A Howell County Ghost Town with Several Names
Tue, 01/31/2023 - 12:38pm admin
With the construction of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad completed, the exploitation of the virgin pine forests in Howell County could begin. The big timber was located in the northwest and northeast corners of the county. The northwest portion was first harvested because it was closer to Willow Springs. A lot more was located east in Howell, Carter, and Shannon Counties, but that had to wait for the Current River Line to Grandin to be constructed.
A standard gauge railroad track was laid to Burnham and Horton. In 1881, before the railroad's arrival, the South Missouri Land Company moved its headquarters from Kansas City to Willow Springs. Their office was a large two-story building on Front or First Street (later replaced by the construction of the Horton Hotel.) The company headquarters had a large store on the bottom level and administrative offices upstairs. The first project by the company was a large mill nine miles west of Burnham. Initially known as "Drew" for W.E. Drew, the Southern Missouri Land Company manager, the town was surveyed and platted in 1884 and re-named "Horton" after the engineer who located the KCFS&M Railroad's main line.
The sections taken by the railroad didn't involve the relocation of landowners in this portion of the county because no one had filed patents or purchased land there. I believe there were some people living along the way, but because they didn't own the land, they just packed up and relocated somewhere else in the pine forest. Additional mills were built. A large one was located on Noblett Creek, near what would become the Noblett Schoolhouse.
The sixteen-mile line from Willow Springs extended west to a mile inside Douglas County. The earthen beds for the train and tram lines can still be seen in some places today. There were several other mills in the pine forest, but after sawing the logs, all the rough lumber went to Willow Springs to be planed smooth. Some planing was done at Burnham but most of it went into the dozen planers in Willow. Drying sheds were also located there, and the finished lumber was stacked and shipped throughout the United States. In the 1880s into the 1930s, yellow pine was desired for building, and the logs cut at that time yielded knot-free lumber.
According to Henry Smith, who taught school at Horton in 1888 and wrote in 1940, the Burnham mill had a capacity of seventy-five thousand feet per day. The Noblett Mill ran an average of twenty thousand board feet per day and employed one hundred men.
Remember that most of the timber extracted was cut down with hand saws and axes and hauled to the tram line by oxen. The three to five-car trains burned wood, and mostly pine knots were used. I understand that the trains to Noblett were backed there so they could be pulled forward when loaded. The engines were worm gear driven. The town of Horton was platted parked upon the railroad tracks to accommodate a siding that projected into the city. As drawn, the plat map shows the narrow gauge tracks connecting to the regular gauge line just beyond the last city street to the west. It is hard to imagine a town at "Old Horton" today, but a thriving community sprang up with estimates of fifteen hundred to two thousand people living and working there.
Portable houses were brought by rail and dropped where needed to supply some workers. Following his death in 1914, the West Plains Quill remembered a conductor on this line, Robert Minto. They wrote, "Mr. Minto, who was well known in West Plains and other towns along the Frisco, which ran from the main line at Burnham out to the lumber town of Horton, during the time that the timber was being cut from the pineries around the spot now known as 'Old Horton.' At that time, Old Horton was a flourishing little town of tents and lean-to shacks harboring some twelve or fourteen hundred people."
I might note this mention in the Quill is the earliest printed reference I can find calling Horton "Old Horton." I think this stems from the fact that a post office existed with the name Horton just a little over a year from 1885 to 1886, and it stuck. As a side note, the first and only postmaster at Horton was Joseph Voorhers, who later became a prominent merchant in Willow Springs.
On April 13, 1886, the community's name was changed to "Cordz." A man often described as a sawmill manager in this early development period, Henry Cordz owned a store where a post office was established and re-named the town after himself. Cordz and his brothers and Ollie Fisher founded the Cordz-Fisher Lumber Company with headquarters at Birch Tree. In addition to timber harvesting and processing, the Cordz-Fisher partnership formed a mining company in 1903 and did some iron ore and copper mining in Shannon County in 1903 and 1904. Henry Cordz became wealthy and moved to Texas when the timber and mineral harvesting was over. Investors in his enterprise drew dividends said to be the largest of any corporation in southern Missouri.
There were so many mills I will only mention a few of interest. One called "Hecker" was located near the future Civilian Conservation Corps camp built in the 1930s. Noblett's large timber was cut out by 1890, and this mill was moved down the tracks into Douglas County, and the new mill was known as "Last Chance."
To me, the turn of the century was the peak of the virgin pine timber harvest in Howell County. When the large lumber companies pulled out, there was a corresponding drop in the local economy forcing workers to move. A small community persisted. In the early 1900s, the Howell County Gazette carried a weekly news column informing its readers of events in town called "Cordz Breezes." Cordz remained a county election polling location into the late 1940s. In April 1914, the post office at Cordz was discontinued, and its mail was shipped to Burnham. Later, a rural route was established there from Willow Springs. Despite the population decline, a telephone line was run between Pomona and Cordz in 1908, and community activities continued. The railroad tracks were taken up, and the cut-over land was sold at low prices to the tie companies cutting smaller trees and as small farms.
Reviewing Howell County newspapers during the Cordz period of existence, I found the most written-about event was the annual Cordz Old Settler's Picnic. The event held in July or August drew a large crowd, followed by politicians and a few who attended the event to drink and fight.
An example is the West Plains Journal account of the picnic held the first week of August 1920. They reported, "During a fight over a dance at the Old Settler's Picnic at Cordz, in the northwestern part of Howell County last Thursday afternoon, Barney Hopkins, 17 years old, son of Tom Hopkins, Sheriff of Howell County, and Oscar Murrell, 25 years old, were shot by Lee and Thorntie Collins. Neither man was seriously injured."
"The fight began when Murrell and Lee Collins got into an argument over whose time it was to dance, and during the encounter, Thorntie Collins shot Murrell through the shoulder. Hopkins dragged Murrell away from the scene of the fight when the Collins men began to fire again, shooting Hopkins in the hip. The men were brought to West Plains Thursday night, and their wounds were dressed by local physicians."
A year later, the two shooters were convicted of felonious assault in Howell County Circuit Court. The jury could not agree on the punishment, so the court fixed the sentence at six months in jail and a one hundred dollar fine. The Sheriff temporarily released Lee Collins to go home and provide provisions for his family, who were alleged to be "in a starving condition."
So from Drew to Horton to Cordz and today's "Old Horton," we find today the area remains sparsely populated. During its time as Cordz, the center of the community, the general store and post office was moved around a bit to various homes, including one several miles away in the Oak Grove community. The post office was close to the Dry Creek community for a time. Postal and other governmental records often referred to Cordz being located at Horton. The 1940 Missouri Highway map clearly markes the place as Old Horton, and today we call the place where a thriving community once existed Old Horton.