Memories of Half-a-Hill’s first 20 years

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Half-a-Hill is shown in 1919. (Courtesy of the Hickman Family)


By Tom Peters 
Dean, Missouri State University Libraries 
Guest Contributor 

Even though Half-A-Hill has been gone for more than 40 years, the Springfield landmark is remembered — as many things. Throughout its lifetime, the business was a tavern, a tourist court, a tea house (T House), a roadhouse, a club, a dance hall, and a wayside inn.

For nearly six decades, from 1919 to 1978, Half-a-Hill was a destination for all types of people: Sorority sisters, fraternity brothers, debutantes, society couples, club members, tourists, Sunday drivers, hill folk, and roadhouse rowdies. They all enjoyed themselves immensely and developed fond memories of Half-A-Hill.

Half-A-Hill was located about five miles southeast of Springfield, on a winding road initially called the White River Trail, and eventually U.S. Highway 65. Now it’s called Lone Pine. 

In today’s terms, it was near the intersection with an east-west road known as the James River Road, now called Battlefield. Nowadays, a gas station, a strip mall — appropriately called Half-a-Hill — and a recycling center occupy the location of that famous tea house and dance hall.

But what about its name?

Although the establishment was located near a small hill, the name Half-A-Hill came from a fictitious story, published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, that featured a loving couple who met halfway up a hill to court and spark. 

This mystery short story was published in the February 1921 issue. Written by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott, “Half a Hill” involves “three letters sent into the past; three unexpected answers, a week-end in the country, a garrulous stage drive and a violinist who played only in the dark…” (Springfield Leader and Press, Friday, February 4, 1921, p. 9)


Maude Belle (Wilkerson) Hickman had the bright idea for Half-A-Hill. She was an accomplished cook, manager, business woman, and the driving force behind this landmark business.

She and her husband, Walter Clarence Hickman, started and built up Half-A-Hill for two decades, from 1919 to 1939. Maude was a proud and active member of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. 

 

The Hickman Family (Courtesy of the Hickman Family)


In addition to being a business, Half-A-Hill was also a home. Hickman children grew up on that 10-acre property: Gladys, Warren, and Nora (Noni).   

Nora was born on July 13, 1926. When Maude went into labor, Walter drove as fast as his Model-T Ford would go toward Springfield Baptist Hospital. They got as far as the National Cemetery before little Nora came into the world.  

In 1974, Nora wrote a brief memoir about the experience of growing up at Half-A-Hill. Like Pip in Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, Nora’s memories of Half-A-Hill often resonate around the sounds.

“If I had to choose one single memory that epitomizes Half-A-Hill, it might be the bleak, lonely sound of the Half-A-Hill T-House sign as it creaked back and forth on an iron bracket under the dining room eaves on a winter’s night.”

Today, locals have varying memories of Half-A-Hill, but it began as a BBQ shack located on the west side of the road.

Nora remembers, “My parents first built a small frame barbecue stand partway up the hill and thought of it as a little business my brother [Warren] and his friends could operate part-time. It was so successful that Mother talked my father into building a restaurant across the road.” 

For years, throughout the Roaring Twenties and the Dusty Depressed Thirties, dancing, good music, and good eats — especially Maude’s famous fried chicken — drew people from near and far to Half-a-Hill. 

Dancing always was part of the Half-A-Hill experience. For example, on July 4, 1922, a dinner dance was held and tickets cost $1. The Ruxton String Orchestra provided the musical entertainment.

But it wasn’t a rowdy place: If a man had too much to drink at a dance, Maude would pick him up by the belt and throw him out.

Dances happened in all seasons, all days of the week, and all hours of the day and night.

“The high school sororities had summer sunrise dances at the Hill that didn’t begin until 2 o’clock a.m. and ended at 7,” says Nora. “One year there was a North Pole Dance in the middle of the summer, with pictures of the Aurora Borealis and Eskimos around the walls and tubs of block ice scattered over the dance floor.” 

Tom Mix (public domain)

Tom Mix, the leading cowboy star of silent movie westerns, once pulled up to Half-A-Hill in a Rolls Royce. His chauffeur had driven him over from Tulsa just to enjoy the legendary fried chicken.

Mix was wearing a white cowboy suit, with a matching Stetson hat, and jangling silver spurs on his cowboy boots. As luck would have it, Maude had gone into Springfield that day to do some shopping, so the other kitchen staff improvised with the jitters. Nora found Mix to be shorter than she had imagined, more taciturn, and uninterested in the local yokels. 

For six months in 1924, Half-A-Hill was closed because state highways 16 and 3 were being rebuilt. Maude and Walter took the opportunity to renovate and improve Half-A-Hill. One of the changes was the addition of a dance pavilion.

In her memoirs Nora notes, “In about 1924 a 100-foot long dance pavilion was added to the restaurant. Mickey Marvell and his band, including Carl Snyder (Bill Snyder’s father) as banjoist, became the Hill’s band-in-residence for Saturday night dances.”

Half-a-Hill with its dance pavilion. (Courtesy of the Hickman Family)


This was a couple of years before federal highway support began, and Springfield would become the Crossroads of America because U.S. 66 and U.S. 65 intersected here. 

By the 1930s the Half-A-Hill complex had become quite developed. There were four tourist cabins across the road to the west, plus a large vegetable garden, flower gardens, a sand box, and a small pond. Nora loved to play over there.   

Half-a-Hill site map (Courtesy of the Hickman Family)


However, those were different days, and the 1930s were not known for conservation and respect for nature.

An historical account says that the creek running through the Half-A-Hill acreage “was a repository for beer cans, broken bottles, discarded tires, and snakes. But it was also a friendly inviting place to wade (cautiously), skip stones, catch crawdads, watch waterbugs skate over the surface, and even ice skate when the creek froze in the winter.” 

Just beyond the creek, the Chadwick line of the Frisco Railway ran along the east side of the acreage, trundling railroad ties, strawberries and other goods, as well as passengers, up to the Frisco main line and off to distant projects, consumers and places. 

Another memory: One time Nora got to ride with Half-a-Hill’s handyman into Springfield in a jitney, a type of small bus.

“Mr. Watson (the driver) was a genial, polite man who operated his own bus line between Springfield and Sparta. He had a three-seated touring car that country people could ride to town in for a small fare. His final stop was the Metropolitan Hotel on College Street about a block from the Public Square. The hotel had a front porch filled with rocking chairs where a group of elderly men met regularly to visit with each other and watch the traffic go by.” 

During those early decades the aforementioned handyman and gardener at Half-A-Hill was Jim Westmoreland. He was a hardworking native of Taney County who “spoke what was probably a pure Elizabethan country dialect.”

Nora remembers: “He had a seamed, leathery face and a moustache which was yellowed and stained by tobacco juice and coffee which he always ‘saucered and blew’ before he sucked it up into his mouth. He ate peas from a knife, a fascinating skill I was forbidden to learn.” 

Jim saved tinfoil by rolling it into an increasingly large ball. He lived halfway up the western hill among the tourist cabins in a small fieldstone building that he shared with the well pump. He tended the large garden across the road from the tea house and dance hall, with a corn field and fruit orchards farther up.

The garden “supplied enough lettuce, radishes, onions, carrots, string beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and cabbage for the whole summer,” with enough left for canning to use in the winter. 

Half-a-Hill in the 1930s (Courtesy of the Hickman Family)


While almost all visitors to Half-A-Hill had a great time, for the family and employees it entailed hard work, long hours, and multiple sources of anxiety, from theft, fire, floods, debt, drunkenness and other calamities. It all wore on Maude’s nerves.  

In 1939, after twenty years in business, the family sold the property and business to Jerry Pettit, a local band leader. 

Big changes came two and twenty years after the property and business were sold.

“Mr. Hickman died in 1941. Mrs. Hickman, formerly Maud Wilkerson, member of a pioneer Springfield family, lives at 920 East Delmar. In 1959 the original building was demolished, and the dance floor was moved farther away from the concrete highway and added to.” (Springfield Leader and Press, Friday, July 10, 1959, p. 11) 

The allure and charm of Half-A-Hill was complex and profound. But the source was crystal clear: Maude Hickman.

“It was located in beautiful dairy farm country, and the building had a rustic charm that was indigenous to this area,” recalls Nora. “It would remind the romantically-inclined of a wayside inn, and the home-cooked food was another detail to describe to the folks back home.”

Resources

Anonymous. 1922. Advertisement for Half-A-Hill, Springfield Leader, July 3, page 7.

Photograph the ad in the Springfield Leader and Press, Saturday, May 13, 1922, p. 5. 

Photograph the ad in the Springfield Leader and Press, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 1924, p. 17

Anonymous. 1927. Advertisement for Half-A-Hill, Springfield Leader, May 21, page 3.

Billings, Hank. 2016. “Fond Memories, Born of Necessity.” Springfield News-Leader, February 29, section C, page 1. 

Caplan, Nora Hickman. 2014. Noni’s Little Problem. [place of publication]: [publisher]