A visitor driving into the St. Clair County seat, Osceola, today sees a small town with some 19th-century store facades, a classic Art Moderne movie theater (now empty), a mural proclaiming its rich and sometimes violent past and a million-dollar jail. Courthouse towns are more resistant to oblivion than many small towns. And Osceola is just a mile off US Highway 13, a major north-south artery. Beyond the square, a fatter Osage River stalls as it becomes the backwaters of Truman Reservoir. The riverfront is quiet – no boats or fishing docks or swimming beaches. Only the mural, “A town where history lives,” hints at the town’s rather amazing story.
In his new book, Osceola: A Town On The Border, Lawrence Lewis defies the borders or boundaries of the local history genre, opting instead for setting his small hometown in the context of history, philosophy, and environmental wrangling. Lewis identifies three key events that have shaped the town and brought it to its current state: the burning of the city by Jim Lane and his Kansas bushwhackers during the Civil War; 1870 bonds on the taxpayers to build a railroad that never materialized; and, last, the building of Truman Dam and the tremendous impact that had on the small city’s politics, population, and tax base.
The event that still rankles and has shaped its self-image was the 1861 burning of the town by Kansas Jayhawkers. Before the Civil War conflagration, Osceola had been a bustling trade center. In his research, Larry Lewis found an enthusiastic description penned by the newspaper editor in 1860: “Osceola can boast of better hotels, more accommodating landlords, deserving landladies, prettier women, handsomer men, faster horses, warmer weather, meaner water, more business, better whiskey, lager beer and ale, and (fewer) churches, preachers and church-going people and Sabbath Schools than any other town in the state, St. Louis not excepted.” With such a lively burg and its likely prospects for prosperity, it’s no wonder the event is still central to the town’s identity.
Osceola native and St. Louis teacher, Lawrence (Larry) Lewis is shown in this photo from the late 1960s wearing a poncho for protection against morning rains and mist from the water flowing over Osceola Dam. Ancestors of Larry’s settled near the Osage River and its tributaries Tebo Creek and Hogles Creek in St. Clair, Henry and Benton counties, Missouri, in the 1830s.
As well as intriguing stories and characters, Osceola: A Town On The Border, relates some little-known geologic history. Only recently was it determined that Osceola sits in a bowl created by an asteroid strike 350 million years ago. “Kaboom…” announces Chapter 2, which is devoted to this geologic peculiarity. One of the 50 largest impact craters on earth, it may be the largest exposed impact crater in the U.S. The impact somehow created perfectly round rocks that are scattered all over. Sometimes called “Osceola round rocks” or “Weaubleau eggs,” they look like geodes but are not. They’re often embedded in foundations or stone fences in Osceola. The composition of impact breccia is not often discussed in local histories. Throughout the book, the author weaves tidbits of scientific information into the story of the town.
The seat of St. Clair County, Osceola once bustled, its riverfront busy with occasional steamboats. Frequently visitors needed transport upriver to Monegaw Springs, a spa of health-giving waters and bluff-top views of the river. Lewis has searched existing written accounts of Osceola and includes good amount of his own family history.
No book on this part of the country would be complete without mentioning the gun battle at Roscoe between two of the Younger brothers and Pinkerton detectives sent by the railroad from Chicago to capture the train-robbing associates of Jesse James. Roscoe is on the road between Osceola and Monegaw, where the Youngers liked to hang out. John Younger and two of the Pinkertons were killed in the shootout. Dr. Lawrence Lewis was one of the post-mortem attending physicians.
Truman Dam at Warsaw blocked paddlefish from the upper Osage and drowned their spawning grounds. Today, the Missouri Department of Conservation artificially raises paddlefish. These hatchery-raised fish are stocked in the lake and make spawning runs up the Osage but reproduction is very rare. Osceola is also not far from significant waterfowl hunting at Schell-Osage.
Although the Osage River (now backed up by Truman Dam and Reservoir) still forms one border of the town, Osceola is “Not the River Town it used to be,” as Chapter 5 is titled. The riverbank is now owned by the Corps of Engineers and is off limits to commercial marinas. “Some losses are forever,” Lewis sums up the story of Truman Dam and Reservoir and his hometown.
One might not recognize Osceola as a seat of Platonic philosophy, but as a result of the work and life of Thomas Moore Johnson, “the Sage of the Osage,” Osceola was at one time the center of Platonism in the Midwest. Johnson was an acquaintance of the New England transcendentalists and collector of learned tomes, leaving a renowned library (known locally as the “book house”) of esoteric and wide-ranging works of philosophy and religions of the world in many languages.
Lewis’s research ranges widely from court records of the environmental lawsuit and scientific analysis of the meteor strike to historic correspondence of citizens and more recent personal reminiscences, his own and those of other longtime residents. The town this book reveals is surprising. Readers will go on a voyage of discovery in Osceola: A Town on the Border.
This review is also published in the April issue of River Hills Traveler (http://www.riverhillstraveler.com/ ) In addition to the review, we provided RHT a number of vintage photos of Osceola on the Osage.
OSCEOLA: A Town on the Border, by Lawrence B. Lewis, is available on amazon.com CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.Paperback, 174 pages. $18.99
COMING IN 2017: JAMES FORK OF THE WHITE: Transformation of an Ozark River.
Sample pages from this new book can be seen at www.beautifulozarks.com
Our earlier ‘river book,’ DAMMING THE OSAGE, can be seen at www.dammingtheosage.com