History hidden in plain sight

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Springfield’s University Club helped coordinate the placement of more than 20 historic markers in Greene County, many of which date back to the 1920s. Today, most of the monuments still remain.

When Springfield’s University Club set about commemorating noteworthy Greene County sites with markers in the 1920s, its aim was historic preservation. Now, however, the work itself has become a piece of Springfield’s history — because nearly 100 years later, many of those markers still stand in plain sight.

But to find them, one must know where to look: Even in 1964, the Springfield Leader & Press noted that “some have become about as obscure as parts of our pioneer history.”

A few are embedded in buildings — such as at the corner of Boonville Avenue and Olive Street — while others stand alone several miles out of town. One, trapped behind a fence topped with barbed wire, proves times have changed. But that’s an advantage for Marker #5, which gets a new lease on life when Springfield’s bus transfer station is dedicated in May.

Regardless of location, University Club member Bob Trewatha says the markers play a role in preserving Springfield’s history. “(They’re) significant because we can lose that history very easily unless it’s maintained through markers or stories or books,” he says.

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Marker #19 notes that Springfield’s first post office was at Jefferson Avenue and Walnut Street. The building (above) burned in the late ’90s, but the plaque was salvaged and replaced when the building was rebuilt.

 The men behind the markers

Although Trewatha doesn’t quite know why the University Club formed in the first place, he does know “it wasn’t because of (historical) markers,” he says. “It was a social organization.”

The group, which began in 1919, consisted of college-educated men who regularly gathered at Heer’s Garden Room for smokes, drinks and programs, says Trewatha. Two years after it formed, however, the club decided to propel a new project.

“The University Club, in its efforts to … celebrate Missouri’s centennial year, has secured the erection of eight markers which will serve to commemorate and perpetuate the location of historic points in Springfield and Greene County,” wrote Dr. Edward Shepard, the group’s president and monument proponent, for the Springfield Republican on May 29, 1921.

Made of granite, the markers “often look like tombstones, for they were installed before the day of fancy metal concoctions,” reported the Springfield Leader & Press in 1964. Shepard himself described them as “dolomitic limestone, the most durable of all rocks,” in a newspaper article he wrote announcing their placement.

Who was Dr. Shepard?

Shepard, as pictured in Drury’s 1904 Sou’wester.

When it came to limestone, Shepard knew what he was talking about. While Ozarks history was his great love, geology was his day job: He moved to Missouri in 1879 to be a professor at the six-year-old Drury College.

During his time at the school, he not only built up the Geology department, said the Springfield Daily News in 1934, but at various times was also the librarian, acting president and dean.

By all accounts, the often full-bearded Shepard was a well-liked man. In the newspaper, he was described as “generous and kind, ever willing to go to any trouble to serve others; and he had a most beautiful courtesy.” He was also popular with students, and allowed them to come study at his summer home — a place called Winoka Lodge, which today is well known for its unfounded lore and legend.

Such affection was confirmed by a letter from one of his former students in 1907, who wrote that he often happily remembered  the evenings his Geology class spent at the Shepards’ home — and implored Shepard to believe him “when I say that I am becoming daily more appreciative of the value of my science course, and will always be one of your loyal students.”

Despite his popularity, Shepard wasn’t without “nasty” habits — leading to incident with one of Drury’s founding fathers recounted via a Springfield newspaper in 1934:

“(Shepard’s) smoking once got him into trouble with Samuel Drury, from whom Drury College got its name. Doctor Boyd, a prominent minister of St. Louis, came here to make a commencement address. (He and Shepard were on a porch) smoking cigars when Samuel Drury came up. Seeing the two men smoking, Drury became wildly indignant.

‘I am astounded,’ he shouted, ‘to see a minister of the gospel using that filthy weed. And here is a professor of this same college doing the same. What an outrage.’

Boyd lost his temper at once. ‘Don’t attempt to regulate me,’ he roared. ‘Just because you have given $25,000 to found a little college, don’t presume. You run a country store up north and sell whisky by the barrel and tobacco. You had better drop the subject.’

Turning to Doctor Shepard, Boyd continued: ‘Now if this college tires to cause any trouble about this incident just let me know. I am right now on a committee of one of the large universities on the hunt for several professors and I would just as soon take you as not regardless of how this institution might feel about it.’

Drury, who was really a fine old man, who let his feelings run away with him, walked off. He soon returned and asked the pardon of the two men. The incident seemed closed and Drury stepped into a room just off the porch. Dr. Shepard went into the room to assure Drury he had no hard feelings but as soon as he entered, Drury said gently, being on his knees, ‘I am praying for you.’”

Finding the markers

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Rickshaw 2++Marker #18, a small plaque near the sidewalk, is located at the corner of Boonville Avenue and Olive Street. It recognizes the Butterfield Overland Stage.

Shepard didn’t take Boyd up on his offer: He continued teaching at Drury until his retirement in 1909, and spent the rest of his life advocating the preservation of local history. Part of that work was evident through the club’s markers, which continued to increase until 21 sites were identified in and around Springfield.

Here are the sites the markers identify (and to find out where they’re located, simply click on each name):

  1. Greene County’s first white settlement
  2. Springfield’s first settlement 
  3. Schoolcraft’s Camp
  4. Southwest Missouri’s first mill 
  5. Springfield’s first school
  6. The first school in Greene County
  7. The first store in southwest Missouri 
  8. Southwest Missouri’s first classical academy
  9. Greene County’s first church
  10. The first church in Springfield
  11. Kickapoo Indian Village
  12. A monument to Greene County soldiers from World War I
  13. Native American mounds
  14. Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield
  15. First cabin in Springfield
  16. Fort Ancient
  17. Zagonyi’s Charge
  18. Butterfield Overland Stage
  19. First post office in Springfield
  20. First religious service in Greene County
  21. Defining moments of Park Central Square

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Wilson's Creek +Marker #14 was placed at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield to mark the spot where General Lyon fell in battle. (Vintage photo courtesy of The History Museum on the Square; current photo courtesy of Steve Pokin)

The most recent marker was installed in 1972 on Park Central Square. It was added after the area became a pedestrian plaza: The marker, in the shape of a book, listed significant Springfield-square-related dates. “I think that when they did that, they wanted to say ‘Here’s (our history),’” says Trewatha.

That monument ultimately sparked controversy because one historic date — Springfield’s infamous lynching — wasn’t included.

After much debate, that changed in 2002. “With a simple addition to a bronze, book-shaped marker on the square’s southeast corner, Springfield publicly acknowledged that ‘On April 14, 1906, three black men, Horace B. Duncan, Fred Coker and Will Allen were lynched without a trial,’” recorded the Springfield News-Leader on April 4, 2002.


Marker #21 — installed in 1972 — was amended 30 years later to note the lynching of three black men on Springfield’s Park Central Square in 1906.

Maintaining the markers

There was considerable controversy regarding the amendment of that monument — but even though the University Club originally placed the marker, it wasn’t its debate to decide. After all, the club doesn’t own any of the monuments: It simply coordinated their placement and worked with other local groups to provide funding. Club members don’t own land where they’re located, either.

“…We don’t have any rights,” says Trewatha. “We just said we’d maintain them.”

The club does that by periodically checking each one to ensure all are in good repair. Thankfully, the stones have held up well over the years, and generally don’t require much work, says Trewatha.

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Zag 2Marker #17, noting Zagonyi’s Charge, sits on Mt. Vernon Street. The marker was previously located near Springfield’s Frisco Depot, and was later moved to its present location.

Although it’ll soon be a century since the first set of markers was installed, they’re still a central focus of the University Club. So much so that when asked about the club’s purpose, Trewatha simply points to its mission statement, printed on a paper in his hand, and begins to read.

“The mission of the club is the maintenance of historical markers with which the club was involved in their placement,” he says. He does also note that the organization exists to for the development of higher ideals in the community, knowledge and scholarship, entertainment and good fellowship.

But it’s mostly about the markers.

Making more history


IMG_2083+Marker #5 — recognizing Springfield’s first school — will be incorporated in the city’s new bus transfer station. The building is set for dedication in May 2016. (Rendering courtesy of Bob Trewatha)

One of the markers — #5, which recognizes the first school in Springfield — will soon get a new chance to make history. For many years, it was located at the corner of Main Avenue and College Street, but will be incorporated in Springfield’s new bus transfer station, set for dedication in May.

“(City Utilities) has been really nice about working with us and keeping us informed,” notes Trewatha, and says that members of the club plan to turn out in support of the new station — and hopes that “we might get a little publicity, too.”

After all, as is the case with many older professional organizations, the University Club could use some more members. “Now we have 42 members and half of those are inactive,” says Trewatha. “If you’d like to join, we’d love to have you.”

The club’s members comprise a variety of educational and professional backgrounds, including medicine, religion, business, law, military, government and education. And these days, women are welcome to join, too.

“We fixed that,” says Trewatha. “It’s open to women. We changed our bylaws and said ‘Let’s get with the 21st century.’”

Want to get involved?

Springfield’s University Club meets on the first and third Wednesdays of the month at the Heritage Cafeteria (1364 E. Battlefield Rd., Springfield) between September and May. Members gather for lunch at 11:15 a.m., which is followed by a program at 12 p.m. For more information about the markers or becoming a club member, contact Trewatha at rtrewatha@missouristate.edu.

Unless otherwise noted, all vintage photos are courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District.