Joplin, Phone Home

Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for the telephone in 1876.  Six years later, telephones were considered a rare luxury and this list reveals some of the wealthier citizens of Joplin, as well the most successful businesses.   Even with a population in the thousands and businesses in at least the dozens, only about 51 telephones are listed.  Times have changed.

Jopin Telephone Exchange list for 1882

Jopin Telephone Exchange List for 1882.

Source: Joplin Daily Herald

Another Fight at the House of Lords

A political cartoon about the House of Lords

Criticism in ink of Joplin's Democratic boss Gilbert Barbee, owner of the House of Lords

This image is taken from a 1906 issue of the Joplin News-Herald.  It depicts a scene from Joplin’s famed House of Lords.  The House of Lords was a world reknowned saloon, brothel, and political watering hole.  Gilbert Barbee, who was Jasper County’s Democratic political boss (when he wasn’t sharing the title with William Phelps of Carthage), bought an interest in the Joplin Globe in 1899.  From that point forward, Barbee used the Globe as a cudgel against his Republican opponents, who often took their own swipes at Barbee. Barbee, who built a walkway between his office at the Globe and the House of Lords, was intimately associated with the saloon.  This cartoon is the News-Herald‘s attempt to link Barbee to the brawls and violence of the House of Lords, a cunning parallel to the political battles he often fought against rivals and opponents at the state and local levels.   Despite his politically combative demeanor, Barbee left $100,000 to the poor in the city of Joplin upon his death.

Sources: Joplin News Herald

From Fire: The Origin of the Joplin Fire Department

Fires today still make the headlines, but the risk to communities as a whole are not as significant as they were one hundred years ago. Before the emergence of professional fire fighters with modern training and equipment, fires posed a considerable risk to towns and cities populated by wooden structures and defended by brave but untrained bucket brigades.  Joplin, like many other cities across the country, learned the hard way of the necessity of a professionally trained and equipped fire department. As one would expect, this story of historic Joplin begins with a fire.

More than thirty years had passed, but the crusty pioneers who witnessed the city’s birth still recalled the first great blaze that occurred in 1874.  Only a year old, Joplin was just beginning to build on the success of the mines. For a city in its infancy, the fire was incredibly destructive. Joplin’s volunteer fire department, formed in 1872, was headed by Edward Porter. Porter oversaw a ragtag collection of twenty men who rode on horseback to fires carrying only their axes and water buckets. It was this small, determined band of men who were able to beat back the fire of 1874. Despite the volunteer fire department’s best efforts, an entire block on Broadway was lost, which at the time consisted of two residences and a store room. The only building that survived the blaze was the Masonic Hall which was built of brick. The potential for devastation had been great and had only been narrowly avoided.  The limited success of the volunteer fire department convinced Joplin’s city leaders that something had to be done to improve the department’s ability to combat fires.

The answer was a 100 gallon tank filled with a chemical fire suppressant set on the back of a handcart.  It was stored in Joplin City Hall which at the time was situated in the bottoms that lay roughly in the middle of town, or rather, between the two former towns of Joplin and Murphysburg that had combined only a few years before.  The fire suppressant’s record was mixed.  A year after its purchase, it failed to stop a fire that burned down two homes, including one on Mineral Street that belonged to John Allington.  This defeat may have been made even more embarrassing as Allington was an influential resident.

Man holding bucket up to horse

A bucket, like the one featured in this photograph from the time period, was one of the main tools available to combat fires.

By this time, Edward Porter had resigned from the position of volunteer fire chief and was succeeded by Frank Williams. It was Williams who was likely in charge when a destructive fire rampaged through near what is now Joplin’s Murphysburg neighborhood.  At that time, the main financial district ran from First Street to Fourth with a few homes located south of Seventh Street.  The heart of the commercial district was situated at the intersection of Third and Main, but buildings extended south to the corner of Fourth Street and Main, where the Worth Block building later stood.  The Joplin News Herald described the fire thus:

“At an early hour one morning two of the buildings in the middle of the block were discovered to be in flames.  The alarm was given and the volunteer company turned out.  The fire had a good headway and before any efforts could be made to check its spread the center of the row was ablaze.”

It did not take long for the volunteers to realize that the buildings that made up the majority of the block between Third and Main were lost.  Built entirely of wood frame construction, a fire could not have asked for any better source of fuel.  Firefighters began a valiant effort to save the buildings located at opposite corners of the block as they were considered cornerstones that anchored their respective intersections. Onlookers crowded to watch the fire feed upon the block’s buildings and the fight by the firefighters to save the corner buildings.  The firefighters succeeded in their desperate battle but the center of the block was reduced to charred ashes.  The next great fire came four years later in 1880 at the famed White Lead Works of Joplin.

The White Lead Works arose from the idea of E.O. Bartlett, a young professor from Pennsylvania.  Bartlett believed the process of smelting lead at the time was a wasteful one that allowed lead carbonate to be lost in the exhaust fumes.  To curb waste, Bartlett devised a redesigned exhaust system that tripped a flour-like substance, commonly known as white lead.  Bartlett requested the permission of Joplin’s largest lead producers to build his experimental lead factory on their site which would use his new exhaust system.  The owners, E.R. Moffett and John B. Sergeant, agreed to the idea.  Such was the success of Professor Bartlett’s plan that Moffett and Sergeant quickly implemented the process in their primary lead factories.  White lead quickly became a valuable commodity due to its use as a paint pigment and was even used by the United States Navy to paint their ships.  It was also commonly used in house paint and posed a great threat to the health of children who might consume the paint flakes.

It was late in the afternoon on April 3, 1880, that a great column of white smoke rose upward into the sky.  If that was not enough to garner the attention of the people of Joplin, then the constant shrill screams of the plant’s steam whistles certainly did.  Something was wrong.  Perhaps someone had stacked the sacks of white lead too tightly together and the cumulative heat of the contents had reached a critical point where the bags had burst into flame. At least, that was the theory settled upon later, but at the moment, all that was known were shouts in the streets of Joplin, “The white lead works are on fire!”   The white lead works employed a significant number of the city’s population and an even greater number arrived to watch it burn and look for loved ones that worked there.

The white lead works of Joplin, Missouri

The white lead works of Joplin after they were rebuilt following the devastating fire.

Moffett, who was at work at the time, coolly remarked, “Well, she’s gone.”  Moffett and Sergeant’s employees had been at their posts with the factory running at full capacity when the fire started. Fortunately, employees were quickly evacuated and Moffett was credited with keeping the crisis in check. All that remained was for the fire department to attempt to save the factory. It was a lost cause before the department even arrived. Joplin’s volunteer firefighters failed due to the enormity and hazardousness of the blaze and they nearly lost the fire department’s chemical tank after it became trapped between two buildings.  The overall loss was valued at $20,000, a great sum in 1880.

It was a jarring loss for both the city and its growing economy.  The white lead works would be rebuilt, twice its former size, but the city recognized the need to reorganize the volunteer fire department. Volunteer Fire Chief Frank Williams may have stepped down at this point and handed the reins over to Taylor Mayfield, although it is not clear. The city ordered water hoses for the department to use and requested that every business keep a barrel of water and bucket handy.  The city also asked for additional volunteers.  It would be another fire the same year that spurred the city to continue its efforts to modernize the fire department.

During the late hours of the morning the city’s sole opera house, the Blackwell, erupted in flames. Rouse from their sleep at two in the morning, volunteers valiantly tried to save the large three story structure that lined fifty feet of Joplin’s Main Street.  Located just north of the city’s courthouse, the flames could easily leap to the next building and destroy the civil center of the community.  Clark Claycroft, a volunteer at the time and later a fire chief, recalled, “We tried our chemical tank but the fire was too much for that, and the bucket brigade did but little better.” As the flames consumed the Blackwell, volunteers recalled the fire hoses that lay inside the fire barn nearby, having arrived only the day before.

“So a bunch of us went to the fire barn, broke open the boxes, and put the hoses together and carried it to the fire.  In half an hour, we had two streams of water going.” It was not enough to save the opera house.  The Blackwell was lost, but the efforts did protect Joplin’s City Hall which briefly caught fire.  The damage was severe and pushed Joplin’s city leaders to continue to improve the volunteer fire department.

Clark Claycroft was selected as fire chief with former city marshal J.W. Lupton appointed as his second in command. Three hose companies were established with their own stations.  George Payton, a future fire chief, oversaw Station One located in East Joplin.  Station Two stood at Second and Joplin and was commanded by A.B. “Tony” McCarty, and further south, at Seventh and Main, Station Three was overseen by L.A. Fillmore.  It was this foundation upon which the Joplin Fire Department was built upon when George Payton became the first paid fire chief at $50 a year.  The year was either 1882 or 1884 as various sources dispute the founding date.

Joplin Fire Department prior to mechanization

Before the adaptation of the automobile, horse drawn carries were the main method for the Joplin Fire Department to move their fire fighting equipment about the city.

By 1890, the city’s water works had been expanded and improved upon which assisted the fire department with one hundred pounds of water pressure.  Up to and past 1900, the companies used horse drawn carriages to respond to fire alarms, but one man would change that. Alfred Webb of Joplin, who operated an automobile livery across the street from one of the fire stations, revolutionized fire fighting. With permission of the fire chief, he mounted one of the chemical tanks and some hose on a motor car and a new era of fighting fires was born.  The mechanized apparatus, dubbed “The Goat,” raced swiftly to the scene of fires, and often times was, as Joplin historian Joel Livingston reported, “ready to return when the hose company, drawn by horses, arrived on the scene.”  By 1908, the city equipped all its stations with the motorized units and was perhaps one of the first cities to take such a step in the first years of the twentieth century.

The motorized Joplin Fire Department

The motorized Joplin Fire Department with its two ladder trucks, chemical truck, and fire chief's engine.

This innovation even made the pages of a 1909 issue of Popular Mechanics, which reported on the “up-to-date fire fighting machines.”  The four cylinder gas engines of the cars also powered the pumps and worked at a furious 75 horse power.  The chief fire engine carried a thousand feet of hose and numerous four gallon tanks of chemical suppressant, in addition to a water pump.  The chemical engine, as it was called, hauled a sixty gallon tank, 200 feet of hose, and was powered by only a 25 horse power engine.  In addition, the department owned two ladder trucks powered by 50 horsepower four cylinder engines which carried a thousand feet of hose, plus two 30 foot extension ladders.

Fire chief's engine and chemical engine of the Joplin Fire Department

Another view of the fire chief's engine and chemical engine of the Joplin Fire Department.

The Joplin Fire Department's two ladder trucks racing on a track

The Joplin Fire Department's two ladder trucks racing on a track.

From a small crew of twenty volunteers with buckets and axes to a modernized fleet of fire engines, the Joplin Fire Department entered the new century.  Despite the hazards it had already faced, it was not until 1923 when the department lost its first fireman, one of four honored by the department for their service and sacrifice.

Joplin City Hall, which also housed the Joplin Fire Department station.

Joplin City Hall, which also housed the Joplin Fire Department station. Note the ladder truck on the right.

Sources: “A History of Jasper County, Missouri, and It’s People,” by Joel T. Livingston, Popular Mechanics, “The Story of Joplin” by Dolph Shaner, “Tales about Joplin…Short and Tall,” by Evelyn Milligan Jones, the Library of Congress, and the Joplin News Herald.

Joplin’s First Police Matron: Ellen Ayers

In the immediate years following 1900, Joplin continued to aggressively expand with more mines, more buildings, more wealth, and more vice. Back alley crap shoots, billiard halls, saloons, bars, and brothels were common sights. Just like mining towns in the American West, Joplin had its share of soiled doves. In 1904, a mix of Victorian morals, a steady number of prostitutes, and petty crime led to the public to demand that the Joplin Police Department hire a police matron.  A police matron, often an older woman, was placed in charge of female prisoners in the city jail.  The Joplin city council responded to the growing problem in the spring of 1904 when it unanimously passed an ordinance that required the city to hire a police matron.  The only hitch was that the hiring would have to wait until the next fiscal year as there was no money in the then city budget to pay the matron’s salary.

It was not until two years later, in 1906, that the city hired a police matron.  Over forty eager women applied for the position, but many were quickly turned aside for lack of skills, deportment, and experience deemed necessary for a qualified police matron. The field of candidates was narrowed down to three women: Mrs. Dona Daniels, matron of the city’s children’s home; Mrs. Agnes Keir, who oversaw Joplin’s chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA); and Mrs. Ellen Ayers.  Mrs. Daniels refused the offered position.  Mrs. Keir had her admirers and fans amongst the members of the YWCA, who all threatened trouble to the city council should they attempt to steal her away.  Through the process of elimination, Mrs. Ellen Ayers was selected as the successful applicant.

Joplin's first police matron, Ellen Ayers

Pictured here, Ellen Ayers took on the role of police matron at the age of 64.

Described by both a local Joplin paper and the city council as highly qualified and trained for the position, Ellen Ayers’ appointment was closely followed by the newspapers.  She was described as a “kindly faced, white haired woman of 64 years,” originally from near Portsmouth, Ohio, and moved as a young child several times, first to Trenton, Missouri, and then to Pleasant Hill, and finally to Paola, Kansas.  The uncertainty of safety found in the border counties between Kansas and Missouri prior to the outbreak of the Civil War may have been the reason her family moved temporarily to Kansas City, only to return after the war ended.  During the war, Ellen Fields, as she had been christened by her parents, met Felix M. Ayers, whom she married in 1864.  A farmer and Union veteran from Kentucky, Felix was gave up his plow for the miner’s pick and moved his family to Joplin in search of a more prosperous life.  He worked as miner until his health failed him, which may have prompted his wife to take on the candidacy of a police matron.

Although she was selected sometime around the end of 1906, she had to wait several weeks due to the fact that the city, despite the passage of the ordinance two years earlier, was still not ready for its new police matron to assume her duties.  On November 27th, Mayor C.W. Lyon formally recommended that she begin her duties, which some hoped would allow the Joplin police to “much better work” at in “exercising influence to restrain wayward feet.” It was not until December 1, 1906, that Mrs. Ayers officially began her job looking after the female prisoners of Joplin’s city jail.  While she had a residence at 1922 Pearl Street, an office and private apartment were prepared for her on the second floor of the city building, which was shared by both the city’s police and fire department. Described as inexpensive but “substantial” the paper promised a certain amount of coziness for its inhabitant.  Adjoining her living area was a wooden door, built to conceal a barred one behind it which had a cement floored cell for female prisoners.

Floor plan for the second floor of the Joplin Police Station

Floor plan for the second floor of the Joplin Police station, which also served as the fire station and city hall.

Mrs. Ayers approached her job nervously, admitting that the work was new to her, but professed her resolute determination to do a good job.  While unaware of what was entirely expected of her, she told a reporter that she thought that “firmness and kindness” were the most essential elements of her job.  Likewise, it was thought that the new police matron would provide motherly reassurance to the wayward women of Joplin.  Mrs. Ayers was the mother of four children; the only surviving child, a daughter, was Mrs. Myrtle Gobar.  One of the duties assigned to the police matron was inspection of the food served to the women, and on her first go Ayers quickly rejected a breakfast for her first charge, Nettie Waters.  Declaring the meal inedible, the police matron demanded a new one.  Nettie may have appreciated the care, but unfortunately did not get to experience much more of it as she was ordered off to the State Industrial School for Girls in Chillicothe for a year.

One week and twenty-four women later, a reporter caught up with Mrs. Ayers to obtain her reaction to her new job.  It was a job, Mrs. Ayers said, that demanded constant attention and required her presence nearly twenty-four hours out of the day at the city jail.  With the exception of when she left on business or for meals, the police matron found herself always in the city building.  The most striking and shocking revelation for Mrs. Ayers, was the “depravity” of the women she encountered.  While ages varied, many of the women were jailed for prostitution and street walking.  Of their vices, the police matron complained that many were addicted to cigarettes and “coke.”  Coke in this sense was the local term for morphine and cocaine.  She estimated two-thirds of the women were addicted to either morphine, cocaine, or both.  The police matron experienced the needs of an addict in one of her first days when a new arrival grew terribly sick and demanded a physician.

“She awakened me with the most painful screams.  I went to the door, and she was crying loudly, and complained that she was very sick.  I immediately went down stairs to see about getting a physician but the officers informed me that it wasn’t a physician she wanted, but rather some morphine.”

Beyond the dark and depressing side of Joplin’s prostitution problem, she also encountered women who arrived at the jail for other reasons.  One was a young girl, perhaps 16 or 17, who to Mrs. Ayers dismay constantly smoked during her conversations with the police matron.  Another girl was Alma Richards.  Described as appearing to be 14 years old, despite being much older, and possessing “dark eyes,” the girl had been to the Missouri State School for the Deaf and Dumb in Fulton, and despite being ascribed those qualities, communicated to Ayers through writing.  By this communication, the matron explained, she learned that the girl refused to go home due to the presence of an abusive father, who reportedly brutally beat her after she broke a window.  Alma’s presence at the jail caused its own news, as the city did not want to release her, and the Industrial School at Chillicothe refused to take her as she was older than 18 and reportedly, “unmanageable.”  Alma Richards’ fate is unknown.

Joplin's city hall, police and fire station

This building served as Joplin's city hall, fire station and police station. Mrs. Ayers' office was likely along the left side of the building pictured here.

For three more years, Ellen Ayers performed the role of matron for the Joplin Police Department before leaving the position in 1909.  After a period of time, she was replaced two years later in 1911 by Vernie Goff who worked the job until 1914.

As for Ellen Ayers, at some point before 1920, her husband Felix passed away.  In 1920, she lived a widow with either a nephew or niece, but by 1930 had her own room in a boarding house at age 87.  Despite the trials and undoubted stresses of the position as Joplin’s first police matron, Ellen Ayers did not let the job overwhelm her and hopefully lived the next 20 years of her life knowing she made a valuable contribution to her community as the city’s first police matron.

Sources: 1880, 1920, 1930 United States Censuses, Joplin Daily Herald, 1918 History of the Joplin Police Department.

Death in the Mines

Lead and zinc mining was the heart and soul of early Joplin. Men toiled in the mines to earn their living or, in many cases, meet their end. There were a variety of ways that death came to those who worked in the mines, often sudden and very violent.

On June 13, 1901, the Carterville Record reported that T. Hibler, a mining engineer working in nearby Galena, fell into a mine shaft over one hundred feet deep while walking to work at 5:30 a.m.  Perhaps it was simply luck, or maybe the manner in which the unfortunate engineer tumbled downward into the darkness, but Hibler survived the fall. Not only did Lady Luck spare his life, but shortly after, a passerby came to his rescue.  Amazingly, Hibler suffered only a few cuts, bruises, and a sprained ankle. He was one of the fortunate as others were not so lucky.

A typical mine in Southwest Missouri

A mine with chat pile looming beside it.

In James Norris’ “AZn: A History of the American Zinc Company” he noted that “In 1897 soaring prices and continued active demand produced large profits for miners in the Joplin zinc-ore district, and the following year was one of the most prosperous in the history of zinc mining.” This boom in lead and zinc mining attracted the attention of wealthy Eastern investors. In 1899, a group of Boston capitalists formed a corporation they called American Zinc, Lead, and Smelting Company. American Zinc, as it was commonly known, became one of the major players in the Tri-State Mining District.

In 1902, Harry S. Kimball was sent to Joplin to evaluate the company’s prospects in Joplin. He later recalled that Joplin was a, “bleak prospect for a tenderfoot to see as his first contact with a mining camp.” Hugh chat and slag piles littered the landscape. Miners were using “relatively simple and inefficient” mining methods.  Thus men who were on the cusp of a century that heralded rapid technological and industrial innovations were operating as if they were still in the Dark Ages.

A primitive hand jig

An example of the primitive technology at play in the mining fields. Here a hand-powered jig.

Historian Arrell M. Gibson describes the various mining techniques used in the Joplin area in his book, “Wilderness Bonanza.” Shafting, which required miners to create a vertical access shaft into the earth, was dangerous work. Miners drilled openings into the rock face and then inserted sticks of dynamite into the holes in order to break up solid rock. Dynamite, if handled incorrectly, was deadly. Miners sometimes had to tamp sticks into place.  This involved tapping the explosive material into a firmer or deeper position. If they neglected to use a wooden stick to tamp in the dynamite, often using a metal bar instead, it could create sparks and cause a premature explosion with devastating effect.

Adding to the danger, miners also used giant powder, which was more powerful than regular black powder, to break up solid rock surfaces. Gibson states that many miners complained that giant powder caused headaches and nausea. But if a miner was fortunate enough not to die in a mine collapse, premature explosion, or suffocate, there was a good chance he would die early from silicosis. Silicosis is a condition caused by breathing in crystalline silica dust.  After a controlled explosion, miners often failed to wet down the rock and as a result, inhaled minute particles of rock dust, which damaged their lungs like invisible razorblades piercing through their lung tissue. Miners who suffered from silicosis experienced shortness of breath, coughing, fever, and even a changing of the color of their skin. Of the many miners who eventually succumbed to the manufactured disease, one was Oscar C. Rosebrough. The thirty-six-year-old miner died of “miner’s consumption” in the summer of 1917.

A photograph of likely zinc or lead miners

Miners posing for a photograph within the dangerous confines of the mine.

Other deaths came suddenly and mercifully for some.  The Carl Junction Standard reported on September 12, 1903, Walter McMahan was telling jokes and laughing with his coworkers at the Edith Mine near Joplin when a large boulder fell from the mine roof and crushed him. Meanwhile, The Carthage Evening Press recounted the death of Riley Marley, who was killed when he and his partner set off two shots of blast in a mine shaft. When one of the shots failed to go off, the two men reentered the mine to re-tamp the shot. As Marley tamped the shot back into place it exploded and drove the tamping rod through his head.  He died instantly. His partner was blinded by the blast but survived.

Much of the danger came from simply entering the mines or processing areas.  In 1905, Nathan Rice was struck on the top of his head by a falling timber. He later died of his injuries. In 1916, John Campbell was killed when he got caught in a drill rig. In 1882, Johnie Craig died when he went into a mine contaminated by bad air. In 1920, Kenneth Everett, a five year old child, died from bad air in an abandoned mine shaft.

Photograph of Joplin steam jig for zinc and lead mining

Far more complex than the hand jig, it's not hard to understand the danger of working around this steam powered jig.

Close calls were common and sometimes bizarre.  In 1902, William Morgan was injured while working in the Big Six Mine when an icicle fell from the top of a mine shaft and hit him in the back. The icicle was heavy enough that it fractured his shoulder blade, but the physician who tended Morgan expected his patient to recover.

The zinc and lead of Joplin brought great wealth to some, work to many, and danger to all who entered the mines to retrieve it.

Sources: “Mine Accidents and Deaths In the Southwestern Area of Jasper County, Missouri, 1868-1906,” Volume I. Compiled by Webb City Area Genealogical Society.  “Mine Accidents and Deaths In the Southwestern Area of Jasper County, Missouri, 1907-1923,” Volume II, “Accidents, Deaths, and Other Events.” Compiled by Webb City Area Genealogical Society. “Wilderness Bonanza” by Arrell M. Gibson

Before the Joplin Miners

While Joplin no longer has a professional or semi-professional baseball team, perhaps its best known team was the Joplin Miners, where Mickey Mantle began his baseball career.  Perhaps the city’s least known team may have also been its first.  One of the first mentions of a team, and a brief one at that, appeared in 1880:

A reference to the Joplin Blue Stockings

The Joplin Blue Stockings, perhaps one of Joplin's earliest baseball teams.

Source: Joplin Daily Herald