Pioneer Merchant Benjamin B. Carter
Wed, 09/01/2021 - 1:05pm admin
One of the pioneer merchants of our county, though once a prominent citizen, is forgotten by some county histories. I believe he deserves some documentation. I first noted his name in a listing of the county's first postmasters, and he was mentioned having a store at the south junction of today's highways 60 and 63, south of Willow Springs. Benjamin B. Carter served as the third postmaster of Willow Springs on May 8, 1871. Willow Springs had only existed for three years and had as many postmasters and post office locations almost two miles apart. Carter set up shop at a little community shown as "Alsipsburg," located on a map on the farm of Ben Alsup, as mentioned, south of Willow Springs. Cora Pottenger, the author of a research paper on Missouri place names, said, "Benjamin Carter had a store and kept the post office one mile southeast of the present site of Willow Springs before the town was laid out."
Carter, in later years affectionately known as "Uncle Ben," or "B.B. Carter," had already established himself as a merchant in West Plains, one of the first to try to tackle conducting business in a county still unsettled and torn up by Civil War strife. He had the credentials to be here, having served as a Union soldier in the war. In less than a year, Carter gave up being postmaster, sold his land, and by the late summer of 1872 was concentrating on business in West Plains, where he had another store since 1867.
Backing up a bit, we find that Benjamin Carter was born in 1846 and spent his early life in South Auburn, Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the 203rd Pennsylvania Infantry "Sharpshooters" in August 1864 as a private at nineteen years of age. His regiment had just been organized, and by October, they were thrown into the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, until it fell in December. Next, he fought in an assault on Fort Fisher, North Carolina. He participated in the capture of other towns and forts until the surrender of General Johnston and his Confederate Army. He mustered out of the service in June 1865.
By 1867 we find B.B. Carter in Howell County and in1868 married to Miss Johanna Dunnivan of Rolla. An article in the West Plains Quill published years later stated in 1868, Carter sold a wooden building he had erected on the Northwest Corner of the Square and Washington Avenue for five thousand dollars, a princely sum at the time. First known as the Carter building, it was later known as the Stephens Building and identified as the oldest in West Plains. While the rest of the county, particularly West Plains, was embroiled in martial law and armed civil disturbance between factions at each other's throats since the start of the Civil War, Carter seems to have struck a balance between the groups and thrived in business in the late 1860s into 1870.
Ben's success brought a brother George H. Carter to join his mercantile business known as Carter Brothers. Later they dissolved their partnership, and George became a banker. After that, Ben specialized in the hardware business, also selling buggies and wagons. Carter eventually sold his hardware line to Aid Hardware, continued to sell wagons, and dabbled in the grocery business with a son.
He was active as one of the oldest members of the Mount Zion Masonic Lodge and a charter member of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in West Plains. In the Fall of 1903 Ben Carter opposed the union of the Cumberland Presbyterian and United Presbyterian Church in West Plains, leading to ten years of litigation ending in the Missouri Supreme Court. Though Carter was on the losing side, he attended and served the First Presbyterian Church in West Plains.
As a merchant, Carter was familiar with the courts, which I think were used more often in the course of business than today. In 1890 Ben Carter found himself in conflict with an old associate, mule breeder "Uncle" Johnny Bays." The West Plains Gazette reported, "Early this last summer, Ben Carter rented some ground from Bays to put a threshing machine on exhibition. Not a cent of rent for the ground has been paid, although 'Uncle' Johnny has asked Ben for it time and again. Ben claims that it was a partnership affair, but Johnnie disclaims any knowledge of any such understanding and says if the rent is not immediately forthcoming, he will commence suit for the same right away. This is a serious misunderstanding, and the result of the strained relations between these two gentlemen is anxiously awaited by a large number of friends of both parties."
At the end of the year, the matter remained unresolved, and the Gazette again reported, "Ben Carter says that if Uncle Johnnie Bays don't quit sending him such vile matter through the mail, he will get himself into trouble. Ben says he has stood about all of Uncle Johnnie's foolishness he is going to. We dislike very much to see the broach widening between the two gentlemen, for they are both friends of ours. Ben says he has tried everything imaginable to make the partnership 'a thing of beauty and joy forever,' but without any good result, his partner constantly going to the bad. His partner, Ben says, can have the machine in question and what other assets the firm is possessed of and do with them what he pleases, for he is done with the concern for good. He has stood Uncle Johnnie's insults and bullyragging as long as possible and intimate that he will not have it rubbed in on him any longer; that if there is any more of it attempted, there will be trouble of a serious nature."
The matter must have been resolved because it no longer appeared in the papers.
In 1903 Carter built a new brick warehouse just north of his hardware store to store and display his buggies for sale. That fall, the majority of his stock of hardware was sold to the Aid Hardware Company. The Gazette reported, "Mr. Carter did not sell his stock of buggies and farming implements. He will continue to handle these goods. Occupying the same stand that he has used as a business house for many years. Mr. Carter has handled hardware in West Plains since 1867, and during that time, has done an immense business. His retirement will be regretted by the many customers who have traded with him for the many years he has been in business.
For Christmas 1904 B.B. Carter returned to the home of his childhood, South Auburn, Pennsylvania, for a month.
In 1907 B.B. Carter's name appeared in the papers as one of the Union veterans who registered at the Ozark Veteran's Reunion held in West Plains in October.
Carter's home on Michigan Avenue was the site of social occasions, especially those hosted by his daughters for friends and church activities. Ben's health began to fail him in 1907, and he went to the sanitarium in Nevada, Missouri, several times for treatment. He died in the hospital there in June 1917. A large crowd attended funeral services at his home, now on West Cleveland Avenue in West Plains, and he was laid to rest in the Masonic plot in Oak Lawn Cemetery.
Carter's success so soon after the Civil War astounds me. This was a very difficult place in the political climate of 1867, and Howell County was still considered a howling wilderness. Most of the goods to be sold had to be freighted in wagons over rough roads from Rolla, Springfield, or Ironton. When the railroad finally arrived in 1882, mercantile business was easier, but with it, competition came, but Carter managed to do it for over fifty years.