Take a drive around our town and learn about some of the pivotal events and people who are part of our past, present, and future.
SELF GUIDED TOUR
1. Take a drive around our town and learn about some of the pivotal events and people who are part of our past, present, and future.
Begin at the East Maple and Evans Street entrance to Oak Lawn Cemetery.
Oak Lawn Cemetery “Rock of Ages”
This marker was erected Oct. 6, 1929, for the unidentified dead from the Friday the 13th, April 1928, West Plains Dance Hall Explosion. Thirty-seven people were killed and at least 23 were injured. The resulting property damage was estimated at the time to be $250,000, which is over $4 million in today’s currency. The disaster made news across the U.S. After extensive investigation, no exact cause was determined for the massive blast, but the Bond Dance Hall was located above a garage owned by J.N. Weiser who was found dead behind the building with the doorknob to the garage in his hand, which only added to the mystery.
Cemetery Scavenger Hunt: Civil War Cannon Ball, Grave of Polly the Parrot, and Civil War Nurse. See the descriptions below and see if you can find these unique memorials.
Alice Farmer Risley, Civil War nurse and teacher (concrete bench, east of the south cemetery entrance)
Before she died in 1931, Alice Farmer Risley was the last known surviving Civil War nurse. Alice had volunteered as a nurse for the Union in New Orleans. Following the war’s end, she married former patient, Samuel Risley, and the two moved to West Plains where Samuel established the South Missouri Journal newspaper. Samuel and Alice also served as Postmaster and Assistant Postmaster. Alice wrote of her days in West Plains, and much of our early history is preserved because of her.
Civil War cannon ball
Local legend has it that this cannon ball is the one that struck the original Howell County Courthouse during the West Plains Civil War skirmish in February 1862. During the war, West Plains was completely abandoned by its inhabitants, and only a handful of people remained in the entire county. Most who left the area returned to rebuild when the war was over.
Langston Family Plot and Polly the Parrot
This oldest area of the cemetery is the final resting place for many of the prominent early citizens of West Plains, including the Langstons and their parrot, Polly, the only known non-human buried in Oak Lawn. Polly was the pet of Dr. Thomas and Laura Bradford of Marshfield, Mo. On April 18, 1880, a tornado killed nearly 100 people in Marshfield, including Dr. Bradford. Following his death, Polly would so often ask, “Hey, ma. Where’s pa?” that the grief-stricken widow sent the parrot to live with her daughter, Sallie Bradford Langston, in West Plains where Polly lived out her days as a well-known, local “celebrity.”
2. Exit the Cemetery and continue traveling north on Evans Street then turn left on Grace Avenue. Although time has taken its toll, in its heyday in the early 1900s, Grace Avenue was known as “Professional’s Row” with local doctors, pharmacists, bankers, and other prominent residents living along the street.
Built in the 1880s, six generations of the Evans family have lived, and continue to live, in the Evans house.
This house was completed in 1897 by Joseph Knoerle, the superintendent of a nearby 114-acre peach orchard. The next owners were Dr. Robert Hogan and his wife. One street over, north of Grace Ave., was the Christa Hogan Hospital. Named in honor of his mother, Robert established the hospital in a building that had formerly housed West Plains College. That structure is gone – Ozark Action is now located on the site – but it is where Dr. Hogan delivered Dick Van Dyke on Dec. 13, 1925.
On the other side of the street is the house built by John Henry McFarland and his wife, Egbertine Green McFarland, granddaughter of Union Brigadier General Egbert B. Brown who died in the McFarland home on Feb. 12, 1902. Current owners are in the process of restoring the home from the foundation up, as you can see by its present ‘elevated’ position.
3. At the end of Grace, turn right on Curry Street.
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
Built in 1888, little has changed since the cornerstone of All Saints’ was laid. One of the oldest public buildings in the area, the church is considered second in West Plains public building age only to the First Presbyterian Church.
4. Turn left on East Main Street.
Under the Historic Post Office building (which previously also served as the town library and is currently a privately owned event center) runs the spring where Josiah Howell settled in October of 1839. West Plains is the county seat of Howell County, namesake of that pioneer family. In the early to mid-1800s “hardly a stick of timber grew within sight of the spring, only tall blue stem prairie grass.” This historical note offers the reason for our town’s eventual name, based on “the plains west of Thomasville,” a neighboring Oregon County community which was established with a post office in 1846, two years before West Plains gained its post office in 1848.
5. Turn left on Walnut Street, then right on East Leyda Avenue.
First Presbyterian Church
On the right is the First Presbyterian Church, believed to be the oldest public structure in Howell County. The front portion of the church is original, built in 1885 at a cost of $4,000. In 1910, the back portion of the building was added, with a further addition on the north side in 1978. The stained glass, original to the building, underwent restoration in 2018 as part of an extensive preservation project by the congregation.
On the left is the W.J. Zorn building, built in 1912 by Will Zorn, publisher of the Howell County Gazette newspaper. The newspaper work was done downstairs, and the family lived upstairs. This arrangement continued over the years as the building changed hands, housing different businesses and families, including long-time owners Russ and Shirley Cochran. Russ, who died in 2020, was a noted publisher in the comic art industry and of the West Plains Gazette historical magazine. The family also owned several chimpanzees over the years and had large exterior cages installed to house them. The building is currently owned by a local attorney.
6. Turn right on Aid Avenue to Historic Downtown West Plains Square.
Courthouse Square Historic District
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, the entire Historic District sits on approximately 11.5 acres and contains 46 historic buildings, ranging in age from 1881-1950. Not all are included on the route of this tour. The average age of the court square buildings, not including the courthouse or the newer bank building and county office building, is 115 years.
Aid Hardware/Downtown Antiques
The Aid building was built in 1914 after the first one was destroyed by fire. After the fire, the 42,000-square-foot structure was built with a state-of-the art sprinkler system on every floor, designed to be as fireproof as possible. Records show the construction cost to be $25,000, a huge sum in 1914. After 105 years in business, Aid Hardware closed in 1990, and the Aid family opened an antique mall in the building which continues in operation today.
Catron Opera House
Built in 1893, the Opera House served as the cultural and entertainment center for the town, including plays, music, and in later years, as an upstairs basketball court. Its construction followed the prosperity of the railroad. The first train arrived in West Plains on Christmas Day 1883 and ushered in a population explosion. In 1880, West Plains had a population of 350. Over the next decade the population grew to 2,091.
Civil War Skirmish Site Historical Marker
The only confrontation which occurred between Union and Confederate regulars in Howell County was at this site on Feb. 19, 1862. Six Confederate infantrymen were killed, eight wounded, and 40 taken prisoner. There were no Union casualties. The population of West Plains at that time was 150. By 1863 West Plains was burned to the ground by guerilla fighters. Information about the skirmish can be found on the marker or from official Civil War records, available in an exhaustive Civil War history on the Ohio State University website: https://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/008/0067
Howell County Courthouse
This courthouse, completed in 1937, is the fourth courthouse for the county. The first courthouse was destroyed during the Civil War. The second one burned, taking with it the county records that had been hidden and protected throughout the war. The third courthouse was damaged so badly in the Bond Dance Hall explosion that it had to be torn down.
7. Head East on Main Street
Site of the Bond Dance Hall
On the right, just past the large building on the corner (#10 Court Square, which was built in 1916 as the second home of West Plains Bank) is the lot where the Bond Dance Hall was located above the Weiser Motor Co. In February 2022, a fire destroyed another building which had been constructed on the site. When the building was demolished, this West Plains Bank sign was revealed.
8. Continue on East Main Street
Sheriff Kelly’s murder by the Barker Gang
Just down the street from the dance hall site and to the left is the spot where Sheriff C. Roy Kelly was shot and killed on Dec. 19, 1931, minutes after exiting what was then the brand-new West Plains Post Office. As he exited the post office, the sheriff was quietly tipped off by the owner of Davidson Motor Company, located across the street, that three men having tires repaired seemed suspicious and were wearing clothes that looked like items taken from a recent robbery from C.C. McCallon’s store. Sheriff Kelly stepped to his car to get his gun, slipping it under his coat. As he crossed East Main to question the men, Alvin Karpis, a member of the Ma Barker Gang, shot Sheriff Kelly, and the gang members fled in their car. It would be four and a half years before Karpis was tracked down and arrested by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.