Ben Franklin

Editor’s Note: Marc Houseman, chairman of Franklin County’s Bicentennial, delivered this historical report Saturday at the Bicentennial Opening Ceremony at East Central College.

When I was three days shy of my 12th birthday, the United States celebrated its bicentennial.  For me, it was one of those days that you always remember exactly where you were, not unlike recalling for instance, where you were when you heard about the terrorist attacks on 9-11.  I was planted firmly in front of our television set, watching what was perhaps, the penultimate bicentennial parade.  What a milestone, I thought, and grateful I was to be a witness to it, albeit through our family’s plastic-wood console color TV, not then realizing that by comparison, our country was still in its infancy.  Three days later on my birthday, my mother gave me a copy of Stanley Wilke’s little book, “Washington, Yesterday thru Tomorrow.”  Stanley had even autographed it!  Frankly, I was awestruck that someone had written a book about local history.  It was the greatest gift I could imagine, and the remainder of that summer of ’76, I probably read that book three or four times.  As a kid who roamed through the Union City Cemetery for recreation, I was now, unabashedly addicted to local history.

In 1968, Franklin County celebrated its sesquicentennial or, if you prefer, its 150th anniversary.  Why, then, are we celebrating the bicentennial in 2019?  If you dig deeply enough, you’ll discover that the paperwork necessary to create this county was inked in December of 1818 but that its intended purpose was not to be recognized until January of 1819.  Our committee made the decision to honor the actual year of the county’s creation as the anniversary and by doing so, we’ll mess up historians well into the future!

Several folks have questioned the fact that the county actually predates the state of Missouri, which celebrates its bicentennial in 2021.  The simplest explanation is that the county was created in what was then known as Missouri Territory and not the state of Missouri.  Prior to 1819, St. Louis County comprised nearly the entire southern half of Missouri Territory.  As settlement began here in earnest, following Daniel Boone’s trek from Kentucky in the last decade of the 18th century, it became clear that the territory would need to be further divided into smaller governmental entities so that the inhabitants, for one thing, might have better access to the business of government.  

Even prior to the Louisiana Purchase of 1804, the elitist French-Americans of St. Louis were claiming property in what is today Franklin County.  You might recognize the names, Cerre, Berthold, Labaddie, Chouteau and others. These early movers and shakers learned of the minerals available for the taking and quickly, many might argue through nepotism, took advantage of same.  Under French or Spanish regimes, depending on the date, land was available here by simply staking your claim.  I doubt that Gabriele Cerre ever visited his extensive copper mining operations along the Meramec, but he certainly filled his pocketbook with the proceeds therefrom.  It’s Cerre’s Spanish land grant from which Spanish Claim Road, along the southern edge of Meramec State Park, takes its name.  

In January, 1819, we become a county.  But, we didn’t have a place at which the governmental authorities could meet.  Aging Revolutionary War veteran, Hartley Sappington, who lived at the confluence of St. John’s Creek and the Missouri River, offered the use of his home, temporarily, until a courthouse could be built.  His son, Benoni, became the first sheriff and within about two years, plans had been laid and a contract let for a courthouse and jail to be erected at New Port.  In 1826, it was decided to relocate the seat of government to a location more demographically suited to efforts to better serve the inhabitants of the county.  A committee of three found a suitable situation and by the removal of the county seat to the new location, the town of Union, which “united” the far corners of the county, was created. Ambrose Ransom offered his home and tavern as a temporary location for the courts, which served until a courthouse could be constructed on the same location as the present historic courthouse, which is the third such structure on the site. 

As we enter this bicentennial year, we are indebted to the many contributors to the cause of local history who came before us.  Some of the great historians of our past are Cuthbert Swepson Jeffries, Clark Brown, Herman Gottlieb Kiel, Goodspeed Publishing Company, Charles Van Raavensway and Ralph Gregory, who undoubtedly helped elevate the appreciation of local history to a whole new level.  Ralph once mused, “We live in one of the richest historical areas in the United States.” 

Let’s ponder that.   Artifacts of the Native Americans are found here dating back as much as 12,000 years, and artifacts, particularly, have been excavated or plowed up by the thousands.  We’re bordered on the north from Berger to St. Albans by one of the world’s largest rivers, the Missouri, this being the same river traveled by Lewis and Clark, by the early French-American fur traders and other less-recognized explorers.  The landscape is replete with the handiwork of God from the wonderment of the underground at Meramec Caverns and Fisher Cave, to the prairies in the southern portions of the county, to the steep hills of Boles Township, the waters of the Meramec and the Bourbeuse, and if you’ve never taken the time to visit the confluence of the two near Moselle, where the teal-colored Meramec and the medium-brown of the Bourbeuse meld peacefully together, I recommend that you do so.  From the rock formations in the river bluffs and creek banks to what Spencer Groff called the “Garden of Gethsemane” near Gray Summit, you’ll struggle to find a more diverse Midwestern topography than what we have just outside our back doors.

Veterans of the American Revolution made their way here as old men, some to claim lands awarded them for their military service and others simply following the footsteps of other family members.  While little remains in written form of their experiences, we need but close our eyes and imagine the bloodshed and the deprivations they suffered in that conflict that freed us from the bonds of a monarchy across the sea. During the war with Mexico, Col. John Grigsby fought to wrest California from Mexico, paving the way for its eventual statehood. Grigsby, considered a hero by California historians, lies buried here in a forgotten graveyard in Franklin County, where he died while visiting the Moselle Iron Works where he had invested a great deal of money. 

Col. Letcher Hardeman, of Gray Summit, commanded several Franklin County men in the battle with Spain at Cuba,  and hundreds of young men who served and many of whom died just over 100 years ago now, in the Great War, later known as World War I.  Our two medal of honor winners are Lorenzo Dow Immell, for action in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek during the Civil War, and 18-year-old George Phillips, an orphaned kid from Labadie, who threw himself upon a Japanese grenade on Iwo Jima to save the lives of others in the foxhole, none of whom he had ever met.  

The vast array of industriousness is evident here from farms to factories.  One might argue that the plethora of shoe factories planted in the county in the early 20th century helped to save many from the harshness of the Great Depression and kept thousands of locals employed, some of them making boots for the soldiers of the two World Wars.  For instance, when the population of Washington was 5,000, over 1,000 people worked at International Shoe Company.  My great-grandfather moved his family from Rosebud to Union so that his four daughters could get jobs in a shoe factory, each of the four bringing home $11 a week to support all in the household. 

Franklin County’s manufacturing history runs the gamut, for sure, from soda to beer to distilled liquor, from corn cob pipes to the world’s finest zithers.  If you’re counting, Franklin County has been home to 10 corn cob pipe factories, the first of which is now the last in the entire country.

Congratulations to Missouri Meerschaum Company which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.  From horse collars to automobile components, from pottery and brick formed from the sticky clay in the earth to shrink wrap, from smoked meats to, well, more smoked meats, our county has been and is home to a diverse amount of industry.

Historic Places

This county boasts more than 500 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, a number not exceeded by many counties nationwide. Although there have been great efforts to preserve our historic structures, others continue to ignore the statistical facts that there is value in preservation, both cultural and financial.  We should strive to further our efforts to educate the public in the benefits of cherishing the tangible evidences of our past.

Where else but here will you find a mid-19th century house-barn?  The Pelster house-barn in rural New Haven is the last surviving archetypal structure of its category in Missouri.  How about the stacks from the old iron furnaces, the petroglyphs and pictographs of the Native Americans in obscure caves of Boone Township, the abandoned railroad tunnel at Dundee, the fact that two members of the Lewis and Clark expedition lie buried in our soil, the dramatic limestone bluffs in Pacific, the campsites of the invading Confederate army, the Indian paint mine near Leslie, burial mounds of the Native Americans, projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, quaint little “ghost towns” such as Champion City and Shotwell, the majesty of the trains that have rolled through here for over 160 years, the natural beauty of our topography, the Boeuf, St. John’s, Fiddle, Calvey and numerous other streams and the mighty and not-so-mighty rivers, and God bless those who strive to keep them clean.

The tourist attractions, fine restaurants to fast food and our favorite local dives.  The historic standbys, Lewis Café, the White Rose, Cowan’s and Du Kum Inn.  Historic Route 66 and now interstate and airports, state and county highways, award-winning emergency services, exemplary schools, and outstanding elected officials.  And where else would you find a family named Pickles living right across a river fjord from a family named Dill?  

Today we hear the term “cultural diversity.”  We’ve got that!  Our earliest settlers were mostly of Anglican descent and many of those families owned slaves.  At one point in our history, nearly one-third of the county’s population was attributable to those of African descent.  After the dissolution of slavery, the percentage dropped rapidly.  Poles at Krakow and Clover Bottom, the Irish at “Little Ireland” in Catawissa and Pacific, some  Swedes and Swiss, and even a few Italians near Labadie.  Germans?  My goodness the emigration has yet to cease!  By 1860, the population of Washington was about 60 percent Germanic in origin and high concentrations of Germans settled at New Haven, Berger, Port Hudson, Jeffriesburg, Beaufort, Mantels and indeed, all over the county though in lesser numbers.

Religiously, though predominantly Christian, there are today congregations of Muslims, Hindus and others.  The Christian churches, many of which were founded by the immigrant families, include Baptist, Methodist, Evangelical, Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, African Methodist and numerous others.  As with these widely varied religious bodies, the contributions to the cultural flavor of Franklin County are multifold and indeed, themselves diverse. 

Farmers

The overwhelming majority of those 19th century immigrants were farmers, as were the Anglicans before them. However, there were naturally other occupations to be filled and this too, in many instances, was done by those of varying ethnicities.  One of the largest mining operations was the Silver Lead Mine, south of Moselle.  Its owner was Fernando Evans, a white man and a slaveholder.  Evans died about the time the Civil War ended and thus those enslaved by him were freed. Isaac Renfro, a middle-aged black man who had been enslaved by Evans, was able to gather resources necessary to purchase his former master’s mining operation.  Comparatively, Renfro grew to be financially prosperous by the mid-1870s, just 10 years after being freed from slavery.

Many of the Germans who fled the failed revolution of 1848-49 in Germany, proved to be some of our most industrious and professional citizens. Numerous elements of German heritage and culture were carried into this, their new home.  Some had thoughts of creating a German state in the United States and while this never came to pass, our region is indelibly marked by tradition, religion, politics and recreation established by the German immigrants.  

Did You Know?

Did you know the first man to hold court at New Port, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, is buried at Colonial Williamsburg?  Did you know that the railroad used to create a stopping place approximately every 4 miles where the locomotive could take on wood and water and that each of these places was named?  That Lorenzo Dow Immell, our Civil War Medal of Honor winner, was once accused of rape as well as being suspected of murdering one of his wives?  That Harry Truman used to stop at Washington to have a beer with his old pal, Heinie Diestelhorst?  That a centenarian named J. Frank Dalton was given a hearing at the courthouse here in an effort to change his name to Jesse James?  That in her will, Elijah McLean’s wife not only freed her slaves but offered to pay their passage back to Africa?  That both small adult human skeletons and a skeleton labeled a giant have been discovered in this county? 

That in the western part of the county is a deep and vast underground cavern filled with water and snakes that has never been thoroughly explored?  That Sylvester Labbadie’s skeleton is really not in Labaddie cave but rather at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis?  That one German immigrant missed his homeland so much that at his death he had himself preserved and returned via ocean voyage to the soil of Germany?  One of the most prolific female serial killers in our nation’s history lived, and killed, at Catawissa?  But, two female serial killers have been tried in our historic courthouse?  That Stanton was named for Elijah McLean’s in-laws who had great stock in the Stanton Copper Mine and Judith Spring Road named for McLean’s wife?  That the founders of Sullivan are buried in the front yard of a tiny little Sullivan home? 

That Franklin County funded the purchase of not one, but two B-24 bombers during World War II and they were both piloted by Franklin County men?  That Pacific was once Franklin, St. Clair was Traveller’s Repose, that Berger is not as old as their sign says it is or that Washington’s city limits have enveloped five former towns or communities?  

You can still hear Kate Smith sing “God Bless America” as you tour Meramec Caverns, still travel dozens of miles on Route 66, still find Native American artifacts in plowed fields and creek beds, still attend a Mass at St. Patrick’s of Armagh though it’s been officially closed for 94 years, visit a goodly number of museums, galleries, libraries and theaters, still buy ice cream at Hoffman’s drive-in, photograph our scenic ghost towns, visit over 750 cemeteries and for those who may need them and those who do not, still buy some brains at Wimpy’s.  

Within five minutes of my house in Downtown Washington, I can be at the grave of my great-great-great-great-grandmother who came here from Kentucky in 1818 and if I add another minute to that travel time, visit the graves of my third-great grandparents whose farm is now an industrial park.  As are many of you, I’m deeply rooted here and proudly so. 

I can’t imagine living in a finer place with nearly every amenity close at hand, decent hardworking people everywhere you go, and sure, we have some bruises and blemishes but we can be thankful that we live in such a place.  I love this county, it’s been my home all my life and it will always be, unless I get shipped to Fulton. 

Many of you can say the same, and likewise you could produce a similar speech but share completely different facts and stories.  Earlier I mentioned the late historian Ralph Gregory. When Ralph was born, this county was only 90 years old, and Ralph’s only been gone a little over three years.  We are still in our infancy, still growing, learning, progressing, changing, remembering and moving forward.  I learned a lot from Ralph.  He always said he took a scientific approach to history.  I asked him about that and he explained that one should never print anything as fact unless you can prove it three times over.  He also cautioned against those who enter the realm of local history for nothing more than social purposes and that we should nurture those who take it most seriously.  Undeniably, Ralph was right on the money when he said what I will now reiterate: We live in one of the richest historical regions in the United States.  If you don’t believe it, prove us wrong.

As we celebrate the official beginning of the bicentennial series of events for Franklin County, let us remember and be thankful for those who blazed the trail, those who toiled to improve the land, those who sacrificed their lives in battle or to disease, those who told the stories and those who wrote our history.  Let us be grateful for our communities and our neighbors, our teachers, lawmakers, doctors and nurses and those who deliver our packages or sell us our groceries.  Appreciate the beauty all around us, the ability to explore and enjoy what our county has to offer. Remember those who forged a place out of the wilderness to create our home or broke the sod for the first time. 

Remember the builders of cabins, the raisers of barns, the preachers of the Gospel, those who healed the sick, brought new lives into the world and those who faithfully buried the dead.

The Bible says, “Remove not the ancient landmarks that thy fathers have set.”  Whether you are religious or not, let us live by these words.  As we move forward let’s not forget to glance backward for it’s from the past that we learn to navigate the future.  

I don’t often do this but today I want to dedicate this speech to someone. She never held office or did very much in the eyes of the world, never joined any organizations nor did she ever marry.  She toiled for over 50 years in various shoe factories in Union, where she lived for 60 years, was devoutly religious and prayed constantly.  She told me stories about my ancestors, sang to me old-time songs and instilled Bible verses into my brain.  She lived in a four-room, later enlarged to five-room, house where she slept in the same bed with her sister and when I stayed overnight, I was wedged comfortably between them as I would recite every word of the “Scooby Doo” episode that I had watched that morning.  She patched my skinned knees and rubbed my back and bought toys for me at the dime store and Dr. Pepper and a hamburger at the Flying Saucer Cafe.  But mostly, she passed to me an appreciation of history, a ton of unconditional love, and a little bit of quick wittedness.  She was my great-aunt, my grandpa’s sister.  She’s been gone for 40 years now, but I carry her with me each and every day.  Aunt Grace, this is for you.