Volume VI, No. 3, Spring 1979
Article by Rebecca Baldwin, Photographs by Daniel Hough
What are they doing here? These conspicuous concrete giants that rest on the frosty banks of the river, soaking their feet in the quiet water? These lichen-crusted sentinels seem to guard their own reflections in the frigid Niangua River. The huge cracked pillar on the east bank and the equally impressive pair on the west bank perhaps suggest a once-present bridge. But where would the bridge lead? The western couple stands almost flush against the bluff that is more than double their height. Just as strangely, the eastern pillar seems to mark only a whispering field.
Though it is winter now, from May through October the scene changes drastically when a thousand or more canoes a day choke the river. At least twice as many canoeists search for excitement, fish and suntans as they float by the solemn structures. Then, instead of guarding their reflections in an undisturbed river, the massive pillars silently observe the throng of sunburned pleasure-seekers.These floaters, preoccupied with the pleasures of the wild honeysuckle's scent or the birds' chatter or the sight of the turtles basking in the sun, may easily miss seeing the concrete chunks masked by foliage and vines. Excitement over hooking a two pound bass or concentration on absorbing the sun's rays, or merely the thrill of staying upright for over a half hour can take precedence over solving the mystery of the curious trio.
If the canoeist does notice the pillars after recovering from the preceding riffle, she may figure out that these structures are piers of a bridge that was never completed, its wooden floor and steel frame never even begun. But now that she knows what they are, she is still mystified. Why are the piers here? Their illogical location must have a logical reason, but the piers are silent. If the mystery is to be solved, she must explore the nearby banks.
Banking her canoe on a gravel bar and then searching the east bank, she will find two more big piers and several pair of smaller foundations four to eight feet tall. Masked from floaters by fencing, trees, briars and vines, these other supports stand between fifty and seventy-five yards behind the giant on the east bank, parallel to the rutted road leading to a popular canoe take-out and campground.
Far from solving the mystery, this long line of piers intrigues her even more. The straight line leads directly to the steep bluff on the west bank where the answer must lie.
Upon crossing the river, the canoeist will be amazed if she backtracks past the bluff up the west bank a hundred yards through the tangle of blackberry briers and poison ivy. There, nestled against the base of the bluff and within view of the river, are the ruins of a river village called Corkery. Apparently the solution is here, in the remains of this river village of the past.
The aging clues, the concrete foundations that crumble to dust and sand if not touched cautiously, the charred wooden window and door facings, the rust-eaten iron hardware--all lend a calmness to the air that muffles the noise made by the canoeists and their aluminum canoes. These hidden relics have stood near the bank for over a half century waiting for someone to rediscover Corkery and explain the mystery of the piers.
Rediscovering Corkery by land is difficult because it is reachable only by a steep, rutted trail that scales the bluff through the sticker bushes and scrubby oak trees. The first noticeable landmark on the trail is the graveyard. It is completely overrun by weeds and only a few hand-hewn stone markers are legible. Nearby, the wooden roof supports of a concrete building have caved in, but the handcarved graffiti on the walls is clearly readable. Some of the buildings and the old mill have left no trace, but many relics do remain. The bridge piers, the graveyard, the graffitied building, the spring house, the crumbling cement retaining wall against the bluff, the shop building foundations, the general store steps, all substantiate Corkery was once a bustling river community.
The Niangua's continual flow reminds the canoeist of the importance the river had in Corkery's past during the late 1800's and early 1900's. Then Corkery became the main crossroads for the whole area because of the natural ford which people crossed by foot, horseback and wagon. The river traffic provided a feasible location for stores and made mail service a necessity. The traffic also helped develop tie rafting into one of Corkery's major businesses. Forrest Bradshaw, who had lived in the same house about a half mile from the east bank all of his life, said, "There was two or three places between Bennett Spring and here where they stacked railroad ties. They used to float them down the river to market by the millions! They'd have different places along the banks or up on top of the bluff where they'd bank these ties and then throw them over the bluff into the river. They'd catch them and nail them into a raft, anywhere from a dozen or two to a couple of hundred ties maybe. I've seen rafts that'd be a mile long."
The ford wasn't the only crossing. At one time a ferry carried people and objects from bank to bank, and later a low water bridge provided adequate crossing for cars. As a logical response to Corkery's traffic, in 1918 workers began constructing the bridge piers out of cement and native rock.
David Bradshaw, Forrest's nephew, said, "My dad furnished a lot of the rock for the piers. He picked them up around our place. My dad got seventy-five cents a wagon load."
The cement bags which Forrest helped carry to the construction site were stored in a shed that was reputed to be the longest in the county. The completed bridge would have been the only all-weather crossing for miles around, and would have secured Corkery's future. But the bridge was never finished. The steel for the bridge frame had been ordered and the lumber purchased, but for various reasons, some probably political, the deal fell through.
Later, a bridge across the Niangua was constructed near Bennett Spring which attracted the traffic that was once Corkery's mainstay. After the ford and the low-water bridge both washed out, there was no way to cross the river. The main road was moved from the bank Of the river to the top of the bluff, and with no river crossing and no traffic, Corkery was no longer the main crossroads for the surrounding area.
"Corkery was a thriving business a long time," David remembered, "but we were pretty well isolated once the river crossing washed out. The Model T's did fairly well, but after the new lower cars came, we didn't get across if we lived on the other side of the river."
Gradually the town dwindled. The piers which first promised a better river crossing soon became a symbol of Corkery's decline. Now they are a link from the past of a lost era to the curious canoeists of today.
Before its decline, Corkery served the outlying area for about a five mile radius. Most people lived on nearby farms and traveled by foot, horse or wagon to Corkery to have horses shod, catch up on gossip, mail a letter, go to school, trade at the general store or pick up flour or cornmeal at the mill.
The mill, which was powered by river water forced over a dam, was used to saw lumber and grind corn, meal and flour. It was started by David's great-grandfather. "The old mill was known as Poynter's Mill," said Maude Bradshaw, David's mother. "Poynters came from Kentucky and settled down here around Lebanon. Mr. Poynter wanted to put a mill in, and that's what took them down to the river. He put that old mill in long before the Civil War. The old mill washed out in 1914 in a big rise in the river. Everything was lost, but it hadn't been in use for years and years. They had been using gasoline mills and the old mill had just worn out. They did find the burrs that ground the corn."
Forrest's wife, Ethel, said, "There's an old mill wheel that stayed in the river for years until the folks down here at the campground pulled it out and laid it down in the front yard. Everybody looked for that mill wheel when they came over that old dam."
A grist mill run by a gasoline engine and a shop building were next to the concrete retaining wall. Nothing remains of the blacksmith shop which was across from the old mill.
Beginning around 1884 the mill had served another function. Ed Corkery bought Poynter's Mill and established a post office there, hence the name of the village. He delivered the mail twice a week on horseback. After two more postmasters, the post office was moved to the general store.
Gertie Bradshaw, Forrest's mother, became postmistress in 1919 when the office was moved from the store across the river to the Forrest home. Gertie retired in 1944 when she broke her hip and was unable to manage the post office. The mail then became part of a Lebanon route.
"The post office was moved over here to our home," Ethel said, "because the man who owned the general store was never there. The first class mail was all in a lock box, and those mail carriers never let that first class mailbag out of their possession until they got into the post office."
"Now, believe it or not," Forrest added, "the pay Mom got for years was whatever stamps she cancelled. If the letter was mailed here, she got paid, and if it wasn't, she didn't."
"When they first got the mail route," said David, "The mail only came two days a week, but forty years ago or even more than that, the mail usually came every day. Sometimes the team couldn't make the round trip in a day. They would be too worn out to come back. Mail carriers had to have poles to pry them out of the mud because the roads were just terrible. They would cut poles and leave them out along the road, and it was so far from this pole to the other. If the mail carriers couldn't cross the river when the water was up, they would go across by boat, carrying the mail across their backs up to Forrest's. Can you imagine that now? Mail carriers didn't have it easy back in them times."
The general store, as in any small community, was probably the most popular place in Corkery. The store was located between the retaining wall and the river with the rough gravel road running between the store and the river. The store building had a basement and was three stories high at the back. "I was just a little wart," Forrest grinned, "but the best I remember, that was the fullest store I ever walked into. You could get anything from a sewing needle to a threshing machine--just whatever you wanted."
Maude added, "They tried to keep a little of everything. We didn't come to Lebanon very often. We come about twice a year in a covered wagon to get a good supply."
Corkery was self-sufficient enough to boast a spring house that provided running water. "Down in that little field," Forrest said, "between the store building and river was a spring house. It was automatic--it ran on its own after it got started. On the hill there was a tank. Now a ram forced the water up into that tank and gravity fed it back to the house. Whenever the. water level got so low, it started pumping."
No community is complete without a final resting place for its citizens. Corkery's cemetery was an eighth of a mile upstream from the general store and spring house. Many gravestones lean at odd angles, some have already fallen over, and the wire fence enclosing the small graveyard is in disrepair. Although unkept and crowded, the graveyard is a peaceful, quiet place where the river's murmurs and gurgles create a lullaby that adds to its restful aura. The professionally engraved headstones are still clearly visible, but the depressions of the hand-carved ones are barely discernible with fingertips.
"Many years ago I could read those stones," Maude said. "They were taken out of a cave and they say the cave rocks were soft when they made the markers."
The legible headstones indicate the graves of many infants and youth. "Typhoid was awfully bad way back then," she continued. "My mother-in-law's first husband died with typhoid and then in a short time the little girl, four years old and the youngest, died. The next June her two boys died with typhoid--one died one day and the other one the next. There were four that went out of a family of seven in less than a year. She didn't talk very much about when they was gone--they was just gone."
Although sickness and death were sad and sometimes cruel, there were happy times, too, and recreation in Corkery was never hard to find. "There at the general store almost ever Sunday," David reminisced, "there'd be thirty-five, forty kids coming there from around the hills. If there was nothing pushing to do, we had to climb that bluff. We've been up it a thousand times. We'd go on hikes, explore caves, play cards, ball, all kinds of games, and of course in the winter, sleigh ride. In the summer we'd live in the river and swim all day." Maude added, "I don't know what kept the children from drowning. All the kids up and down the river did that, but nobody got drowned."
The hospitality and neighborliness common in small close communities showed itself when Forrest said, "There was always somebody else's kids here. Mom never knew just exactly how many kids she had. Everyone had a place at the table, and we would just count noses to see who was gone. When Mom fixed a noon meal, she'd never know how many she was fixing for. The mail carriers would all plan on meeting here for dinner. Anybody that knew Dad knew that if they ever landed here around mealtime, they would never leave until Dad had them fed."
Forrest also noted the differences in entertainment and discipline then as opposed to now. "You kids have a lot more in entertainment. When I was a kid, we had to make our own entertainment. Sometimes we'd get into trouble, like for stealing watermelons. Say for instance I was up at one of the neighbors and I done something I shouldn't have. If the fellow thought I deserved a thrashing, he didn't wait till I got home. He gave it to me there."
Life in Corkery was certainly not boring. Stories about everything imaginable still abound and help to complete the picture of work and play in a small river village.
"I know a bunch of stories," Forrest said, "but I don't know whether I should tell them or not! I remember I was over there at the general store one time. A big old fellow chewed tobacco all the time. When that old fellow was around, a whole bunch of young fellows'd bug him for a chew of tobacco. They wouldn't stop until they'd get every bit he had. One day he was over at the store chewing. At that time tobacco came in long sheets--plug tobacco--and it was cut off in nickel's, dime's or quarter's worth with an old tobacco knife. He got a dime's worth of tobacco, which was two or three times what it would be now. There was four or five of us around there, and he said, 'Come on, boys, have a chew.' He had just bought it, but nobody would take it. 'Well,' he said, 'evidently something's wrong with it.' He just threw it over the back of the store building out through that field and into the river. He said, 'Now boys, don't ever ask me for another chew of tobacco!' As far as I knew, he stayed with it. I can't tell that part about why they didn't want any." He paused, and with a smile added, "Something happened to the tobacco.
"Me and my oldest brother was down there by the old mill in the summertime. There was a couple of old guys by the river--I thought then they was old, but I imagine they was up around their fifties. They pulled their underwear off, so they'd have dry clothes to put on after they got done working around the water with the ties. They had them hung up there on a bush. Then they got out there in the river. I and my brother both got into the one seat of the underwear. Both of us in one pair, but we didn't get going the same direction. We tore our way out of them!
"Soon as we got out of that underwear we left. We didn't leave too soon 'cause one of the men was coming. He got pretty close to us, and we knew what that would be. He caught him a good hickory and he give us a sound thrashing right there. He knew us, but we didn't dare tell Dad. Anyhow, later Dad found out. He said, 'It's all over with now, but I ought to give you a good thrashing!' I thought he was a-going to anyhow, but he didn't. If he'd a-gotten hold of us that day, he'd a-done it. We'd a-gotten two thrashings, because when we'd a-come in the house with switch marks all over us, Dad would've wanted to know how come. We'd a-had to told him and he'd a-give us another one. Ah, when I was a kid, I'd a-done anything!
"Never hunted a turkey in my life, but I killed one--near nigh choked him to death. I was eight, nine years old. Dad had this field up here in corn. It was cut up, shocks still standing. There was turkeys up there and they got to feeding on that corn. I wanted Dad to let me take a shotgun up there and the next spring kill them. Mother had tame turkeys here and the wild turkeys would come up and fight the old gobbler through the fence. Course the old gobbler was just boogered up.
"I'd watched them and there was one path that came up the hill over there. There was a little gulley across the path with a big log across it. Them turkeys would fly across from the other hill to just below that log, walk up that path, hop over the log and walk on up over that hill.
"I laid down behind that log and covered myself up with leaves with my hands up. The log was high enough uP I could squint in under it. I just got laid down there and I heard wings a-flopping. I peeked under my log and a hen looked down off the hill, walked up and walked on the log just over me, hopped off and on up the hill. Then one gobbler lit down there, walked up and hopped on the log. When he walked up there, I grabbed. I accidentally caught him by the leg. There I was, down, and that old turkey--he seemed to me like he weighed thirty pounds--was literally beating me to death! I guess he would have finally got away, but wrestling around there his head come in contact, and I got him by the head and just absolutely choked him to death. That's the only wild turkey I ever killed in my life. One of those big turkeys can really claw you up!"
Maude said, "I remember a story that happened at the post office during the civil War. There was a boy that was carried away, and years and years later a young man come back and told that he was the boy carried away, but he was forty years old and he didn't remember much what happened. You see, some of the boys was dragging up the wood in the snow and they saw three men riding up in the field. When his family went to call this child up for dinner, he wasn't to be found. They tracked around in the snow and they saw where he got on a horse with these men. When he came back they couldn't hardly believe it was the same boy. He didn't look like the other children and he didn't act like them.
"On the same place several years ago, there was a woman and a little boy that had to cross the river. I don't know why the woman was foolish enough, but the river was up, and they got drowned. They had an old mule and an old buggy that a man had thrown away. The old mule got out a ways and then turned around and came back. Well, they found the woman after a day or two, but they didn't find the four-year-old boy till several weeks later."
"There must have been Indians down around our place," David said, "because there were lots of Indian arrowheads. There was a tribe supposedly camped up on the hill there between our place and Forrest's. Legend has it they buried their gold under huge flat rocks out in the field. I don't know what they was doing with gold, but anyway, that was the story. They buried the gold there, stayed that night and moved on. I had a fellow doing some dozing there several years ago. I told him about that, and I said, 'I got to go to town, but I'll be back in time to help you look for that gold.' He said, 'If I find it, I'll give you half of it!' But he had the rocks all pushed out by the time I got back. He bought a new Cadillac and a new dozer after that. Nobody never knew if he found the gold. I doubt it very much, but it makes you wonder. I didn't really believe it.
"The general store had a basement under a basement and the owner brewed his moonshine off in there. The smoke went up through the store building through a flue that went clear down into this third basement. He'd always have a little fire in the store stove so smoke would go up the flue to camouflage what he was really doing. It was a pretty good business.
"To get down to the still you had to move a counter. There was a trap door under the counter in the store. Officials raided him several times. They knew he was making whiskey, but they never found it.
"Some folks by the name of Davis bought his goods. They didn't live there too long till another family moved in named Gann. He found the still. He said he was sitting there one day and noticed that trap door under the counter. So he raised it up and saw the stairs leading down. The Gann kids told us, so we all went down in to look it over. We were little kids and it was hard for us to climb the high steps. It was real exciting finding a still."
Corkery as the Bradshaws knew it is dead. Nevertheless its spirit still lurks among the naked skeletons of this hidden town--the bridge piers, the graveyard and the foundations--and in the bittersweet reminiscences of these people who lived there.
Ironically, the essence of this past era--a time of general stores, horses and buggies, black Model T's, tie rafting, plug chewing tobacco, well-worn overalls, illegal stills and the fond memories thereof--can be rediscovered only through a new era--that of campgrounds, motor homes, string bikinis, suntan oil, brilliant orange life jackets, beer-filled coolers, plastic paddles and aluminum canoes. Because of this new era, Corkery probably sees more traffic now in one canoeing season than it ever did seventy years ago in one year of ferries and railroad ties.
The canoeist returns to her canoe after exploring the river banks, finally rediscovering Corkery and then trying to imagine what it was once like. Paddling upstream from the piers to the campground, she hopes to find an empty campsite to stay for the night. Now she knows what the bridge is doing here and where it leads, and she realizes the significance of what she has seen.
Corkery was once an excellent location for a multi-purpose river village. Later its once excellent location became the very reason for its decline--no way to cross the river. Finally Corkery's location is now ideal for the growth of this new enterprise--the canoe rental and campground businesses. And business is good for the manager, the young descendent of one of the owners of old Corkery's general store.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.