Missouri and Ozarks History

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

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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.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

JFK Campaigns in Joplin

On October 22, 1960, in the midst of the 1960 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts made three stops in Missouri. Fresh off his fourth and final debate the night before with then Vice-President Richard Nixon, Kennedy flew to St. Louis on Saturday morning the 22nd. After a campaign stop there, he got back on his plane headed to Joplin for a brief stopover and rally at the airport there later that afternoon.
An estimated crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 people had gathered at the airport to await his arrival. Many had come from surrounding towns in Oklahoma and Kansas as well as Missouri, and they’d started gathering at 9:00 o’clock that morning. Two busloads had come from Springfield in chartered Greyhounds. Student delegations from Kansas State College at Pittsburg and from Joplin Junior College were on hand. Many of those in attendance carried placards in support of Kennedy. One of the sign carriers was Daisy Howe of Neck City, Missouri, whom I remember for her passionate letters supporting progressive causes, which were regularly published on the Joplin Globe editorial page clear into the mid and late 1990s.
Just minutes before Kennedy’s plane arrived, another plane landed at the airport carrying a Republican “Truth Squad.” A cheer went up at first before the crowd realized the identity of the group that was disembarking. When the cheers turned to boos, one of the Democratic dignitaries on the platform that had been erected in the airport field grabbed the microphone and told the crowd to go ahead and make the “Truth Squad” welcome because the “Lie Detector Squad” would be arriving soon.
When Kennedy’s plane touched down shortly afterward, it didn’t stop exactly where authorities had planned, and Joplin policeman and fireman hurriedly tried to cordon off the area between the plane and the platform, but to no avail. Kennedy stepped off the plane and waded right into the surging crowd, shaking hands and signing autographs as he made his way to the makeshift stage. Chants of “We want Jack” went up among the throng of Democratic supporters.
The Joplin area was still a mining district in 1960, and shortly after Kennedy began his speech, mindful of where he was, the candidate made a special appeal to the miners of the region, saying they didn’t get paid enough for the hard work they did. A group of miners from the Miami, Oklahoma, area were among the crowd, and one of them offered Kennedy a hard hat. He tried it on, but it didn’t fit.
Near the end of his remarks, in another appeal to regional pride, Kennedy said, “I come here to Joplin, here to Missouri, here in this part of the central United States. About two weeks ago up in Boston, my own hometown, Mr. Nixon said I was just another Truman. I said I regarded that as a compliment because he was just another Dewey.” Applause and laughter broke out among the audience.
Then, still playing on the Missouri theme, Kennedy closed by asking the crowd to “Show Me” on Election Day by voting to make him the next president of the United States.
The crowd again pressed in around Kennedy as he made his way back to his airplane. After leaving Joplin, he flew to Wichita for a campaign rally there before finished the day with a stop in Kansas City, his third rally of the day in the swing state of Missouri, which he carried in the election two weeks later.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Billy Sunday in Southern Missouri

In the 1880s, while he was playing professional baseball, Billy Sunday converted to Christianity. Denouncing drinking, swearing, and gambling, he soon started speaking in churches and at YMCAs. A dynamic baserunner and a flashy but inconsistent fielder, Sunday was never more than a mediocre hitter. He soon left baseball and went to work full time for a YMCA in Chicago, where he ministered to the sick and the troubled. Later he became an assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, a well-known evangelist. In the late 1890s Sunday went out on his own as a traveling evangelist, and during the first two decades of the 20th century he became the most famous evangelist in America. Not until Billy Graham rose to fame in the late 1940s did an evangelist fill more pews or convert more sinners than Billy Sunday did. He spoke to millions and converted an estimated 300,000 people.
Throughout his life, Sunday remained a big fan of baseball, and he often used his ties to baseball to promote his revivals. One time in 1907 in Fairfield, Iowa, for instance, he urged the community businesses to organize two baseball teams in advance of his appearance, and when he arrived in town, he played alternately for both teams wearing his professional baseball uniform. Known for his fiery, histrionic sermons, he would occasionally slide across the stage in imitation of a baseball slide as he exhorted his audience to slide safely into the arms of the Lord. Espousing a traditional, "old-time" religion, he was also known for his straightforward, sometimes coarse language. For instance, he once characterized evolution as a "bastard theory" and "pure jackass nonsense."
His theatrical yet blunt style and his conservative views were, of course, not universally popular. He was criticized as a tool of big business and for making too much money from his preaching, and there were places throughout the country where he was not welcome. Yet he did adopt certain progressive positions that, if anything, might have made him even more controversial, such as his support for women's suffrage and for the full acceptance of Catholics. Even in conservative southern Missouri, Billy Sunday received a uneven welcome.
In December of 1909, Sunday held a series of revival meetings in Joplin with several hundred people in attendance. At one sermon, he preached against dancing, denouncing it as a "hotbed of licentiousness" and "nothing but a hugging match set to music." At least one newspaper, however, editorialized against Sunday at the time, claiming that he used "slang and vulgarity in the pulpit."
When Billy Sunday held a tabernacle revival at Cape Girardeau in March of 1926, more than hundred people from Sikeston alone traveled to Cape to hear the evangelist. Afterward, the Sikeston group declared that they had been "highly entertained and thrilled, an occasion seldom experienced in a lifetime." During the revival, Sunday took a side trip to Sikeston for a single sermon on March 17 and packed the Methodist Church "to the utmost."
In 1928, the ministerial alliance of Springfield tried to organize a Billy Sunday revival there, but the idea was dropped when some ministers and other church officials voiced their opposition to the idea. Sunday said he wouldn't come where he wasn't wanted.
Sunday's success and importance as an evangelist waned during the late 20s and early 30s as more people began going to movies, listening to radio, and so forth instead attending camp meetings and revivals. Sunday died in 1935.

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.

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