Volume 31, Number 4, Summer 1992
Bakersfield, a small community of 210 inhabitants, is located eight miles south of Caulfield, Missouri on State Highway 101, and about two miles from the Missouri-Arkansas State line on Arkansas State line on Arkansas County Road 219. Bakersfield lies in a scenic, fertile valley just east of Norfork lake. Livestock farms are characteristic of the area.
The area called Bennetts Bayou was said to have first been settled in 1840 by homesteaders. But the old timers around the community say there were inhabitants as early as the 1790s. This group of settlers were hit by a mysterious disease which wiped out the entire village. This group was supposedly buried by travelers. The town of Bakersfield now sits on top of this mass grave. According to the legend, many years later, wells in the area were found to be contaminated because of the graves.
One of the first written accounts of the area around Bennetts Bayou was done by the great explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft visited the area in 1818, and his account has become a classic writing of the Ozarks. When Schoolcraft traveled through the area in 1818 he met the first white man he had seen in twenty days. This journey was from Potosi, Washington County, down to the North Fork of White River.
In his journal account for November 30, 1818, Schoolcraft wrote that he and his companion, Levi Pettibone, came upon a path leading between two settlements. Schoolcraft wrote, "We were on this path when we met a man on Horseback. He was the first human we had encountered for twenty days, and I do not know when I have received a greater pleasure at the sight of a man....
"From him we learned that the stream we had been following down was the Great North Fork of the White River; that we were within ten miles of its mouth and within a few miles of a house either way.
"Elated with this information, we turned about and followed our informant, who in traveling about seven miles in a northwest direction, brought us to a hunters house on Bennetts Bayou, a tributary of the North Fork."
The name of the hunter Schoolcraft spoke with was Wells. Wells cabin has been found to have been located near Gamaliel, Arkansas, which is about eight miles from Bakersfield by way of Missouri State Highway 101. Schoolcraft tells of engraving the date, and part of a poem he wrote on a rock in a cave somewhere in the area. Either the engraving has since disappeared or the cave has never been found.
The town Bakersfield was first called Waterville. Exact date of settlement is unknown. But there is a letter postmarked, "Waterville, Missouri, 1832." The town was called Waterville because it was located so close to Bennetts Bayou, and the bayou served the major business of the town, the water mill. The mill was somehow destroyed shortly after and was rebuilt by William L. Wright, who settled in Moody, an adjoining community in 1868.
James A. Baker, who later became the most prominent figure in the towns history bought a large
field from a man named Waters in the 1830s. This and the access to the water mill led to the towns first name, Waterville. James Baker eventually had his name on every deed in town. He died a very wealthy man and many say he didnt come by his fortune legally. Some say Baker was not a very trustworthy man, but that if it hadnt been for him there never would have been a Bakersfield, Missouri.
Surprisingly enough no one knows why the area was called Bennetts Bayou. It was believed that a settler living on the banks of the bayou was named Bennett, thus the name Bennetts Bayou.
One of the oldest structures in the town (which recently burned) was the Woodworth Hotel. The land around the hotel was homesteaded in 1859 by Thomas Sap. The land patent has the signature of President James Buchanan (1791-1868) probably signed by one of his secretaries. In 1867 Sap sold the hotel and 40 acres to James Baker for five hundred dollars. Baker used this 40 acres to survey and build his town on Bakersfield.
The Woodworth Hotel, originally called the Vivion Hotel, was built by Flavel W. Vivion. Vivion incorporated two log rooms into his hotel in 1887. He purchased the land from Baker who was in need of money badly.
Vivion and his wife, Shakie Russell Vivion, originally from Texas, came to Bakersfield from West Plains, Missouri. Besides owning and operating the hotel, Vivion operated the first livery stable in Bakersfield and also managed a general merchandise store. At this time, Bakersfield was a regional service center on a trade route between Mountain Home, Arkansas, and West Plains, Missouri.
In 1900, the Vivion Hotel was purchased by Laura and Thurlow Woodworth. The hotel was operated until 1929. During an interview, Laura Woodworth recalled that in the early 1900s, some 25 to 30 men took their meals at the hotel daily. Some of these men were permanent roomers and boarders, but many were trading men. There were 13 rooms in the hotel and the rate was one dollar per night. Meals cost
twenty five cents.
Bakers next major project was to bring to the town a permanent cotton gin and water mill. William Wright came to Bakersfield to build the mill and the gin. This was an important asset to the town because it attracted more business to the area. Farmers came to have their grain ground into flour and to get their cotton ginned.
The first official federal post office was erected in 1873. However there were post offices ran by the town even earlier than this. The name was changed to Bakersville in honor of James Baker in 1873. The name was changed because mail post marked Waterville, Missouri kept going to Waterville, Maine and vice versa. The name Bakersville was not acceptable to the government, so the name was again changed to Waterville for a short time. To satisfy Jim Baker the town name was changed to Bakersfield in 1885.
The post office at Bakersfield serves one of the earliest settled areas in Ozark County, Missouri. Almost 94 years after the establishment of a government post office a new building was finally erected. The old post office building still stands in Bakersfield.
The new post office was completed in February, 1961. The interior of the building is decorated in post office colors, which are a 50-50 blend of Confederate Gray and Union Blue. Bakersfield is centrally located among four county seats, Gainesville and West Plains in Missouri and Salem and Mountain Home in Arkansas. Because of this central location the post office served families in all four directions. At one time the post office was said to have served as many as 1,500 households.
Bakersfield was the second Ozark County post office to be advanced to third class status. It is one of the first post offices to fly the United States flag. The first flag was flown on May 5, 1954. Today, all post offices fly a flag.
Today, the Bakersfield post office serves approximately 1,000 people on three Star Routes. Postmaster John K. Morris, appointed in August, 1949, is only the
fifteenth postmaster to serve the Bakersfield post office.
In the year 1876, Bakersfield had a population of 100, a post office, a flour mill, a hotel, a general store, a blacksmith, a wagon maker, and a school and Baptist Church. The school educated the first through the eighth grades.
In 1885, another hotel was built to accommodate the large number of traveling salesmen and homesteaders who came through the town. This hotel, built by Baker, had 12 rooms. It was built where a log house once stood.
Jim Baker was a Baptist. Since he was a Baptist, he felt that the entire town of Bakersfield should be Baptist, too. To ensure this in 1888, he gave the people land to build a church on. There was a stipulation in the deed that the church had to be of the Baptist faith. If it discontinued Baptist services, the land would revert back to the Baker family. Services are still held in the same building. The building has been renovated and modernized by its members. The church had to be completely rebuilt after the cyclone of 1928.
Jim Baker was considered to be a suave and sophisticated man. The young girls swooned at how handsome and wealthy he was. This was evident in his five marriages. Four of his five wives are buried in the Bakersfield cemetery. Some people speculate as to the mysterious death of his third wife. Some even say that she may have been murdered. The night of her death, she was supposed to have eaten poisoned cabbage, according to the maid. Nothing has ever proven that this was true, but shortly after this Baker left for Oklahoma on a trip. About 1900, Baker left town with his fifth wife and never returned. Baker left the town, but he left the town his name, and his signature is on almost every deed issued in Bakersfield.
In 1899, according to the Gazeteer, a government-operated paper published for tourists, Bakersfield had a population of 400. The town consisted of 7 grocery stores, 2 drug stores, 2 blacksmiths, a distillery, a barber, a newspaper called the In former, a hotel, a school with a two year high school, a Baptist Church, and a post office. It predicted that the town was entering a boom that would last until the 1930s.
The town built its first bank in 1907, called the Bank of Bakersfield. After the bank was built, Bakersfield became the largest town in Ozark County and was considered for the county seat. Rockbridge was the county seat before the Civil War, but it had been completely destroyed by fire. Gainesville, however, was chosen as the county seat because of its central location in the county. Many townspeople agree that if Bakersfield had been picked as the county seat it would still be booming today.
The biggest year for the town came in 1910. It had a population of 600. Many wealthy people had moved to the town, and there were many mansions built. In 1914 a new bank building was built. A new newspaper came to town called The Boomerang.
During the entire life of Bakersfield the town pump has been the central area for communications and business dealings. This was because you could sit on the pump and see in all four directions leading to and from town. The store owners would sit on the pump and watch for wagons coming across the horizon. It was also true that if you knew where to look you could also see eleven stills. The government owned and operated two of these. The owners of the other nine are unknown.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the town exported cotton and tobacco. There was a cotton gin operated in town and Bakersfield was on a route of a semi-weekly stage to Gainsville. The Wright Mill located on Bennetts Bayou ground wheat into flour for many of the areas residents. By 1890 the town also had three physicians and a druggist.
In the last edition of the Gazeteer, published in 1900, Bakersfield had a population of 400 and a number of new businesses. The towns second newspaper, the In former, began to publish papers.
A tornado, or cyclone as it was called, struck the town on June 12, 1928. The cyclone destroyed much of the town. It demolished the school, the churches, and many of the towns mansions. After the cyclone, many wealthy people moved to Gainesville or West Plains to rebuild. They took their affluence with them and because of this the economy suffered.
The Christian Church, which had been built in competition to Bakers Baptist Church, was completely destroyed by the cyclone. The members started renovation, but ran out of funds. The building was eventually bought by the Masons to use as a lodge around 1940. The Masonic Lodge meetings are still held today. The meetings are held on the Saturday on, or before, the first full moon, a carry over from the era when moonlight could mean the difference between a safe wagon ride, and falling off a cliff.
Education of the young was very important to Bakersfield. The first four-year high school was built in 1929 with a $7,500 bond issue, plus donated labor and funds. The same building is still used today. In years past there have been as many as 100 graduates. In 1942 there were 80 graduates, in 1975 there were 13.
The first school bus came from Dora and brought students to the high school. The entire school system was very well thought of in the area and the quality of education was good. The school had produced many
professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and teachers.
Education at Bakersfield High School wasnt easy. Many of the students lived too far to walk or didnt have access to school buses. These students lived with some of the towns residents and worked for their room and board so they could attend school. Many students were also paid a wage of fifty cents a week to buy school supplies.
Bakersfield has been through many changes since Schoolcraft first walked through the area in 1818. At one time, Bakersfield was a booming town. Before the First World War, Bakersfield boasted, besides its hotels, school and churches, a distillery, several cotton gins, roller and buhr mills, and a number of general stores. The population was estimated at 600.
In the center of the village was the town pump, and, though the old pump was stolen in 1974, a new pump still stands on the site and still brings forth clear, pure water just as it did in the 1800s.
In the early 1900s, iron and zinc mines were operated in the area. Before rural electrification came to the area in the 1940s, a project was underway to generate power by damming the waters of Bennetts Bayou. This project was abandoned in the 1930s. The bayou, which overflowed its banks quite often, was tamed when a dam was built in 1941-1944 near the mouth of the North Fork River at Norfork, Arkansas, some twenty miles below Bakersfield. In 1930 highways 101 and 142 came through the town. These highways made traveling faster and much easier.
The tornado in 1928, combined with better regional roads, finally doomed the town. The same year the highway came through the town, the bank collapsed, and the newspaper quit printing. A few businessmen remained in town, hoping for a boom like that of 1910. The boom never came. Although Bakersfield was incorporated into a city in 1967, several remnants of the towns past history remain.
The Swain house is perhaps one of the best preserved and most beautiful of the old mansions still standing. The home was built in 1907, and Mrs. Swain has lived there ever since. The Swain house still contains most of the original furnishings and carpetings.
The Atkinson home was originally built in 1910. In 1910 the structure was a two room log cabin. It served as a doctors office as well as a drug store. Jim Bakers son was the pharmacist. After Baker left the town, the drug store went out of business. A few years later the doctor left and set up a practice somewhere in Arkansas. The structure was then turned into a saloon. The saloon was not a success either. Today the structure has been remodeled, and is now a home.
There are many structures around Bakersfield that were built by the WPA during the depression. A cobblestone building served as a general merchandise store until 1970. The Nichols Grocery was a very prosperous business. However, the building now sits empty, as do many of the structures built by the WPA. The WPA was not a very well thought-of project around Bakersfield. This was because President Harry Truman was a proponent of Roosevelt and also had a hand in the building of Norfork Dam. The federal government flooded many thousands of acres of good farming land around Bennetts Bayou, and forced many people to move elsewhere.
Bakersfield had two blacksmith shops during the boom of 1910. One of them still stands. This livery stable and blacksmith shop was owned and operated by the Cantrell family. Pink Cantrell was one of Jim Bakers business associates. He made a fortune in Bakersfield, and died a very wealthy man. The Cantrell family has since moved out of the area.
There are two mansions in Bakersfield that were built by Pink Cantrell during the towns boom. The first house was built by Cantrell in 1890, on land given to him by Baker. The second home was built in the early 1900s. Cantrell and his family lived in this home. Both of the Cantrell homes are still standing in Bakersfield.
Hayes Livery Stable was erected somewhere around the 1910s. The Hayes Livery Stable was located across Main Street from the Woodworth Hotel. In the 1940s a new concrete structure was built around the old one. Today the structure is Halfords Garage and Gas Station.
The oldest standing structure in town is Vaughans General Store. This building has always been a general store and was located next to the town pump. A store was first built here around 1857 and was called James and Fuergeson General Store. The general store thrived during the late 1800s because James and Fuergeson were good barters. They would barter with people on their way West for almost any type of merchandise. The location of the store made it easy for the proprietors to see all travelers coming and going from the town.
In 1961, an article in the West Plains Daily Quill declared, "Bakersfield is growing; it now has a new barber, the new post office is in use, and homes are going up everywhere." In 1961 Bakersfield had a population of 190. Today the population is listed as 210, only a growth of 20 people in 19 years. Except in the summer, Bakersfield is a pure country village. It is blended with rustic hills and a rippled bayou. However, in the summer the town hums with autos and
people on their way to Norfork Lake. Unfortunately, no one stays in town any longer than to look or browse in one of the old stores. Occasionally, you see a tourist stop at the pump to get a drink or to simply see how a pump this old works.
Bakersfields growth and economic boom of the early 1900s was spurred by its location on the trade route between Mountain Home, Arkansas and West Plains, Missouri. Freighters, drummers, and settlers stopped in Bakersfield on their way to the West to homestead land. They rode the stage, boarded their horses in the livery stables, rested in the hotels, and bought and sold goods at one of the general stores.
Bakersfields growth began after the Civil War and continued until the depression of the 1930s. The Bank of Bakersfield closed then, as well as did the towns second newspaper, The Boomerang.
The economy began to decline for many reasons. One major reason was the automobile and the speedy travel over new roads. Missouri state highway 101 and 142 came to the area in 1930. These highways lead north and east out of the town. Arkansas County Road 219 to the Arkansas-Missouri line, gives travelers easy access south and to the lakes area. The railroads bypassed the town and Lake Norfork was built. The people coming into the area tended to settle around Lake Norfork instead of Bennetts Bayou.
Today Bakersfield, incorporated in 1967, serves Bayou Township I, and Bayou Township II. This is a combined population of 914 people. Bakersfield now has a population of 210 people and a school which accommodates kindergarten through the twelfth grades. The Bakersfield post office serves 1,000 people on three Star Routes. Bakersfield has three churches, a Masonic lodge, a health clinic, three grocery stores, two restaurants, two gas station, one garage, one tire shop, a hardware store, a laundry, a feed mill, a beauty shop, and an antique store. Most of its inhabitants are farmers, or work with wood in the fields of logging or milling. There are no industries or factories around the area. Many people who live in Bakersfield prefer it this way.
Bakersfield has changed. Bakersfield will probably never see another boom like 1910, but it will probably always be around for the few people who like this type of lifestyle. But then again, there are those few who believe there will be another boom of 1910. Who knows, maybe a boom of 2010?
Editors Note: This article, edited for the Quarterly, was a student paper in a 1979 American history class at SMSU.
Personal interviews with:
Mrs. Lola Swain
Mr. Charlie Meyers
Mrs. Dorothy Smith
Mrs. Gert Turner
The West Plains Daily Quill, West Plains, Missouri
The Ozark County Times, Gainsville, Missouri
Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansas from Potosi or Mine a Burton, in Missouri territory, in a southwest direction, toward the
Rocky Mountains; performed in the years 1818 and 1819. Dierkes Press: Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Special thanks to:
Ruby M. Robins of the Ozark County Times
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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