Sunday, June 16, 2013

The History of My Corner of the Universe

This is a paper I wrote for a history class at Mizzou. For a more complete explanation, check out "Missouri Historian?"
Across the Mizzou student body, there is a general misperception about Columbia and its history.  Non-native students often have tunnel vision when it comes to their community, believing it all starts and ends with the University of Missouri.  In reality, any historical survey of the Columbia area would be amiss without emphasizing the role of the neighboring, supporting communities and more distant Boone County towns in the development of Columbia and even the University. Here I seek to showcase the history of the southern Columbia area in order to demonstrate the importance of such rural and suburban communities on the growth of Columbia in its first century and to illustrate that every neighborhood has a rich history, every street sign a story under the fa├žade of modern suburbia.

At the beginning of the 19th century the new territory of Missouri saw an influx of immigration and by 1816, new white settlements dotted much of the Missouri River lowlands running through the middle of the state. It was noted by the early 19th century traveler, Edwin James, that “Almost every settler, who has established himself on the Missouri, is confidently expecting that his farm is, in a few years, to become the seat of wealth and business, and the mart for an extensive district [1].” In the incredibly large Howard County, population growth and the inevitability of the formation of smaller, more manageable counties led the communities in present day Boone County to compete for the title of the new county seat. Thus in 1819, a group of “observant and enterprising citizens” from Kentucky created a new town in the center of what is now Boone County [2]. They called themselves “The Smithton Company” in honor of Col. Thomas A. Smith from whom they had received a land grant at Franklin, Missouri and named their new community Smithton. Only a few months after the town was established, lack of water forced residents to move across Flat Branch Creek and they redubbed their community Columbia after the county seat of Adair County, Kentucky, where many of them originated.

In 1820, Boone County was created with the new town of Columbia as its county seat.  Columbia grew quickly, with several grocery stores, dry goods stores, taverns and a jail by 1822. In that same year, the Boone’s Lick road was rerouted through town, which connected stagecoach traffic to Rocheport, Franklin, and the Santa Fe Trail. This traffic allowed Columbia to become a bustling headquarters for business and legal affairs conducted in Boone County [3].

Yet in these early days, the area to the south was the source of nearly all of Columbia’s riches.  Ira Nash, while surveying for the Spanish government in 1804, procured a spot on the Missouri river (the present site of Cooper’s Landing), where he created a river port he called Nashville in 1820. A flood destroyed this prosperous young town in 1844 along with its founder, yet many of its inhabitants persisted. They moved upriver to higher ground and founded Providence, the namesake of Columbia’s main north-south road, in thanks for God’s salvation from the flood.  By 1849, goods were being exchanged between Columbia and St. Louis or Kansas via steamboat on a daily basis and Providence was booming, boasting a 16-room hotel and the largest slaughterhouse in the state outside St. Louis and Cape Girardeau [4].

A rather unfortunate and short-lived American fad of the mid 19th century was the construction of plank roads.  Probably the first and certainly the longest of these transient wonders in Missouri was the Boone County Plank Road, which in 1856 ran from South Fifth Street in Columbia, across Hinkson Creek and some 10 miles south into Providence.  Made of supposedly durable, easily repairable white oak planks, the road was meant to cover the old boggy path, making the long journey from Providence to Columbia more manageable [5].  Many of the leading businessmen in Columbia bought stock in the road’s construction and maintenance company and the project got significant funding from the Boone County Court.

With the new road allowing even more efficient commerce and travel, Providence was at its peak with 3,000 residents, nearly 20% of Boone County’s entire population[6].  But from the very start the plank road was plagued with troubles.  A toll helped fund the upkeep required to replace deteriorating boards, but a 1855 law exempted military troops and travelers going to religious services, hurting the road’s revenue severely.  Maintenance became too costly and the road became warped and treacherous.  The final blow to both the road and the river town came when Columbia decided to invest in the North Missouri Railroad which would run through Centralia and feed the county seat’s commercial interests from the north.  By 1880 the old plank road was gone and Providence’s prominence was fading to nothing.

In 1833, about six miles south of Columbia, David S. Lamme, John W. Keiser & Co. established a steam-flouring mill that came to be known as “Rockbridge Mills [2].” Before long, the streams in the area attracted more industry, including the construction of a whiskey distillery and the first paper mill west of the Mississippi.  In 1850, the distillery was the second largest in the state, producing 5,000 barrels of whiskey that year, about 17% of Missouri’s whiskey output at the time [8]. Over the course of the next few decades this area, known as Pierpont, became an increasingly important commercial center for Boone County, supporting several homesteads and attracting visits from Columbians who sought the naturally air-conditioned caves that littered the region. Picnics, Fourth of July celebrations, political speeches at Pierpont were not uncommon pastimes for locals from all over the county.

Although the original Pierpont community is long gone, in 1967, 1300 acres of land encompassing the historical site were incorporated into the Missouri State Park system [7]. The remnants of homesteads and other buildings are strewn across the network of trails that see about 250,000 visits from local residents and international sightseers per year [8].

As one of the first Virginians to take up residence in what was to be Boone County, John Hickam settled to the southwest of Columbia in 1817.  His family built several homes in the Rock Bridge area and to the north and west.  In 1848, one of John’s grandsons constructed a seven-room, two-story house, where the plank road would be built a few years later. For years, the Hickams were a moderately wealthy, prominent (and large; boasting more than 40 grave stones in a local cemetery at present [9]) family that has remained in the area to this day.  Just across the plank road from the Hickam house, Bethel Church, to whom John’s grandson’s family (and many Hickams after) were members, was erected in 1857[2].

Eighty-nine years later, the picturesque “rolling hills and meadows[10]” of the area attracted a man named Philip Norvell.  A graduate of Harvard divinity school from Kansas City, he bought seventy acres of land from Luke Hickam, intending to take up a quite life as a farmer and stock raiser. Originally bunking in a 10’ x 10’ structure he’d built for a chicken coop, he built a house, acquired a milk cow,  and several sheep, hogs, and angus cattle.  Later he rented 120 acres to the south and raised wheat and corn with horse drawn equipment. Bethel Church was closed and without a pastor at the time, so Phil, who lived a short walk from the church, served as interim minister for a while. Within a few years, he realized a passion for building houses. He spent the rest of his life building and maintaining a small community on the land he purchased from Hickam [11].

In 1985, Norvell helped my parents buy one of the houses in his neighborhood and our family has remained there ever since. Across the street (West Hickam Drive) from my house is Norvell Park, where I spent a great deal of my childhood summer, swimming, playing soccer and throwing a Frisbee. The only way to get out of my neighborhood is to travel on Old Plank Road, which runs past Bethel Church and the old Hickam House on its way across Providence road to Rock Bridge Elementary School and down into the valley of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.

The great depth and breadth of history behind the place names and landmarks of just this small area of Columbia is amazing. Even more astounding still, is the great multitude of stories and meanings behind so many of Columbia’s and Boone County’s communities and for that matter the rest of the overlooked townships and villages throughout the United States.
Yet recently, the unyielding growth of the University and Columbia in general has driven the construction of student housing at alarming rates.  Within 5 years of each other, three such dense housing projects were crammed in along Old Plank Road, one of which comes within a few yards of the Hickam House and all of which are built on what was once the Hickam homestead. A new road now crosses much of Norvell’s old land and remainder of his property was sold after his death to developers.

As the city limits expand and the economy of Columbia grows ever larger, surrounding communities, like Providence and Pierpont falter.  Closer villages and townships are swallowed up. The south part of town surrounding the Norvell Park neighborhood has no more “rolling hills and meadows.”  Almost all that remains of the local history are street names.

Yes, the University of Missouri is one of the most important economic, cultural and historical aspects of Columbia.  But before there was a university, there were supporting communities with economies and stories of their own.  In fact, George Hickam, along with hundreds of others in the communities surrounding Columbia, a descendent of John Hickam, donated money to Boone County when mid-Missouri counties were competing for a grant to host the first university west of the Mississippi [2].  So no, the story of Columbia neither starts with an M-I-Z nor ends with a Z-O-U.  It starts and ends with real people trying to build families, communities, lives worth living.

[1]: Twaites, Reuben Gold. Early Western Travels. Cleveland: 1904.
[2]: Switlzler, William F. History of Boone County, Missouri. St. Louis, 1882.
[3]: McLachlan, Sean. Missouri: An Illustrated History. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2008.
[4]: Barker, Jacob. “Providence the Town: History, now for sale.” Columbia Missourian 8 August 2009
[5]: “River Freight Hauled Over Old Plank Road.” The Columbia Evening Missourian
2 September 1920
[6]: “American Civil War in Missouri.” The State Historical Society. n.p., n.d., Web. 20 April 2013
[7]:  Underhill, Katie. “In search of the past.” Columbia Missourian
[8]: “About Friends of Rockbridge Memorial State Park.” Friends of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. n.p., n.d., Web. 20 April 2013
[9]: Find A Grave. Web. 20 April 2013
[10]: Norvell, Phillip. Harbors of Peace. 2005

[11]: Personal correspondence with Norvell

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