by John C. Crighton, Copyright Boone County Historical Society 1987
From the Boone County Historical Society collection. A History of Columbia and Boone County, by John C. Crighton, 1987, Chapter 87, pp. 257-258. Out of print. Available at the Wilson-Wulff History and Genealogy Library in the Walters-Boone County Historical Museum.
The early settlers in Boone County generally avoided extensive stretches of prairie as sites for their farms or settlements. Such an area was the approximately sixty-five square miles in the northeast portion of the county bounded by Silver’s Forks Creek on the south, and between Young’s Creek on the east and Long Branch Creek on the west. The pioneers found here a level or slightly rolling steppe, clothed in tall grass, mainly of the blue-stem variety. Interspersed with the grasses were many species of wildflowers, blossoming in a pageant of color, in a range of tints from the blue and white of spring through the red of summer to the golds of autumn. Herds of deer, along with lesser game animals, roamed through the area. Prairie chickens by the tens of thousands nested at the base of the giant grasses.(#1)
Why was this locality shunned? A primary reason was that it was off the main avenues of transportation which, in Boone County, were the Missouri River and the Boon’s Lick Trail which passed through Columbia. The regions (except along the streams which bordered it) lacked timber, indispensable to the pioneers for building their log cabins and fences, and for cooking and heating purposes. The generally flat lay of the land, the dense interlocking network of tough grass roots, and the inability of sunshine to penetrate through the head-high vegetation to ground level, caused the spring rainwater to stand around until well into the summer. Thus, the district was a perfect breeding place for mosquitoes–and malaria. Another disadvantage was the fires which regularly swept over the countryside in autumn cause by lightning, or deliberately set by Indians to drive game or carelessly started by white settlers.(#2) The area was occasionally visited by swarms of grasshoppers so numerous they blotted out the sun and devastated all growing things on which they lighted.
The first white settlement on Boone County’s northeastern prairie was made near Silver’s Fork Creek in 1822, when the families of William Sexton, Thomas Sexton, Rudolph March and Peter Stice–all from Madison County, Kentucky–arrived. The site they chose on the southern frontier of the prairie had excellent water, timber along the stream course, and abundant game. Within a few years, a horse-driven grist mill and a sawmill were put into operation. The small community was known as Duncan’s Mill.(#3)
Two developments were responsible for a more extensive exploitation of the prairie. The first was the introduction of a plow that would turn over the virgin soil. This was accomplished by placing a roller cutter in front of the plow blades.(#4) Previously, it had required five yoke of oxen to break the sod with the ordinary plow. Where this service was performed by a professional prairie breaker, it had cost the farmer $2 per acres, more in many cases than the original price of the land.(#5) With the use of the roller cutter plow, the opening up of the prairie for farming was made possible.
The other factor was the introduction of the railroad in this locality. During the early 1850s, two major railroads were being built in Missouri, the Pacific Railroad westward from St. Louis and south of the Missouri River, and the Hannibal and St. Joseph across the northern part of the state. In 1853, a group of promoters developed plans for another railroad running in a northwesterly direction out of St. Louis, intersecting the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad in the vicinity of present Macon, and proceeding northward to Ottumwa, Iowa. While the question of the location of the road through the intermediate country was still unsettled, the board of directors (under pressure from one of its most influential members, James S. Rollins) passed a resolution declaring that if the counties of Callaway, Boone, Howard, Randolph, Macon, Adair, and Schuyler would subscribe a total of $500,000 to the capital stock, the road would be located through these counties to Macon and thence north to the Iowa line. The Boone County Court, after approval of the proposition in a county-wide election, subscribed $100,000, with the proviso that the road should go through the county. Despite the failure of Howard and Callaway counties to cooperate in the project, the target sum of $500,000 approximately was raised. But instead of running through the center of Boone, Howard, and Callaway on the probable line of Fulton-Columbia-Fayette, the route was shifted northward to miss the mon-subscribing counties. A result of the change was that the road made only token compliance with the terms under which Boone County had subscribed to its stock, by cutting across the northeastern tip of the county.(#6)
As the stakes were being driven into the ground along the right of way of what was to become the North Missouri Railroad, astute speculators grasped the enhancement of value which this improvement would bring to the water-logged prairie or “barrens” of the Northeast Boone County. James S. Rollins, lawyer, legislator, and capitalist; Thomas January, a wholesale grocer of St. Louis (brother-in-law of Boone County’s John Machir); and Middleton G. Singleton, a large-scale rancher and farmer of Northeast Boone County, decided to found a town along the new rail line. They bought the extensive land holdings which Nathaniel W. Wilson, a Columbia merchant and onetime partner with Robert S. Barr and later Caleb S. Stone, had patented in 1854. Where the staked line of the railroad intersected the old stagecoach trace from Paris to Jefferson City, they located and platted a town which they named Centralia. Since Singleton resided in the vicinity of the new town, he acted as agent or trustee for the other two promoters in making sales and signing deeds. The first lots sold in prices ranging from $20 to $100 a lot. A number of key streets were named after the town’s founders–Singleton, Rollins, and January being thus honored.(#7)
The early settlers in Centralia, and the surrounding Bourbon township were mainly from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, with a sprinkling of Irish who came in to help build the railroad and a few Germans who engaged in small business enterprises.
Centralia grew in the usual fashion of county towns. The first building was a one-story frame structure in which Tinsley, Elston and Company kept a general store. The second was the Eldorado Hotel operated by Joe J. Collier. A blacksmith shop was opened by William H. Wade in 1858; and the North Missouri Railroad and a post office arrived. By the end of 1858, Centralia had twenty-five dwellings, two stores, and a saloon. In 1860, Centralia got its second hotel, the Boone House; and Dr. A.F. Sneed opened his office. During the same period, the first school house was built, with Minnie Conger as teacher.(#8) This was the general situation on the eve of the Civil War.
1. Donald Christisen, “A Vignette of Missouri’s Native Prairie,” Missouri Historical Review, Vol. LXI, No. 2 (Jan. 1967), pp. 167, 179-180; Centralia Missouri Centennial, 1957, p. 19.
2. Christisen, opus cit., pp. 168, 174.
3. Centralia Missouri Centennial, 1957, p. 19.
4. Interview between R.B. Price, Jr. and John Crighton at the Boone County National Bank, Columbia, Mo., Mar. 21, 1973.
5. Christisen, opus cit., pp. 170-171.
6. W.F. Switzler, History of Boone County (St. Louis: Western Historical Co., 1882), pp. 368-370.
7. Centralia Missouri Centennial, 1957, p. 20.
8. Ibid., p. 21.
© Boone County Historical Society1987
This chapter included a photograph of Nathaniel W. Wilson, originally reproduced with the permission of the State Historical Society of Missouri, which is not included in this posting.