession, watched the action west of town (near the present-day 1700 block of West Mt. Vernon Street) from an upstairs room on the public square. Afterwards, he started home on foot and was shot and killed by a Union soldier, who was helping to clear the streets of Rebels, when Mr. Stephens, as he approached the front gate of his yard, did not immediately heed the soldier's call to halt.
Then during the Battle of Springfield in January of 1863, several rental homes that Mrs. Stephens owned in the south part of town and which provided her only source of income, were purposely burned by the Federals in order to give the defenders a clearer view of the attacking Confederates.
Permilla Stephens was not immediately compensated for the loss. Left bereft of any means of support, she also encountered difficulty when she applied later in the year to Federal authorities for relief in the form of food and clothing for her kids and herself.
Although Mrs. Stephens was finally approved for aid, her experience could have easily turned her against the Union, one might think. Instead, she continued to support the Union and, after the war, became Springfield's first postmistress.


Monday, January 9, 2012

The Killing of Mary Willis

An interesting but tragic incident of the Civil War in Springfield occurred on May 21, 1862, at a house in what was then the east part of town. (probably somewhere around Benton/Kimbrough). An upstanding widow lady named Willis had recently arrived in Springfield as a refugee from northern Arkansas, where she and her family had been subjected to depredations by bushwhackers. Reportedly, the residence in which she and her family were lodged had previously been the domicile of a "squad of accommodating girls," and since many of the soldiers stationed at Springfield did not know about the change in identity or at least the change in character of the house's occupants, two sentries were placed at the home to protect the woman and her daughter, Mary Willis, from unwanted solicitations. However, on the day in question, Captain John R. Clark of the Fifth Kansas Cavalry, who was officer of the day at Springfield, got drunk and, in the company of his orderly, A. J. Rice, called at the home and demanded dinner. When Mrs. Willis refused, Clark grew irate, and he and Rice drew their pistols. When they started to force their way inside, one of the guards shot Clark dead. Rice then fired at the guards but missed, instead killing Miss Mary Willis. The second guard then shot and mortally wounded Rice.
Although Clark, who was buried the next day without military honors, was a member of the Fifth Kansas, he and most of his company were recruited out of Mercer County, Missouri, where he had been a sheriff before the war. Apparently, some of the more rabid Unionists in the regiment had not been keen on the idea of recruiting out of Missouri in the first place. Writing to the NY Times several months after the fatal incident in Springfield, one member of the Fifth who had previously belonged to fervent abolitionist James Montgomery's Third Kansas characterized Clark as a border ruffian who should have joined the rebels.


Monday, January 2, 2012

Springfield's Growth

Living in Joplin and not getting to Springfield on as regular a basis as I used to, I am struck by Springfield's growth, when I do visit the town, perhaps as much as or more than many of the people who live there. I recall, for instance, that when I first moved to Joplin in the mid 1970s, the traffic here (along Range Line as an example) was almost as bad as Springfield traffic. That is no longer the case and has not been the case for a long time. Going to Springfield is like going to a big city. Also the pattern of heaviest traffic in Springfield has changed or grown over the years. It used to be along Glenstone and Sunshine. Now streets like Campbell and Battlefield seem to have at least as much traffic as Glenstone and Sunshine.
The increased vehicular traffic, of course, is due to the town's population growth. When I was a kid growing up in Fair Grove during the 1950s, Springfield was a town of about 65,000. The city limits were defined for all practical purposes by Sunshine Street on the south, Glenstone on the east, Kearney on the north, and somewhere around what is now Kansas Expressway on the west. Obviously there were scattered residences beyond these streets, and the city limits signs (and thus the actual city limits) were farther out. However, the large majority of the businesses and homes were within the limits I've mentioned. By 1964 when I moved to Springfield, this had already started changing. The area of southeast Springfield around Glendale High School, for instance, had already been developed and was still being developed. (Although Hillcrest High School, built in the late 1950s, also lay outside the lines I mentioned, the growth of Springfield north of Kearney where Hillcrest was located did not approach the growth in the south part of the town.) By the late sixties, the growth in the southern part of the town had shifted to the southwest, where Kickapoo High School was shortly afterwards built. Somewhere along the line, though, this, too, changed, because nowadays the growth of Springfield seems to be taking place in almost all directions. The population of the place is approximately triple what it was in the 1950s when I first became acquaintd with the town.
If we go back even farther than my memory, the changes in Springfield have been even more dramatic. For instance, at the time of the Civil War, Springfield was a town of about 2,000, and its limits were defined, generally speaking, by Grand on the south, Grant on the west, Chestnut on the north, and Benton on the east. For instance, the area of Phelps Grove Park (where the John S. Phelps farm was located) was well outside town. Today, I would consider it to be in the central part of the city. My, how things have changed!

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