A HISTORY OF DESOTO
Native Americans and new settlers found abundant natural resources in this area. Numerous artesian wells made fresh water readily available. Thick forests supplied materials for shelters. Gently flowing creeks provided water for animals and mills. The temperate climate and rich soil enabled growth of food crops. DeSoto’s location, nestled in rolling hills, was both practical and picturesque.
In this wooded wilderness along a stream named Joachim, Isaac Van Metre built a small cabin on his French land grant in 1803. A year later, Walter DeWitt bought out Van Metre and settled on the land. DeWitt owned 1,400 arpents (about 1,166 acres) in the DeSoto area. After fourteen years, he sold his acreage to Rufus Easton.
Fletcher and Rankin built a station house for the railroad. DeSoto’s post office was established, and an auction of town lots took place. DeSoto soon had a general store, grist mill, blacksmith shop, hotel, public hall, and private school. Herman Hamel and his son were pioneer businessmen who were important in the town’s growth. They established a harness and saddle shop in addition to a tannery near a stream now known as Tanyard Branch at the south end of town. The flourishing community was quite different from the wilderness the two Boyne brothers found in 1832. These Englishmen built Pearl Cottage, which is considered the oldest house still standing in DeSoto. It is now a privately owned home at 607 West Miller.
During the Civil War, Missouri was one of four slave-holding states which did not secede from the Union. Troops and supplies were shipped by railway through the town. One group that tried to raise a states-rights flag was overcome by Union soldiers who arrived by train. Colonel Thomas C. Fletcher led a regiment that included African-American soldiers in the Battle of Pilot Knob. Later, as governor, he issued Missouri’s Emancipation Proclamation. In the 1860’s Arlington Hotel (shown on the left) was built. Ten years after the war’s end, ex-President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was a guest at the Arlington and the Rankin home. Davis was a speaker at the Fairgrounds. July Fourth celebrations at the turn of the century found the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) veterans urging all Confederate veterans to join them in patriotic ceremonies. Gust Hamel operated a drugstore and was DeSoto’s mayor and a county judge. He also invented and manufactured the Economy School Desk.
The second half of the nineteenth century was an era of tremendous development. Town boundaries were redefined to accommodate the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway. Otto Hermann established a brick-making business and constructed many buildings with Charles Hemme. The two-story depot, roundhouse, and locomotive shop were built. In the 300 block of North Second, Louis Rankin’s elegant residence, Alta Vista Mansion, overlooked the town. The “Steamboat House”(shown here) at 702 South Fifth was built by James Hopson. Elementary “ward” schools, a high school, St. Rose of Lima School, and Langston School were built. Langston School was named for John Mercer Langston, the first black lawyer in Ohio and first African-American elected to Congress from Virginia. DeSoto had a business school, Liederkranz Hall, the Fairgrounds, a newspaper office, a hospital, Knights of Pythias Building, and The Opera House at Second and Easton. Mount St. Clement, a religious college, was located on the outskirts of town. During the late 1800’s Samuel W. Crawford and Dr. George Auerswald were outstanding citizens. Mr. Crawford was president of a lumber company and owned several buildings, including The Opera House. Dr. Auerswald owned a drugstore, served in the state legislature, and was Missouri’s Pure Food and Drug Administrator.
A wagon bridge on East Kelley replaced the covered bridge. A swinging bridge on East Clement and a wire bridge behind the railroad shops also crossed the Joachim. Cattle drives took place on Boyd Street. Cattle were loaded on railroad cars or herded to the meatpacking plant on the east side of the tracks. At the corner of Second and Pratt Streets, a public horse trough was filled with water from an artesian well. Hacke Harness and Saddlery Shop (shown here) was located on the northeast corner, and DeSoto Roller Mill (also known as the Lepp Mill) was on the southeast corner. In the time of horse and buggy, Pratt Street was not completed up the steep hill between Second and Fourth Streets.
The building for the South Ward School is located at
403 Amvets Drive; East Ward School houses the Laborers International Union at 519 Rollins. Langston School is a private residence at the corner of Kennett and East Stone. The Knights of Pythias Building is located at the west corner of Boyd and Second. The Fairgrounds were located at the west end of St. Louis Street. The College was on the land where Vineland Elementary is located. Liederkranz Hall was on the steep incline from Main to Mineral. The first high school still stands at the corner of Second and Mineral. Near the turn of the century, another school building was erected at Third and Mineral. It was razed in 1970.
In 1903, DeSoto celebrated the town’s Centennial with parades, fireworks, dedication of the Van Metre stone obelisk, and a hot-air balloon ascension featuring a parachute leap. “Fountain City” supplied drinking water to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
In the first decade of the 1900’s, DeSoto High School became a four-year high school. The Masonic Hall at Third and Boyd, YMCA Building (Missouri Pacific Booster Hall), Jefferson Theatre, and Peters Shoe Company also opened. The YMCA building was at the corner of North Main and Boyd. It had a library, gymnasium, and overnight facilities. Jefferson Theatre was used for entertainment and local high school graduations. Later, it became the Amory on Second Street.
The Post Office at Second and Boyd was constructed in 1914. Rural Free Delivery of mail was initiated. Two years later, the two-story depot (located between the tracks and Main Street near Easton) was moved to Second and Pratt. The first floor was removed, and the second story of the depot is now used by St. Vincent de Paul Society. In 1915, DeSoto’s street department removed the white stepping stones that went from curb to curb at intersections. This change was necessary because automobile drivers could not steer through the stones without getting their axles hung on them. The popularity of automobiles decreased the use of railways. Troubled times were ahead. The World War I era brought sorrow with the loss of soldiers’ lives and the loss of 57 DeSoto citizens in the Spanish influenza epidemic. In 1917 and 1926, fires destroyed several Main Street businesses. In 1922, railroad workers went on a strike that lasted almost two years and resulted in a continuing reduction of the work force.
In the 1920’s, Main Street was paved, a new high school was erected at Third and Clement, and Arlington Hotel installed a public swimming pool. The bridge connecting DeWitt Street and Highway E was erected. Before its existence, traffic went under the railroad at Tanyard Branch. Highway 110 (now Fountain City Road) and a bridge were built, connecting DeSoto to Highway 61 (now 67).
During the Depression, W.P.A. workers paved streets and built the concrete steps at Mineral Street. In 1931, Mel Bay (pictured here) graduated from DHS and later published music worldwide. A Lutheran School opened on Second Street; in 1948, the school moved to a larger building at 411 South Third. Advertisements for mail-order photo finishing by Fo-Jo Studio made “DeSoto, Missouri” nationally known. The name Fo-Jo originated in the way the owner, Felix J. Milfeld, signed his two initials with periods that looked like circles. In 1935, a subscription library was established. In 1938 and 1947, heavy rainfall flooded Main Street and damaged railroad tracks. In 1941, Marie Hamel gave the city her family’s two-story blacksmith shop building at 413 South Second. The renovated building served as City Hall, Firehouse and Library for many years. During the World War II years, many of DeSoto’s young men joined the armed forces. After the war, the town voted to initiate the city manager form of government.
In 1952, an American History class taught by Olive Fitch Murrill started improvements in the town and won the Union Electric Planned Progress Award. The following year, DeSoto celebrated its Sesquicentennial with many special events, including “Cavalcade of Progress,” a historical pageant featuring 400 citizens. In 1950, the Rural Fire Department was founded. The “Old Wagon Bridge” was replaced. In keeping with the fifties, Teen Town and the Sky-Vue Drive-In Theater opened. In 1955, the high school was integrated; shortly thereafter, Langston School closed. DHS East was completed on Amvets Drive. In 1954 and 1959, DeSoto was featured in LOOK magazine as an All-American City.
In the next decade, the shoe factory closed until local businessmen raised funds for Hamilton Shoe Company to open. DHS West was completed on Amvets Drive. By the mid-1960’s, the railroad began recall of laid-off workers. DeSoto Shopping Plaza and Haake Manufacturing Plant opened. Miller Street Bridge was finished. With all of these accomplishments, DeSoto won a Town of the Year Award in the Union Electric Planned Progress Program. To crown the decade, Kathi Goff was chosen Miss Missouri in 1968.
In the 1970’s, Athena Elementary School was annexed to DeSoto’s school system. The Junior High on Amvets Drive and Vineland Elementary were completed. The DHS football field was named James Culwell Stadium. Several subdivisions were annexed to the city, and the Rural Firehouse (pictured here) on Miller Street was expanded. Jefferson Square Shopping Center opened, and the new Highway 110 was dedicated.
In 1980, DeSoto was named center of population of the United States. During this decade, Missouri Pacific merged with Union Pacific, a new water tower was erected at Highway 21 and Boyd, and Central School Auditorium was renovated. A tornado caused one fatality and much damage. The new post office at 950 Boyd opened, City Hall moved into the renovated post office building at 17 Boyd, and the Firehouse on Second Street was dedicated. In 1987, Life magazine highlighted DeSoto in a special edition about the Constitution. The only stoplight in DeSoto was installed at Highways NH and 21. DHS girls’ basketball teams won state championships in 1988 and 1989.
During the 1990’s, DeSoto was featured on the “Real Life” television program. Main Street was widened and beautified; a tree museum and gazebo were added to Walther Park. Arlington Hotel was restored and opened, and the Public Library moved to South Main. P.R.I.D.E. (People Really Interested in DeSoto’s Environment) received a state award for planting trees along Main Street.
After the turn of the century, the city completed the new Miller Street Bridge and purchased land on Highway P for recreational use. A Hiking-Biking Trail was established in Walther Park, and the Skateboard Park was built on East Miller. The city maintains several other parks. In addition, for more than sixty years, Hopson Field on DeWitt Street has been the site for baseball games, carnivals, and soccer competitions.
DeSoto’s residents have the privilege of living in the quiet environment of a small town. Main Street, with its tradition and new beauty, runs parallel with the railroad, which facilitated the establishment of the town. To the west, commercial developments on Highways NH and 21 add to the city’s vitality. The continuing story of our town will be determined by DeSoto’s citizens.
Compiled from the Archives of the DeSoto Public Library
by the Bicentennial Calendar Committee:
Debby Campbell, Maxine Jinkerson, Kay Murphy
Special Thanks to: Betty Olson and the DeSoto Library Staff
The top three pictures are panoramic photo of De Soto taken by F.J. Milfeld in 1913 and are part of the American Memory Historical Collections in the Library of Congress (located at the following web address http://memory.loc.gov/).
The bottom photo is part of DeSoto’s Main Street taken in April 1873.