HISTORICAL POSTCARDS OF SPRINGFIELD, MISSOURI
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 bcause 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 a fishpond.
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.