The Risley History of Howell County

Part Three
In our last two articles, we looked at one of the most influential couples in our county history, Samuel “Sam” A. and Alice Carey Risley. They were responsible for much of the preservation of that history, recorded in Sam’s Centennial History of Howell County, written in 1876 and revised by Alice Carey over the next four decades.   
 
Alice was the famous one in the duo, garnering many accolades in the latter part of her life. She was celebrated as the last surviving Civil War nurse. The couple met during the Civil War when Alice Carey Farmer and her mother fled their home at Bayou le Teche, Louisiana. Forced out because of their opposition to slavery, Alice Carey was only fourteen years old when she and her mother attempted to board a boat to leave, and  were threatened with being hung as spies by a mob. The women fled in an open rowboat eastward toward Union-occupied New Orleans, where they arrived “more dead than alive.” Looking in the hospitals for someone they knew, they finally found a soldier from a Massachusetts regiment who had been a schoolmate of Alice Carey’s mother, Phoebe. 
 
Arriving in New Orleans in September 1862, the ladies began caring for the wounded and sick, where they remained beyond the duration of the war. When the war ended in April 1865, they continued to work with the soldiers, taking some into their home to recover. One of those soldiers was Samuel A. Risley, a private in the 117th Illinois Infantry, wounded in the Battle of Vicksburg. After his recovery, Sam Risley and Alice Carey corresponded for five years and were married near St. Louis in 1870. Sam left soon after for Howell County, where he and B.F. Olden built a sawmill in the Dry Creek community and lived in a lean-to for several months.
 
Alice joined him at the beginning of the new year of 1873 and started another career alongside Sam, establishing a newspaper, “The South Missouri Journal,” in West Plains. An earlier paper published by E.F. Hynes called, “The Type of the Times” had failed a year earlier. Risley’s paper was a success, and became known as “The West Plains Journal.” Type then was set by hand, lining up individual letters, a laborious process often delegated to more patient and careful women. Alice Carey set tons of type and often wrote for the paper.
 
The couple were popular, and in 1876, Sam was appointed Postmaster of West Plains, and Alice was appointed Assistant Postmistress. They were active in local politics as Republicans. Sam was also elected mayor of West Plains. The couple had four children. When a daughter died, they took their granddaughter into their home. They were active in civic organizations, especially Union veteran groups like the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) and its women’s auxiliary.
 
Alice was an accomplished writer and in the First World War, shared what it was like here in the early 1870’s, when the county was rapidly growing. She wrote, “I know now that I was as much of a curiosity to the people of Dry and Spring Creeks as they were all to me. To come out of the heart of St. Louis and settle 18 miles from town was a change which people who have come here since the days of railroads can have no conception of. We were often six weeks without mail.”
 
“All the people around us were comparatively new. At least they had not lived on their farms long enough to accumulate much besides their cotton and tobacco patches and their hound dogs. If we possessed all the gold in the Klondike, we could not have purchased a pound of butter, lard, meat, or a quart of milk. Anything but wild meat was unknown. We had forethought enough to bring coffee with us from St. Louis, and we have lived for weeks on cornbread made with salt and water and coffee without cream. Indeed, that was the bill of fare most of the time until we could raise our own garden.”
 
“All the people wore homespun, and I must say I never saw any handsomer plaids anywhere that some of the homespun dresses my neighbors wore. As for the coverlets, I, to this day, crave one of the many beautiful ones I have seen at Uncle Andy Tabor’s, beautiful both in coloring and design.”
 
Alice wrote, “Before I leave the sawmill period, I must say that a more generous, whole-souled, big-hearted people never lived that I found on Spring and Dry Creeks. (Here, I should note that the Dry Creek mentioned is northwest of Pottersville. The mill was later moved to Cureall) She continued, “I made my first advent into Howell County in a one-horse buggy (the only buggy in Howell County) from Rolla, a distance of 100 miles. I afterwards made the trip four different times. We old timers who used to travel that road knew all of the people from here to Rolla better than I know the residents of West Plains today, and we can tell many ludicrous anecdotes of those trips. We had two mails a week, which came via Houston, that is, if the water was not up, or the contractor’s time expired and the new one failed to materialize.”
 
“There was one schoolhouse. I went to it one night to a magic lantern performance, and it seemed a long walk through the woods, and rocks, and stumps. Although the elite of the town was there, there was room for all and some to spare. The house still stands only a short distance from the square. There were only three houses west of Washington Avenue. The remaining territory was covered with timber and underbrush. It may sound a little ‘fishy,’ but it is true nevertheless, that in the summer of 1875, I started from the house on Washington Avenue to call on a sick lady who lived in a little square house. There were no streets, and I was told to, ‘follow the path.’ I started out and followed a path which was one of many hog paths and came out about where Henry Moore lives. I well remember my fright, for I thought I was truly a babe in the woods. Suffice it to say, I got there at last, literally covered with seed ticks.”
 
“The only church was the one now used as a restaurant on Washington Avenue. To the best of my knowledge, the building did not belong to any denomination and was used on alternate Sabbaths by the different local preachers. We all went to church in those days, and we who remember that far back often speak of the whole-souled neighborly time we had. It made no difference what your politics or religion were, we all met there as one family. And what immaculate white aprons and white ruffled sunbonnets we wore, each one satisfied that her toilette was just as good as anybody. It has always been a sad thought to me that as the town grew and the different churches were built, we who used to be one family drifted apart and are comparative strangers, simply because we seldom meet unless we go to their church or their special society meetings.”
 
“When Mr. Risley came here in 1870, the square was covered with hazel brush with paths across it. I have heard him say that B.F. Olden, Jim Galloway, and himself were the only men in town who wore store clothes, and that he had to keep his Sunday coat locked in his trunk lest someone should borrow it without asking to wear it to a dance. If the borrower happened to be 50 or 100 pounds heavier than he, it was disastrous to the coat. The days when men began to wear store clothes were coincident with the times when we called for store tea if we didn’t want sassafras when we began to yearn for store ingrain to replace our well-worn rag carpets, and when one of our most prominent citizens expressed himself as believing that ‘the pendulum of American liberty am about to be broke.' The coming of freight wagons was always a gala day. We could see the covered wagons coming down the hill into the lane as they came into town bringing new things that seemed to put us in touch with the outside world.
 
In the early 1890s, the country of Nicaragua was considered as the location for a canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Panama eventually got the canal, but in the meantime, there was a lot of investment in the country. There was also a lot of anti-American sentiment. Sam, and his old business partner B.F. Olden, bought a large tract of land at a place called Bluefields, Nicaragua, and began planting a banana plantation. In April 1893, the Rolla Herald reported from West Plains, “Sam A. Risley of this place, who is at present superintending a banana plantation in Central America, was shot by his foreman, whom he had discharged a couple of weeks ago. The news of the shooting just reached here. The trouble arose over some money matters. For four days it was thought Risley would die, but when the letter was written he was slowly improving.”
 
But, things did not improve for Sam. He never fully recovered from his injuries, and the eventual failure of the plantation left him financially pinched and despondent. He tried dealing in bicycles in Springfield, and while on a business trip in February 1894 checked into the Metropolitan Hotel where he stayed for two weeks. On the afternoon of March 8, 1894, the hotel staff was unable to enter his room to clean. A skylight was forced and once inside the porter discovered that Sam had committed suicide. The Springfield Leader and Press reported, “It is said that Mr. Risley was at supper last night, but as he did not appear at his meals today and no notice was taken to knockings at the door. By the bedside were found a razor and knife in a chair, and an empty vial from which chloroform had been taken. These formidable weapons were not all used in the effort to terminate life, though the desperate man was evidently depending upon not only one agent of destruction. He was bound to die and provided himself with the opportunities.”
 
Sam was fifty-four years old. The Springfield Leader and Press reported from the inquest hearing that followed recognized his talent, “In writing the several letters found Mr. Risley showed that he possessed a nerve and steadiness of hand seldom equaled by anyone even in the coolest frame of mind. He wrote a fine business hand; his diction and punctuation were perfect and it is remarkable that there was not in these letters the least indications of any turbulence of mind, but everything was written in a business-like manner as though he was just preparing to take a journey with the expectation of an early return. One letter in a large envelope, sealed, stamped, and addressed to his wife at West Plains was forwarded without their contents being disclosed.”
 
Sam was buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery in West Plains. Alice Carey and her children moved to Jefferson City after his death, and eventually, Columbia so her granddaughter could attend college, where she was a hostess in a sorority house.  Her heart was always with West Plains and the people of Howell County and she was loved by them, returning to visit. 
 
Alice became active and served as President of the National Civil War Nurses Association, attending Union veteran encampments across the state. Sam drew a pension after the war for his service, and in the United States Congress, a special bill was introduced to grant her a pension. 
 
In 1920, she was part of the movement that granted the right to vote to women.
 
She lived to be ninety-two years old, and upon her death at the home of her son Guy Risley in Alexandria, Virginia, her body was returned to Oak Lawn Cemetery to rest alongside her husband. A red granite marker records a long life from 1847 to 1939, and her service to the country.  A memorial granite bench was placed in the family plot in her honor. 
 
The Risleys were a valuable addition to the West Plains community and Howell County, and their efforts at preserving our history are priceless. 
 
Content Paywall Trunction: 
Free

Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793
417-252-2123

Comment Here