Volume III, No. 1, Fall 1975




Trail Through Time

Researched by Steve Hardcastle

Photography by Mike Doolin

The air conditioned Greyhound bus speeds by. A huge semi loaded with new automobile parts rushes past so quickly the driver hardly notices. Just on the other side, the Frisco freight train roars by with car after car loaded with new pickup trucks, automobiles and tractors.

A passenger on the right side of the bus heading southwest might, if he looks quickly enough, catch a glimpse of a lone remnant of a much older form of transportation--the backside of a stagecoach way station, standing alone on the edge of a hay field.

Discarded now even as a hay barn, the empty log building faces old U.S. Highway 66 which, like the old way station, is outdated. Interstate 44--twin pavements of travel a few hundred yards south--is a more direct route.

Before the railroad--following basically the same route--made the stagecoach obsolete, dozens of little way stations such as this were spaced every ten to twenty miles along major travel routes.

Even before white men came to the Ozarks, the major travel route through the rugged region has been this same route from St. Louis southwest through present day Springfield on into Arkansas and Oklahoma.

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Drivers of huge trucks speeding along Interstate 44 near Phillipsburg, Missouri, roar past the back of an old stagecoach way station without thinking of what it was like over a hundred years ago along this road known then as the old Wire Road (seen in background is old Highway 66).


Even more desolate is the front view from old U.S. 66. Old 66, like the station, is now outdated and is used only for local traffic.

The dusty travelers could wash under the hand-hewn oak shingles of the stoop. Between the doors would sit a bench where a wooden bucket and dipper, a dish of lye soap, a dirty towel and comb by a piece of broken mirror supplied the only restroom facilities.

The station was built of oak logs which are still sturdy and serviceable. The ends were cut to fit snuggly together at the corners and the cracks were chinked with a mixture of mud and clay.

The deep door sash led the way for hundreds of travelers to refresh themselves inside. Slammed continually by the wind, the screen door is a more recent remnant of when people used this as a home.

This way station was built along the historic trail from St. Louis to Arkansas and Oklahoma which is now Interstate 44. During its long history it has been called the Osage Trace, Old Military Road, the old Wire Road, and U.S. 66.

The original wooden logs are boarded over on the front and sides, and the wooden shingles on the main roof have been replaced with metal, but the basic structure of the way station remains the same. This station has withstood the weather during two centuries.

First a buffalo trail that followed the natural ridges and valleys to avoid the rougher terrain, the route was known to white men as the Osage Trace from the Osage Indians who traded at St. Louis. When the Kickapoo Indians were displaced and settled on the Springfield Plain, it became known as the Kickapoo Trace. Used by white men to get to the White River area, it was renamed as the old White River Trace. During the War Between the States both Union and Confederate armies used the trail changing its name to the Old Military Road.

The Frisco Railroad followed basically the same route. But it was the first telegraph line built into the Ozarks, following the exact route, which caused it to be called the Old Wire Road. U.S. Highway 66, first gravel, then paved in 1929, straightened out some curves, leveled a few hills and by-passed some towns, but still followed the old Indian trail, until much more recently 1-44 carved out a still straighter path.

In the dark and musty room of the way station, standing by the boarded up remnants of the once huge fireplace of the main downstairs room, we can hear the cars and trucks roar past in a never-ceasing crescendo and diminuendo. The truck drivers listen to their CB radios and anticipate reaching Springfield in forty minutes, while the passengers in the bus relax in the climate controlled atmosphere.

However, if we listen hard enough, we can hear the hooves of the six horses and the rumble of the Concord stage as it pulls over the last rise in the dusty road. The driver's shouts to the teams become clearer as he slows them down to pull up to the station in a cloud of dust. As the dust clears, we can smell the leather and horses and taste the dust.

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Going through the stairwell door and up the steep steps takes the traveler to the attic bunk rooms. Here the visitor looks back down the ladder-like stairs. To save space this type stairway was often used in small homes.

In the bunk rooms where once hung outer clothing people shed for the night, now hang nests of mud dobbers and wasps. The wires fastened around the rafters look as if someone has hung sides of meat here.

The tired passengers crawl out with relief from their cramped positions--especially those facing each other who had to fit their legs together in such a small space--for a few minutes of refreshments while the three fresh teams are being hitched up.

The station master greets the passengers offering his wife's beans and pork, hominy, coffee and whiskey. On a rough table by the door is a wooden bucket filled with water, a dipper, a dirty wash basin, a bar of strong yellow lye soap and a dirty towel to wash away the dust of traveling. Such conveniences as outhouses have not yet been thought of here. Luckily the Ozarks is blessed with plenty of trees and bushes for privacy.

For those who wish to spend the night, there are two small attic rooms, reached by steep narrow ladder-like stairs. The rooms, one for men, the other for women, are separated by a log partition with no door between. The beds, undoubtedly populated with bed bugs have ropes to support the straw mattresses. The only covering is a blanket as sheets are an unheard-of luxury. So when the stage runs all night, as this one will to reach Springfield by this time tomorrow, most prefer the discomfort of the moving stage to staying over in this primitive isolated way station.

According to the driver, the coach, purchased in Concord, New Hampshire, cost the company above $900.00 last year in 1867. He says it weighs 3000 pounds and can carry a 4000 pound load. The axles are steel. The body swings on long leather thorough braces riven on steel stanchions above front and rear axles, giving the driver and passengers a floating feeling above the jarring wheels. This coach has three seats, two facing forward and one backward with room for three people in a seat, and with crowding, could carry up to fifteen people inside. On the top, which is covered with heavy waterproof duck, there is room for more passengers and many boxes and cases.

The windows are covered with canvas curtains, fastened down now with eyes and turn buttons because of the early December chill, but they can be rolled up in milder weather. The driver's seat is in front about six feet from the ground. He drives from the right side sitting by the strong foot brake. This coach is the finest in riding comfort yet devised for traveling.

The passengers tramp in. The three ladies daub carefully in the cold water and straighten up their hair and bonnets. The weather, mild for December, still has a briskness that makes the fire welcome, so they soon gather around it to drink coffee and eat their dinners. The children race outside to watch the horses and disappear briefly into the bushes. It appears this time that there will be a slight delay for some repair of the harness, so after eating the men begin a card game.

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Shouts of "All ready" come from the driver who pokes his head into the room. The passengers bundle up and climb back inside as no one wishes to ride on top today. The driver shouts to the fresh team, starting them off at a brisk trot as they swing back onto the Old Wire Road and disappear over the next rise in the road.

The sound of the horses and coach becomes dimmer until soon all we can hear is the breeze in the old oak trees standing guard over the lot where the relieved horses snort and roll in the dust. Inside the station master's wife begins clearing up the dishes and stirs up the fire.

Then all we can hear is the breeze blowing through the dried grass, the flapping of the broken shingles and slamming of the door as the rising crescendo of the big trucks on the interstate penetrates our consciousness once again.

Inside the hungry passengers were served beans, hominy and fried or boiled hog meat and the inevitable cornbread before beginning the next ten to twelve mile lap on their way. In the corner is a small staircase closed to keep the heat of the fireplace from rising. To the left can be seen the old mantle and some stones of the original fireplace. It has been boarded up in more recent years and the ceiling boards which covered the original logs have been papered.

The station has two rooms in the attic with a set of stairs leading to each room. Logs with no opening separated the two rooms. Recent users have pulled back some boards to gain access to the other room. The only natural light now entering the rooms comes from a hole in the roof.

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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