Springfield, Missouri, the queen city of the Ozarks, was a thriving town at the end of the civil war when my father hung out a sign on the southwest corner of the public square, notifying the public that he was an attorney-at-law. Fantastic and alluring tales had reached his ears long before the ink on his diploma was dry – tales of a land flowing with milk and honey. So abundant was the honey that it was used to grease wagons, and bee trees dotted the landscape. All one had to do was to step outside his cabin, bore a hole, and scoop up the booty.
Springfield was also the stomping-ground of wild Bill Hickox the outlaw. Surely the rendezvous of a notorious law-breaker was not an unfortunate place in which to uphold the constitution and defend the bill of rights.
Before the war of 1812, all this portion of the country was known as Osage country, and bands of Osage Indians hunted its forest, fished its streams, and set up their teepees by its pleasant springs. Then a band of
Kickapoos built a town on the present site of Springfield and for several years a hundred wigwams covered the prairie. Hardy frontiersmen discovered the red-oak forest, however, and braved the dangers of contesting Indian claims to its fertility and when the Indians had moved on to the Territory, homesteaders arrived in numbers.
The first were J.P. Campbell and his brother-in-law and on the summit of the Ozarks Mr. Campbell built his first log cabin on what is now the business part of Springfield. It was a pioneer’s rude shelter with clapboard doors and dirt floors. By the time he owned two bedsteads and had good puncheon floors, Mr. Campbell was sure that civilization had arrived. Grateful for a spring and a field, he called the settlement Springfield and three years later held the first session of Greene county in his cabin.
Neighbors were few and far between in those days but everybody was friendly and willing to divide the last mouthful. All except one, and his cupidity was so odious to his generous-hearted neighbors that the story of his greed is part of the history of Greene County.
It was a the time when the Delawares made their camp nearby that Bob Patterson rode in and finding the fields alluring built himself a cabin and settled down. He had been a good farmer in Tennessee so he had brought seeds and skill with him and he planted an orchard. The legend says that he grew the first apples and peaches in the southwest. For this service he might have been affectionately remembered, even venerated, had he not been lacking in the neighborly qualities that were the outstanding characteristic of those early pioneers who shared with one another that everyone might have a little. Bob was tall and ungainly and had teeth that protruded and were large and long.
One day an old man and his younger wife heading westward, stopped their covered wagon at his place and asked for corn to feed their weary horses. Patterson knew well that they could find no other corn within a half-day’s journey so he said that they could have it if they would pay two dollars a bushel for every ear. The old man looked at Patterson unbelievingly, and then went into a huddle with his wife. Suddenly she stuck her head out of the covered wagon and said:
“You go to Dickens with your corn, you stingy old hound; we don’t want nothin’ from a feller whose tushes is so long that he can bit the guts out of a punkin’ through a crack in a fence and not wet his lips. Go to Dickens with your corn. Come on old man,”
and the old man went on. The story was handed about and life became so unpleasant for Patterson that before long he disappeared, no one knew where, or cared. Oblivion gobbled him.
It was some time before cupidity staked its claim on Springfield. The real estate promoter had not arrived. Property was not fought for, and no one was greedy about a little ground. A choice lot might be sold for a broken-down horse.
Houses were about sixteen feet square and made of rough logs. Not a nail or a piece of iron was used in their construction, and the doors were swung with leather and a latchstring hung outside. Everybody had a horn made from the largest and longest oxhorn and it was used, excepting at mealtime, as a signal of distress. Every settler’s horn-tone was known and the neighbors responded to its call, which might mean that the cabin was surrounded by wolves; a child was lost; or fire.
Wild game and venison were plentiful and bread was dark and scarce. They called it “poundcake” and Mrs. Campbell used to say that for years after coming to Springfield she had scarcely anything else to eat.
As soon as they could, the pioneers built themselves a schoolhouse. It had a dirt floor, one log cut out for a window, and not even a door or shutter at the opening but it was better than none and what it lacked in architectural virtue was made up in old uncle Joe Roundtree’s teaching of the three ’R’s. Then on Sunday a shelter made from oak logs beside a spring in the woods north of Captain Jones’ residence, the Methodists and Presbyterians gathered to praise the God of their fathers. They had a racetrack too. Mr. Campbell, who was fond of horses, built it. It was southeast of town, a prairie. Then evangelism caught up with Mr. Campbell. He joined the church. That spelled the doom of the race course and according to our historian, “It was broke up.”
A courthouse was erected: a land office opened. As life became less strenuous, the lighter activities increased. Dances became so popular that the number of people attending was regulated by the number of puncheons in the floor. Red bandana handkerchiefs reached the height of fashion among gentlemen of class, and a white one drawn from a man’s pocket would evoke a laugh and the comment, “Look, he’s got his sister’s handkerchief.”
Those were the days of movie color when blood was red and easily drawn; when guns slammed at the slightest provocation and feuds developed overnight.
One spring evening when April was its loveliest, a prosperous countryman living on the rim of town, threw a gay party. In preparing his list of guests he incidentally overlooked a citizen who, resenting the oversight, determined to get even. The uninvited one had a fine horse and a dog he prized. On the backs and necks of the two he strung all the bells, tin pans, and noise-making instruments he could commandeer. Then tying the dog to the saddle with a long, strong rope, he headed for the party. When the three arrived and the festivities were well under way, the vengeful Missourian rode in and circled the house at full speed, the dog howling, he yelling and the pans and bells blaring their worst.
Everybody rushed outdoors; the demonstration was a howling success, until in passing a tree at breakneck speed, the dog chose to go one way, the horse, another. Just what you would guess happened. The dog was killed, and the horse and rider thrown and severely injured.
Episodes such as this greatly relieved the tedium of everyday life and added a colorful stripe to the saga of Greene County.
Almost without warning, the stage rumbled through, carrying mail from California and back. Pretentious buildings made their appearance; then came war. Overnight, structures intended for civil purposes were turned into barracks and surrounded by high stockades. Federal authority became supreme and battles were fought on the very edge of town. Our home was built on the site of one of those barracks, and minnie-balls were common finds after the war was over.
Though Springfield was only two hundred and forty miles from St. Louis, the railway was completed only as far as Rolla, and goods were hauled by wagon and stage when father arrived in Missouri and settled down to practice law for more than fifty years.