Swamps to Cotton - Stoddard Co. MOGenWeb

(Photo's below)
Standing on a boat dock [see note at bottom of page] Wayne Springer, looks up and then down the wide, straight waterway before him. Springer watches as nearly every drop of water that falls on a half million acres of southeast Missouri farmland slides past this spot on Ditch No. 1 on its way to the Arkansas state line three miles south of where he stands.

Making a wide sweeping gesture with his arm, Springer says, "Before the ditches were dug, all this was under water."
The Bootheel native stands at the extreme southern end of one of the world's largest land reclamation projects which drained water from "Swampeast" Missouri turning a land of swamps, sloughs and bayous into some of the most productive and valuable farmland in the Midwest. the Little River Drainage District, organized in 1907, changed forever the face of southeast Missouri.

Springer, 79, witnessed the aftermath of the leveling of a vast wilderness of cypress and tupelo gum forest and the draining of the swamps. His hometown of Hornersville, in the heart of cotton country, was once one of the most popular duck hunting regions in the Midwest, when water covered the land. "It was a sportsman's paradise," Springer says. Today it's a paradise for farmers.

Southeast Missouri is at the upper reaches of what was once the largest bottom land hardwood forest in the United States. Extending through the flood plain of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, this vast forest covered 24 million acres from southern Illinois and Missouri south to coastal Louisiana.

In 1890 this wetland forest still covered southeast Missouri, made possible by the constant flooding of the Mississippi River, the 45 average inches of yearly precipitation and the missions of gallons of water flowing into the region from the Missouri Ozarks. But swampy conditions barely slowed timber, companies which built railroad spurs into the swamps and began felling trees. By 1910 the land was dotted with tree stumps and still inundated with water.

Many southeast Missouri landowners realized the great potential of the regions as farmland if the swamps could be drained. But the project would require a colossal, and costly, engineering effort.

"I don't know if people realized the magnitude of the project at the time," says Larry Dowdy, chief engineer for the Little River Drainage District headquartered in Cape Girardeau. "They were planning the largest drainage and levee district of its kind in the world. It took people with vision."
In 1905 a group of landowners met in Cape Girardeau to discuss the creation of a drainage district. No such project has been attempted in the state and legislation was necessary to make the district possible and allow the collection of taxes to pay for it. Legislation was passed and in 1907 the Little River District was incorporated.

In designing the system of ditches which would ultimately drain southeast Missouri, the engineer faced a major problem. Much of the water which flows through the region originates in the Ozark Plateau and St. Francois Mountains. Water from as far away as Fredricktown had to be diverted to drain the district. Engineers devised digging a 40-mile-long channel which would drain that water into the Mississippi River before reaching the Bootheel. Begun in 1914, the Headwater Diversion Channel runs from near the town of Greenbriar, in Bollinger County, to just south of Cape Girardeau where it enters the Mississippi River.

At the same time work was progressing on a series of ditches, totaling more than 900 miles, which would drain the remainder of the district. The largest, 100-mile-long Ditch No.1, collects the runoff from all other ditches in the district and carries it south into Arkansas where it empties into the St. Francis River and later the Mississippi, a distance of 250 miles.

Most of the work on the drainage system for the Little River District was completed by 1928 at an estimated cost of $11 million.

Although the Little River District wasn't the only such project in southeast Missouri, it was by far the largest, draining more than 550,000 acres of land in seven counties. Dozens of other districts drained smaller areas and in all more than 1.2 million acres of land were turned into farmland.

Today the area encompassed by the Little River Drainage District grows corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, cotton, grain, sorghum, vegetables, peaches, watermelons, and other fruits. The state's number one producing counties for soybeans, wheat and sorghum are all found in southeast Missouri while the region boasts the highest yields per acre for corn, wheat and sorghum.

But perhaps even greater than the influence on agriculture, land reclamation made settlement of southeast Missouri possible, Dowdy says that in 1890 the three largest towns in the Bootheel were New Madrid, Caruthersville and Charleston, all towns closely associated with the Mississippi River and its trade.

Dowdy points out that none of those towns are any larger today than 100 years ago while Sikeston and Kennet, which sprang from the swamp, are among the region's fastest growing towns.

"If it wasn't for drainage we wouldn't have development. We wouldn't have population," says Dowdy. "you couldn't justify building Interstate 55 through uninhabited swamp."

It is hard to imagine change as drastic as that which occurred in southeast Missouri in a mere 40 years as pioneers subjugated a vast wilderness.

Steve Brown of Dexter boats through a wetland on his land in Stoddard County.
At the turn of the century much of southeast Missouri was under water.

Photo courtesy the Little River Drainage District
HELEN MACKE, of Cape Girardeau remembers living on a house barge while her father worked on nearby levees. In the picture above taken in 1927 she is the girl in the white dress standing outside the railing.

At Home On A House Barge

Much of the work building the Little River Drainage District was done by huge steam-powered, floating dredges whose workers and their families followed close behind living in floating house barges. Helen Macke recalls living on a barge with her family while her father worked on nearby levees. For Macke, living in a floating house was fun and games for a 12 year old.

"For me it was fun. Dad tied up to the levee and we had a little walkway across a bit of water. We played along the levee and my mother would build a cook fire up on the levee in good weather and she cooked there."

During the great flood of 1927 the family used levees as highways, walking to and from the nearest town four miles away.

This article was written by: Jeff Joiner, for RURAL MISSOURI,
Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives.
Mr. Joiner gave permission to transcribe this article
for use on the USGenWeb, MOGenWeb, Stoddard County Web Site.
Transcribed by: Mary A. Hudson mahud@fidnet.com

The information for this note is contributed to this site by: Betty
NOTE: The, "Wayne Springer" in the Swamps to Cotton story is My Uncle.   My father, "Raymond Springer," Wayne's half brother, was a duck hunting guide until the gov. put a limit on them. Betty has contributed the Neel information and photos in the section, EARLY SETTLERS on the main Stoddard Co web site.

© 2010 This page created
and placed here by
Mary A. Hudson
April 1999 for MOGenWeb
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