The Spook Light

Although the Spook Light is not located within the city limits of Joplin, it’s worth recounting some of the folklore and first-hand accounts of the strange phenomenon. Even though the Spook Light no longer draws in hundreds of cars during the summer, ask any native of the Four States about the Spook Light and they’ll probably have a story, or can share a story that they heard from one of their friends. Much of the recent press surrounding the Spook Light has been rehashed from earlier accounts, so we will focus our attention to early published accounts.

In the late summer of 1934, Clara E. Gordon and her family were on their way home to St. Louis after visiting the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde when they stopped at “Idle-a-While Camp” just off Route 66 in Carterville. The proprietor suggested they go out and see the “Indian Lights” south of Joplin. The Gordons, the camp owner, and two guides set out for the Spook Light. Right after they got out of the car, “an orange-colored light appeared in the center of the road about three hundred feet beyond.” They walked toward the light, but it disappeared. The group jumped back in their car and sped toward the area where they saw the light, but did not find it. “We remained at the place two hours,” Gordon recalled, “and during that time the lights came at intervals of from four to seven minutes and remained shining for that long, then vanished or faded away regularly.” She noted that the light was “never a white light or natural color but usually of orange or a greenish hue.” Upon her return to St. Louis, she tried to research the phenomenon for an answer, but failed to say if she believed in one theory or another.

In January 1936, reporter A.B. McDonald of the Kansas City Star published his own account, “The Mystery Light of the Ozarks on ‘The Devil’s Promenade.’” McDonald and a handful of locals from Neosho drove out to the area to search for the source of the light. He interviewed a farmer named Tracey who claimed, “I’ve been studying it for four years and the more I watch and study it, the more puzzled I am about it.” Thousands of cars, Tracey said, had passed his home in search of the light. During the summer, he observed, there were sometimes one hundred cars parked, waiting. On a normal night, there were usually 15 to 20 cars parked along the road.

McDonald and the group set out on the foot after parking their cars. One young woman exclaimed, “Heavenly day!” as she saw the spook light for the first time. McDonald observed the phenomenon and noted that it reminded him of the glow “I had often seen when driving along a road at night where there was a hill ahead and a car behind the hill was approaching toward its summit, the glow from its headlights
illuminating the air above the summit several moments before they cameinto full view.” Margaret Tuller, a Newton County home economics demonstration agent who accompanied McDonald, was disappointed the light did not split into two separate lights. According to Tuller, who professed she had spent hours studying the phenomenon, “The two lights are always one straight above the other. Sometimes they remain apart until both disappear, and sometimes they merge together again into one light.”

On a tip from the Joplin Globe, McDonald visited James Nutz, a Joplin mechanic, and Raleigh Carter, the owner of an engraving shop. The two men believed they had solved the mystery. Nutz and Carter asserted the light was coming from a light on top of a gravel pile near a zinc mine just outside of Quapaw, Oklahoma. When the reporter asked how fixed lights on top of a gravel pile could move, the men said that the light, in their opinion, did not move at all, arguing “It simply appears to move as you look at it through the foliage of the trees between you and it, and the same moving of the foliage of the trees
makes it seem to disappear and return again.”

The intrepid reporter found the most convincing argument came from Logan Smith, foreman of the composing room at the Neosho Times, who argued the lights were the results of cars traveling along Route 66. When asked about seeing two lights, Smith pointed out that, “[If] you stand in a road and look at a car coming anywhere from two to five miles away and you will not see two lights, you will see only one. At that distance, the two lights are merged into one.”

When McDonald asked Smith about the stories regarding the Spook Light that pre-dated the invention of the automobile, Smith responded, “Those stories all remind me of the story of revivalist Sam Jones and the frogs. Or in that other fable of the mouse that went in to the ear of a person came out his mouth a full grown elephant.” In 1946, the Kansas City Star published an article by Charles W. Graham. Graham, curious about the Spook Light after reading a first-hand account by C. Paul Spidell of Baxter Springs, Kansas, visited the region to conduct his own investigation. Graham contacted Colonel Dennis E. McCunniff at Camp Crowder in Neosho, and obtained the assistance of Major Thomas E. Sheard, the post signal officer. After a series of on-the-ground tests and aerial flights, Graham, Sheard, and others involved in the investigation were satisfied that the Spook Light was nothing more than car lights.

In his 1947 book, Ozark Superstitions, folklorist Vance Randolph touched briefly on the Spook Light. He mentioned Logan Smith of Neosho being of the belief that the lights were those “of automobiles driving east on Highway 66.” Newton County agricultural agent F.N. Darnell “and a group of surveyors from Joplin, also incline to the view that cars on the distant highway are responsible for the mysterious lights.” Yet Fred C. Reynolds pointed out his grandfather, “a pioneer doctor at Baxter, Kansas” had seen the lights “long before there was any such thing as a motor car.”

Another prominent Ozark folklorist, Otto Ernest Rayburn, published Ronald Ray Bogue’s article about the Spook Light in an issue of his magazine, Ozark Guide. He recounted a few of the popular legends surrounding the origin of the Spook Light, including the story about the ill-fated Native American lovers and another about an old settler who lopped off his wife’s head in a drunken fit. Unable to find her head, he disappeared, and is thought to roam the countryside with a lantern looking for it. Rayburn recounted a story from a woman who claimed to have gone with her husband and another couple to look for the Spook Light. After arriving at Spook Light road, she said they got out of the car and sat on the fender, waiting. After thirty minutes, “There appeared a soft white light in the sky about one hundred yards down the road. Slowly it grew brighter and closer, zigzagging across the road. Finally it got so close and bright that my girl companion and I scurried back into the car. Although it was summer, we rolled up the windows and locked the doors.”

The women watched as the light came toward their husbands. The men tried to get into the car, but finding that their wives had locked the doors, scrambled to get under the rear of the car. The light “sat down on the radiator of the car and its brilliance was dazzling. My friend cried and hid on the floor of the – I sat hypnotized by the light, trembling with fear, yet unable to move.”  After a period of time, the light blinked, and then disappeared. The woman declared, “I haven’t been back to see spook light since then, and I’m not going in the future, either.”

Old-timer Bill Mizer boasted, “I’ve been around here since 1886, and I have heard all the stories, but this story about the light, and the first time it was seen was in 1903.” Mizer went on to say that a widow first noticed the light and thought it was someone trying to run her off of her property. A group of young men decided to find out what was happening. Mizer, along with Jake Leach, Edgar Zirkle, W.L. Buzzard,
Hiram Elliott, and John Ventle, and “maybe others” set out to investigate. Thinking it was phosphorous rising from a clump of cattails on the widow’s property, the group settled in nearby to watch.“We didn’t have long to wait before we saw the thing that had the widow frightened,” Mizer recounted,  “The first time I saw the light, my hair raised several inches from my scalp, and I had a hard time keeping my hat on my head.” The light floated around, but when the wind came up, it disappeared. Shaken, the young men returned the next night, and observed the same thing.

Mizer noted, “After a month or so, the light stopped reappearing with regularity, and we had almost forgotten about our experience, but early in 1905 reports had started coming in again about the light.” He still was not sure what the source of the light was, noting, “I tell you – when you’re sitting out there in the dark, and this ball of light floats around for a while, and disappears, you begin to wonder.”

In a tiny pamphlet entitled, “Ghost Lights,” Garland “Spooky” Middleton, the second owner of the Spook Light Museum, published statements from individuals about the Spook Lights. Louise Graham of Galena, Kansas, said, “While coming home from a school carnival at Quapaw, Oklahoma, we got the thrill of our lives. The light had evidently grown tired and weary and decided to do a little hitch-hiking on our bus. The light perched on the rear window as though trying to get in the bus. We were scared half to death – women screaming and all. The light was so bright it temporarily blinded the bus driver and he had to stop the bus. Just as we stopped, the light went away. I’ll never forget that bus ride.”

Leonard Stoner of Quapaw, Oklahoma, said, “I’ve lived around Quapaw for 61 years. I’ve seen a number of teams investigating the source of the ‘Ghost Light,’ but none of them have ever found out what it is. I was here before there were any cars in this district and the ‘Ghost Light’ was there then.” Frank Allen, Jr., an African American resident of Joplin, proclaimed, “I ain’t been [to see the Spook Light] and I ain’t going and you can be sure they won’t be any segregation problems on that road.”

One humorous account from an anonymous resident of Tulsa recounted, “My parents reside in Neosho. While visiting them we drive out to see the spook light quite often. Old settlers down here say their ‘night life’ falls into two categories – Those who have kidney trouble and those who go to see the spook light. One old widow told about having to move to Neosho from Spooksville. She said, ‘The light makes me
nervous and irregular.’ I think she must have meant ‘irritable.’”

If you have a Spook Light story, we’d like to hear it!

I Love You Honey, I Love Your Money, I Love Your Automobile

Automobiles quickly took over the streets of Joplin as Joplinites became wealthier and cars became more affordable.

In 1911, G.B. Fout published the Missouri State Automobile Directory and Guide. Compiled from information provided by the Missouri Secretary of State’s office, the guide listed the names of automobile owners, their state license numbers, and the make of their car. Published at the dawn of the age of the automobile, its pages list a wide variety of automobile brands, many of whom vanished decades ago. Unfortunately, the actual model of the automobile was not listed. A snapshot in time, this provides a glimpse of the early autos of Joplin and those who were fortunate enough to own one.

Here is a small sampling of some of Joplin’s automobile owners:

Local capitalist A.H. Rogers owned both a Stevens Duryea and a Packard. Charles Schifferdecker, who also owned two cars, preferred a Pope Waverly and a Rambler. Freeman Foundry owner J.W. Freeman drove an REO while architect A.C. Michaelis had a Reliable Dayton. Baker Albert Junge and “Father of Missouri’s Good Roads” John M. Malang, men after our own hearts, cruised the streets in a Cadillac. Junge also owned a creatively named Hupmobile. Dr. Samuel A. Grantham relied on a Buick and a Pennsylvania for his transportation needs. Edmund A. Bliedung, manager at Christman’s Department Store, was the only Joplin resident to drive a Babcock Electric Car. Former Joplin Globe owner Gilbert Barbee chose the short lived Speedwell. Mrs. Effie L. Snapp, the only woman listed, was the proud owner of a Chelsea.

Three Joplin residents owned cars made in St. Louis, Missouri. S.L. Wilkins was the only individual in Joplin who owned a Moon motor car. Founded in 1905, the company went out of business during the Great Depression. E.A.C. Elliott was the only Joplin resident who drove a St. Louis which was, as the name indicates, also manufactured in St. Louis, Missouri. Established in 1898, St. Louis Motor Carriage Company was defunct by 1907. Very few examples of this car still exist, but one can be found in the collection of the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, Missouri. J.J. Anderson putted around in a Dorris

Local businesses were also listed. Both the Thomas Fruit Company and Interstate Grocery Company owned a Rapid, the Empire District Electric Company used an Empire, and the H&H Taxicab Company picked up customers in a short-lived EMF. The United Mining Company, Du Pont Powder Company, United Iron Works Company, Empire Zinc Company, Excelsior Zinc and Lead Company, and Howard & Brown all used Buicks. The Joplin Hay Company used an Overland to deliver orders to customers. The Independent Candy Company owned two Internationals. The Joplin Sludging Company drove an Oakland.

Unfortunately, it does not appear that G.B. Fout published subsequent editions of his directory, leaving us to wonder what automobiles succeeded their earlier counterparts on the rough streets of Joplin.

A Car Accident

A sketch of one of Joplin's early car accidents.


“Great Excitement prevailed for a time, but this soon subsided…” In 1906, automobiles were still a new and intriguing sight on the streets of Joplin. The motorized fire engines were still a dream and the road mainly belonged to horse drawn buggies, wagons and trolleys. Thus, it was still quite a newsworthy event when one of the new machines accidentally plowed through the front of A.C. Webb’s automobile establishment at 2nd and Joplin street. A Joplin paper described the event:

“The automobile has always been noted for its liability to do things, but this characteristic was fully demonstrated yesterday afternoon when a runabout of this make crashed…tearing down a large portion of the building, breaking the glass in both windows and doors and not injuring the machine in the least.”

The unfortunate driver was Gus Mattes who had attempted to drive the vehicle into Webb’s shop but instead failed to slow down and completely missed the entrance, but did not miss the brick wall (“with great force.”) Surprisingly, despite the fact that Webb’s shop had suffered damage described alternatively as “demolished” and “splintered” the actual automobile received only a “crack in the glass of one of the lamps.” Before the day was done, the shop was already under repair, and undoubtedly, Mr. Mattes’ vehicle as well.

Incidentally, A.C. Webb’s shop was only a few blocks away from the Joplin Fire Department. When Joplin firemen responded to a fire a couple years later behind a steering wheel, its creator was Webb.

Currently at the Post Memorial Art Reference Library

From 1pm to 5 today, you can visit the Post Memorial Art Reference Library to see artifacts of Joplin’s past.  Ranging from a key to the Connor Hotel to an embroidered towel from the Keystone Hotel, plus a number of other items, you have the chance to get a glimpse of Joplin’s past through “fragments of people lives.”  The items come from the collection of Mark and Paula Callihan.  Additionally, also on display are a number of tornado recovery posters created to benefit Joplin charity in the months that followed last year’s catastrophe.   The Post Memorial Art Reference Library is located inside the Joplin Public Library.

The Architectural Legacy of Garstang & Rea: Barbee Park’s Grandstand

Edward Knell is credited with bringing the first “bred” race horse to Jasper County (as well the “art of embalming”) in 1889. The lucky equine was named “Ben McGregor” and cost Knell an estimated $3,000 dollars, quite the figure at the time. However, as early as 1872, even before Joplin came into existence, a race track was built just south of town that ran a half-mile long. Another race track was built in 1879, along with stables, an agricultural hall, and a grandstand. Gilbert Barbee, one time owner of the Joplin Globe, House of Lords, and Democratic party boss, bought this park and named it Barbee Park. The grandstand featured in both images was designed by Garstang & Rea for Gilbert Barbee’s “driving park” for a price of $6,500.

Barbee Park was home to countless horse races, but also served as the venue for such events like the Firemen’s Tournament that was held on the grounds in 1908. It was at the park where Joplinites got their first real glimpse of the speeding prowess of some of the first motorized fire engines in the nation, as well one of the last fire engine horse team races in the city’s history. Unfortunately for Barbee, in the middle of an April night in 1909, the grand stand caught fire and was a complete loss, despite the best efforts of Joplin’s fire department. The grand stand was never rebuilt and in the 1920s, Barbee’s son leveled the track area to develop a neighborhood.

As Joplin history expert Leslie Simpson writes in her book, Now and Then and Again: Joplin Historic Architecture, “He built the Barbee Court addition right on the old race course, preserving the graceful oval of elm trees that once surrounded it…The outline of the old race track can be traced by looping around from 17th to 19th Streets from Maiden Lane to the alley between Porter and Harlem Avenues.”

Harlem Avenue today.

Joplin’s One-Armed Bandits

Gambling has been endemic to Joplin since the city’s foundation in the 1870s. However, it legally came to an end, at least in the form of slot machines, in 1952. Slot machines had been part of Joplin’s gambling past not that long before, when they formed part of the focus of a grand jury investigation into Joplin’s police chief and mayor in the 1930′s (based on officials “overlooking” their presence in Joplin businesses). After a state law came into effect, simply possessing the gambling devices became illegal. As a result, “approximately 3,000 pounds of “junk”" was collected by one local company. The Joplin Eagle Club, likewise, surrendered eleven machines to the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office, the total value of the machines estimated at $3,000. An article about the end of the slot-machines implied that at the time they were also familiar devices in Joplin’s other private fraternities and organizations, as well.

A Joplin slot machine on its way to be destroyed.

The Comet Parties of Joplin

A photograph of the comet in 1910 via Wikipedia.

The year 1910 witnessed the passing of one of America’s greatest authors and one of the galaxy’s most famous celestial events. Missourian and celebrated author Mark Twain was born in 1835, the same year that Halley’s Comet made an appearance, and by sheer coincidence, he died shortly after the comet graced the heavens once again in 1910. The comet’s brief appearance sparked interested across the world and Joplinites took note.

The comet, which only returns every 75 to 76 years, was quite the big deal and Joplinites were not going to miss out on enjoying it. Invitations were sent to friends and family that stated, “You are cordially invited to attend a Halley comet party which will be held on the roof of our home tomorrow morning at 3:30 o’clock,” or so the Joplin Daily Globe claimed in the May of 1910 in its coverage of the once in a lifetime event. The same article noted that comet gazers had an extra treat in the presence of a spectacular Venus, the “celestial celebrity.” The paper claimed hundreds of Joplin residents were awake for the opportunity to see the visitor, which became visible around 3:45 am and grew brighter over the next thirty minutes. The Halley’s Comet parties were, the headline proclaimed, “the Latest and Most Popular Functions.”

The last time Halley’s Comet visited Joplin, as well the rest of the planet, was 1986. For those who missed it they will have to wait until 2061.

Joplin Miners: 1910 Western Association Champs

Our next photograph in the Joplin Miners series is the 1910 Joplin Miners.

1910 Joplin Miners: 1) Richard Rohn, 2) Marc Hall, 3) Ralph Bell, 4) George Watson, 5) Bruce Ross, 6) Harry Ellis, 7) Howie Gregory, 8 ) Ed Hawk, 9) W. Burton, 10) Earl Hamilton, 11) Thomas Harlow, 12) Lowthers, 13)Joe Kelly, 14) Bert Lamb.

In 1910, the Joplin Miners finished first in the Western Association and played their games at Cox Baseball Park. Richard Rohn, aka, Dick Rohn, was a hold over from the 1907 team. Ed Hawk, from Exeter, Missouri, made it to the St. Louis Browns in the Majors. While Joe Kelly went on to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and the Boston Braves.

Joplin Miners: 1907

Baseball was an ever present pastime in Joplin, be it amateur or professional. Of the latter, the Miners held Joplin’s attention. In addition to our current series from the portfolio of Alfred W. Rea, we are going to present a short series of four team photographs of the Joplin Miners. Our first is the team from 1907:

1907 Joplin Miners

The 1907 Joplin Miners: 1) Owens, 2) Sylvester Oleson, 3) Charles Flemming, 4) Roy Gill, 5) Dick Rohn, 6) Jack Fillman, 7) Tony Vanderhill, 8 ) Manager Louis Armstrong, 9) Guy Harrington, 10) Abner Persch, 11) Conrad Welsch, 12) William George, 13) John Root, 14) Cecil Bankhead.

The 1907 Joplin Miners played at Cox Baseball Park in the Western Association League. Both Vanderhill and Fillman were “veteran” players who had played on previous Miners teams.

Dining in the House of Lords

Made dinner plans yet?  If you happened to be strolling along Main Street north of Fourth and Main one hundred and twelve years ago, you might decide to find a bite to eat inside one of Joplin’s most famous (or infamous) dining places, the House of Lords.  Below are two menus from August, 1899, which undoubtedly satisfied some Joplinite’s hungry stomach. At the time, the House of Lords was operated by Louis N. Rahn, hence, “Rahn’s House of Lords.”