Adapted from Discover Cooper County by Ann Betteridge
The first settlements in the county were made during the period between 1810 and 1820. However, it was not until the 1830s that any widespread farming began to take place. Before the 1830s, settlers relied on the trade center in Boonville to provide most of their needs. Early settlers avoided bottomlands and prairies. Because of the supply of wood for fuel and building purposes, the presence of good springs, and the good supply of game (which was the main food source at the time), settlers built their homes in the high timbered area of the county.
Since the “Century Farm” program began in 1976, more than 8,000 Missouri farms have received the Century Farm designation. To qualify, the same family must have owned the farm for 100 consecutive years. The line of ownership from the original settler or buyer may be through related family members or spouses. The farm must be at least 40 acres of the original land acquisition and make a financial contribution to the overall farm income.
Click this link to see the current list of Century Farms in Cooper County.
In the 1830s, settlers began to recognize the value of the prairie lands for grazing livestock and growing crops. The native prairie grasses provided excellent grazing, and their extensive root systems helped develop and retain a deep topsoil layer that was very helpful in raising agricultural crops. A substantial amount of central and southern Cooper County was native prairie.
By the 1840s, many farmers were raising livestock, a trend that continues today. Early settlers who came to Missouri from the southern states brought a few head of livestock with them. Raising of livestock became the basis of early Cooper County agriculture.
EARLY OUTSTANDING FARMERS
Some of the people who contributed to the field of agriculture in the county were:
The first purebred hogs, Duroc Jerseys, were the first west of the Mississippi, and owned by S.Y. Thornton.
Ravenswood, located south of Boonville, was the site of the first purebred cattle in Missouri. These Shorthorns were the oldest herd west of the Mississippi River.
Fairfield, located near Boonville, was the home of Walter B. Windsor, world-record early corn grower (1880s-1920s).
Chris T. Smith, gold-medal winner for corn sample (Carter corn) at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, lived at “Walnut Dale Farm” in Cooper County.
James Chambers owned the first nursery in Cooper County and grew cherry and apple trees. It was established in 1817.
The first imported sheep of the Cotswold breed to Missouri were owned by Samuel H. Groves, of Cooper County.
Mr. And Mrs. Thomas Nelson owned “Eminence Stock Farm” south of Boonville, near Bunceton. Mrs. Sarah Nelson was the first woman to make a specialty of producing poultry of the better breeds and of pure strain, Barred Rocks poultry.
Thomas J. Wallace was known for buying, breeding, and developing saddle stock. He and his son, A.A. Wallace, owned four of the finest stallions in the country: Denmark Chief, Crigler’s Denmark, Blackbird, and King Chester 294.
MULES IN COOPER COUNTY
The mule has played an important part in helping people in Cooper County achieve their goals and farm their land. Besides being a power source for farmers, mules were a good cash crop. Mules have often been a supplemental source of power to the horse. However, when the going was hard, the heat intense, and the food and water scarce, the mule out-performed his horse half-brother.
The Missouri Mule industry was born at the turn of the 19th century when the Santa Fe Trail opened. People returning from the Spanish town of Santa Fe, Mexico, brought gold, silver, furs, and mules with them. By 1820, Franklin, across the river from present day Boonville, was at the end of river transportation. Trappers, explorers, and other travelers rode upriver from St. Louis by boat as far as Franklin and outfitted themselves at Franklin before heading for the western world.
William Becknell, explorer, returned from a trip to Santa Fe in 1822 with mules he had purchased. This was the first record of mules in Missouri.
Mule power was used heavily in the Civil War and were saluted by Civil War soldiers in the song Selby’s Mule. Over 350,000 mules were sent to the British military during World War I. They were also used in World War II.
During the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, a Missouri man drove his six-mule team past all the other competition and permanently placed the phrase “Missouri Mule” in the global vocabulary.
By 1870, Missouri was the major mule producing state in the nation. Many mules were bought and sold in Cooper County. During the next 30 years, mule production was the highest. In the summer of 1995, the mule was recognized by the Missouri Legislature as the official state animal.
The mule is an offspring of the male donkey (Jack) and the female horse (mare).
The county was also well adapted to crop farming. It was not long before raising crops also became an important part of the farming in the county. Initially, the main crop was corn. Other crops raised were wheat, oats, and barley. Many German immigrants came in the 1850s, and raised grapes and planted fruit orchards.
MISSOURI STATE FAIR
The major business in Cooper County in the 1850s was agriculture. The first official state fair in Missouri was held October 3-7, 1853, near the site of the old St. Joseph’s Hospital building in Boonville. The state fair was a way for farmers to get together and trade information about agriculture practices, as well as to see the finest livestock and produce raised in the state. The next two state fairs were also in Boonville. The state legislature didn’t appropriate any funds for the fair after that, although there were many county fairs throughout the state. The next official state fair was in 1901 and at that time it was moved to Sedalia, where it has remained.
New Lebanon had an active Grange organization in the 1870s which was an organization of farmers, established in 1867. It was officially titled “Order of Patrons of Husbandry.” The farmers were concerned with the practice of the railroads and grain elevators. By 1875, Missouri led all states in membership, but it soon began to decline.
The year 1890 marked a turning point in county history because, in this year, total county population reached an all-time high. For the next 90 years the general tendency in county population was downward and people moved from farm to town.
FRUIT GROWING IN COOPER COUNTY
Colonel Charles Bell founded the International Apple Shippers Association. He experimented with and developed the “Lady Apple” tree in the Bell Apple Orchard located about six miles east of Boonville. For years each pupil in the Boonville Schools found a “Lady Apple” on their desk the first day of school.
Apples being delivered to Boonville merchants.
Bell Orchard Apples being delivered. Notice the bronze dogs which are now above the entry doors at Laura Speed Elliott school.
Workers at Bell Orchard
Photos from Wayne Lammers Collection
THE CIVIL WAR AND WWII AND AGRICULTURE
During the Civil War, agriculture in the county was brought nearly to a stop. The most severe effect of the war was the drastic reduction in livestock. Crops were burned, farmers were terrorized and sometimes killed, barns and houses were burned and ransacked. Cattle and other livestock were stolen or slaughtered for food for soldiers. It wasn’t until the 1870s that farmers were able to rebuild their herds and begin farming again.
Farming began to show a slow recovery by the end of the 1930s, and then came the outbreak of World War II. Many young farmers went off to war and never came back. Those who stayed behind to farm their land were given extra support to increase their productivity, and soil conservation work began with terracing, soil liming, contour plowing, and pond building. It was about this time that the government started its “Balanced Farming” educational programs to area farmers.
In 1940, Cooper County led all counties in Missouri in the number of farms on which terraces had been constructed. On December 1, 1940, the number was 207. A total of 70,000 trees were planted in gullies and eroded areas in the spring of 1940.
FARMING AFTER WWII
After World War II, a new era in agriculture began. In 1949, Edgar Nelson made the following observations:
Tractors are fast replacing horses and mules. There is much more farm machinery used meaning more acres farmed by fewer persons. This means fewer people on the farms and a tendency toward larger farms. Practically everyone is growing hybrid corn. Lespedeza has proved a lifesaver for poor soil. There has been an increase in dairying as well as in the development of herds of beef-type cattle.
Mr. Nelson’s comments were mostly good; however, at this time there was also concern that while many farmers had improved their soil, the majority of them had allowed their soil to become overworked because of the demand for crops at high prices. Due to the negligence of the soil, there has been a general loss of topsoil and soil fertility. Farmers currently rely on big applications of fertilizers to keep high yields. Farmers began to use chemical insecticides and herbicides in the early 1950's.