Lee Taylor: Joplin’s First Elected Mayor

Lee Taylor, Mayor of Joplin

Joplin's First Elected Mayor

The first elected mayor of Joplin was born an Englishman. His name was Lee Taylor and by the time he passed away on December 13, 1917, he had lived a very American life. Taylor was born in 1836 in Manchester, England, one of the world’s great industrial cities. At the age of four, his parents immigrated to the United States and settled in the Jasper County, Missouri. In the frontier state of Missouri, Taylor came of age and was reportedly among one of the first to notice the potential of mining in the region. After the commencement of the Civil War, Taylor traveled to Arkansas and enlisted in the Confederate Army. He served in the 34th Arkansas Infantry, fought at the Battle of Prairie Grove, and reportedly rose to the rank of captain by war’s end.

In Arkansas, Taylor met his wife, and together with a growing family, returned to Joplin around 1870, never to leave again. He became involved with mining and was a mine superintendent when talks began between the village of Joplin (where old East Joplin is now located) and Murphysburg to form a unified city. When Joplin was established in 1873, E.R. Moffett was appointed by the state as the first mayor, and Taylor was a councilman. Shortly thereafter, Taylor ran for the position of Mayor. Heavily supported by East Joplin residents, Taylor narrowly beat Moffett to become Joplin’s first elected mayor.

Taylor resigned before the end of his first term and was replaced by Councilman J.H. McCoy. The reason for his abrupt resignation was one of a business nature as apparently his duties as a mine superintendent were far more time consuming than he originally anticipated. By 1880, Taylor lived at 503 Byers Avenue and remained there until a few short years prior to his death, when the former mayor moved to a farm out in the county. Taylor remained involved with Joplin’s growth. He was one of the first Masons in Joplin and served on the city’s Board of Education in 1890 along with Charles Schifferdecker.

By 1900, Taylor listed himself as a grocery dealer in the U.S. Federal Census, but a decade later, he had moved to just north of Carthage to live the life of a grain farmer. A few weeks before December, 1917, the old veteran and pioneer fell ill. At the age of 80, it was generally believed that Taylor’s constitution was still strong enough to overcome illness. Instead, the old pioneer succumbed to kidney disease, and passed away.

Memorial Day in Joplin

An illustration in a 1907 Joplin newspaper celebrating Memorial Day.  True to the holiday’s origins, it’s a sketch of a Civil War veteran.  Joplin had a unit of the Grand Army of the Republic and was home to a number of Civil War veterans.  We at Historic Joplin thank all our veterans for their service.

Joplin Memorial Day illustration

Joplin Memorial Day illustration

Source: The 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