West Plains' Spring Park
Wed, 03/24/2021 - 11:41am admin
The development of communities has always interested me. Towns in this area grew due to their location along vital roadways, or perhaps from selection as a county seat. Jobs were a significant attraction; trade areas served by businesses and the railroad's arrival were factors. Towns provided services like water, sewer, and electricity to retain their population and add newcomers. One of the last attractions provided by communities in the Ozarks was public parks.
The story of Spring Park in West Plains follows that pattern but includes a deeper tale. I think the site of the "old town spring," or "Spring Park," in West Plains is one of the most historically significant places in Howell County.
Now known as "The Historic Post Office LLC," the old postal building on top of the old spring has been remodeled and is being used as an event and venue space at 204 East Main, just off the West Plains Square. They have a lot of photos and information about the site displayed in the building. I spoke there to the West Plains Rotary Club this past week about the place's history and thought it would be worth sharing here.
Local lore primarily collected by Sam and Alice Risley in 1876 on the occasion of our national centennial credits a Mr. Adams as the first to live there. Some accounts document him as A. M. Adams, the first person to live at the spring known as the West Plains' Town Spring. Adams arrived at the spring in late 1838 or early 1839 and became tired of being alone. He sold his "improvements" at the spring to the Howell family, consisting of Josiah Howell and his three sons, William, Thomas Jefferson, and Josephus N. Howell. They arrived here in the fall of 1839 or winter of 1840. Adams did not own the land, but the tradition enforced in the backwoods mandated an occupant on a piece of land be compensated for his work before vacating the property for someone else. The Howells did not own the property after the transaction either. The land could not be sold because it was not for sale yet. In the howling wilderness that Howell County was at this time, the United States Government had not surveyed this part of the state. When they did get around to surveying in 1848, the surveyor noted the spring where Thomas Jefferson "Tommy" Howell was living and pointed out that a tanning yard was nearby. It probably was a smelly place.
The other members of the Howell family settled in what was known as the Howell Valley, named in their honor. Howell County was named for Tommy Howell, who served in the Missouri legislature when the county was formed on March 2, 1857. The Howell Valley, shallow and wide, begins at the spring and extends through West Plains and is drained by Howell Creek, which is part of the upper Warm Fork Creek, the longest tributary of Spring River flowing below Mammoth Spring, Arkansas.
I'm getting a little ahead of myself concerning historical events at the spring. The early historians also recorded that Tommy Howell "parleyed with Indians camping at the spring," presumably in the late 1830s. They were likely a Delaware or Shawnee band not yet rounded up for the Trail of Tears and driven to Indian Territory to the west. The Risley's wrote, "As late as 1846, hunting bands of Indians from the Delaware, Kaw, and Shawnee tribes visited this country frequently. At this time, the woods were full of bears, deer, elk, and other game. It was no uncommon thing to see fifty or sixty elk in one drove."
John R. Woodside arrived at the spring in 1849 to survey and laid out a plat for a town that he named West Plains for the plains west of Thomasville. The few houses in the limits of the new village drew their water supply from the spring. I find it odd that the spring wasn't given a name like Howell Spring, as everything else was being named for them. But it eventually was referred to as the "town spring.”
During the Civil War, Tommy Howell was at home after being driven out of the Missouri legislature for being disloyal to the Union. In early 1862 when hundreds of Union troops attacked the county courthouse, his sister living with him screamed for him to run, as he was a Southern sympathizer whom they would want to arrest. Tommy is said to have been suffering from rheumatism or arthritis and walked on crutches for years, but ran a half-mile sans crutches before deciding he was safe. He is said to have never needed the crutches again. Tommy was later captured and held by the Union side as a hostage for one of their prisoners. His and all the West Plains homes were burned to the ground by Southern guerrillas in the fall of 1863. The town spring, now abandoned, grew up with hazel-brush and weeds surrounding it.
When William Monks and other Union sympathizers returned to West Plains and took over the county government, most settled around the spring. Monks eventually built a hotel nearby known as the West Plains House. The Howells deeded the spring to the county for community use. The land surrounding the spring eventually became known as "Spring Park," and for years was used for community events like revivals, July 4th celebrations, veterans gatherings, political rallies, and the like. A gazebo was built, and shade trees planted there grew up, covering the lot. Over time the town surrounded the spring, and its waters became too polluted to drink.
In late spring 1906, West Plains felt Spring Park as a location for community events and celebrations was too small. The Howell County Court decreed that the Spring Park be divided into four town lots and sold at public auction.
The West Plains Journal reported on August 23, 1906, that, "Just before adjournment of the county court last week, the court closed a deal with the Davidson brothers of this city whereby they conveyed their ten-acre tract of land just west of the city limits to the county, to be used as a park. The consideration for the conveyance was two thousand dollars. As part of the same transaction, the Davidson brothers paid the county twenty-five hundred dollars for the block of land belonging to the county on East Main Street, and commonly called Spring Park. A further consideration for the sale of Spring Park at the price of $2,500 was the agreement on the part of the Commercial Club of West Plains with the county court to expend the sum of $250 in improvements on the ten-acre tract bought from the Davidson brothers."
The Davidson brothers mentioned here were Joe and Henry Davidson. This sale resulted from a petition circulated over the county asking for it and investment in a larger tract. The proceeds were used to purchase eleven acres of land on the west side of town on an extension of West Broadway, and the new site was designated "People's Park." That park is the site of the city swimming pool today.
Others were not happy. Willow Springs' community members objected and suggested that monies also be allocated from the county treasury to buy a park of their own. After a short battle in the newspapers, the idea died.
Spring Park continued to be used by the townspeople for small gatherings and a green area downtown. In 1912 Colonel Jay Torrey bought the whole block on East Main Street encompassing the spring and park. He had an office in town adjoining the park he called "Little Fruitville," which also housed the telephone office.
In September 1914, Torrey sold Spring Park to the Federal Government, which planned to erect a government building. The West Plains Journal revealed the price at $7,500. The ground of Spring Park had never been built on, and it would be necessary to clear many big trees that had grown up on the lot.
The Journal reported, "Near the center of West Plains, and in this park, there is a little old spring which flows out of a seam in the rock. For all man knows, it commenced to flow at the beginning of time. Its existence prevented wild animals, Indians, and white men from perishing. Succeeding generations of Indian and white lovers have held hands and read their futures in the mirror of its clear water. It once was all there was of West Plains. Those who built the first railroad in the country drank its waters. Children who received their first shock of cold by falling into it have lived useful lives and passed on so long ago that they are now forgotten. The grand old trees near it have weathered all the storms as they have held on by roots that have received nourishment from its waters. Wild animals have been succeeded by the domestic kind; one race of humans has been followed by another. But the tiny flow has never ceased - just kept on flowing. It has been and still is the playground of happy children."
"This park has resounded with the oratory of the Indian pleading to be driven no farther. It was on this site that neighbors of conflicting opinions discussed the issues that were ultimately settled by the clash of arms in the Sixties. Debates about reconstruction were held here, and now ex-Federals, ex-Confederates, and ex-Spanish War veterans meet and fraternize by the little old spring and the shade of the grand old trees. The present owner erected a high flag pole in the park when he became the owner, and from there until now, Old Glory has floated and still floats from that pole day and night the year-round."
"As this great government has acquired its banks, this little old spring will be walled up in a tomb and an outlet provided at some inconspicuous place. The government with all its great power will attempt to suppress it, although it will be out of sight and out of hearing in its tomb, it will just gurgle on as before animals and men came, and in so doing will be an object less of the immutability of the laws of nature. It seems a cruel fate that this little spring, from which there has flown an ocean of pure water, in a small but never ceasing stream, should be buried beneath the basement of this little city's first government building and to be tramped over by the countless generations to come. To the men who make the tomb, it will be all in a day's work, but there will be good men and women who will grieve because of its disappearance and regret that the noise they have heard all of their lives can be heard no longer. We hear that sentiment is dead, and yet who can say where the new Post Office might have been located except for this dainty bit of an appeal to the heart which was part of the papers filed with the Treasury Department where the claims of the different sites were being considered."
And then, nothing happened. The government-purchased lot lay fallow for years. In 1919, James "Harvey" Maxey, son of pioneer Judge J.H. Maxey visited West Plains from his home in Oklahoma. He reminisced on his childhood in West Plains, and the West Plains Journal reported that Maxey "has been over the town looking up some of the old landmarks. He found Spring Park, where, as a boy, he always watered his horse, but the spring has long since been bottled up. There he easily located the old West Plains Hotel (Monks' West Plains House) where 'Dad' and 'Mom' Stowers kept the best-known hotel in all South Missouri."
In a 1921 article, the Journal reported the spring had escaped its confinement. They wrote, "The Old Spring Park, now owned by the government, could be made a beauty spot with but the slight expense. Almost choked up, it is running a small stream of water which spreads out, making an unsightly bog, which is capable of being turned into a most attractive water bed of ferns, palms, water lilies, and other aquatic growths. We suggest that the ladies of the Civil League try their hands at it. Possibly the federal government could be induced to make a small appropriation to help cure its present ugliness."
Apparently, that didn't happen, or much of anything else, for nearly a decade. We are out of writing room. The remainder of this story will have to wait until our next installment of Spring Park's story.