Matt Miller’s Treasure

In the early spring of 1897, Matt Miller of Joplin was the recipient of what may have been the first armadillo in Southwest Missouri.  Miller’s friend F.D.  Bancroft of Von Ormy, Texas, sent Miller the armadillo as a gift.


Image of an armadillo via the Library of Congress

The Globe reported that the armadillo was, “eighteen inches long and a foot tall.  It is covered with a shell something like a turtle, has four legs long enough to reach to the ground, at the bottom of which are four feet that look something like a cross between a hoof and a cat’s paw.”

Miller described it as a, “land bird, strictly omnivorous and carnivorous.  It eats mice, snakes, lizards, ants, and other beasts and vermin.” He added, “The ladies are invited to call at my office and see it.  Sleeps by day and runs around hunting something to eat at night.” Miller, already proud of his gift, boasted, “It will dig into the ground faster than a man can with a spade, and when he gets in he spreads his armor out against the sides of the hole s o that a team of mules can’t haul him out.  All are urged to come and see him and it won’t cost anyone a cent.”

Source: Joplin Globe, Library of Congress

Cornbread Wilson

Why some women turned to prostitution, be it from circumstance or drug addiction, it might be never known.  Unfortunately at times, caught up with them in the tragic whirlwind by no choice of their own were children.  This is one story.

How Pearl Wilson received the nickname Cornbread is unknown, but what is known from contemporary accounts is that she bore a “bad reputation and was bringing her little five year old daughter up in the very blackest of sin.” It was not surprising, then, to officers when they arrested her in 1903 on a charge of street walking with her daughter in tow.

After she was arrested, Wilson was escorted to the city jail, and when the “iron doors closed between the woman and her child, she began to cry” because the police “refused to lock up her little girl.” Deputy Marshal Frank Sowder contacted the Children’s Home and asked that someone come take charge of the child.

When Mrs.  Barr, matron of the Children’s Home, arrived to take Pearl Wilson’s daughter to the home, a “most pathetic scene” ensued.  Wilson begged to kiss her child goodbye and when the doors of the cell were opened, she “bounded out and clasped the little girl to her bosom, and the tears of mother and daughter mingled.” But Mrs.  Barr could not tarry long and soon the “tender, loving mother, [fought] the battle of her life to prevent the officers from separating her from little one.” Her appeal to keep her child with her in the jail cell tugged at the heartstrings of the officers.  Both Deputy Marshal Sowder and Night Captain Loughlin could not “keep back the tears.” Neither man wanted to separate mother and child, but with the assistance of Mrs.  Barr, the two were separated.

Pearl Wilson was placed back in her cell while her daughter was taken the Children’s Home.  The following day, Wilson went before the police judge, where she claimed that she was not street walking; she was merely “on her way home from church when the officers placed her under arrest.” The Globe reporter remarked, “No one in the courtroom who is acquainted with her methods was inclined to believer her story and the court decided to continue her case until” the next morning when “her conduct will be thoroughly investigated.”

By the next day, however, Pearl Wilson was in trouble again.  This time it was for going to the Children’s Home at 10 o’clock at night on a Sunday to regain possession of her daughter.  After being denied entrance, she “raised a disturbance.  She disturbed the entire neighborhood and in a loud manner served notice that she would ‘clean out the roost’ if her wishes were not acceded to.” Pearl left empty-handed but returned the next day and through “a series of gigantic bluffs she endeavored to frighten the inmates and she succeeded in scaring the smaller inmates nearly out of their wits.  Perfect and harmonious bedlam reigned” until the police arrived and arrested her once again.

The Globe reporter observed, “Although ‘Cornbread’ has lost the principal attributes of a fond and affectionate mother, she has retained as strong love for the little waif as the matron of the most comfortable home in the city.  She has been known to shamefully neglect little Bonnie, but when she is pursued and corralled by the policemen she invariably takes Bonne with her to the jail.”

She must have failed to sway the mind of Mrs.  Barr as she and a young man were seen on Christmas eve “prowling about the Home by some of the attendants and were ordered away.” The Globe reported, “the Wilson woman has made the threat that she will have possession of her child if it costs her life.”

What happened to Pearl Wilson and her daughter Bonnie remains unknown.  Their story, however, is a common one as many women chose to pursue their livelihood as a member of the frail sisterhood.  For the children who were born to women who earned their living on the streets, life was far from easy.

Source: Joplin Globe

Jim Grassman, He Sold Hot Tamales

The men and women of Joplin have answered the call of duty for decades.  In 1917, Joplin resident James “Jim” Grassham attempted to enlist in the regular army but was turned away.  The government, however, had good reason to reject the eager recruit: he was eighty-one years old and was missing his left foot, having lost it to a Confederate bullet in Lancaster, South Carolina.

Jim Grassham was a colorful figure who may not have lingered long in Joplin long enough to appear in the census, but he left behind an interesting interview in the Joplin Globe.  Grassham was known for selling hot tamales out of a tin pail on the streets of Joplin.  He stood out in his white apron, little blue cap, and spectacles.  Most prized of all was his “twinkling, happy smile.” Perhaps that’s why many chose to call him “Dad.”

Main Street, Joplin

Jim Grassman wandered the streets of Joplin selling his hot tamales.

According to Jim, his father arrived in American in 1777 with the Marquis de Lafayette.  His father, described as a “mere boy,” was allegedly at Yorktown being treated in a field hospital for wounds when the British General Cornwallis surrendered.  The elder Grassham was unable to return to France due to his wounds.  A Jewish Virginia revolutionary soldier took Grassham in and nursed him back to health.  Grassham courted and married the man’s daughter.  Together the couple had several children, including eight boys.

Jim told the reporter his father lived to be 104, which might be attributed to the fact that he drank wine he imported from his relatives back in France.  He said, “Father didn’t talk much about the revolution.  There were many important things happening after the revolution that seemed more important to him than the revolution itself.  The development of the was his hobby and he advised all his boys to go west and get land and we all went to Kentucky and then to Tennessee and some of us to Arkansas after the war.”

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, four of the boys joined Union forces, while the remaining four signed up with the Confederacy.  At the age of 28, Jim left his wife and four children and joined Company I of the Third Kentucky Cavalry (US).

After serving four years, four months, and twenty-nine days without a scratch, Jim and his fellow cavalrymen were skirmishing with Confederate troops at Lancaster, South Carolina, when a bullet “stung” him in the ankle.  He said that the wound did not hurt, but his pride must have for he was taken prisoner after he was shot.  He was taken by Confederates “to Salisbury and later to Libby prison, and then was taken out on a prison ship off Annapolis and there he was when the war ended.” It was then that blood poisoning set in.  Because he did not receive proper medical attention, Jim’s foot had to be amputated.  According to Jim, he did not “allow the doctors to give him chloroform or any kind of ‘dope’ and the operation didn’t hurt until they ‘cut the leaders’ (tendons) and then he ‘just naturally raised hell with them.’”

After the end of the war, Jim received a fifty dollar pension from the government and a rubber foot.  He took the advice of his father, who had always advised his sons to go west, and settled in Arkansas.  Over the years, he married four times and had fourteen children.  His last wife, who was seventy-eight, had been blind for two years when the Globe reporter interviewed Jim.  He said he owned some farms in Arkansas, some Liberty Bonds, and sold the tamales “just to be doing something” as well as support his wife, tubercular son-in-law, daughter, and several grandchildren.  One of his daughters had eleven children; another had nine, all girls.  At least four of his grandsons had enlisted in the regular Army, two of whom were bound for France as part of Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force.

When asked about his long life, Jim said he didn’t use tobacco, although he used to before “the doctor made me cut it out several years ago and I never went back to the habit.” He still took a nip of whiskey, usually during rainy weather.  Jim claimed that he had suffered a bout of pneumonia but whiskey helped him pull through it “like a young colt.” Jim observed that a person should keep busy and be an optimist.

Jim reflected, “I’ve been busy ever since I was a kid.  Every member of my family has been the same way.  My father was a hard worker, a great ‘producer,’ as we used to call a man who succeeded.  My brother, who is 89 years old, works at blacksmithing and he stands at his anvil every day.  He lives in Tennessee now.  I think its hard work and a cheerful disposition that keeps anyone going.  I don’t feel that I’ve aged a bit in fifty years.  I don’t think much of fads about what you eat or drink to live long.”

He then told the reporter he wasn’t sure if he was going to stay in Joplin much longer due to the rainy weather as he “doesn’t like too much rain.” Although he lived in Chitwood, Jim could be seen walking the streets of Joplin any night “ready to exchange a witticism or a laugh with anyone.”

Source: Joplin Globe

Mining – Progress and Prosperity

An illustration from the Joplin Globe invoking the spirit of progress that pervaded much of Joplin’s history.

Mining - Progress and Prosperity

Source: Joplin Globe

Alice Frances Britten, Globe Newsgirl

Although we often look back nostalgically on the days of the newsboy, there were also newsgirls, although it “was a department of activity not often invaded by girl folks.” Alice Frances Britten, an eleven-year-old newsgirl, was a welcome sight to the miners who lived in the Castle Rock and Brickyard Crossing neighborhoods of Joplin.  The sprightly young girl, who was described as having bright blue eyes, met the “early morning electric car from Joplin at the crossing between Midway Park and Oakland” to pick up her bundle of papers which she then carried to the homes of “the miners and gardeners of the region.”

Alice Bitten, Joplin Globe newsgirl

A sketch of Alice Britten

Originally from Texas, Britten came to Joplin where she “endured the restraint of city life, and as a result was not strong and rugged a year ago when she first undertook the task of representing The Globe in the Brickyard Crossing neighborhood.” But after a year of delivering the paper in sun, sleet, and snow, she radiated health and vitality.

Her meager earnings were deposited in a savings account “of no mean or inconsiderable proportions” which added “zest and incentive to the long and sometimes tiresome tramp over the narrow and difficult trails of the hill country.” Miners made sure to pay her for their subscriptions which was not always the case of the intercity newsboy who often got ripped off by customers.  She even delivered papers when not attending the Range School where she “fought out the difficult problems of the multiplication table and the nominative case.”

The Globe observed, “It has been said that heaven lies about us in our childhood, and surely this mythical land comes very near the Globe‘s ‘girl newsboy’ as she communes with Nature during these bright spring mornings.”

Four years later in 1910, Alice F.  Britten was living on Royal Heights Road in Jasper County, Missouri, with her parents and siblings.  Her father, William, was a building contractor for mining companies, as were her three brothers.  Her mother, Ida, listed her occupation as a farmer, while her sister, Nora, taught school.  Alice, however, did not have an occupation listed.

In July, 1913, Alice Britten married James Higgins in Jasper County, Missouri, and disappears from the historical record.  No matter where Alice ended up, she surely never forgot her time as a young newsgirl, carrying the Globe to the rough and tumble mining neighborhoods where she was warmly greeted.

Source: The Joplin Globe

Carthage Attorney Charles Wild: Defying the Odds

Although he was a citizen of Carthage, Charles Wild’s story is worth mentioning on Historic Joplin.  As a young boy growing up in Sarcoxie, Wild suffered a bout of scarlet fever.  He was left crippled and unable to walk.  Wild, however, was undeterred.

Although he could not play baseball or swim in a country stream, Charles Wild focused on his studies.  It was said that as a mere boy he took over as the bookkeeper and business assistant in his father’s nursery in Sarcoxie.  Later, when he was older, Charles attended St.  Louis Law School (now called St.  Louis University).  After graduation he opened a successful law practice in St.  Louis before he returned to Sarcoxie in 1906 and became the law partner of H.T.  Harrison of Carthage.

What made Charles Wild unique was that although he was unable to walk, he still managed to travel all over town with the aid of a cart that was described as a, “small box-like affair hung between two large rubber-tired wheels resembling those of a bicycle.  The box of the cart is just large enough to admit his body and in this, when he desires to move around, he is strapped.  Then, leaning forward, he propels himself by pulling himself along with his hands.  He carries wooden blocks which he uses to preserve his hands.”

Charles Wild, Carthage Attorney in his cart and at desk

A sketch of Mr. Wild in his cart, as well seated at a table.

Wild could travel faster than the average pedestrian unless there was snow on the ground when “it is almost impossible for him to make any progress.” In addition, “rough roads and in wet and muddy weather” were a hindrance.

Despite his physical challenges, he was an accomplished author and attorney, with some of his work published in contemporary publications such as Harper’s and Century Magazine.  He was noted as “an advocate of great ability before a jury.  His physical condition is no handicap to his prowess as a speaker.” Wild would often ask to be taken from his cart and seated in a chair, “his head barely showing above the edge of the table” when he delivered “some of the most highly polished arguments and addresses ever hard in a tribunal of justice in this county.”

Wild, it was noted, “was respected by everyone, a friend to whom one can go in time of need, he is not only one of the most able but one of the most beloved men in Carthage.” He depended “upon his own abilities for making his way in the world” and he certainly did.

Source: Joplin Globe

Vada Corbus – Joplin Miners catcher

We recently covered Vada Corbus, a woman ballplayer who sought to play for the Joplin Miners.  By the permission of John Kovach, college archivist at St. Mary’s College, we secured a much better photograph of the near trailblazer.  The photograph comes from Mr. Kovach’s book, Women’s Baseball, (Images of Baseball).   For more on women in baseball, check and see if the traveling exhibit, “Linedrives and Lipstick: The Untold Story of Women’s Baseball,” is coming near you (or arrange to have it visit your local museum or history institution!).

Vada Corbus - Joplin Miners

Vada Corbus - Joplin Miners - personal collection of John Kovach.

Source: John Kovach’s “Women’s Baseball.”

House of Lords article in the Joplin Globe

In support of ReadMOre Missouri, a statewide reading program, the House of Lords will be “recreated” at the Post-Memorial Library in the Joplin Public Library from 7:00 to 8:30 pm on Friday, April 23.  While the gambling history of the House of Lords will be brought to life with several games of chance, the focus will be on Mark Twain, the selected author for ReadMOre Missouri this year.  On Tuesday, a living history presenter will channel Mark Twain in a presentation to be given at the event.  For a brief history of the House of Lords, you can read the article at the Joplin Globe here.

House of Lords event poster for Post-Memorial Library

House of Lords event poster for Post-Memorial Library

A Snapshot of Race Relations in Joplin

African Americans played an important role in Joplin’s history.  Although segregation prevailed in the local mining industry, African Americans worked backbreaking labor intensive jobs as hod carriers, day laborers, carpenters, washerwomen, and other less desirable occupations.

Joplin newspapers often echoed the narrow minded racial beliefs of the time by perpetuating common stereotypes of African Americans as criminal, subhuman individuals.  In comparison to some local papers, such as the Stotts City Sunbeam and the Springfield Leader (which was founded by fire-breathing former Confederate Daniel Curran Kennedy), the Joplin papers were fairly tame.  While African Americans were most often portrayed in a negative light by the papers, sometimes a positive story would appear.

It’s often easy to look back over the last century, even two centuries, of American history and fall prey to dangerous generalizations.  This story illustrates that while racism certainly did exist in Joplin, it was not pervasive.

In the early fall of 1906, a crippled black man drove his blind mule along the streets of Joplin.  He was a well known figure as he drove a wagon that carried advertising signs to drum up business for local merchants.  The old man was, “old, feeble, and helpless, and few would take advantage of the poor old man’s infirmities to make him the object of a stinging jest.”

As the man and his mule approached Sixth Street and Moffet Avenue, a group of three white boys in a delivery wagon spied them.  One of the boys shouted, “Whoa there, mule.  Ha ha ha, look at the blind mule.  Look at the nigger.” The other two began laughing which a Globe reporter said, “sound as near like the braying of an ass as anything else.”

The elderly black man sat quietly but onlookers could see that “his feelings were deeply hurt.”

One of the boys called out, “Why don’t you get an automobile?” The other two began to yell when a white miner named Fred Winchel came upon the scene.  Winchel, incensed at the abuse the boys were heaping on the old man, jumped into the delivery wagon and grabbed one of the delivery boys.  He jerked the boy out of his seat and out onto the street.

Winchel growled, “Do you want to fight?” The boy, frightened by the miner, stammered, “N-n-n-no.” Winchel, still angry, snarled, “Then take that you cowardly whelp!” before he slapped the boy viciously on the ear.  The boy’s two companions tried to drive away but Winchel ordered them to stop.  The two boys complied.

Once again Winchel jumped into the wagon and drug the remaining two boys out.  He asked, “Do you want to fight?” The boys, like their companion, replied that they did not.  Winchel boxed their ears and sent them on their way.  He was overheard to say, “I ought to be kicked for not cleanin’ every one of them.”

Source: Joplin Globe

Joplin’s Potter’s Field

“Every wooden headstone in the potter’s field bears a name — some name.  No one guarantees it to be the correct name, but the name is there just the same.”

The unknown dead were the unwanted in Joplin just a few years after the turn of the century.  For those who perished in the city, without anyone present to claim their body, there were several cemeteries to be laid to rest.  For those unfortunates who died without any present to witness to their name or identity, a specific place in the earth was reserved.  It was located in Potter’s Field, a traditional name for burial spots for the poor and forgotten.  Joplin’s Potter’s Field was found at the western fringe of Joplin’s westernmost major cemetery, Fairview Cemetery.  There the dead rested beneath a landscape dominated by mines, from the mining houses to the chat piles.  It was a barren and lonely place.

The Potter's Field in Joplin, Missouri

A sketch of Joplin's Potter's Field.

The Joplin News Herald reflected on the visitors to the pauper’s cemetery, mothers in search for sons, brothers looking for brothers.  There was one exception, the News-Herald reported.  Husbands rarely, if ever, sought their wives in Joplin’s potter’s field, though it was surmised that sometimes it was husbands who sent their wives there to sleep amid the mines.

Source: Joplin News Herald