Is Rolla really named after a North Carolina city? Was there ever an Oldburg? What makes St. James saintly?
It has been said that behind every name there is a story. In Phelps County, the stories of how its towns got their names are as colorful and interesting as the people who reside in them.
This area's tale began in 1857, just a few years before the start of the Civil War, when Phelps County took shape. It was plotted from sections of what is today Maries, Crawford and Pulaski counties. It was named in honor of John S. Phelps (1814-1886) who was serving in the Missouri House of Representatives at the time.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Phelps was a Union sympathizer and joined Captain Coleman's Company of Missouri Infantry. In August of 1861, after the defeat of the Union force at the Battle of Wilson Creek (near Springfield), which is considered one of the first battles of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River, Phelps retreated to the Rolla area. He and his newly formed brigade, Phelps's Regiment, Missouri Volunteer Infantry, spent the winter at Fort Wyman. After the war, in 1876, Phelps was elected to be Missouri's 23rd governor and is praised by scholars as one of the Show-Me State’s best governors.
Raleigh or Rolla?
After the establishment of the county boundaries, the area needed a county seat. The tale of how the Phelps County seat of Rolla got its name involves a dispute between two of the area's early settlers, John Webber and George Coppedge, and involved a prominent landowner, E.W. Bishop.
The town was laid out in 1858. Webber wanted to call it Hardscrabble — a name he thought was appropriate to describe the soils of the region. Coppedge wanted to name the area, Raleigh - in honor of his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. Bishop agreed to accept Coppedge’s request with the condition that it be spelled Rolla — a unique spelling with a Missouri-Ozark phonetic twist.
A popular folktale says that the name comes from a dispute over whether Rolla or the nearby town of Dillon should have become the county seat. When Rolla "won" the deal in 1861, the residents of Dillon were allowed to choose the name of the new city. They selected “Rolla” for the name, which as the story goes, was a worthless hunting dog.
A saintly city
The original settlement of St. James was known as Big Prairie because of its location on a prairie. In 1859, that name evolved into Scioto, based on the town of Scioto, Ohio, from where the early settlers came.
In 1860, the name was changed to St. James in honor of Thomas James who was one of those early settlers from Ohio who bought the Meramec Iron Works to the region.
Whether or not Thomas James was a saintly man has yet to be decided, but it is known that the James family were devout Episcopalians. With that in mind, James humbled himself and named the town not after himself but rather St. James the Apostle.
This custom was not uncommon at the time as another Missouri city, St. Joseph, was founded by a fur trader, Joseph Robidoux.
Land of grapes and wine
Rosati sits on the Phelps/Crawford County border between St. James and Cuba, Missouri. Known for its vineyards and wine industry, the town was first called Knobview, as its three high hills provided a perfect view of the area.
In 1870, the census of Knobview recorded only five residents. In 1881 that grew to 35. More than a decade later, the first wave of Italian immigrants arrived to this area. Interestingly, the settlers came from Arkansas. They were invited to come to Arkansas by the owner of a cotton plantation, Austin Corbin, who was in need of cheap labor. He negotiated a deal with the mayor of Rome, Italy, to send a group of Italians over.
While Corbin promised them a better life, the Italians became disenchanted with the poor living conditions and back-breaking labor that they faced. The weary settlers formed a committee to look for land similar to their native Italy. Upon weighing their options, some remained in Arkansas, while others headed to Knobview; still others returned to Italy.
At the turn of the 20th century, this new community had two stores, a saloon, canning plant, post office, school, depot and church. The residents began doing business with nearby St. James.
While the Italians had first attempted to grow grapes with grape-vine cuttings that had been brought over from Italy, they did not adapt to Missouri’s different climate and soil. Concord grapes, which arrived from New England, were planted and the first vineyards took root in this growing village.
In 1906, the first church at Knobview was dedicated and named in honor of the 13th century Italian saint, St. Anthony of Padua. Life centered around the parish with its social organizations, clubs and famous spaghetti dinners.
In 1930, the town decided to change its name to Rosati, in honor of Bishop Joseph Rosati, the first bishop of St. Louis and the only Italian bishop of St. Louis.
In the 1940s, Rosati grape growers had formed a cooperative with the Welch Grape Juice Company who guaranteed growers the purchase of their entire grape crop at the end of each grape season. Growers, however, would supplement their income by selling their grapes at roadside stands along Route 66. These roadside stands are still around and are popular stops for travelers during the region's grape-growing season in the fall.
To the springs
In the southern part of Phelps County sits the tiny town of Edgar Springs. History has it that most of the settlers in the late 1850s came from Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina in search of fertile land. They settled a mile north of where the town is located today.
They established themselves near McManus Springs where people would draw water and wash their clothes. The town was first called Edgar Prairie after John Edgar who came from Michigan. When Edgar built a still by the spring, there was a well-worn path from people who were going to and from the spring. When asked where they were going, they stated, “Edgar Springs.”
In the 2000 census Edgar Springs was designated as the population center of the United States, that is, the point at which an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if weights of identical value were placed on it so that each weight represented the location of one person on the date of the census.
In 2010 the “center” shifted south to Texas County.
A railroad depot
Unlike the other Phelps County towns, the city of Newburg has always been Newburg; there was no "old burg." Founded in 1883, it was referred to as the "new burg" by the railroad workers when the railroad's roundhouse was moved to the area from Dixon.
For its first 77 years, this town, located down the hill from Doolittle, was a railroad town, tried and true. Newburg's Houston House opened in 1884 and was a boarding house for the railroad men working on the Frisco line.
In 1920, the population of the "burg" peaked with over 1,200 residents. Today, just over 400 people call Newburg home. The town has its own school district.
And the Houston House is still around serving a weekly luncheon. In 2014, the historic building was placed on the Missouri Preservation List of Most Endangered Places. The Houston House has an equally historic neighbor — the Lyric Live Theater, which was built around 1920. It is still a popular spot for local theater and musical acts.
A war hero come to town
On the back of the menu of Cookin' From Scratch, a Doolittle's eatery just off old Route 66, the “definitive” history of Doolittle is explained.
The story goes that the town is named for Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the American World War II pilot who bombed Tokyo in a daring raid that helped change the direction of the war in the Pacific. This small area was originally called Centertown because it sat halfway between the cities of Rolla and Newburg.
In the 1940s, local officials and leaders sought to incorporate the town, and the Doolittle name was chosen. In 1946, Lt. Gen. Doolittle flew his own B-25 bomber into the airport in Vichy, making good on a promise of two years earlier. He spoke at the dedication ceremony to christen the town in his name.
Today, Doolittle's mayor, Paul Smith, is also quite proud of his city's two-mile stretch on what was Route 66. "In its heyday, the town had three grocery stores, two or three gas (stations) and garages, and the area's first roller skating rink," said Smith, who has served as the city's leader for 14 years. "We're good people, and this is a peaceful place."
Today, more than 45,000 people call Phelps County home. It has been put on the global map with its world renowned Missouri University of Science and Technology, but it's the hometown stories of the Italian vineyards, the visit from a World War II hero and the tales from the Frisco line and Route 66 that makes this south central Missouri county come alive for its residents young and old.