The city of Springfield was founded by John Polk Campbell, who
arrived here from Tennessee in 1829. He donated fifty acres of land
to Springfield in 1836, two of which were used for the Public Square.
The Square was laid out in an unusual fashion, with the streets
entering from the sides instead of the corners. The old
Boonville Road was called Boonville Street. College Street was
named for a small college on the north side of the street (it had
previously been called Fulbright Street). The White River Trail
was called St. Louis Street because
it led to St. Louis, and South Street was given its name simply
because it led south.
Through the years many things have occupied the center of the Public
Square. The first structure was believed to be a log courthouse.
The second courthouse was a two-story, red brick building, also
in the center of the Square. It was built in 1836 with the proceeds
of the sale of the other 48 acres deeded to Springfield by John
Polk Campbell. This courthouse burned in 1861 and a new courthouse
was built at the northwest corner of College and the Square.
In 1871 (or possibly 1876) a wooden bell tower and bandstand were
built in the center of the Square. The bell was rung when there
was a fire to alert the volunteer fire department. The tower remained
until 1882 when it was razed to make a place for the stone monument
to General Nathaniel Lyon. This monument was placed in the Springfield
National Cemetery in 1884, and it remains there.
In 1895 the Gottfried Tower was erected. It was an iron tower with
a white iron statue of liberty on the top and a band platform ten
feet above the base. It was also called the Electric Tower. The
tower gained notoriety when three black men were forcibly taken
from the jail and murdered by an angry mob on Easter Sunday of 1906.
The three men were hung from the Gottfried Tower and their bodies
were burned in a huge fire at its base. In 1909 the Gottfried Tower
was removed and used by the Springfield Fire Department for training
until it became too unsafe to use. It was then destroyed. The statue
of liberty became a garden ornament at the home of Charles Callis
of Springfield. It was later broken into pieces and used to fill
In the fall of 1909 brick pavement was built around a circular area
by the Springfield Traction Company (a trolley company). For a while
a large circular area in the middle was left unpaved. Finally, in
the same year, the circular area was filled with concrete by the
City of Springfield and the area was thereafter called "The Pie."
Circling the Pie was a common pastime. It was also a familiar parade
route. In 1947 the Pie was removed and crossroads traffic was allowed
to go through the center of the Square.
The Springfield Public Square was the site of some activity during
the Civil War. After the Battle of Wilson's Creek in 1861 both the
old and new courthouses were used as army hospitals. Later in 1861
the old courthouse burned during a Union cavalry raid. Major Zagonyi
led three cavalry bodyguard units in a charge through the Public
Square. His 300 men routed the 1,500 Confederate men out of Springfield.
A deranged man set fire to the 1836 courthouse on October 25, 1861,
burning it to the ground. Springfield was left mainly in Confederate
hands until 1862 when the Federal Army marched from Rolla. By this
time the town was in terrible shape with many buildings damaged
and many homes burned. The Public Square was restored with prison
labor. On January 8, 1863, Confederates attacked Springfield but
they failed to reach the Square in the Battle of Springfield.
On July 21, 1865, a fatal shooting occurred on the Public Square.
James "Wild Bill" Hickok shot and killed his former friend Dave
Tutt for wearing the gold watch Tutt had won from Hickok in a game
of cards. Both men shot at the same time, but only Hickok's hit
its mark, which was accurate from a distance of 50 yards. Hickok
was tried and found not guilty of the crime.
The Public Square has been ravaged by two major fires during its
existence. The first happened in 1867. It struck the northwest corner
of the Square. It burned the Union Press Building, a saloon, grocery,
stagecoach stable, warehouses and some former slave cabins down
in Jordan Valley. On June 9, 1913, a huge fire burned the northeast
corner of the Square. The fire began in the Heer's store and then
spread to Reps, Osborne, Weaver, Ross, the Queen City Bank, Widbin
and Fox and the Nathan Clothing Store. The loss from this fire was
estimated at $800,000.
In 1914 the courthouse was demolished and replaced by a new
Heer's Store. In 1932 Harland Bartholomew of St. Louis created
a plan for the Public Square including a fountain and landscaping
in the circle, but the bond to provide the financing was defeated
in an election in 1943. Another plan to spruce up the Square from
1964 to 1968 was defeated with the bond election of 1968. In 1969
the Downtown Springfield Association agreed to finance improvement
efforts for the Square, which had been in a period of decline for
many years. In 1979 the federal government provided $1 million in
grant money. This along with Downtown Springfield Association pledges
exceeding $500,000 allowed the Public Square to be changed to Park
Central Square. The city council approved a design for a pedestrian
plaza with an enclosed two story canopy. The Square was closed to
vehicular traffic in 1974. In 1985 $300,000 was spent to reopen
the north and south sides to automobile traffic. In 1989 the east
side was reopened.
Currently, there are efforts to have the Heer's building and other
building around the Square put on the National Register of Historic
Places. The canopy put up in the 1970s is currently being removed
to return the Square to its original state.