Saturday, January 29, 2011

McDonald Territory

by Pa Rock
Territorial Citizen Journalist

Noel, Missouri, is a small town in the southwest corner of Missouri.  During the 1950's it was a popular tourist destination with a clear river running through town, scenic limestone bluffs that hung out over the major highway, several commercial caves, and many tourist courts.  Noel was the weekend getaway of choice for people from Tulsa and Kansas City.

Those were good years, before Ralston Purina came to town with a chicken processing plant that fouled the local waterways, and before Branson developed into a commercial monster that sucked away all of the tourists and their much-loved dollars.

Noel was perhaps at the pinnacle of its existence as a tourist mecca in 1961 when the state of Missouri inadvertently (or otherwise) failed to include the popular resort community of its annual Family Vacationland map that was distributed far and wide to show the most popular vacation spots around the state.  The good people of Noel, particularly business leaders and those directly involved in the tourist trade, were not amused.

The end result of this offensive omission  was that the village fathers, and a few of the mothers, formed a tongue-in-cheek secession movement aimed at separating McDonald County from the rest of the state of Missouri.  Noel and it's neighboring communities became known as "McDonald Territory" for the remainder of that year, and a publicity circus ensued that brought far more tourists to the area than a mention on any old state map could have accomplished.

I was thirteen-years-old and in the seventh grade at Noel during the brief life of McDonald Territory.  My parents owned a cabin court just north of town in Ginger Blue Village, where we worked hard every summer to capture as many of the tourist dollars as possible to help maintain through the poor times of winter.

This year is the 50th anniversary of McDonald Territory, and to honor that significant event in local history, the McDonald County Historical Society has published a commemorative calendar with photos and trivia associated with that small but significant piece of local history.  David Sparlin of the Historical Society was kind enough to send me one of the calendars, and leafing through it has left me awash in memories.

Please bear with me as I take a stroll down memory lane, one page at a time.

The cover of the calendar has a photo of  local businessman Z.L. "Zeke" McGowan standing next to the "Welcome to Missouri" sign that is located a few miles south of Noel on the Arkansas border.  Zeke, wearing a buckskin jacket, had his hand raised in a sign of peace facing an Indian man in a full headdress.  Other than the feathers, the Indian, identified as Cherokee "Chief" Henry Suagee, was attired in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt such as those worn by the paleface men of that era.  Further on in the calendar is a photograph of Zeke and the Chief sitting in the grass and sharing a peace pipe.

(Zeke McGowan was our local electrician.  After he retired from that field, he and his wife, Helen, opened a gift shop within the city limits of Noel on the banks of Butler Creek.  Many years later when Missouri's Lieutenant Governor Harriett Woods visited the county, I gave her a keepsake plate featuring the Noel overhanging bluffs that Zeke and Helen made and sold in their gift shop.)

The January page of the calendar shows three heavily armed men in hillbilly attire.  They were Jim Stevens, Jim "Squeak" Howerton, and Jim Riley.  Jim Riley was the father of my classmate and good friend, Mary Riley Olsen.  He was a butcher at the local grocery.  I don't remember Jim Stevens occupation, but he was the father of three good kids - all in my age range.  He died early, and his widow, Pat Stevens, was my daughter's babysitter when she was an infant.  Squeak Howerton was my boy scout leader.  He operated heavy equipment with his dad and brothers.  One year we covered his large road grader in pine bows and turned it into a camping scene for an entry in Noel's Christmas parade.  I was a freshman in college when I heard on a Springfield radio station one morning that Squeak had been killed when his earth mover had rolled over on him while working on a project at Lake of the Ozarks.

February is a photo of twenty-three men standing in front of Noel's famous bluffs at night - most of whom were armed with long rifles.  The photo is entitled "Call to arms against that tyranny of omission."  McDonald Territory formed its own militia to protect its borders.  At various times these militiamen would stop cars at the border seeking identification and then telling the travelers of places to go and things to do in the Territory.  The Territory even issued its own visas, wooden nickels, and postage stamps.  Strangely, wherever the militia popped up, the press was never far behind.  Several of the men in that picture were good friends of mine.

The March page is dedicated to the "elected" officials of McDonald Territory, twelve individuals who probably elected each other.  Dan Harmon, the vice-president of the Territory, was a member of one of the town's founding families.  Dan and his wonderful wife, Roseanne, were our next door neighbors in Noel when my children were growing up.  They still live in that same house.  Zeke McGowarn, mentioned earlier, served as the president of the Territory - which, I suppose, gave him authority to negotiate with the Indians!

April commemorates some of the Territorial Militia's shenanigans as they battled to secure the borders.  One great photo included on that page is of Rex Chamberlain and Monk Lovett on horseback looking like a couple of extremely tough hombres.  Another photo shows a large group of militiamen fixing to stop a Kansas City Southern train as it came through Noel.  I'm willing to bet that didn't happen!

May features a group of gun-toting, flag-waving militiamen standing on and around an antique vehicle.  My good friends Dan Harmon and Louie Fiorito are included in the group.  There are also photos of the Territory's official  2-cent stamp and its visa.  I have a sheet of the 2-cent stamps, as well as a couple of the Territory's wooden nickels - and I think that I may even still have a Territorial visa.

The June page contains two photographs of Stan Levitt, a television newscaster from Joplin who made several trips to Noel during the outbreak of independence.  Levitt had lunch at Ginger Blue Resort during one of his outings into the Territory, and while there he filmed Elk River as it meandered in back of the old hotel.  He commented on his show that night about a loud duck that seemed to be in charge of the river - and I was awfully proud because that duck, a mallard hen, was mine!  I might never get my fifteen minutes of fame, but my duck had scored hers.

That little duck and two or three others came by one fall and stopped to eat with my Muscovys.  (Rex Chamberlain had given me the four Muscovy's a few years earlier when they were just fuzzy ducklings.)  They hung around for the winter, but when spring came, all of the ducks disappeared except for the lone hen.  She built one nest on the riverbank, but it flooded away.  Later she walked up the long hill (fifty yards or so) and built another nest behind our house.  Some critter found it and made a quick meal of the eggs.  The hen remained childless but hung around for years - quacking up a storm and acting like she owned the river.

The July entry deals with the fate of the Territory.   One of the end games for the secession movement was the possibility of giving the county back to the Indians.  Another was to join with Arkansas, giving that state a northwestern "bootheel" to match the one that Missouri had dipping toward Arkansas in the southeastern corner of our stater.  The third possibility was to have McDonald Territory join with neighboring Delaware County, Oklahoma, and Benton County, Arkansas, to form a new state.  If that would have happened, it would today be one of the more prosperous states in thee nation because Benton County went on to become the home to Wal-Mart Stores, Jones Truck Lines, J.B. Hunt Trucking, and Tyson Foods.  But in 1961 Benton County, Arkansas, was just as impoverished as the rest of northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri.

I drew a flag for the Territory as an art project, and a photographer heard about it and came to school and took my picture while I was working on it.  As far as I know, that picture was never published anywhere.  The August page of the commemorative calendar has several militia photos including one in which some members are raising a "Territory" flag atop Mt. Shira.  Unfortunately for the spirit of the movement and posterity, it was a Confederate flag.

A group of Civil War buffs from Carthage got a little news coverage when they planned an attack on the Territorial Militia.  Some of them were caught and "arrested" on Mt. Shira beach.  Photos of that phase of the secession are on the September page.  There is also a nice picture of the old Noel City Jail, a barbaric place that still stands proudly along Butler Creek today - although its door no longer locks!

A pair of local citizens put up some housing tracts as prizes in a "land rush."  Hundreds of people gathered and stormed the hills looking for the free parcels.  Related pictures are on the October page.

November features a large photograph of a Territorial delegation visiting Governor John Dalton in Jefferson City.  Again, my friend Dan Harmon (a future state legislator) found his way to the center of the picture!

The final page of the calendar shows the McDonald Territorial Border Patrol leading a parade in 1962.  There are also more recent pictures of vintage Border Patrol vehicles with some of the area's younger citizens posing nearby.

The McDonald Territory Secession 50th Anniversary Calendar is a wonderful collection of local history.   For information about acquiring your own copy (I don't know the price or shipping costs), please contact the McDonald County Historical Society at P.O. Box 572, Pineville, MO 64856 - and tell them that Pa Rock sent you!

My sincere thanks to all of those who were instrumental in gathering information and photographs and putting this calendar together - and a special "thank you" to David Sparlin for sending me a copy.  You all have done well!


nilraps said...

The calendars are available for an $8 donation.

You can pick up copies of the Calendars at the McDonald County Chamber of Commerence at 302 S. Harmon in Pineville or you can send cash, money order or check (made out to McDonald County Historical Society) for $8 plus $5 for shipping to:

David Sparlin, Curator
McDonald County Historical Museum
38 Newquay Lane
Bella Vista, AR 72714.

or to

McDonald County Historical Society
P.O. Box 572
Pineville, MO 64856

Don said...

My guess is that American history is littered with such stories, where group action has led to results both predictable and not.

Perhaps you should get to work, Rock