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History Towns and Cities Grow Thomasville

Almost 200 years ago:
Thomasville was a center of civilization

By Marideth Sisco
originally published in the West Plains Daily Quill, August 1989

There is a village In the river hollows east of West Plains that once was the center of civillzation on a wild American frontier. Now, most of the world has passed by the tiny hamlet of Thomasvllle. The casual passerby would quickly note that only the oldtlmers and memories remain. Or so it appears.

But in truth, life and memories continue side by side comfortably today in Thomasville -- the life enjoyed richly and the memories running deep for those whose names, and faces, are the same as first settled here in the long fertile valley of the Eleven Point River.

First Settlement

Even the oldest memories of the oldest residents do not go back all the way to 1812, when a party of six men traveling from Slaughterville, Ky. by way of the land office in Jackson, Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, rode across at least two streams and numerous sloughs into a settlement of Osage Indians in the river valley, and decided they would stop there and homestead. About four years later, according to old newspaper accounts, another party of from six to eight families arrived, and the first white settlement In the Ozarks took root.

For awhile, until another settlement at Davidsonvllle, Arkansas was established, providing trading facilities and a land office that could be reached by way of the rivers, settlers traveled overland from Thomasville back to Jackson to trade furs for salt, coffee and lead. The trip was 150 miles each way, with no road between.

Gunpowder was homemade, from sumac charcoal and saltpeter mined from a cave upriver from Thomasville.

By the mid-1830s, the Osage were gone, driven from the land by soldiers, like the Cherokee were, to a forced but somewhat unintentional relocation to the Oklahoma oilfields.

Thomasmille continued to grow and thrive, and other settlements began branching out. By the 1850s, one such town had taken root on the fertile prairies west of Thomasvllle, on the 'west plains."

Slow Death

That the towns were fast friends and trading partners is indicated by the family names that were prominent In both, such as the banker Harlins, the merchant Eads, the farmer Joliffs. But in 1882, one became the slow death of the other, when the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis Railroad sent its route along the high ground through West Plains. The river bottoms proved too soft for the iron wheels again in 1887, when the Current River Railroad branched away east, scattering the little new towns of Willow Springs, Mountain View, Birch Tree and Montier in its wake. Rivers were losing to the railroads for transportation all across the frontier by then, and the former land office town of Davidsonville soon died away. [Davidsonvllle, Ark. was located just north of the modern village of Black Rock, Ark. Old Davldsonville State Park marks the site.]

Bypassed

It was during this time, too, that the once vast counties were redrawn and reapportioned and Thomasvllle, once in the center of Oregon County, was no longer on the road to anywhere. When a large part of Oregon County was carved away and added to similar parings of Douglas and Ozark Counties to create the new county of Howell, the Oregon County seat was moved from Thomasville to Alton.

Thomasville, lying in its fertile valley, was attached to the world only by unimproved wagon roads, and instead of the center of civilization, had become only a central hamlet for area farmers and frontiersmen for whom the frontier had moved on.

Determined

But, curiously, it did not die. As the American economy fluctuated wildly between boom and bust and boom again, and as towns that could not adapt to a changing population pattern were dying off, Thomasville just kept on taking its farming, banklng, and merchanting seriously, if on a much smaller scale. And although it no longer grew, still it prospered.

"It is evident from the architecture of the town that around the turn of the century there was some middle class prosperity going on." said Dr. Robert Flanders, Ozarks historlan and director of the Center for Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University, Springfield. "There were a number of good houses built by the merchants, traders and farmers of the area."

Then And Now

At the beginning of the new century, progress came to town in the form of a steam engine for threshing wheat, and a new doctor who took over an older practice and built a new home a few blocks west of the Masonic Hall. The steam engine, as well as Thomasville's first automobile, was purchased by local entrepreneur Andrew Jackson Williams, who was also involved, with some other residents, in the construction and operation of an electrical generator that provided lights for downtown Thomasville, long before the Rural Electrification Association came with its poles and strands of power and connected Thomasville with the world.

The Years Pass

As the years passed and changes grew in the world outside, life in Thomasville went on much the same. Somewhere during those times, someone purchased an early projector, and an upstairs meeting hall was converted into a theater for a time. Then the road from Thomasvllle to West Plains became a highway, and was paved by the state. What had been a two-day trip by wagon could be done in a morning, by car. Local stores began to carry stocks of once rare supplies, and families that had once ordered salt in 250-lb. barrels from St. Louls, shipped by train to Mtn. View and by wagon to Thomasvllle, used the telephone to place their orders with a local grocer, and began buying what they would need for the week, instead of for the year.

The Shaws

In 1931, young Dick Shaw, a Chlcago architect and b usinessman traveling out west in search of Investment land, had the good fortune to return home by way of the Ozarks. When he came to Thomasville, he fell In love. He purchased a large tract of land, built a cabin, and began the Eleven Point Ranch, which continues today, now some 16,000 acres strong. He and his wife Peggy now live in retirement at their home far back In the ranchland, while their son, Dusty, carries on the operation as ranch manager.

The Eleven Point Ranch has grown until it now borders on the town's limits, coming now just up to to the Thomasvllle School, built in the 1930s as a WPA project. It is now a communlty building.

The Shaws have been amiable benefactors to the town during their 50 years of residence, providing jobs, helping fiund community projects, and being good neighbors. With their presence, say residents, the town's future was and is assured.

In the 1960s, another investment group began acquiring land on the other end of town, following the fertile valley upriver. This became the Brookwood Ranch, which also now numbers in the thousands of acres. The residents appreciate the jobs it provides and are grateful for its presence, but its investors live elsewhere, and are not really considered kin, as are the Shaws.

As the Brookwood Ranch began to grow and take shape, those with land on its borders began considering whether to stay or to sell.

Back Home Cafe

I visited the Back Home Cafe, where a number of old Thomasville residents had gathered to help in assembling the material for this story.

I asked questions for awhile, but the talk soon drifted away from my questions and into topics of more interest, such as the year of the first graduatlng class from the school; or where, exactly, the boarding house stood that had housed the out-of-town students who once traveled to Thomasville and lived there while they attended high school. On and on, back into time, their voices droned, weaving again their history. At one point, they talked about the taking away of the Osage as though it were yesterday. Having grown up with an Osage uncle in my own family, I listened with interest. As Jack Campbell, local farmer, lay historian and descendant of many of the first families, told what he had dlscovered and surmised about early Osage settlements, I was making quick notes of what he said. But as he talked, a subtle and curious change came in his voice, all at once, as he said: "They can say what they want, but I can tell you right now the soldlers didn't take all the Osage."

I looked up from my notes, puzzled by the statement. No one said anything, but several were nodding their heads. And suddenly I saw, or I believe I saw, my uncle's dark Osage eyes looking from the speaker's face. I looked around the room, and there were more dark twinkling eyes looking back at me, inviting me, In the Indian way, to either take the message or pass it by.

No, I thought and grinned, the soldiers didn't take all the Osage away from their village beside the Eleven Point.

I took the point, and the moment passed.

I felt a great kinship with the people and the history we have shared. I am from a different part of the Ozarks. But at Thomasvllle, I discovered a common thread, strong and unbroken, in our lives.

In Thomasvllle, there still exists the Ozarks of the frontier, of the Osage, a curiously tlmeless place that hangs suspended as the world passes from age to age. As the slow talk passes in the Back Home Cafe, so the moments pass as slowly in the other tiny rural ancient towns across the Ozarks. The children chafe against it, and they thash and fidgit in front of their parents' television sets, taking the advertising as seriously as the entertainment, awaiting their chance to escape to the "real" world promised to them electronlcally.

But as we were also young once in this place, and yearned to get away, we know that even in the young ones, the memories of the pace of the days In this place run clear and deep. As deep as in their blood is etched the flavor of these hills, recognlzable even in dreams, comforting even from afar. And as they once called the Osage, and the pioneers, and all the varied settlers since -- so they will always call each one of us back to our Ozarks home.

 

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