Pioneer Rockbridge Road connected Springfield with Arkansas
Ozarks Mountaineer Magazine, July 1958, page 15
[…the Springfield-Rockbridge road, in use for years before the Civil War, ran southeasterly out of Springfield to Arkansas and carried for scores of miles heavy freight traffic…trips took from three to five days…the road left Springfield over what now is Grand Avenue and proceeded through Turners, Henderson, Zenar, Dogwood, Ava, Squires to Rockbridge in Ozark County…parts of Highway 14…embody it…Rockbridge…was then an important halfway point between Arkansas and Springfield…]
By Stephen F. Whitted
“Transportation has been an important problem of all times. In the early days of our county it led to the practice of converting corn into whiskey in the frontier settlements just west of the Allegheny Mountains. This was done because several bushels of corn could be reduced to a jug of liquid and the transportation problem greatly simplified. In fact it has been said that this practice caused farmers to brag, one to another about how many gallons to the acre his corn was going to make that year. A well known law of economics is that the value of an article can be increased by delivering it to the place where it is wanted.
“This story deals with the problem of conservation as well as transportation. At the time of which we are writing, oak timber was considered to be of no value. So when Springfield (Mo) was a young and growing town, pine lumber had to be shipped in. Most of it was freighted in from Arkansas over the old Rockbridge Road. This was before the days of the railroads.
“No one knows just when this road was laid out. One Andy Turner blazed the trail from Springfield to Rockbridge so that he could capitalize on the transportation of sawed pine lumber from Arkansas to Springfield. Old timers can still point out portions of the old trail and remark that Andy always picked the long easy grades. His hauling equipment consisted of a yoke of oxen and a good stout wagon.
“The Old road outlived the man who laid it out and his lumber hauling enterprise. After the railroad came to Springfield, lumber could be freighted by better and easier ways than by ox team and wagon. But a new commodity was moving up the road now – cotton that came overland to the Springfield railhead on its first lap of the journey east to the cotton mills of England and of our own New England. This flow of cotton continued until after the close of the Civil War. The Santa Fe trade began to bring mules into Missouri and these gradually replaced the ox teams plodding up the old road, now worn and rutted. Mules were much more expensive than the oxen but man, then as well as now, disregarded expense for improvement. Mules could haul just as large a load with more rapidity. Speed is an important element in transportation. The freighter must outstrip his competitor or go out of business.
“Long caravans of cotton wagons rolled up out of Arkansas to the railroad at Springfield. Each wagon was loaded with three bales, the standard load. A man with an exceptionally good team of mules could haul four bales. This brought him extra money but more important, added prestige. Not every man could sit by the campfire and brag that his mules could walk right out of Arkansas with four bales of cotton hitched on behind. Those were the days when a good tem was something to be proud of.
“During the Civil War there was much traffic up and down the old road. The cotton trains were largely replaced by hurrying horsemen. Settlers along the trail did not know where these horsemen were headed or who they were. In fact, they did not want to know. When the clatter of running hoofs echoed through the woods terror seized them. They could not tell whether friend or foe was approaching.
“Down in Douglas County (Mo) there is a little community called Dogwood, where the old road passed near the head of Swan Creek that later empties its turbulent waters into White River. Early one fall morning in the latter days of the war, a small guerrilla foraging party turned aside from the road to see what they could find on the fertile creek bottom farms. John Wright, whose farm was nearest the head of the creek, was away from the house when they passed. Upon hearing their approach, he hurriedly left the road and secreted himself behind a large white oak tree. They didn’t see him but he saw them. He used a trick for which the grey squirrel is famous, to conceal his whereabouts. As the band rode down the creek, John moved around the large tree which he was behind to keep it constantly between them and himself. A little farther down the creek they came upon George Pruitt who was out in his orchard picking apples. An altercation developed and Pruitt was killed. During it, his wife and family managed to escape to the woods. Before they left, the guerrillas filled their pockets and saddlebags with the murdered man’s apples.
“Matt Hall, on beyond, had heard the disturbance at Pruitt’s place and was ready for the gang when they arrived at his home. He had snatched his long Kentucky Squirrel rifle from its pegs over the fireplace and ran to a place where the limestone bluff overlooked the road. Here he carefully established himself and waited with bated breath. When they appeared in the little clearing below him he yelled, ‘Ride! You sons of b----, Ride!’ and as they milled about, uncertain as to what to do, he took careful aim and began to shoot. One fell from his horse and the rest, unwilling to face determined resistance, turned and fled back up the road. Matt hurried down to the clearing and turned the fallen man over on his back. He had died instantly with a bullet through his heart. One of Pruitt’s red apples was still clenched in his stiffening fingers. This so infuriated Matt that he clawed the apple from the grasp of the ‘bushwhacker’ and with a savage curse ground it into the bearded mouth with his heavy boot heel. No one else on Swan Creek was molested.
“After the war, Will Elam, who owned a farm on the Rockbridge Road about two miles northeast of Dogwood, built a camp cabin for the freighters – a simple log hut with a mud and stick fireplace at one end and a large window in one side that could be closed with a shutter during inclement weather. The structure stood until recent years and some of the hearth stones can still be seen at the campsite.
“Conveniences of civilization began to come into the country. A small route was established on the old road. The mail carrier of horseback carried the mail in saddlebags equipped with lock, riding down from Springfield one day delivering the incoming mail to the local post offices and returning the next. This was good every other day mail service.
“As late as 1880 little money was in the country. People still living can tell of the Ten Cent Bills, reminiscent of the financial ills of that day. Every home, of necessity, was self sufficient and only a few things had to be bought. Domestic spinning and weaving made the clothing. Cooking was done over an open fire in the fireplace – baking was accomplished by covering over an old cast iron Dutch oven with burning coals.
“Before the time of extensive cleared fields, blackberries, which now thrive throughout the Ozark area, were scarce and considered a delicacy. The staple berry was the huckleberry that grew in the timber. Meat probably was the most plentiful food. Besides wild game, free to the man who could take it, cattle and hogs were cheap and plentiful. Both ran on the open range and consumed little hay or grain. Hogs were indentified by notches that the owner put in their ears. This was called ear marking. The system worked well. A few tried to improve on it to their own advantage, such as the farmer who removed the entire ear—of his neighbor’s hogs as well as his own. If high quality meat was desired, the hogs would be caught and penned up in the fall for a brief period of corn fattening. A portion of the small supply of money was spent for salt and hams were salted down and smoked with hickory and sassafras for consumption the next summer.
“The area was first exploited for its furs and hides and roots, such as yellow root and gold seal, were dug and marketed. But when the new railroad from Springfield to Memphis was built, passing through Seymour, the old Rockbridge road went out of service. The harvest of oak timber began and for many years the chief source of revenue in the hills was ‘hacking railroad ties’. This led to the clearing of land and after the bulk of the timber had been cut livestock gradually took its place as the principal rural pursuit. Today the chief industry is dairying and every morning milk trucks travel up and down the portions of the old road still in use, collecting milk which will be consumed by babies as far away as St. Louis and Dallas. If Andy Turner and his team of oxen should come up the road today they would see things of which they had never dreamed while resting by their camp fire at night.”
The image above is from the Webster County Plat Book. Click on the image to enlarge it. The labeled road is in green. The Rockbridge Road also appears on "Map of the Picket Roads, Springfield, Mo. 1862". A copy of this map is part of the map collection at the Library Center.
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