Thursday, November 29, 2012

Military Roads

When I hear the phrase "military road" or "the military road" in the context of regional history, I automatically think of the military road that ran from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, through Fort Scott to Baxter Springs and then continued along the western edge of the Ozarks to Fort Gibson in Indian Territory, because this is the historic military road with which I'm most familiar. I live close to it, and I've written about it or at least mentioned it in several of my articles and books. 
However, there was another military road that traversed the Ozarks and that predated the one in eastern Kansas. This earlier military road crossed the Mississippi River and entered Missouri near Cape Girardeau. It then continued west, angling slightly south, and crossed the St. Francis River near present-day Greenville in Wayne County. From there, it veered south, roughly following present-day Highway 67, and crossed the Black River in what is now northern Butler County, a few miles north and slightly west of Poplar Bluff. From there, it continued southwest through present-day Fairdealing and Oxly in what is now eastern Ripley County. It crossed the Current River into Arkansas at Pittman's Ferry near the present-day community of Current View. It continued from there to Pocahontas, Arkansas.
This trail was called the Military Road because it was improved and used by the army during the presidency of Andrew Jackson for the removal of the Indians from the southeastern states during the late 1830s. The road, however, actually followed an earlier Indian trail called the Natchitoches Path. Early settlers moving into southern Missouri and northern Arkansas used this same trail, both before and after it became known as the Military Road.       

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Small Town High Schools

One-room schools for grades 1-8 are often cited as disappearing symbols of America's rural past, but high schools in small, rural towns have also become almost a relic of bygone days. Just as the one-room schools consolidated with K-12 districts in surrounding towns, many of the the smaller K-12 districts have either merged to form larger districts or consolidated with already-existing larger districts. In Missouri, consolidation of the one-room schools was pretty well complete by the 1950s. Consolidation of the small K-12 districts, on the other hand, continued through the sixties and seventies. (In a few cases, consolidtions continued to happen in the eighties, nineties, and almost up to the present day, but the bulk of them happened during the mid twentieth century.) Small towns that have been left without high schools often struggle just to survive, because, in many cases, the school was the main unifying social force.
McDonald County is one area with which I'm fairly familiar where a lot of consolidation took place. The county now has only one county-wide high school, located at Anderson. Prior to consolidation in the 1960s, it had at least six high schools. Anderson, Goodman, Noel, Pineville, Rocky Comfort, and Southwest City all had their own high schools. In addition, Lanagan had its own high school at one time, but Lanagan lost its high school before the sixties. There may have been other towns in the county, such as Powell, that had high schools at one time, but I'm not sure. At any rate, the point is that a county that had a whole slew of high schools at one time now has only one. In the mid sixties, Goodman consolidated with Neosho, while the other five schools went together to form McDonald County High School.
Some of the towns are still doing okay. Anderson, home to the high school, is still thriving. Pineville, the county seat, is still going fairly strong. Southwest City is home to a chicken plant or two and is still doing okay. Noel is famous as the Christmas town, and it still does fairly well. Rocky Comfort, on the other hand, seems barely to be hanging on, and its fate is probably more typical of small towns throughout Missouri and the Ozarks that have lost their high schools.  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Lumber Industry in the Ozarks

A huge lumber industry arose in the Ozarks, especially the central and eastern parts of the region, during the late 1800s, and it carried over into the early 1900s. Companies like the Missouri Lumber and Mining Company and the Ozarks Land and Lumber Company built large sawmills. Railroads were built to accommodate the new industry, and booming lumber towns sprang up almost overnight.
Fremont, Grandin, and Hunter in Carter County, for example, all grew up in the 1880s when the Missouri Lumber and Mining Company came to the area. (Another Carter County community, Ellsinore, also arose as a lumber town about the same time, but its origins are tied to a different operation. In fact, about the only town of any significance in Carter County that does not owe its existence to the lumber industry is the county seat of Van Buren.)
The population of Grandin soared to almost 3,000 around 1900 at the peak of the lumber industry in the area, but the population now stands at less than 250. Similarly, Hunter once boasted a population of about 700 but declined as the lumber industry in the area died out or moved elsewhere. Now Hunter has fewer than 200 residents.



Friday, November 9, 2012

The Hornet Spook Light

A reader of this blog recently emailed me suggesting ghosts or other mysteries of the Ozarks as a possible topic for me to write about. I replied that I'm not a big believer in ghosts and that the supernatural is not something I'm especially interested in writing about. I added that I had, however, written several magazine articles in the past about the spook light or ghost light that sometimes appears on a country road about ten miles southwest of Joplin, variously called the Hornet Spook Light, the Seneca Spook Light, the Joplin Spook Light, or the Quapaw Spook Light, and that I might write something about it on this blog as well. So, here goes.
According to oral legend, the Spook Light was first spotted in the late 1800s near the small community of Hornet, and it supposedly frightened some of the residents in the area so much that a few of them moved away. Over the years, many supernatural theories purporting to explain the light have arisen. For example, one such theory holds that a Civil War sergeant was decapitated by enemy gunfire in the area but was too tough to die and that every night he sets out with lantern in hand in search of his head. The other supernatural theories are just as irrational as this one.
More rational theories have also been offered, such as the idea that the light is an emanation given off by swamp gas or mineral deposits in the area. Perhaps the simplest explanation for the light is the mundane notion that it is merely the refraction of headlights from a distant stretch of highway in Oklahoma on old Route 66.
Scientific teams have studied the light over the years to try to determine its origin. One team even reportedly fired high-powered rifles at it back in the 1940s. Several but not all of the scientific studies have concluded that the light is, in fact, merely headlights.
Proponents of the paranormal, who, of course, have a vested interest in the outcome of their studies have also investigated the light. These psuedo-scientists almost always come away with the conclusion that the light is unexplainable.
As I said, I'm not a big believer in ghosts; so I tend to side with those who say the light is just the reflection of headlights. When the idea that the light might be only headlights was first put forth around 1940, it was reportedly discounted by old-timers in the area who claimed to have seen the light long before automobiles were prevalent in the region. However, I think this claim may well be merely part of the mythology of the spook light that was advanced by Arthur "Spooky" Meadows in order to promote his so-called Spook Light Museum, which he ran as a tourist destination during the 1940s and 1950s. Although the oral legend holds that the light was first seen in the late 1800s, the first written mention of the Spook Light did not occur until the late 1930s, several years after Route 66 was built through the region. So, I'm skeptical of the oral legend.
The only thing that bothers me about the headlight theory is the fact that spottings of the Spook Light seem to have diminished in recent years, while the number of vehicles in the area has held steady or increased. Not sure how to explain that, but I'm sure there is a logical explanation. Maybe the growth of trees, for example, has simply blocked the view of observers.
The photo below is from a postcard advertising the Spook Light, probably during the 1950s.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


I've written previously about the phenomenon of communities changing their names. For example, I wrote on this blog a few years ago about Dadeville, Missouri, which was originally known as Melville. This phenomenon of name changing was not unusual in the Ozarks (and probably elsewhere as well). Often the name change was prompted by the U.S. Post Office. That is, a community often went by a certain name during its very early days, but when it approached the Postal Service about the possibility of obtaining a post office, the community was sometimes informed that a town by its name already existed elsewhere in the state. Sometimes the two names didn't even have to be exactly alike, if they were close enough to cause confusion. That's what happened in the case of Melville/Dadeville. Postal workers supposedly said that they kept getting Melville mixed up with another community in Missouri named Millville, and Melville agreed to change its name. There were several other reasons why a community might change its name. Sometimes name changes had political overtones, especially related to the Civil War. Sometimes names of places were changed to honor a prominent local citizen. Or, as in the case of Rosati, located in eastern Phelps County, names were sometimes changed because of a large influx of immigrants.
Rosati was originally settled during the 1840s or 1850s and called Knobview, supposedly because it was located on an eminence along the old Springfield to St. Louis road (which is roughly I-44 today) and, when travelers reached the spot, they could see three knobs or hills in the distance to the southwest. In 1898, a large group of Italian immigrants settled at Knobview and shortly afterwards started several vineyards in the area. (Rosati is still known today for its grape growing and its wine industry.) In 1931, residents of Knobview petitioned the Post Office to change the name of their community to Rosati, after Bishop Joseph Rosati, the first bishop of St. Louis and the first American bishop of Italian descent. The request was granted.

Devil's Promenade

My latest book is about the famous Joplin or Tri-State Spook Light. Actually, Hornet Spook Light is probably the most accurate descriptor, s...