A History of Willow Springs, Howell County, Missouri 1839-1951 by R.J. Huckshorn
Wed, 12/14/2022 - 11:33am admin
In the past couple of issues, we’ve explored an unpublished local history written by John Frommel.
Another unpublished manuscript deserving of attention is a local history written by R.J. Huckshorn in 1951. Robert Jack Huckshorn was a resident of Willow Springs in the early part of his life, graduating from Willow Springs High School. He briefly worked in Willow Springs until he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, where he served as a domestic intelligence investigator stationed in Hollywood, California. It was in this period the manuscript was written.
During his investigative duties, one time, he passed the salt and pepper to Marilyn Monroe during breakfast, and another time played poker with Bud Abbot and Lou Costello. Leaving the Army in 1952, Robert returned to school and earned a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Iowa and California. He took a sabbatical from education to serve as the Republican National Committee’s liaison to the John F. Kennedy White House. Next, after considering other job offers, Huckshorn took a position in 1964 as a founding faculty member of Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter, Florida. He rose to the position of Vice President of the college, headed the political science department, and wrote books on national and Florida politics.
His narrative starts with a pretty good depiction of the formation of the county and its early years. Huckshorn wrote:
“Howell County, Missouri, is located in the South Central part of the state between the thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh parallel. Howell County was founded in 1857 by the Missouri State Legislature. The county was given the territory embraced in ranges 7, 8, 9, and 10, east and west, and from the north line of township 27, north to the southern boundary of Missouri, south. The boundary remains the same to the present day.”
“At the present time, Howell County is a county of the third class with an assessed valuation of $10,794,943. The area of the county is 920 square miles, and the approximate 1950 population is 25,000.”
“There are twelve geographic townships in Howell County. The county seat was set at West Plains, which had been unofficially founded in 1839 by a hunter named Adams, who had settled about one mile east of the present site of West Plains. Adams was the first recorded settler in the present boundary of Howell County and chose the spot on which he settled because of a spring which was there. The City of West Plains at the present time (1951) gets part of its water supply from that same spring.”
Of course, West Plains no longer gets any of its water from the old town spring, and I was unaware that it did as late as the 1950s. When the Post Office was built over the spring, the water was piped into the city waste \water system and was known to be quite polluted. Huckshorn continues,
“Adams was in a lonely neighborhood; his nearest neighbor was over twenty miles away. After a few months, Adams tired of the lonely and secluded life he had selected for himself and sold his property to a man named Josiah Howell, who settled down and is officially recorded as being the first permanent settler of the county which bears his name.”
“He moved to the site of the present-day city of West Plains later in the year. Soon afterward, in 1839, signs of civilization began showing in the area. Soon Howell had moved his sons, William, Josephus, and Thomas, to the same general area. Thomas J. Howell later became a State Representative from Oregon County to the southeast of Howell. The next year 1840, only one settler came to the area. Eli Taber settled on Spring Creek. He was later elected as presiding judge of Ozark County after it was founded by the legislature in 1840.”
To clarify, Howell County was named by the Missouri Legislature in honor of Josiah Howell’s son, Thomas, who served several terms as a State Representative before dying in office. Thomas is buried in Jefferson City.
“In 1841, a settler named McCammon settled three miles east of West Plains, and a farmer named Hutton settled in a valley which now bears his name. Hutton didn’t wish to be crowded, so when some neighbors moved in twenty miles away, he pulled up stakes and moved on into the western wilderness of Missouri.”
“It was about this time that A.V. Tabor started building a road which ran down the North Fork and was the first road in the territory which at that time belonged to Ripley County. Because of the lack of roads, the early settlers had to travel to St. Louis or Batesville to sell their furs and buy their supplies of groceries, ammunition, and medicine. A.V. Tabor, in 1841, traveled forty miles to mill, and others unrecorded traveled even further. There were no sawmills in the immediate territory, and all flat lumber had to be salvaged from puncheons, which were a cask of keg about twice the size of a barrel. Puncheons were used for coffins too.”
“Sam A. Risley records that during this period, much more attention was given to politics than in later days. He records a talk with A.V. Tabor, who told him that in 1840 he traveled thirty miles to vote. He took along a keg of whiskey and, on the way, ran into three more men with the same objective and three more kegs of whiskey. During the trip, he says that the four of them had a ‘jolly time.’”
“In 1844, the county court of Ripley County organized the territory into Howell Township, and in the election of 1844, Howell Township recorded fourteen votes, all for James K. Polk for President.”
“In 1845, Oregon County was created, and the tax books show a population at 150, of which 25 resided in the present territory of Howell County.”
“In 1846, the last hunting parties of Indians visited the area. They were made up of hunting parties from the Delaware, Shawnee, and Kaw tribes. At that time, game was abundant in the territory and as many as sixty and seventy elk were reported seen at one time. Equal numbers of deer and black bear were to be found. A good hunting dog would bring more than a good horse, Risley reports. Considerable immigration was reported in 1848 because of favorable reports made in the east by survey parties and hunters.”
“In 1850, Josiah Howell ran a Post Office about one mile from the present public square in West Plains. The name was given it because, at that time, there was not a single tree for a considerable distance around the Post Office and Judge J.R. Woodside of Oregon County, in which it was located, thought it was an appropriate name.”
“In 1856-57, the territory had increased sufficiently in population so that the legislature created the present county of Howell. County judges were Benjamin Alsup, Jason Ellison, and John M. Russell. Judge Ellison resigned his job, and John McDaniel was appointed to succeed him. The first sheriff was Joseph Howell, and Joseph Hains was the first county clerk. The first court of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit was held in a log cabin about one mile east of West Plains and tried only one case.”
“At the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, the county had a population of 3,200, of which 150 lived in West Plains. The town in 1861 had several stores and dwelling houses, and a ‘passable’ courthouse. The people generally were thriving and happy.”
“The war in 1861 saw Howell County incline to favor the southern cause for secession. In the summer of that year, the people formed three companies of Confederate State Guardsmen under the command of Captains Galloway of West Plains, Howard of South Fork, and Forshee of Gunter’s Valley. These three companies first went into battle with very little training in August 1861 at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek near the present site of the city of Springfield, Missouri. Several men were lost. When the six-month term for service was up, the men came home, and a company of volunteers was organized by Captain Howard and a man named Nicks. This company went south and eventually fought in the Battle of Corinth. The few men in the country who wished to join the Union Army had to travel to Rolla to do so. Because of animosity shown Union sympathizers in Howell County, many of them fled to Springfield, Salem, and Pilot Knob to settle.”
“Only about one dozen families remained in the area during the early part of the war because this county was so located that with every advance and retreat of their Army, the territory was crossed. Each war party brought the horrors of the war home to the Howell Countians so that many of them were driven out for the duration. The remaining residents were forced to lay out for weeks at a time in the woods and caves to escape being captured or killed. In 1863 not a single soul remained at West Plains, and a Mr. Pennington reported that on a trip through the city, the only living thing he saw was a cat.”
“Risley describes it as thus, ‘The doors of tenantless houses swung to and fro, the curtainless sash rattled in the breeze. Tall weeds filled the streets; the very birds had flown from the desolate scene. Mr. Pennington returned to his home determined to leave the country as far behind as possible.”
“The important county records were removed from the courthouse in 1861 and hidden in a nearby cave where they remained until after the war.”
“The only instance known where the two armies actually fought a battle in Howell County was in 1862 when a small company of Federal troops took refuge in the courthouse in West Plains. The courthouse had been abandoned at the beginning of the war when the people of West Plains fled their homes. A little while after the Confederate troops settled down in the courthouse, a company of Federal troops ignorant of the occupancy of the courthouse also tried to make it their camp. A good lively fight ensued in which several men were killed. The Federals shot a small cannon down Washington Avenue and dispersed the Confederate soldiers.
Another military sortie occurred on South Fork on what was known as the Hylton Farm,
but no one was killed or injured.”
“In 1863, a party of three or four guerrillas led by a man named Watson burned the entire city of West Plains and every building in Howell County, Not a building of any kind was left standing. Even the rail fences were burned by the Watson guerrillas.”
“At the close of the war, a, grim and determined people returned to their small cities and farms to find nothing but ashes. A less resolute people would have moved on, but these Howell County pioneers had settled this country, and they could re-settle it. It was like having a new country. In 1865 a few families returned. In 1866 a few more, but in 1867 most of the former residents returned to go to work and reconstruct their country.”
“The county was reorganized in 1867. Peter Lamons, Joseph Speers, and Richard Havens were appointed as county judges. W.D. Mustion was the new sheriff, and W.Z. Buck the clerk. The records of the county were recovered from the cave in which they had been secreted and were put in a little ten by twelve (foot) log hut which served as the clerk’s office. The hut and all records were destroyed by fire in 1867.”
In our next issue, we will continue with the second half of Huckshorn’s Howell County-Willow Springs history and the author’s time here.