West Plains' Spring Park Part II
Wed, 04/07/2021 - 12:05pm admin
We are continuing our story of West Plains' "old town spring," later known as Spring Park, sold to the Federal Government in 1914 to build a new post office but abandoned. The lot soon lay fallow, and lack of maintenance led to the spring escaping its tile confinement, forming a water pool, or as it was described in 1921, an unsightly bog.
Efforts in the United States Congress made each year to build a federal building on the lot failed. Properties in other cities purchased for the same purpose before World War I suffered the same fate. The country was in a conservative mood before the war, and during the war, resources were not available for such a project. The main objective of building a federally owned building was to avoid the cost of leasing space for a post office which had been done since 1901. That year Colonel O.H.P. Catron, owner of the "Catron Building" or the "Catron Opera House," on the west side of the West Plains Square, convinced postal authorities to move their offices from a building on the east side of the square, which they had outgrown. In 1926 the Catron heirs did a major re-modeling of his building to accommodate the growing post office, which had doubled its receipts in the last twenty-five years. The push was still on to build a new building to allow for future growth.
In 1928, Senator James A. Reed introduced a bill asking for $75,000, "to erect a Federal building in the City of West Plains, Missouri, on the site now owned by the United States Government." The West Plains Chamber of Commerce jumped into action and pressured their local senators to pass the bill. The United States Treasury Department had issued a decree mandating that the Post Office place such a building in each congressional district. The bill failed to reach the United States President's desk. The 1929 stock market crash put a further hold on the project.
In April 1930, President Herbert Hoover, to stimulate the economy, included twenty-nine million dollars in his budget to build the new postal buildings. West Plains received $70,000 to start work on a building finally.
Bids were let in January 1931, and the lowest of fifty competitors was Rosen and Fishel Contracting Company of Chicago, Illinois, for those seventy thousand dollars allotted. The West Plains Journal Gazette announced on January 29, 1931, that, "The building will be erected this summer on the lot on East Main street known as Spring Park, bought by the government in 1914. It will be constructed of brick and stone, thoroughly fireproof. The size will be 56 feet on East Mains Street and 88 feet on Walnut Street. Under the building will be a full basement where the boiler room and heating plant will be located."
In that era, projects of this nature, once initiated, moved rapidly. One can only imagine the administrative delays required today by environmental impact studies and archaeological reviews. For fifty years, any digging in this area turned up Indian artifacts and bodies on both sides of East Main Street. It seems this part of town lies on top of the proverbial "Indian Burial Ground." A Journal Gazette article in February 1931 stated the groundbreaking would start during middle March, and it did.
Ninety years ago this week, under the headline "Old Town Spring Floods Post Office Basement," the April 9, 1931 issue of the Journal reported, "For several days last week the government lot on East Main street looked like a frog pond. The big excavation for the new post office building was half-filled with water, not from the copious rains early in the week, but water from the 'Old Town Spring' on the east end of the lot. In excavating for the basement, the steam shovel struck the tiling carrying water from the spring, and the water ran in the basement. It was necessary to lower the drainpipe along East Main Street in order to get rid of the water in the basement. The rock boulders in the basement are now being dynamited, and in a short time, a force of concrete men will put up the basement walls."
A month later, the spring was still having its revenge. The May 14, 1931, issue of the Journal reported, "Somebody got a job when the post office building was located on East Main Street. The joker was the big spring on the lot, about which much has been said and printed. This spring which gushes forth at all times has been a big drawback and detriment to the contractors who have been excavating the basement for the new building. When work started on the building early in April, a steam shovel was used in excavating, and no home labor was required except a few truck drivers to haul away the dirt. Three or four feet from the bottom of the basement, rock was struck, and the steam shovel ceased work. The contractors then put a force of local men on the job to take out the rock. As many as thirty men were employed. It was necessary to blast the rock with dynamite."
"Then the spring was encountered. Other small streams also were struck in excavating and a sewer uncovered. This raised a loud stench. Most of the time, the workmen, wearing rubber boots, labored in a foot of water. It was a hard, tough job, and four weeks have been spent by the contractors getting out the rock. When the site was surveyed, holes were dug at each corner of the lot, but no holes were put down in the center. Very little stone was found at the corners, and the greatest outcropping was in the center. Owing to other property nearby, heavy timbers were placed over every shot during the blasting."
"After the contractors found the spring on the location, they took up the matter with the Treasury Department. An architect was sent here from Washington and said none of the maps on file with the government showed a spring on the lot. In fact, the contractors insist that they knew nothing about the spring when they took the contract. Something had to be done to get rid of the flow of water. A number of years ago, when the spring became polluted from sewage, the city put in some tiling, and the water was taken north on Hill Street. But this tiling is not deep enough to drain the basement of the new post office building as the spring is now inside the basement of the new post office building."
By May 28, the papers reported that "after seven weeks of hard work, three feet of rock had been blasted out of the basement and the water from the spring was under control. A force of carpenters from Springfield was building the forms for the concrete foundation."
The slab for the first floor was poured in late June 1931, and the brickwork was next. There another problem arose. Under the headline "Work Stopped on New Post Office," they reported work was stopped because the eleven bricklayers had been using plain mortar without any coloring. This created a bit of a stir in the community as the esthetics of the color of the mortar were debated. One commentator remarked that the plain mortar made the building appear like "a whitewashed chicken house." Cooler heads among civic leaders urged the authorities to go ahead and get the building completed. It seems in July; the decision was made to leave the mortar colorless, as that is how it looks today. I suppose a skilled Photoshop artist could now let us see the difference, but I think it's pretty attractive as is. A cornerstone was laid without any ceremony that Summer, and nothing was put in the hollow space."
A ceremony did take place upon the dedication of the completed building on November 21, 1931. Hundreds were in attendance, including postmasters from all over the state and plenty of politicians. The building continued to serve the community for the next thirty-four years.
In 1966 a new postal building was erected and occupied on Garfield Avenue, and the City of West Plains moved their public library into the building. In the basement, where the children's section was housed, a thick Plexiglas cover was installed to allow a view of the water from the spring as its way out from under the building.
After the new West Plains' Public Library was completed in 1998, the Old Post Office was purchased by the First Baptist Church of West Plains in 2000. The church used it as an annex building, known as their north campus. On October 3, 2019, the building was sold to Charley and Lavina Wilkening and is now used as an event meeting venue space known as the "Historic Post Office LLC," with a website and Facebook page that can be found under this name.
I think the Howell family, including Thomas Jefferson Howell, who first lived at the spring, and his brother Josephus Howell who was appointed the first postmaster of West Plains in 1848, would be proud of what has happened since they landed here in 1839