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 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.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Civil War Pay

Recently I was looking through the Missouri State Guard Letter and Order Book 1861-1862 as transcribed by James E. McGhee, and one page in the book about soldiers' pay caught my eye. I'm not sure how closely the pay received by soldiers in the Missouri State Guard corresponds to the pay received by soldiers in the Union Army or the Confederate Army, but I doubt that the difference was very great.
The pay varied, of course, according to rank but also according to whether the soldier was in an infantry unit or in a cavalry or artillery unit. Somewhat surprising to me, soldiers in infantry units tended to receive less than those in cavalry or artillery units, particularly at the lower ranks.
A sergeant major received $21 per month, a quartermaster sergeant also received $21, and a sergeant received $17, regardless of branch. However, artillery or cavalry corporals received $14 while infantry corporals received only $13. Artillery or cavalry privates received $12, while infantry privates received just $11.
That wasn't much money to live on, even in 1861, but then, I guess, the soldiers didn't have a lot of expenses either. Food, of course, was paid for, although there were times when little was available. Clothes, however, were not paid for. Boots and so forth were sometimes issued at or shortly after enlistment, but the soldiers were charged for those items when settling up their accounts upon their discharges. And the amount they were paid seems very small in comparison to the amount they were charged for clothing. A pair of woolen pants cost $3.50, for instance, about one-third of a private's monthly pay. Cotton pants were $2.00. A pair of boots was $3.50. A winter coat was $8.00, and an overcoat was $6.00, but if you could get by with just a summer coat, that was only $2.50.
However you look at, a Civil War soldier wasn't left with much money to save or send home or spend on personal items. Viewed from today's perspective, $11.00 a month seems like a paltry sum, but when I stop and think about it, I recall that I was paid only about $31 or $32 a month when I first went into the U.S. Army in 1969 as a basic training trainee. The pay, even for trainees, has gone up a lot since then. But from 1861 to 1969, a period of 108 years, the pay only went up about $20. However, I should also add, to satisfy the terms of full disclosure, that my pay of $31 didn't last very long. As soon as I completed by eight weeks of basic, I was bumped up to the princely sum of about $115.

Friday, November 22, 2013

John David Mefford Again

John David Mefford was a character I wrote about in the "Jayhawker to Joplinite" chapter of my Wicked Joplin book. During the Civil War, Mefford was a captain in a Kansas cavalry unit. Stationed primarily at Fort Scott, he participated in the First Battle of Newtonia in September of 1862 and also operated against partisan rangers like Thomas R. Livingston. In 1864, he was captured in Arkansas and spent most of the rest of the war in a Confederate prison. Toward the end of the war (maybe while he was still a prisoner) he was promoted to major, a title that he wore proudly the rest of his life. He went by J.D. or David but was simply called "Major Mefford" most of the time.
I initially wrote about Mefford in my Wicked Joplin book because he was involved to a large extent in the saloon scene in early Joplin and in the gambling scene to a lesser extent. He ran at least three different saloons at various times from the 1870s until he died shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. He was indicted on numerous occasions for minor liquor offenses like selling liquor on Sunday or selling liquor without a license. Mefford also ran a saloon in Galena, Kansas, for awhile and, like nearly everyone else who came to Joplin in the early days, tried his hand at mining a time or two.
Until recently, however, I didn't realize just how notorious Mefford was. I noted in my book that he lived in Leavenworth, Kansas, for awhile before coming to Joplin, but I didn't know at the time why he had lived in Leavenworth. The reason was that he was in prison.
After the Civil War, Mefford returned to Fort Scott, where he had been stationed, and took up residence there. He met and married a young woman who lived there. However, in 1867, he killed a man named Thomas Dilworth, was convicted of murder, and sent to prison.
About 1871, Mefford was pardoned out of prison, and he came to Joplin shortly afterward. He was already living at Joplin in the spring of 1873 when he and his wife took a trip to Fort Scott to see her parents. While there, the "notorious Major Mefford," as one newspaper report called him, was arrested and briefly detained under suspicion of being somehow in cahoots with the Bender family in their bloody deeds.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Girl Scout Murders

I normally don't think of events that happened within the past fifty years or so (within the span of my memory) as history, and consequently I seldom write about such events. However, the murder of three girl scouts between the ages of 8 and 10 in June of 1977 in rural Mayes County, Oklahoma, at the western edge of the Ozarks stands out in my memory so much that I'm going to make an exception.
Sunday, June 12, 1977, was the first day of camp at Camp Scott, located near Locust Grove. A rain came up that evening, and the three girls huddled together in their tent in a wooded area at the edge of the camp. The next morning a camp counselor discovered the dead bodies of all three girls not far from the tent. One of the girls had been strangled and the other two bludgeoned to death. They had also been sexually molested. Two months prior to the crime, a camp counselor's belongings had been ransacked, her doughnuts stolen, and an ominous note left in the empty doughnut box saying that three girls would be murdered. However, the note was dismissed as a prank.
Gene Leroy Hart, a Native American who had grown up in the immediate area and who had been a star athlete in high school at Locust Grove, was almost immediately suspected of the crime. At the time of the crime, he was a fugitive from justice, having escaped from jail about three or four years earlier after being convicted of raping two pregnant women. He managed to elude capture for almost another year by hiding out in the rugged Cookson Hills that he was so familiar with and because, it is said, he had the help of friends in the area. When he was finally arrested, the case was considered solved, as the local sheriff announced that he was positive that Hart was guilty.
In a surprising verdict, however, Hart was found not guilty. In the end, though, it made little difference (at least from his standpoint), since he was sent back to prison to finish the term of 300 and some-odd years he had to serve for the rapes he had previously been convicted of. Not long afterwards he died while exercising in the prison yard, reportedly of a heart attack. In 2008, DNA testing not available at the time of the crimes was conducted on evidence taken from the scene, but it proved inconclusive, since the samples were too old.
The reason this event is so memorable to me is that it seemed so horrific and because the news coverage about it was so prevalent. The story dominated the TV news here in Joplin when it first happened, and the local stations continued to follow the story when Hart was captured, during his trial, and when he died in prison. And Camp Scott was not even in the normal viewing area of the Joplin stations. Camp Scott, which closed in the aftermath of the crimes, was nearer to Tulsa and also probably nearer to Fayetteville than to Joplin.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tomato Industry

Last time I wrote about the apple industry in the Ozarks during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The tomato industry was also very important to the Ozarks economy in years past, although the peak of the tomato industry came a little bit later than the peak of the apple industry. Tomato growing and canning as a commercial enterprise began in the Ozarks sometime in the 1890s or thereabouts, reached a peak during the 1920s and 1930s, tailed off dramatically around the time of World War II, and died out completely around the 1950s or 1960s.
The tomato industry arose in the Ozarks primarily because growing tomatoes was well suited to small farms such as those in the Ozarks on which a variety of crops were grown. Tomato canning factories, most of them family owned or otherwise small in scope, popped up all over the place. Almost every community of any size had a canning factory, and tomatoes were sometimes called the "red gold of the Ozarks."
Fair Grove, the small town where I grew up, once had a canning factory. When I was growing up there during the 1950s, an old, ramshackle building that had formerly housed the factory still stood, but it had been abandoned a number of years earlier. In fact, I believe my friend and fellow writer Marilyn Smith, a lifelong resident of Fair Grove, may have written an article a number of years ago for The Ozarks Mountaineer about Fair Grove's tomato canning operation.
There were a number of reasons why growing tomatoes as a commercial industry died out in the Ozarks. The main reason was the simple fact that the small farms on which a variety of crops were grown began to die out or be replaced by more specialized farms. Also, as the machinery at the canning factories became obsolete or needed repair, many canners could not afford to update. In addition, the Ozarks began to lag behind places like California, where large, flat farms and moderate temperatures allowed for growing tomatoes in large quantities almost year round.
Today, many small farmers in the Ozarks still grow tomatoes and sell what their own families cannot consume. But most of these are usually small-scale operations in which the tomatoes are sold along the roadside or at farmers' markets rather than large-scale operations in which tomatoes are shipped to other parts of the country as they were during the heyday of the tomato industry in the Ozarks.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Apple Industry

There are still a few commercial apple orchards in the Ozarks. For instance, I know that there are at least one or two such orchards in southwest Missouri near Marionville. But these are not large orchards, and most of what they produce is sold locally. The apple industry in the Ozarks is "small potatoes," or should I say "small apples," compared to what it used to be in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In 1890, Missouri produced 25,000,000 bushels of apples and was the leading apple producer in the U.S. Today, the state produces only about 1,000,000 bushels, which represents less than one half of one percent of total U.S. production. Much of the industry was centered in the southwest and south-central part of the state (i.e. the Ozarks).
The peak years in Arkansas came later. In 1919, when apple production in the state was at its zenith, Arkansas produced about 5,000,000 bushels, and the state's apple industry was centered in northwest Arkansas, particularly Benton and Washington counties. In 1900, 40,000 acres were devoted to apple orchards in Benton County alone. Compare that to the fact that today the total number of acres devoted to growing apples in the whole state of Missouri is only about 3,000.
The advent of the railroad in the late 1800s led to the boom in the apple industry in the Ozarks. On the other hand, there were a number of factors that led to its demise. Among them were drought, insects and disease, the mixing of seeds from different varieties, a growing reputation for shipping poor quality fruit, and the introduction of poor varieties, such as the Ben Davis.
Speaking of the Ben Davis, one of the curiosities left over from the boom days of the apple industry in the Ozarks is the small community of Bendavis, located on Highway 38 in Texas County, Missouri. It was platted about 1910 by James J. Burns, who hoped to build a town at the site, and he named it Ben Davis or Bendavis, because he planned to grow Ben Davis apples in his large orchards there. However, the town never amounted to more than a general store and a post office. Today, it is just a wide place in the road with a sign that says simply "Bendavis." Or at least the sign was still there the last time I was through there, which has been a number of years ago.

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