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Friday, Dec. 2, 2016

Vernon County was up-and-coming in 1888

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A frayed, fragile solitary copy of a unique little booklet has lain neglected for some years in the Bushwhacker Museum archives.

"Missouri," it's simply titled on the color cover, "Southwest Missouri" on the title page, and "Handbook of Southwest Missouri" on the individual pages.

"Prepared and Presented by the Southwest Missouri Immigration Society," the booklet was the product of a St. Louis printer in 1888. Measuring 8 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches, it runs to 112 numbered pages, though several final pages and the back cover are missing. The only Nevada name among the Society's officers and major contributors is that of Harry C. Moore. J. K. Gwynn, the group's secretary, was a resident of Clinton.

"Immigration" in this usage refers not to foreign incomers but rather to those from other parts of the U.S. The idea, obviously, was to persuade mostly eastern readers contemplating relocation that Southwest Missouri was the place to go. The publication purports to offer "a plain, simple and truthful statement of its (Southwest Missouri's) resources, possibilities, and the inducements it offers to the homeseeker and the investor."

Included are sections on many, though not all, counties in the southwest quadrant of the state, from Cole and Jackson on the east and north to Barton on the south.

Particularly striking is the fact that cities didn't then overshadow smaller towns the way they do today. For example, the section on Kansas City is not notably larger than that on Schell City. Kansas City already boasted a population of 175,000, while 1,600 were claimed for Schell City, a difference far, far less than that of nowadays.

As is usual in promotional literature, the tone throughout is boosterish and much given to exaggerations and superlatives. All the towns were thriving and growing, all the counties bursting at the seams with resources just waiting to be exploited. Many of the towns, needless to note, today languish in stagnation, or have vanished altogether. Who knows anything nowadays about Balm, for example, "a centre of fine farming country, growing in wealth and population," somewhere in Cedar County. "Its inhabitants number about 300."

The booklet is illustrated throughout with line drawings, mostly of buildings. Those for Vernon County include Nevada's Centenary Methodist Church, Moore's Opera House, Hotel Mitchell, State Hospital No. 3, and the Lanyon Smelter.

Nevada, we're assured, is "the coming metropolis of Southwest Missouri, a prosperous city with a brilliant future, the population doubles every four years."

"Nevada is the end of five railroad divisions. The Lanyon Smelter works now in course of erection will be among the largest in the world and employ hundreds of men. The Christian University now being built here is a beautiful structure and will give facilities for six hundred students. Cottey College is located here and is growing very popular. The Nevada Commercial College is a new enterprise and opens up in September with a strong faculty."

"The population of Nevada according to the census report of 1880 was 1,900, its present population is 10,000 and growing more rapidly than at any time in its history."

True, Nevada was just emerging from the decade of its most spectacular growth, though it never really reached 10,000, and has been pretty much stuck since 1888.

Things must have looked bright indeed to Nevada's leaders in that year. They couldn't see that many of the assets of which they boasted were destined for an early demise. Christian University, for one, hardly got off the ground; the building in a few short years was to become St. Francis Convent. The smelters were important for a time, but disappeared after 23 years. Even the railroads, thanks to the automobile, would begin to decline in the 1920s.

Schell City alone of the county's other towns gets a major buildup almost comparable to Nevada's. Much new construction had occurred there in the past couple of years, including new schools. Line drawings featured the high school and the homes of T. J. Smith and J. H. Maus, plus a full-page depiction of "Oliver Duck's Poled Angus and Jersey Herds."

Aside from Nevada and Schell City, other towns are mentioned only for their population: Walker 800, Moundville 300, Montevallo 300, Harwood 153, Deerfield 150, Connelly Springs 150, Clayton 100, Carbon Center 50, Metz 50, Amthew (?) 50, Little Osage 200, Bronaugh 100, Milo 50, Avola 50, Zodiac 50, Hoover 50, Rinehart 50, Green Springs 100. It's a good guess some of these surprising figures were more or less pulled out of the air. "Walker and Nevada run daily hacks to Green and Edwards Springs (?)"

Paragraphs are devoted to the county's deposits of building stone, "grindstone grit" (for making grindstones and whetstones), "hydraulic cement rock," coal, asphalt, mineral paint and ochres, and most surprisingly, aluminum. "Should science discover any means to utilize and manufacture cheaply in large quantities this useful metal, the fire clay underlying our coal beds will be found to contain a large percent of the same."

"A species of lubricating oil is found in a number of places, and has been pronounced by experts as crude petroleum."

"Fire and potter's clay are found in fine quality, and have been utilized to a great extent in the manufacture of common crockery ware in years past, at Ellis and Deerfield. In late years, in the manufactory of tiling and fire bricks at Schell City, where there are inexhaustible quantities."

Improved farmland could be had for $17 to $40 an acre. Between 30 and 45 bushels of wheat per acre could be raised. This was "excellent country" for corn. Castor beans and sorghum cane were grown, and "flax seed is often sown for the purpose of obtaining ready money."

"Our prairie grass, that at an early day grew to twelve or more feet in height, is fast disappearing beneath the tread of roving herds of cattle."

What, one can't help wondering, became of the Southwest Missouri Immigration Society? How long did it last? And was it considered a success?