A History of Downtown Willow Springs
Wed, 10/05/2022 - 3:45pm admin
We start a series on the history of downtown Willow Springs with this issue. From the start, Willow Springs was a railroad town. Much of Hutton Valley and surrounding communities moved to the railroad and its opportunities for employment or commerce. From the first train's arrival on Christmas Day 1882, Willow Springs became a boom town. Giant mill saws and lumber planes whirred along with the daytime hustle and bustle of town life, with trains coming and going. An industry was built up on First Street (the street next to the tracks) to serve the railroad and its passengers. Hotels occupied the majority of the First Street of Front Street frontage. The dirt street was also known as Main Street. The center of all this activity was the railroad depot, with a set of concrete steps leading up to a large concrete flower bed and a metal "Welcome" sign arching overhead, launching you onto Center Street.
Center Street became the "center" of activity, much of it timed to the movements of the railroad. The New and Old Hotel Horton stood at the southwestern corner of First and Center Streets. A first-class hotel, the Horton featured a full dining room, a waiting or smoking room allowing visitors to watch the trains arriving and leaving with seats facing a large picture window facing the tracks. A sizeable two-story commerce building built on the northeast corner of Center and Second Streets by Joseph Voohers in the 1890s offered all kinds of dry goods, clothing, shoes, and "general merchandise."
For years downtown events such as the circus were held in a city park located at the southeastern corner of Center and Main Streets, where a city parking lot and concrete water storage tank now stand.
Being some of the first commercial buildings erected in Willow Springs, the business buildings on Center were among the first to deteriorate to the point of needing to be taken down. First Street faced a similar fate as business along the railroad tracks picked up an aura of traveling salesmen and hucksters riding the trains. Bars like Charley Happle's Current River Saloon and rumors of prostitution available along the tracks pushed respectable business to Second Street in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Fire significantly modified the Willow Springs street front along the tracks. A series of fires starting with the Beersheers Hotel and Saloon around 1909, followed by the Commercial Motel the same year, signaled the decline of the block of five hotels built along the tricks. Many of the first buildings on First and Center Streets were wooden structures. One by one, these hotels, some brick, were lost to fires culminated by the Old and New Horton Hotel's loss on December 17, 1965.
The Horton was already in significant decline and no longer functioned as a hotel; its interior housed equipment and bottles from a Seven-Up bottling plant and a portion of the building was being used as a bus station. Only six people were living in the building.
The automobile dramatically changed Willow Springs, and by the First World War, railroad passenger service declined over the years and finally ceased. The "center" of the town shifted eastward a block, and Second Street became Main Street, or more accurately, Highways 60 and 63, which came through town. All this was good for businesses along Main but signaled a profound decline in activities on Center Street.
A steel bridge with a wooden floor was built in 1896 on Harris Street that connected parts of town developing on the west side of the tracks along with the Pine Grove community a few miles west of town. It was a noisy contraption that rattled every time a vehicle crossed. The overpass, also known locally as the "viaduct" or "vidock," was replaced with a concrete structure in 1936 as paved roads arrived in Willow Springs.
Back on Center Street and across from the Vorhees building stood the Protiva-Horak Hardware Company in a building constructed sometime in the mid to late 1880s. It is likely the oldest commercial building in Willow Springs. It's showing its age and has been the center of controversy for some time because of its deteriorated condition. First occupied as a store by W. A. McClellan, the "Buggies and Wagons" building once had an ornate metal facade, as did the Vorhees building. McClellan ran a hardware business until 1909, when he sold it to the Protiva-Horak partnership. The original building was fifty by one hundred feet wide with two floors, a full basement, and a freight elevator.
Business was good, and two buildings to store inventory were built. In 1915 a Frisco train arrived in town on a hot, windy day and a "hotbox" on one of the freight cars set fires in the brush along the tracks, which was carried into town. Both Protiva-Horak inventory buildings burned, along with the Willow Springs Railroad Depot. Several other buildings were damaged by fire. The 100 East Main and Center Streets building was sold several times from the 1950s onward, and its ultimate fate today is uncertain.
This building and others in the vicinity of the Willow Springs four-way stop at Main and Harris Streets were likely built of bricks dug and fired in Willow Springs. A brickyard was located east of the old KOA campground. Several problems compound those old bricks associated with age. First, it is imperative to keep a roof on the building. Rainwater infiltrating the building dissolves the inner brick wall. The Charles Ferguson and several downtown buildings built in the late 1890s and 1900s have three brick exterior walls, side by side. The hardness of the brick lessens as you go inward on the exterior walls. If wet, the inside bricks start dissolving. A wall of the Charles Ferguson building fell into the street before the building was restored. More about this later.
Most of these buildings were built as rectangular boxes with pockets in the brick walls for the roof supporting rafters, and if a basement existed, holes or pockets in the walls held up the first and succeeding floors. When water infiltrates the pockets, the wood rots, and eventually, the roof collapses, often bringing the walls with it.
Many buildings share a common wall, making demolishing a building dangerous and expensive. A telltale sign that water is getting into a building is continuously foggy windows, and mold eventually becomes an issue. Brick walls must be tuck-pointed as the masonry holding the wall together deteriorates and crumbles. The majority of brick buildings downtown need tuck-pointing and sealing.
Hard decisions must be made when it comes to restoring these buildings. Often the cost of demolition and preparing the ground exceeds the value of the structure. But, just as often, the cost of building restoration exceeds the cost of just building a new one. But, more has to be taken into account than cost. The esthetic consequence of removing one of the brick buildings the town is known for has to be considered. I think it is akin to having a front tooth missing in the smile of the city. More on this later also.
On the northwest corner of Main and Center, facing north, where G&W Supermarket is now located, we could find the Bank of Willow Springs, established in 1903. The top of the building shows a construction date of 1891. The original brick walls are under metal siding and in good shape. The building had a unique squared front looking down Center Street toward the depot. A handle-operated well pump stood on Main Street in front of the bank. The upper story served as offices for Dr. J.C. Davis and succeeding doctors.
Between the more significant brick commerce buildings anchoring the corners of Center Street, we find several businesses that flourished there but eventually left as traffic shifted to Main Streets. Among those were restaurants, grocery stores, bars, dry cleaners, and variety stores. The buildings on the west side of Center Street were destroyed in fires on more than one occasion, including a pool hall, Willow Springs News Office, and laundromat. Every building on the east side of Center south of the "Buggies and Wagons" building was destroyed.
Across the street, on Center's west side, a slower destruction process was happening. In September 1987, three unoccupied, adjoining buildings were the main topic of discussion in a Willow Springs City Council Meeting, wherein the building owners were asked to repair or tear them down. According to the West Plains Quill, "All three own the bottom portion of the buildings, only. City officials have not been able to find the owner of the upper part of the structures." The dilemma was that repairs to the buildings' bottom portion would do little until the leaks upstairs were stopped. The effort to identify the legal owners of the buildings drug on through additional council hearings, a condemnation notice by the city, and a case in Howell County Circuit Court. A court ruling on who was responsible for what was finally issued in February 1991, and three days later, the center section of the roofs of the buildings collapsed. Luckily, the building was unoccupied at the time. In December 1991, the case was settled with the business owners agreeing to pay to remove the collapsed buildings and the city providing barricades and a dump site for the debris.
In our next issue, we will turn the corner of Center Street and explore the history of downtown and its buildings along Main Street.