Industry in Butler County began as soon as the first settlers arrived. Solomon Kittrell, a native of Kentucky, settled on Cane Creek about 1819, sunk a tan yard, erected a distillery, and established a trading post.
At an early day a mill to grind corn into meal was built by Albert Reeves at Keener Springs. James Brannum and Andrew Powers built a dam and mill at a point later known as Ball's Mill.
Most of the communities had a shoemaker who measured feet and made boots and shoes, but the settlers did their own repair work on these shoes.
Soon the settlers began planting sorghum cane to make molasses. The first cane mills were made of wood, and, when grinding the cane, they made a noise which could be heard for miles.
The real beginning of industrial development in Butler County was the advent of the railroad. The St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railway was completed through Poplar Bluff in 1872. Saw mills and woodworking factories sprang up, and the timber, which had before been a hindrance to the clearing and development of farms, became a valuable commodity.
The development of the steamboat industry on Black River was initiated as a result of the timber boom. In addition to getting timber from the upper Black River and having it cut and rafted downstream, steamboats brought in logs, staves, and other timbers.
The years between 1872 And 1900, were the timber period of Butler County. Larger timber factories and mills and many smaller saw mills gave employment to thousands of people. Among the largest of these were the Poplar Bluff Lumber and Manufacturing Company, R.P. Liles Company, H.D. Williams Cooperage Company, Keystone Lumbering and Land Company, J. N. Roberts Veneering Factory, and the Hargrove-Ruth Lumber Mill.
The railroad also enabled other industries to develop by providing a way to ship manufactured goods to market. During the first decade of the Twentieth Century, many factories were established, some by men whose descendants still live in Poplar Bluff. The largest of these was the Dalton Adding Typewriter Company, incorporated in 1903, which grew from a one-room operation into a multi-million dollar business.
Other industries which were started about this time were Jim Hogg's Whiskey Distillery, Hanna and Young Handle Factory, Oil Well Supply Company, Dalton Brick and Tile, W.B. Hays Soda Water Factory, and C. W. Tetwiler Concrete Block Plant.
By the end of 1907, Poplar Bluff boasted of having fifty-seven manufacturing plants, which employed 1,387 men, with annual payrolls of nearly $600,000.
Many of the factories in Poplar Bluff worked at increased production during World War I. Residents reported than on Armistice Day at the close of the war all the whistles on all the mills and factories in Poplar Bluff blew for a solid hour in celebration.
Most of the timber was cut out by the middle years of the 1920's, and many factories and mills closed, ending a colorful era in the history of Poplar Bluff industry.
Black River and Its Industries
Poplar Bluff, similar to many other towns, grew up along the banks of its river, During the years between 1870 and 1900, rafts of logs were floated from upstream in Black River to the mills and factories in Poplar Bluff that sprang up after the coming of the railroad in 1872. Logs were also cut in Butler County and rafted down the river to mills in Arkansas.
Steamboats were used in the timber industries and were common on Black River until well after the turn of the century. Steamboats traveled on the river, bringing in logs, staves, and other timbers.
Among the first boats was the "Clara I.", a steamboat that sank about three miles below Poplar Bluff. The "Bull of the Woods" was one of the largest and earliest boats operating on Black River. It was owned by the Poplar Bluff Lumber and Manufacturing Company and was used to haul logs, lumber, and merchandise to and from all points on the river. The "Belle of Carola", the "Alma Jane", the "Louisa" the "Roy", and other stern wheel light draft boats operated successfully for years on Black River.
Some Black River boats also served as excursion boats. Two of these were the "Jennie Lee" and the "Bernice" . Excursion boats not only took passengers on sight-seeing trips, but also took hunters and fishermen on sporting excursions. Another excursion boat which visited here was the "City of Doniphan". The boat arrived in Poplar Bluff in July, 1911, having come by water from Doniphan. It was a stern-wheeler, about eighty feet long, which could accommodate one hundred passengers. A trip from Poplar Bluff south to Dan River cost fifty cents.
Poplar Bluff was the scene of steamboat building as well. Grant Boothby built two boats for Captain Amos Huff in the early years of this century, the "Amos Huff" and the "City of Poplar Bluff", a seventy-five foot long boat with a three-foot draft.
G.W. Huff build a steamer, "City of Pocahontas", at the Hargrove-Ruth lumber mill in 1906-07. The boat, one hundred feet in length, was later based in Pocahontas, Arkansas, and used as a freight and passenger carrier on the Black and Current Rivers. Captain Huff built another one hundred foot boat in Poplar Bluff in 1907-08, called the "Choctaw", which was said to be the handsomest and fastest boat ever built for use on either the Black or White Rivers/ He had previously built another steamboat in Poplar Bluff, the "C.W. Huff".
In 1897, a pearling boom struck Black River and Butler County when Dr. J. H. Meyers of Black Rock on Black River in northern Arkansas found a fourteen grain fine luster pearl in the river. Many pearls were eventually found in Black River, some of which were sold to women as far away as London and Paris.
Even up into the Twentieth Century pearls were still occasionally found in the river. The "Daily Republican" of October 3, 1911, reported the discovery of an eighty-five grain, pale pink pearl in Black River just south of Poplar Bluff which sold for $1,300. On December 29, 1911, another find was reported, a twenty grain pearl of unusual beauty, which was worth about $500.
Shells found in the Poplar Bluff area were at one time kept and shipped on steamboats to button factories. There was one of these factories in Corning, Arkansas, where a machine reamed out up to ninety buttons from one food-sized shell. The wastes of the shells were then used to pave the streets of Corning. An article in the "Daily Republican" on August 11, 1911, reported the opening of the Black River Pearl Button Company in Poplar Bluff.
Black River was, indeed, the scene of many activities during the early days in Poplar Bluff.
Sometime during the early 1900's, James R. Hogg established a distillery on the family farm west of town, and manufactured "Jim Hogg's Corn Whiskey". The whiskey was sold and shipped to almost every country in the world in very unusual jugs. Mr. Hogg had a gallon, half gallon, and, at Christmas, a half-pint jug. Advertisements in the newspaper in June 1912, offered Jim Hogg Whiskey for $2.50 per gallon. At the time he was making and selling the whiskey, the Women's Christian Temperance Union was very active in Butler County. Mr. Hogg was one of the first to be asked for donations, and was always generous with his gifts. He also served several terms as sheriff of Butler County.
Jim Hogg had come to Butler County in 1870, with his parents and grandparents. While still very young, he began to sell meat from a wagon. About 1884, he established a meat market on Broadway. Early pictures show outside displays during the winter of wild turkeys, bear meat, squirrels, rabbits, and other wild game for food, as well as life-sized bears hanging in their coats.
Situated in the southern part of the city near the river bank, the J. N. Roberts and Company Veneering Factory was established about 1880, with a capital investment of $25,000. Nearly every variety of timber was brought into this establishment, either floated down the river or hauled overland by team. The company used a fifty horsepower engine and employed about one hundred persons.
Their first proceeding was to take a log and put it through a steaming process. The timber was then put into machines and worked up into veneers from one-sixteenth to one-half inch in thickness.
The veneers were used for different purposes. The oak veneer was used only for the manufacture of bushel baskets. The poplar veneer was made into brush backs, furniture, trunk tops, lath, peach, strawberry, and cracker boxes. The factory could turn out between 75,000 and 100,000 strawberry boxes per day. The gum veneer was converted into sewing machine furniture and different kinds of fruit boxes and crates for shipping fruits. The walnut veneer was used for all kinds of furniture.
The maple, elm, and birch veneer were made into baskets of all descriptions, but the birch made the best quality of baskets. The basket department was separate from the rest of the factory, and employed fifty men, women, boys, and girls to turn out three hundred dozen baskets per day.
The manufactured articles were shipped to all parts of the United States at the rate of about two railroad cars per day.
In December, 1877, a young blacksmith named George Begley arrived in Poplar Bluff and opened a shop on the corner of Pine and Broadway. After a short time, he realized Poplar Bluff was a good marked for wagons and buggies and started to manufacture horse-drawn vehicles.
Mr. Begley's business soon outgrew its first location, and a larger shop was erected on the corner of Vine and Broadway. He could make about twenty-five wagons per year.
After a few years, the business outgrew these quarters, and in the fall of 1903, a large brick building was built at a cost of about $85,000. The new factory was reputed to be the largest wagon factory in South Missouri or North Arkansas. Power was furnished by a large gasoline engine. A force of fifteen men was now able to produce about 200 wagons a year. Farm, log, and spring wagons were made.
Begley sold more than 1000 wagons in Poplar Bluff and vicinity, for as the newspaper explained in 1903, "As for the imported stuff, while it sells cheaper, the quality is not nearly so good, and wise buyers prefer the home made."
Mr. Begley, realizing the future of the undertaking business, went to an undertaking school and learned the art of embalming. With Jacob Frank furnishing the livery equipment, he established the first mortuary in Poplar Bluff, the Frank Undertaking Company, in 1879. This company is still operating as Cotrell Funeral Chapel.
Mr. Begley soon began making coffins for use in his company. In March, 1911, he began the manufacturing of coffins to sell to other companies in the building erected for the wagon factory. The wagon manufacture was continued as a secondary line, while the main business was making coffins.
About 1900, Lowell M. Palmer bought a large amount of swamp timber land between Black and St. Francis Rivers in Butler County, Missouri, and Clay County, Arkansas, and built a big factory in east Poplar Bluff to manufacture staves and heading. The manager of this plant was William N. Barron, a young lawyer, a native of England who had come to Poplar Bluff about 1894. The plant was known for five or six years as the Palmer Mill. Later the business was conducted in the name of R. M. Parker, agent, and known as the Parker Plant. In January, 1910, the plant began operating as the Brooklyn Cooperage Company. By the time of Poplar Bluff's Golden Jubilee celebration in June, 1911, the "Daily Republican" called it "the largest barrel factory in the land."
The company employed between 750 and 1,200 men in Poplar Bluff. The Brooklyn Cooperate Company was a subsidiary of the American Sugar Refining Company of New York City. The Poplar Bluff plant manufactured slack barrel staves and heading for the use of shipping sugar from the refineries. The barrels were not assembled here, but the staves and heading were bundled and shipped to the refineries in order to lower freight expense, as the bundled stock took less space in railroad cars than assembled barrels.
Other types of staves were manufactured known as "tight barrel staves" that would hold liquid. Commonly known as whiskey barrels, these were not bundled but stacked loose in cars and shipped to distilling companies over the country. This was not a full-time operation, as they were made from a good grade of white oak, which was not always available.
Closely associated with Mr. Barron and the Brooklyn Cooperage Company were two other projects, immensely important to the growth of Butler County. They built a standard gauge railroad from Poplar Bluff to Piggott, Arkansas, used mainly to bring timber to their plant, but later used to haul other freight and passengers. This road was incorporated as the Butler County Railroad about 1904-05. When all the timber had been cut out, about 1928, it was sold to the Frisco Railroad.
The towns along the Butler County Railroad were named by William Barron. Piggott, Arkansas was named after his sister, Mrs. Sarah A. Piggott. Broseley, Missouri was named for Mrs. Barron's home town of Broseley, England. Fagus is a Latin word which means beech tree. Other Butler County towns along the railroad were Tipperary, named because the railway workers had to walk a long, long way to erect a switch; Quercus, named after the Latin term for oak; Nyssa, also named after a tree; Batesville, which grew up on the Horace Bates farm; and Spread, which died when the timber was all cut.
Mr. Barron became interested in the future development of the lands after the timber was harvested, and was instrumental in the establishment of the Inter-River Drainage District in Butler County. The result was the complete drainage of all the territory between the Black and St. Francis Rivers from the Arkansas line to the foothills to the north. This opened up a rich farming region in the county.
The Brooklyn Cooperage Company moved to South Carolina about 1927, when the timber supplies were exhausted in Butler County.
In the southern part of Poplar Bluff below the railroad yards, a stave factory was operated by the firm of Gilman, Sprawl, and Reynolds. In September, 1883, Mr. Sprawl sold his interest, and the factory became known as the Gilman and Reynolds Stave Factory. The factory employed about seventy-five persons and made whiskey, tierce, and pork barrel staves, and shipped at least a railroad car of these staves each day.
The F. G. Oxley Stave Company was the successor to the firm of Gilman and Reynolds. Goodspeed's 1888 "History of Southeast Missouri" described the Oxley Stave Company, "The factory is perhaps the largest of the kind in the State, and gives employment to more men than all the other industries in the town combined. The company pays for timber and expenses over $100,000 per year."
This company later became the American Stave and Cooperage Company, and then the H. D. Williams Cooperage Company, said to be the largest plant of its kind in the world. It gave employment to hundreds of men who made and shipped the products to all parts of the world.
Mr. Dalton had come to Poplar Bluff from Doniphan in 1885, and by the turn of the century, was manager of the large four story Wright-Dalton-Bell-Anchor Department Store, a merchandising business that grossed up to $760,000 a year, with a sales force of 125 persons and 12 delivery wagons. Mr. Dalton later stated, "One of our greatest accomplishments was the bringing into this town a solid train load of 35 cars of merchandise. The general manager of the Missouri Pacific Railroad personally made the trip with this train for a considerable part of the journey, and we entered the town with green and red fire and a great demonstration."
So, as a secondary investment, Mr. Dalton helped finance the machine known as the adding typewriter. The Dalton Adding Typewriter Company was incorporated in August, 1903, with a capital of $500,000. Work began in one room of what was known as the Davidson Building on the corner of Main and Pine Streets with about twenty-five employees.
By June, 1907, the company occupied the entire Davidson Building and employed 100 men. In 1908, the Dalton Company had a payroll of nearly $10,000 per month, and had a new government contract for 125 machines. Orders were also coming in from nearly every country in the world. Mr. Dalton was forced to resign at the department store to devote his full time to the Adding Typewriter Company. Describing the machine, the Poplar Bluff newspaper, the "Daily Republican" reported, "The machine is truly a marvel. It adds, subtracts, multiplies, divides, figures interest, proves invoices, and performs many other mathematical calculations with such facility, speed, and accuracy as to be almost beyond belief."
In November, 1909, the capital stock was increased to $1,500,000 to enable the company to build a new factory building on the river front in Poplar Bluff. The new factory, built at a cost of $100,000, was dedicated February 14, 1911. One of the biggest electric signs in the state was placed on top the new factory. The sign, 250 feet long and 4 feet high, advertised the "Dalton Adding and Listing Machine Company." President Dalton made arrangements with the Iron Mountain Railroad to connect the sign with the block system, and as a train pulled into the yard, the sign would light automatically.
Hours for the new Dalton Factory were 7:10 A.M. to 6 P.M. five days a week and until noon on Saturday until state legislation in about 1913-1914 enacted a nine-hour day. The company then began operating all day on Saturday.
As early as 1906, rumors had begun to circulate that the company was leaving Poplar Bluff. Finally, in 1914, it became necessary to move the factory to Cincinnati, Ohio, as it had grown so much that a larger location with more facilities was needed. Here the plant grew to be one of the largest in the world. On June 27, 1914, the plant ceased operation in Poplar Bluff, a great loss to the industry of our city.
Hanna and Young Handle Factory, located near the roundhouse in the south part of town, began business in Poplar Bluff late in 1905. Charles W. Young designed and installed all the equipment used in the factory.
Originally located in Morehouse, the factory was moved to Poplar Bluff because of the better shipping facilities, and also because the timber used in manufacturing the wooden handles was easier to get here.
In 1905, George R. Schweitzer, who had come to Neelyville from Chicago in 1897, became the manager of the Oil Well Supply Company in Poplar Bluff. Owned by United States Steel, the company made sucker rods for pumping oil. These were long hexagonal wood rods with steel couplings fastened to the ends.
The firm continued its progress throughout the first three decades of the Twentieth Century, its production rising constantly. New machinery was used in conjunction with new manufacturing techniques, and the sucker rods were sold all over the United States and in many foreign markets. Francis J. Schweitzer joined his father in the company about 1919.
In the late 1930's, U.S. Steel sold the Oil Well Supply Company to George R. Schweitzer, Francis J. Schweitzer, and Norman Gamblin. During World War II, scarcity of good timber and difficulties in obtaining steel, combined with the advent of metal pumping rods, caused the business to be shut down.
In the 1870's, soon after the railroad came to Poplar Bluff, J. W. Carmichael and E. N. Lovelace erected a mill on the southeast corner of Fifth and Vine Streets. The mill was originally built for grinding corn, but the owners intended to add flouring machines later. Before the work was completed, Mr. Carmichael died and the mill was sold.
The flouring department was eventually completed, but the mill was not a success until it was sold again to Hugh Smith and Sons, who made it a paying institution. The mill made three grades of flour and could produce about twenty-five barrels of flour a day.
The industrial development of Poplar Bluff and Butler County during the early years of the Twentieth Century was demonstrated by the many factories. The Daily Republican reported on December 10, 1903, that Poplar Bluff had, "Three railroads with a survey for two more, four big lumber companies, a sash and door factory, the largest barrel factory in the state, a handle factory, a hub factory, a spoke factory, an old well supply factory, a pressed brick factory, an adding machine factory, a slack barrel and veneering factory, a heading factory, a cigar factory, and eighteen miles of tram railway owned by one factory."
Commodities shipped from Butler County in 1907, included: live stock-$135,426; farm crops-$3,107; mill products- $5,163; farmyard products- $42,943; forest products- $1,885,180 ; dairy products- $28; liquor- $10,000; fish and game-$2,006; packing house products-$12,262; cotton products-$21,419; medical products-$371; vegetables $129; fruit- $117; wool and mohair- $494; mine and quarry products- $1,445; junk and ice- $2,340; for a total of $2,122,430.
In 1907, Poplar Bluff had fifty-seven manufacturing plants and shipped goods valued at $2,581,053. These enterprises employed 1,387 men, their annual payrolls amounting to nearly $600,000.
During the Golden Jubilee Celebration, the newspaper reported on June 9, 1911, "Poplar Bluff boasts of having the largest barrel factory in the land. The city also produces lumber spokes, hubs, handles, oil well sucker rods, wagons, typewriter cabinets, coffins, windows, doors, sash, patent laths, egg cases, and all kinds of fine turned work for building. Poplar Bluff manufacturing is not confined to wood-working, but car wheels and other foundry products, cigars, ice, cereals, soda water, and last and undoubtedly the greatest adding machines are made here." This is the last one. I like this. I had fun with it.
Some industries which might have been important to Poplar Bluff never quite got off the ground.
In 1910, a Poplar Bluffian, T.G. Van Sant, invented a vacuum cleaner and applied for a patent. The newspaper extolled its virtues, "The cleaner is very wonderful. It, in fact, surpasses any former cleaning device. It is compact and yet contains all the virtues of a cleaner. It can be connected to any electric light drop without danger of blowing out a fuse, for it is operated by a tenth horse power motor. It can be handled with ease by any woman without physical exertion." Mr. Van Sant planned to manufacture under the name of the Black River Company and sell the machine for $10.
Poplar Bluff might have been a rival of Detroit if another business venture had been successful. In May, 1911, an automobile built by C. and Neal Williams was scheduled to be tested. The Williams brothers invited a reporter for the "Daily Republican" to make the test ride with them. The paper did not report any results, but just before the trip it stated, " If everything turns out okay, this may be the beginning of the extensive manufacture of automobiles in Poplar Bluff."
If President Randall of the Commercial Club, a forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, had been successful in 1910, tourists might have come to Poplar Bluff instead of St. Louis to see the arch. He planned to erect an arch, known as the "Gateway to Poplar Bluff" at the south end of Main Street where people passed going to and coming from the train station. The arch was to have electric lights illuminating it at night. The "Daily Republican" reported, "...there would be no city in this part of Missouri with such an imposing gate through which to receive the public. The proposition will be laid before the people and public subscription asked to raise money with which to erect the monument of progress."
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