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.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Oronogo Again

One of my posts a few years ago dealt with the town of Oronogo in Jasper County, Missouri, and quite a bit of that post dealt specifically with how the town got its name. The legend that I repeated is that during the early days it was common for people to barter with merchants for goods. For example, a trapper might offer hides in exchange for groceries. Supposedly when an early-day merchant at Minersville (Oronogo's original name) was offered something like hides, he refused, saying it was "ore or no go," meaning that the only thing he would accept other than cash was lead ore. This story is repeated in the history books of Jasper County, but I've recently learned that the legend is apparently nonsense. Shirley Kennedy, a Jasper County researcher and genealogist, recently ran across an article from February 1902 in the Joplin Daily News Herald that pretty well disproves the legend. The same newspaper had run an article in a Sunday edition about various communities in Jasper County and had included the bartering legend in discussing how Oronogo got its name. Later in the week, two different men wrote letters to the Herald positively denying the validity of the story. Both claimed to have been present at the meeting when the name "Oronogo" was selected, and their stories were not only convincing in their similarity but also were more logical than the legend. In fact, one of the men had been the postmaster at Minersville at the time its name was changed to Oronogo and was, therefore, very much a part of the process of selecting a new name. The change was made about 1871, when the railroad came to the town. At the time, the town was known as Minersville, but the post office was called Center Creek (the name of the stream on which Minersville was located). Although the post office was officially called Center Creek, mail was often addressed to Minersville. Complicating the mess was the fact that another Minersville already existed elsewhere in Missouri and mail meant for the Jasper County town would often get sent to the other place by mistake. There was a perceived need for the town and post office to go by the same name, but for some reason Center Creek was not considered a good option. So, a meeting was held to rename both the post office and the town. During the meeting several options were discussed, and somebody commented that the name needed to have a reference to the fact that the town was a mining town--that it was "ore or no go." Another person immediately suggested that they adopt that name--"Ore or no go"--but spell it Oronogo, and the name was quickly agreed on. Thanks to Shirley for uncovering this information and for allowing me to repeat it here.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Kruse Gold Mine

I have remarked several times on the fact that the late 1880s were a time of great social experimentation. The Civil War had not only split the country geographically, but it had also torn apart the social and moral fabric of its people. Many folks were looking for something they could believe in, and the era gave rise to Utopian or idealistic religious and social movements. The medicinal water craze of the late nineteenth century was a somewhat tangible manifestation of this "searching for a cure" mentality. During this time, there was great tolerance for new ideas. Many people were chasing pipe dreams, and some of the ideas and movements that arose were downright whacky. An example is the gold mine started by William Henry Kruse at his father's Rogers, Arkansas, farm in 1905. The idea that great deposits of gold lay beneath the soil of his father's farm near a wild apple sapling had first come to him in a "vision" during the late 1800s. Family members looked but could not find such a sapling. Kruse's visualizations and psychic revelations, however, became so persistent and strong that he finally traveled from his home in Minnesota to his father's farm in 1902 and located the sapling himself. He had a sample of soil assayed. Although it revealed only faint traces of gold, as any sample might have, that was enough to confirm for Kruse that he was on to something. Mining operations officially began at the site on September 15, 1905, to considerable fanfare, when thirty men and seven teams of horses were employed and a procession of people marched from downtown Rogers to the farm at the edge of town to watch. Eventually several mine shafts were dug and smelters were built, but no rich vein of gold was discovered. Still, Kruse was undeterred. The operation finally stalled about 1912 but did not die out altogether until his death in 1925. The remarkable thing about the Kruse Gold Mine, as it relates to my previous comments about Utopian movements, is that Kruse was not motivated by greed or a desire for wealth. Rather his vision was that he would share the immense wealth buried on the farm to help alleviate world poverty. Instead, he succeeded only in leaving himself and his family impoverished.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ponce de Leon

I've written several times before on this blog about mineral water towns that sprang up in the Ozarks during the medicinal water craze that began in the area about 1879. (Eureka Springs, perhaps the most successful of all the mineral water towns started in July of that year.) However, a few medicinal water towns in the Ozarks actually predated the so-called craze of the 1880s that I have mentioned several times. One ssuch town was Monegaw Springs, located in St. Clair County, Missouri, that actually predated the Civil War. Another medicinal town that predated the craze of the eighties was Ponce de Leon, located in northeast Stone County where three springs converged. Named for the Spanish explorer, it was established during the mid 1870s by two Springfield businessmen, Fountain "Fount" T. Welch and a Mr. Stetson. Within a few years, Poncie or Poncy, as it was often called (and still is), boasted a population of almost a thousand people, making it the largest town in Stone County. By the mid 1880s, however, when other mineral water towns were just getting started, Ponce de Leon had already dwindled considerably, and by about 1890 only ten to fifteen families lived in Poncy. Some of the buildings from the town's glory days were moved when the place started to peter out as resort, while others were simply allowed to deteriorate. Today, the town is little more than a wide place in the road.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

John S. Phelps--Missouri Governor

During my college days at Missouri State University (then Southwest Missouri State College) in Springfield, I lived very close to Phelps Grove Park a few blocks south of the college. I knew that the park was named after John S. Phelps, who had once owned the land where the park was, and I had a vague knowledge that he had been a well-known person, but I really didn't know much about him. A lawyer by trade, Phelps came to Springfield in the late 1830s and was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1840. In 1845, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served there until 1863. At the outbreak of the Civil War, while still a member of Congress, Phelps joined the Union army as a private but was quickly promoted to lieutenant colonel and then colonel. During the winter of 1861-62, he raised a regiment, called simply Phelps's regiment, at Rolla, and the unit joined the Federal army in early 1862 as it marched into southwest Missouri and drove the occupying Confederates into northwest Arkansas. Phelps led his regiment at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March of 1862 but then shortly afterwards was mustered out of the service. In 1876, Phelps was elected governor of Missouri and served one term from 1877 to 1881.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Skirmish at Humansville

On March 26, 1862, a minor action occurred at Humansville, Missouri, when a party of about 300-400 irregular Confederate soldiers skirmished with two companies of McClurg's Batallion Missouri State Militia (later the 8th Cavalry Missouri State Militia) on the southern outskirts of the town. Losses on both sides were minimal, although one of those killed was the rebel leader, Colonel Frazier. The skirmish is, therefore, considered a Union victory, since the Southerners retired after Frazier was killed. Several accounts of this affair identify the rebel leader who was killed as Colonel Julian Frazier of Wright County, the same man who commanded the Southern force at Springfield at the time of Zagonyi's charge in the fall of 1861. However, this is an error. The man who was fatally wounded at Humansville was Colonel James M. Frazier, a prominent citizen of Cedar County prior to the war. The definite proof of this appears in a Union Provost Marshal's file in which a man named German P. Bacon of Cedar County is charged with violating the laws of war for participating in the skirmish as part of James M. Frazier's guerrilla band. A separate Provost Marshal's file charges a second Cedar County man with the same offense, although Frazier's last name is not given in this second file. A contemporaneous newspaper account of this skirmish identifies the rebel leader as "Polk" Frazier. This, of course, does not prove that his name was actually James instead of Julian, but it's probably more likely that a man named James who grew up during the 1840s would be called "Polk" than a man named Julian, since James K. Polk was president during that time. In addition, nearly all the men under Frazier were recruits from the Cedar and Vernon County areas (including Henry Taylor and his men). It's unlikely Julian Frazier from Wright County would have been recruiting in the Cedar and Vernon County area. Missouri guerrillas and former Missouri State Guard leaders who were recruiting for the Confederacy almost always operated in the general area where they lived or had grown up.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Catawissa Mass Murderer

Another notorious incident in the state of Missouri that I considered including in my forthcoming book tentatively entitled Murder and Mayhem in Missouri but decided not to include is the story of Bertha Gifford, a mass murderer at Catawissa, Missouri, in the early part of the 20th century. Catawissa is a small community in Franklin County a few miles south of I-44 near Pacific. Bertha was a 53-year-old farmer's wife who was known in the Catawissa community for caring for and feeding the sick. She was also said to be a regular visitor at funerals. In August of 1928, it was discovered that she had been doing more than feeding and caring for some of her patients. She was arrested for having poisoned a boy and a man with arsenic by putting it in their food. She admitted to the deeds after being arrested and also admitted to killing a third victim, another child, by the same method. She said she did it to try and comfort them. Although indicted for the murders of only the man and the first child, she was, after further investigation, suspected of 18 or 19 murders in all, beginning in 1911. Bertha was tried for murder at Union in the fall of 1928 and found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed to the mental instituion at Farmington and spent the rest of her life there, dying in 1951.

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