A Glimpse of the Past

We are indebted to Mrs. Veda Ladd Oliver for her writing of the history of Dexter. The town had been in existence a little over 50 years at the time she wrote her story. Her information source included people who were actually present at the sale of Dexter’s first lots on July 4, 1873.

Today we have access to information filed in the Missouri State Archives and the Missouri State Library. This information provides us with the history of “our” first railroad. In 1859, in Bloomfield, Missouri, a newspaper, The Herald, was published by A. B. Bedford of Charleston, Missouri. Its main objective was the promotion of building a railroad from the Mississippi River westward. The railroad was begun and by 1860 was completed to Buffington.

The coming of the Civil War stopped most railroad building. Many of the railroads in existence were damaged and had to be repaired. The interest in railroads continued but the difficulty in getting rails caused location of the roads to be more selective. A line was completed from St. Louis to Pilot Knob before the war. This road was one selected to be completed southward to Arkansas with a dream to go to Texas. This was the Cairo and Fulton line. April 2, 1873, was the day of the first run of a train from St. Louis to Moark. Thomas Allen acquired the Missouri part of the Cairo and Fulton lines in 1867. The Cairo, Arkansas and Texas Railroad Company was formed May 16, 1872. It received the old Cairo and Fulton property from Allen.

Also acquired was the old Cairo and Fulton Land Grant of about 65,000 acres. Thomas Allen was the president of the Company. This company was formed for the purpose of connecting the river port on the Mississippi with the terminus at Poplar Bluff. This was a line approximately 72 miles in length with about 30 miles completed by 1860.

This line was completed, and on September 24, 1873, the first train passed through the new town of Dexter on its way westward to Poplar Bluff. From the Poplar Bluff terminus the “world” was opened north to St. Louis and south to Moark.

The goal of the Cairo, Arkansas and Texas, or CAT, line was accomplished. In May 1874, the CAT line, and the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad was consolidated with the Cairo and Fulton Railroad Company (Arkansas). This new company was named St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway Company.

The Cairo, Arkansas and Texas Company was short lived. It was important to us because it gave us our town, Dexter. It is remembered by many for its name CAT and its dream – Cairo to Arkansas to Texas.

In the early 1850s, Andrew Neal, Henry Sadler, Random Ladd, Levi Norman, James Lingo, and some of their grown children were among the names of those who settled on land in the area now known as the Sadler’s Chapel neighborhood, which was described on land records as section 8 Township 25 Range 10, situated northwest of present day Dexter, Missouri.

Other families living in the area named on the 1860 census included Jarrell, Gaines, Majors, Montgomery, Edwards, Shipman, McElwrath, Culbertson, Rainey, Hagy and Vaughn. Before 1860 the Dowdys, Garners, Mintons, Howells, Fields, Riddles, Vandergriffs, Normans, Lamberts, Gaines, and others made their home west and southwest of Dexter.The Civil War separated and scattered many of those early families: however, by the 1870s most of the families were again located on or near their original farms.

To the south of the new railroad, John Miller had a mill, a cotton gin, a store, a saloon, and a blacksmith shop. This settlement was known as Millers Mill. His son, J. N. Miller, became one of Dexter’s first businessmen.

Along the Bloomfield Road near Dexter, homes were built by Abner Warren, John Sitton, James Sprinkles, John Miller, Mr. Williams, Mr. Webb, and Mr. Linsey.

Some early settlers believed the depot for the Cairo, Arkansas, Texas Railroad Company would be located on a ridge east of present Highway 25. They started building their homes and planning businesses. Before business places were built, they learned the depot was not to be built there. The area became known as “Old Dexter”. The “New” town was built around the depot located between South Main Street and the railroad.

Although timber was said to be our first “crop”, the fact that this location had an established agricultural trade potential was one consideration in locating the new town. Another factor was the location of established roads or trails which would encourage trade from southern Stoddard County and north to Bloomfield.

This proved to be a wise decision. Dexter became one of the largest shipping points on the CAT Railway. This continued many years until trucks began to compete for the freight business.

Timber was an early industry of Dexter. Early businesses were established on South Main Street facing the depot. They were mostly saloons and boarding homes to accommodate the timber workers. These workers followed the jobs. Some stayed to make Dexter their home, but many moved on to the next job.

Very competent business people began to build places of business. They seemed to locate on Stoddard Street and Walnut Street (See pictorial sections). We are fortunate to have had early business and professional people who felt a strong sense of civic duty.

Dexter had an active Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Carrie Lee Carter Stokes began as a local leader, then became a state and national lecturer. She held the respect and support of the movement.

The downtown water fountains were placed there by the W. C. T. U. They were tired of hearing that the saloon was the only place to get a drink of water; therefore, they needed to remain open.The Dexter Commercial Club was an active group in supporting Dexter’s growth. They were instrumental in securing the Reuter Hub and Spoke Company as one of Dexter’s first industries.

The Chautauqua Assembly was a big endeavor for a small town to undertake. In 1905, Dexter hosted the first Chautauqua Assembly held in Southeast Missouri. The Chautauqua Assembly started in Chautauqua, New York. Its goal was to find and present the best speakers and musical talent in the country. They then traveled to towns who had a local assembly. Dexter formed their Chautauqua Assembly in 1905 and continued until early 1920s. The event was a ten day meeting held the first of August.

The following is from their 1906 booklet:

Assembly Grounds

The Assembly is held in a fine grove in the outskirts of Dexter, in easy walking distance from the center of town. The grove has been improved and beautified and is a most delightful place in which to hold a protracted picnic of 10 days. Many pitched their tents under the trees last year, and the indications are that a much larger number of people will camp on the grounds during the coming Assembly. The grounds are lighted by electricity, there is plenty of good water, and perfect safety is assured by the presence of watchmen day and night. The large auditorium, which seats 3,000 persons, was pronounced by speakers and visitors last year to be the most unique and comfortable ever found at an open-air gathering. There are several smaller halls for classes and other meetings, while swings, croquet, and baseball grounds and a tennis court provide the means for recreation. We have a proud past. Let’s continue to work for a bright future.

Log Cabins to Mansions and Their Families

The farmers who settled this area long before Dexter was founded built their homes of logs. Many of Dexter’s first businessmen built their living quarters above their businesses. The living quarters above the stores later became rental property. With the abundance of building materials, lumber and brick, some beautiful homes were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most of them were built south of the railroad track – on the higher ground since the land north of the tracks was still a very wet area. Some of these beautiful homes remain, but some have been lost to commercial progress.

Our Religious Heritage

In or about 1877, Mr. T. J. Ulen, who owned a sawmill at or near the present location of Fisk, Missouri, sent two carloads of rough lumber to be used in building a church. The church was built on the corner of Locust and North Main streets. This church, while it was deeded to the Methodist Church, was built by the entire community and called a Union Church and for some time, the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian congregations worshipped there. In 1891 or 1892, this building was moved to the corner of Locust and Castor streets and sold to the General Baptist Church in 1907.

The Three R’s

Dexter’s first school building was built in 1864. It was a one-room building with two teachers: Emma Grafton and Belle Phelan. The room was divided into two sections by placing half the seats facing the opposite direction, therefore, allowing teachers to have their own instruction area. The second school was built in “Old Dexter”. It was a one-room school. In 1880, the school district was organized under the Village Act, and a four-room building was erected. Mrs. C. E. Smith was Dexter’s first principal. Mr. G. C. Humphrey conceived the idea of organizing a High School in Dexter. In 1895, one teacher, Mr. C. M. Hall, and twenty students began Dexter High School. Throughout the years, Dexter has maintained a high regard for educating its youth. Citizens of Dexter have continued their support with the best-qualified teachers, the best buildings and equipment for its young citizens – our town’s future! Information taken from the Senior Class edition of The Dexter Statesman, 1935.

Bartering to Industry

By the turn of the Century, Dexter had experienced phenomenal growth. The volume of business was increasing rapidly. A great many of the businesses were timber related and, as the low-lying woodlands to the south and east of Dexter were cleared, drainage was begun under the auspices of newly formed drainage and levee district. To the north of Dexter lay immense deposits of clay–both pottery clay and brick clay. The hills also contained huge gravel beds to be used in street and road building. It was noted that Dexter’s streets and businesses were lighted by electricity and that there was a local telephone exchange with connections to the principal towns of the county. It was a good place to live and do business. It still is.

Oxen to Tractors

Early farmers tried to grow enough food for their families and animals. They came to this area and cleared and improved small plots for a house and garden; a field to raise corn, wheat and oats; and planted an orchard. They also raised cotton and flax to spin and weave for clothing. The flax and wool was spun into linsey-woolsey. In winter they hunted wild animals for food and furs. Even then, a bearskin rug was treasured. It made walking on the cabin’s dirt or puncheon floor warmer and much more comfortable.

Any extra crops and livestock were traded for the things they didn’t raise such as coffee, sugar, etc. They could trade the extra corn and wheat to the miller for grinding their flour and cornmeal. They could take their extra cowhides, deerskins, etc. and barter, 2 bits, 4 bits, etc. with the cobbler. Very little money was used in exchange. As the market for lumber grew, the farmer was encouraged to clear more land and sell the logs to the timber companies. They cleared the land, grew more crops and had more to sell. Thus, they were able to purchase more “bought” tools and the popular gingham and calico materials for sewing. The local merchants benefited and each helped the other grow.

Street Ball to Organized Sports

The people of Dexter have always enjoyed a variety of recreational interests. The early 1900s were simple activities, swimming, boating, shooting matches and baseball. Through the years we have seen our park systems expand from West City Park to an extensive park system. The East City Park includes the Municipal Swimming Pool, tennis courts and baseball facilities. These grounds are always well maintained by the Park & Recreation Departments. In addition to the public facilities, we also have a privately owned skating rink, bowling alley and 18 hole golf course.

The County Fair, which was held annually in Dexter, was an elaborate event. The Fair lasted four days and it attracted visitors from far and wide. In earlier days, horse racing played a big part, bringing in horses from Kentucky and Tennessee. A celebrity was sought each year to enhance the turnout. The Stoddard County Fair is still held in Dexter each fall with the fairgrounds being located adjacent to the East City Park.

Excerpts from “Dexter, A Pictorial History” compiled by The Heritage Museum. The hard-bound book is available at the Dexter Chamber of Commerce and at the Heritage Depot/Museum. The cost is $15 plus $4 for shipping and handling. Proceeds from the sale go The Heritage Museum currently hused in the Heritage Depot located on Southwest Main in Dexter. All pictures shown in this section were taken from “Dexter, A Pictorial History”.