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Dent County History of Dent County, Missouri

BY CHARLES STACEY
Edited by Sharon Tubbs

One of the early visitors to Dent County, largely unmapped and unknown, was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. In 1818 he and Levi Pettibone left the Potosi area on an adventure which often left them hungry, lost, lonely and in danger. They started their adventure near Potosi heading west on what is now Highway 8. They turned south through southern Dent and Shannon Counties, where Schoolcraft found the Current River, "a fine stream with fertile banks and clear, sparkling water.” Today these features attract tourists — particularly floaters who launch canoes by the thousands during the summer to enjoy the springs, caves and fast-moving water of the Current and Jack's Fork Rivers in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Schoolcraft traveled on to the Springfield area, then east on White River and north back to Potosi after a trip of 89 days.

Dent County Courthouse The beautiful Victorian courthouse - which is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places -- was built in 1870 for $15,500.


The White River trail had been used by Indians in Dent County. It was later to become one of the branches of the Trail of Tears, which brought many Cherokees on their forced trek to Oklahoma. Some stopped in Dent County and many old families are proud of a Cherokee heritage. The "trace" wound from Sligo southwest to the Ephraim Bressie Farm on Spring Creek north of Salem. It left the county about the present Maples.

The first white settler was George Cole, who cleared and cultivated a farm on the Meramec near Short Bend. It was later the site of the Nelson Mill. An abundance of waterpower and difficulty of transportation made mills important in the settling of the new land.

Early Settlers

Some of the first settlers came in 1829, mostly to the Meramec, Spring Creek and Dry Fork valleys. Land could be purchased for five cents or less an acre. William Thornton, Daniel Troutman and Daniel W. Wooliver were among the 1829 settlers, followed by William Blackwell, Elisha Nelson, Jerry Potts, Ephraim Bressie, Robert Leonard, Abner Wingfield, Lewis Dent, Wilson Craddock, Thomas Higginbotham, Jack Berry, Silas Hamby, Smith Wofford, Turkill McNeill, Dr. John Hyer, Samuel Hyer and David Lenox.

Dent County Established - 1851

In 1851 the Missouri Assembly created Dent County from Crawford and Shannon Counties. It was named for early settler Lewis Dent, who served as the first representative. First county officers were G.D. Breckenridge, Samuel Hyer, Jr., and Jotham Clark. Joseph Millsap was sheriff and David Henderson, clerk. They met at the Bressie Farm.

Salem as a Village

Just after the State of Missouri's Legislature passed the laws relating to Village government in 1860, the first mayor of Salem was appointed or elected. He was W. P. Williams, often referred to as "Rip" from the positive and often times violent expression of his feelings and opinions. He lived here a long time and was a prominent citizen throughout his long life. He became mayor in 1860, but how long he served is not known. The civil war came in 1861, and city governments were suspended. After Williams, records show that O.A. Kenemore, a prominent farmer with a home in Salem became mayor. Next was E. T. Wingo, a lawyer and representative, then C. L. Allen who was also a lawyer but never practiced law. He did serve as Deputy Circuit Clerk and Probate Judge. Allen was followed by Samuel Sachs. No dates are available listing terms of office for these mayors, but it is likely they served from 1870 to 1881.

Courthouses in Dent County

An earlier log courthouse, built about 1851 or '52, was Dent County's first and was located on the Wingfield farm northeast of Salem. In 1852-53 a courthouse was built south of the present courthouse. The building measured about 20x40 ft and was built by J. T. Garvin for $800. It was burned during the civil war. The next courthouse built in 1864, also fell victim to fire in May 1866. The beautiful Victorian courthouse -- which is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places -- was built in 1870 for $15,500. A. E. Dye came to Dent County to build this courthouse. His son, E. L. Dye, assisted him and was to become the leading builder in the county. W.P. Elmer in his history reports that when the courthouse was finished pictures of it were published in Mc-Clure's Magazine and newspapers in the East to show the development of the West.

Minerals are Important to the Area

Minerals have influenced the Dent County economy. Greatest was the iron furnace built at Sligo starting in 1880 and active until 1923, 43 years. Sligo was the fourth iron works built in the state, following Meramec, Midland and Nova Scotia. There was plenty of iron ore -- Simmons Hill in Salem, Orchard and Cherry Valley, Millsap, Pomeroy, Hawkins Banks, Red Hill and Scotia. Mr. Elmer writes in his history that the Sligo furnace was the most successful and continued longer than any other iron furnace in Missouri. The Sligo furnace was built on Crooked Creek and produced 60 to 80 tons of pig iron a day, with some runs of up to 100 tons. E.B. Sankey came from New Castle, Pa. in 1870 to survey the St.Louis-Salem and Little Rock Railroad from Cuba to Salem. The Sligo & Eastern Railroad ran a branch to East End to gather wood for the kilns producing charcoal for the furnace. Sligo’s population, in its big years reached 1,000.

In recent times the largest mining and milling operations were in the "New Lead Belt" some 30 miles east of Salem. St.Joe Lead started the mining boom at Viburnum and soon other major mining companies bought land and mineral rights. The mines brought new families and well-paying jobs, with many choosing to live in Salem. Doe Run continues mining and battery reclamation in the eraea today.

Early Development

In 1909 a band of 23 pioneers realized the dream of bringing electric lights to Salem with the formation of the Salem Light & Power Co. The city eventually took over the electric system and produced electricity with two big diesel generators. When the generators could no longer meet the demand and were costly to operate the city contracted with Show-Me-Power cooperative.

Mrs. Thomas A. Bruce organized the first telephone system. Charlie Jeffries joined the Bruces to install the system about 1900. Homes paid $1 and stores $1.25 per month. Mrs. Bruce suffered agony from her eyes and was blind for 30 years until her death May 8, 1942. The telephone system was sold to United Telephone, now Sprint.

For a time Salem led the world in the production and shipping of railroad ties. While the early lumber companies cut the vast Ozark pine forests, timber has remained a major asset, with white oak staves for barrels, oak flooring, pallets, charcoal briquettes and lumber. The Bunker- Cul1er Lumber Co. in Bunker was one of the area's biggest industries, and like the mines which hauled wood for the kilns from a large area, Bunke r-Cul1er used rails to bring in logs.

Dent County has had its ups and downs economically, but is proud of its record of having five banks during the Great Depression without a failure. The Depression years brought many changes. The Civilian Conservation Corps brought young men to the area, many of whom stayed. There were CCC camps at Boss and Indian Trail. In the 13,503 acres of the Indian Trail Conservation Area, crews built most of the area's 55 miles of access roads. The Conservation Department purchased much of the cut-over land for $2.50/acre.

Dent County's skilled labor force made needlework industries a natural. Ely & Walker's four-story factory (now the Fourth St. Mall) was the first. After WWII the Industrial Building Corpotation raised funds for the International Shoe factory. Other factories followed: Salem Sportswear, Barad Lingerie, Paramount Cap and Hagale. Today, foreign competition has all but wiped out the local needlework indusry.

Progress Continues

Today's largest employer in Dent County, US Foodservice, is an institutional food business and began in Salem as Craig Distributing. After World War II, Farris Craig started with a panel truck and peanut vending machines. In 1986, the Craigs sold their business to Kraft Foods, which later sold to Alliant, and is now owned by US Foodservice. The Craig's have left their imprint on Salem with Craig Plaza, the Alice Lou Craig Municipal Swimming Pool, the Salem Visitor Center, and the Ozark Natural and Cultural Resource Center.

After World War II and through the 50's, 60’s and 70's Dent County underwent changes. There were 60 one-room schools in 1950 and consolidation reduced this number to five districts/plus high schools in Salem and Bunker. Roads were built and improved. Salem Memorial District Hospital was built and became a major industry and health provider.

With guidance from Missouri University Extension the county became the Feeder Pig & Calf Capitol of Missouri, with huge sales in Spring and Fall auctioning large numbers of livestock graded into pens for size and quality. Loss of farm population often due to the aging of farm owners ended these sales.

The Masters Industrial Park attracts new factories as well as serving existing ones. The Salem TCRC is fulfilling a new role in education and communications. Southwest Baptist University's Salem Center is underway. And The Commons will serve as a home for the Fall Festival and be used for entertainment and an RV Park.

And like the pioneer families of the 1820's, new families are being attracted by the clean air and water, educational system, hospital and low tax rates.

Special thanks to The Salem News for the generous use of many of the photos in this website.

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