Saturday, January 29, 2022

Chesapeake, Missouri

   As a longtime resident of Joplin who is originally from the Springfield area, I've made a lot of trips between the two cities over the past 45 years or so. Most of the time, I stick to Interstate 44 the whole way when I make the trip, but sometimes I take Highway 174 that runs between Mt. Vernon and Republic just for a change of pace. That route takes you through the small community of Chesapeake about halfway between Mt. Vernon and Republic (slightly closer to Mt. Vernon). Chesapeake is most noted nowadays for the Missouri state fish hatchery that is located there, but the number of houses and buildings in the immediate vicinity has led me to believe for a long time that the place was probably a thriving little community at one time. Apparently that was, indeed, the case, but with emphasis on the word "little." The population of the place was probably never more than a hundred or so, if even that many. In other words, Chesapeake seemingly bustled with activity at one time, but it was never much more than a wide place in the road.
   Chesapeake dates back to pre-Civil War days, since a post-office was established there in 1850. The community was named after the USS Chesapeake, which was captured at the Battle of Boston Harbor during the War of 1812. In 1874. when Campbell's Gazetteer of Missouri was written, Chesapeake was still not much more than a post office, because that's how the author identified the place: "a post office eight miles e. of Mt. Vernon."
   The place flourished somewhat, however, during the latter quarter of the 19h century. During this period, the village had several businesses and/or religious and fraternal organizations, and a sizeable number of people lived in the area and presumably got their mail through the Chesapeake Post Office.
   At one time or another during the last 25 years of the 19th century, Chesapeake (or the immediate Chesapeake area) boasted at least one general store, a blacksmith, a carpenter and painter, an insurance agent, a school, at least one church, and two Sunday schools. Because the village was the principal community in Turnback Township, it also had a justice of the peace and a constable. Chesapeake hosted teachers' meeting, political speeches and meetings, and numerous religious camp meetings. Among the groups or organizations headquartered at Chesapeake were a literary society, a grange (i.e. a farmers' organization), and a baseball team.
   Chesapeake's heyday continued into the 20th century. In 1926, the state of Missouri acquired over 117 acres at Chesapeake to establish a fish hatchery. The grounds included a spring that had long been a gathering spot for picnics and camp meetings. Plans called for twelve lakes, two large ones and ten small ones, to be laid out along the north side of the road (then called Highway No. 16) that ran through Chesapeake, and the lakes would be fed by Chesapeake Spring, which had a flow of over a million gallons a day. When completed, the hatchery would be the second largest fish hatchery in the US. Work began in the summer of 1926, and the first hatchery opened the following year, stocked with bass and bluegill. Even after most of the lakes had been built and the hatchery was going great guns, the site continued to be used by tourists and residents alike as a picnic or scenic rest spot, although tours of the hatcheries were not offered since they were not readily accessible.
   In 1934, a CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp was established at Chesapeake. Plans called for the corps to make numerous improvements at the hatchery, including construction of roads and more lakes. In 1935, plans were announced to move a contingent of black men from a CCC camp at Liberty, Missouri, to Chesapeake and to move the white contingent at Chesapeake out of state. An advance group of ten blacks arrived at Chesapeake on a Monday evening in late August, but because of demonstrations by local white citizens protesting the presence of the blacks in their neighborhood, the planned transfer was canceled and the black CCC men were sent back to Liberty. Just goes to show how prevalent racist sentiment was in these parts at the time.
   Although the hatcheries at Chesapeake continued to flourish in the years after the Depression and are even still going today, the heyday of the village itself was already in the past or soon would be.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

An Old Feud: Ben Absher Kills Wright County Deputy John Atkisson

   After forty-year-old Ben Absher shot and killed Wright County (MO) deputy John Atkisson in early October 1922 at the Mountain Valley Church about eight miles northwest of Mountain Grove, some of the initial reports of the incident seemed to suggest that it was a case of cold-blooded murder. Apparently, there was considerably more to the story than that.
   The shooting, it seems, stemmed from a longstanding feud between Absher and the Atkisson family. Over twenty-two years earlier, in 1900, Absher, then 18, had shot and killed Atkisson's brother David, and that incident itself stemmed from an old feud.
   Absher and David Atkisson, who was a year or two older than Absher, had grown up on adjoining farms in the Mountain Valley area, but in the winter of 1899-1900 Absher moved into town to study business at Mountain Grove Academy. During the noon break on February 6, 1900, Absher walked downtown, where he was accosted by Atkisson, who tried to shove Absher off the walk and then plunged a knife into Absher's breast and shoulders several times. Absher pulled a gun as he sank down and fired five shots at the fleeing Atkisson. All but one of the shots struck Atkisson, and he fell dead.
   According to one report, about a year earlier the two young men had been romantic rivals for the same young woman. A second, probably more reliable report, said the feud dated back even farther. Around 1896, while the two were attending school together in their home district, Dave Atkisson and one of his brothers had beaten Asher up, and Asher's father had the two Atkisson brothers arrested. Dave had to pay a fine, and afterwards he swore to get even. Instead of getting even, he now lay dead. Ben Absher's wounds were considered severe, and it was thought he might die. However, he recovered and was arrested, but a grand jury failed to indict him, as the incident was considered a case of self-defense.
   Twenty-two years later, the feud between Absher and the Atkissons was rekindled. On the evening of September 30, 1922, Absher's 16-year-old son, Ray, was among a group of boys who were causing a disturbance during a revival meeting at the Mountain Valley Church. Deputy John Atkisson took hold of the Absher boy by his shoulder and reprimanded him for his behavior. On October 5, the revival or protracted meeting, as it was called, was still going on, and Ben Absher showed up. At the end of the service, as he was walking out of the church, he saw Atkisson and confronted him about the way he had treated Ray. Saying no one should shake his son or domineer over his family, Atkisson pulled out a revolver and started firing. He fired six shots in all, and four of them took effect, including two in Atkisson's heart and one in the head.
   After the shooting, Absher left the scene and went on the lam. A posse led by Wright County sheriff Morgan Crews went out looking for him, and among those in the posse was a third Atkisson brother, James. Absher, however, could not be located. It was thought for a while that he'd gone to Mexico, but he showed up in late December at the county seat in Hartville and turned himself in to Sheriff Crews. 
   Absher was charged with first-degree murder and tried in neighboring Texas County on a change of venue in late September 1923. Several state witnesses claimed Deputy Atkisson was shot down without warning and that he did not attempt to draw his gun, but Absher took the stand in his own defense to claim otherwise. Absher said Atkisson had been out to get him for some time and that the deputy went to the church on the night in question with the preconceived idea of killing Absher. The defendant claimed that Atkisson drew his weapon and fired at him first before Absher returned fire, killing Atkisson. Based on the available evidence, it's hard to say whether this was true, but apparently the defense did a better job of making its case than the prosecution did, because the jury acquitted Absher on Saturday, September 29, after only thirty minutes of deliberation.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

First Automobiles in the Ozarks

   My dad was born in Pulaski County, Missouri, in 1910 and grew up there. I can remember him talking about the first time he ever saw an automobile, and, in fact, I think he wrote a short article about it one time. I'm not sure how old he was when he saw the automobile, but he was old enough to know that horseless carriages, as cars were sometimes called, were a new and strange phenomenon. So, I'm thinking this was probably the late 1910s. However, this was in the boondocks of Pulaski County, and I'm pretty sure cars were a little late getting to that neck of the woods. Anyway, I got to wondering about the first automobiles to appear in the overall Ozarks region and decided to do a little research on the topic.
   The first mention of automobiles I found in Springfield newspapers was all the way back in July of 1901 when Walter Major, "a high-toned and legitimate colored man," constructed a motorized vehicle and drove it through the streets of Fort Scott, Kansas. The Springfield Leader's detailed report of the incident praised Major, a mechanic, for his ingenuity while at the same time describing the episode in jocular, mocking terms. For instance, according to the Leader, a horse that happened to be standing nearby as Major approached a railroad track in his motorized contraption was unable "to suppress a giggle" when Major had to get out and pull the machine across the track.
   It was almost another ten years after Major's excursion through Fort Scott in his homemade vehicle before evidence of commercially-made automobiles started showing up in Springfield newspapers. The first automobile advertisement I could find in the city's newspapers appeared on April 3, 1910, in the Springfield Daily Republican. J. E. Atkinson, an authorized Ford dealer, advertised Model T's for sale at his garage in the 300 block of South Jefferson for $950.
   Just a month and a half later, on May 22, 1910, a-full-page ad appeared in the Daily Republican announcing a big car show featuring a full line of Studebakers that was to begin in Springfield a week later at the Stewart-Cowan block in East Walnut. The least expensive Studebaker, a Victoria, was advertised for $1,850, or about twice what the Model T was going for.
   Of course, early motorists faced a number of problems. The lack of adequate roads was the main one. Poor quality tires and overheating engines were two others. Even if you were wealthy enough to own a motor car, you were pretty limited in where you could drive it, and long-distance trips were rare or nonexistent. 
   The July 30, 1910, Springfield Missouri Republican announced that a local couple, along with a visiting couple from Iowa, would attempt the first overland trip in the Springfield area two days later. Starting on August 1, the foursome planned to motor all the way to Hollister, continue southeast along the White River and into Arkansas, and then drive west and return to Springfield by way of Cassville and Monett. "Autoists Plan to Make First White River Run," said the headline. A spokesperson for the group expressed confidence that they could make the round trip without difficulty, but I found no follow-up story to tell whether the adventuresome four did, indeed, complete the journey with relatively ease. Somehow, I kinda doubt it.


Saturday, January 8, 2022

Drury University History

   According to a history of Springfield's Drury University that is on the institution's website, the school was founded in 1873 by Congregationalist home missionaries as a liberal arts college patterned after Congregationalist liberal arts schools in the East like Oberlin, Yale, and Harvard. After considerable debate, Springfield was chosen over Neosho as the school's location. The school was organized and endowed by James and Charles Harwood of Springfield, the Reverend Nathan Morrison of Michigan, and Samuel Drury, also of Michigan. At first, the institution was named Springfield College, but, after Drury gave a $25,000 gift to the school, the name was changed to Drury College to honor his recently deceased son. The Reverend Morrison was named president of the school, and the first classes began on September 25, 1873.
   The campus was located where it still is today, but it included only about an acre and a half. The curriculum in the early days emphasized education, religion, and music, and students came from as far away as western Oklahoma. Five students, all women, made up the first graduating class in 1875.
   Today, the campus has expanded to ninety acres, encompassing the original site. Drury College became Drury University in 2000, reflecting the school's growth and its wide range of academic offerings.
   That's a short version of the history, as chronicled on the school's website, but I wondered what I could learn about the college's beginnings from newspapers published at the time of its founding. The answer is not much.
   An advertisement, which sought to recruit students to Drury, ran in the St. Louis Missouri Republican (and perhaps other newspapers) for several weeks leading up to the first classes in the fall of 1873. After announcing that the fall term would begin on September 25, the ad promised "Full Classical and Scientific Courses of study, an able and experienced corps of instructors, (and) equal advantages to both sexes." Special attention would be paid to preparing teachers for the public schools. Students would receive "thorough drill and broad culture in the Ancient Classics, for which the best Eastern Academies are famous."
   A notice also ran in the Springfield Missouri Weekly Patriot on September 18, one week before classes were scheduled to begin, asking prospective students and/or their parents to meet with the school president in an office on the Springfield square on Tuesday the 23rd or Wednesday the 24th between the hours of two and five p.m. to facilitate planning and organization for the start of the term.
   And that's about it, as far as the early history of Drury that can be gleaned from contemporary newspapers is concerned.



Saturday, January 1, 2022

New Year's 100 Years Ago

   Last week I looked at how Christmas was celebrated in Missouri and the Ozarks 100 years ago. So, I thought that this week I might take a look at how New Year's Eve and New Year's Day were observed a century ago. For instance, did revelers party, get tipsy, and then ring in the New Year when the clock struck midnight on the night of December 31 the way many people do today? The short answer is that they probably would have except that Prohibition put a damper on things, because the law against the sale of intoxicating beverages was less than two years old and was still being pretty strictly enforced when Father Time ushered in the year of 1922.
   In Carthage, according to the Joplin Globe, "The welcome afforded the new year...was vastly different from the celebrations of a few years ago when John Barleycorn held full sway and the ringing of bells, screaming whistles and discharge of firearms heralded the passing of the old and the beginning of the new year." On New Year's Eve of 1921, however, only a single church bell rang out when the clock struck twelve followed by the faint echo of single gunshot from some distant part of the city. Some of the Carthage churches put on programs to celebrate the occasion, and some of the organizations like the Elks held parties, but they were tame affairs. Since New Year's Day fell on a Sunday, the holiday was scheduled to be observed on Monday, when all the banks and government offices would be closed. Most of the regular businesses, though, planned to be open on Monday. It doesn't sound that much different from nowadays, except I think more businesses and factories probably close now than they did in 1922.
   "No Extensive Celebration Marked Coming of New Year," read a headline from the Springfield Leader of January 1, 1922. "There Were a Faithful Few," continued the subhead, "Who Made an Effort to Revive Splendor of Former Years, But It Was Only an Effort--Cafes Were Deserted." Just as the Globe noted about Carthage, the lack of liquor, according to the Leader, made the occasion of New Year's Eve rather dull in Springfield. "The city was almost as gloomy as Sears-Roebuck's financial outlook." Later the newspaper continued, "There were merrymakers, 'tis true,...but they were not merry as were those before the name of Barleycorn was stricken off Father Time's birthday party guest list. There was something lacking over the city that the old-timers felt and it was Barleycorn's spirit. His kinsman, Corn Whiskey, helped some to appreciate the new year's birth and those who patronized the 'hip pocket bars' were enviously eyed by their less fortunate fellowmen." There were very few of those "bon vivants," however, and those who were able to procure "Barleycorn's cousin" mainly imbibed at home so as to avoid Prohibition officers, who were out in force. The number of people on the streets of downtown Springfield when the clock struck midnight was not much greater than on any normal night, and by one a.m., the few who still remained were on their way home.
   In St. Louis, a fairly good-sized crowd filled the downtown streets and hotels on New Year's Eve. Some of them were dressed up in costumes, and some threw confetti at the stroke of twelve or celebrated in other inoffensive ways. But very little liquor was evident, because here, too, the Prohibition officers were out in force, and, consequently, little revelry took place.
   In Kansas City, "The New Year was greeted by a noisy but almost sober crowd in the downtown district last night," said the city's Star. The hotels and grill rooms were filled to capacity, but there were "few flagrant violations of the Volstead Act." A few bulging hip pockets were seen, but mostly the partiers were served soda and ginger ale. "The crowd that surged up and down Twelfth Street hailed 1922 with shouting, the ringing of bells and blowing of horns and the shriek of motor car sirens. Toasts were drunk by those who had the wherewithal. They were not many." Law officers had been instructed to be diplomatic and not arrest a person when they first saw him taking a nip. Rather they were simply to warn the offender. If a bottle was brought out onto a table, however, that was considered a flagrant violation, and the officers were to confiscate the bottle. Still, the offending party would not be arrested. Despite the rather lax attitude of Kansas City law officers toward enforcement of the liquor law, the overall celebration in the city was considerably muted compared to years prior to Prohibition. Traffic in the downtown area began to thin after midnight, and by one a.m. Twelfth Street was relatively quiet.
   Sounds as if New Year's Eve celebrations of 1921 were not that much different from how this old man marked the end of 2021 last night. With no revelry and only a nip or two to drink. Actually I was sound asleep by midnight Central Standard Time, but I did manage to stay up and watch the ball drop on TV at midnight EST in Times Square.

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...