When Roger and Meredith and I left Omaha and headed towards home, Clinton, Missouri, turned out to be a great place to relax, stretch our legs, and explore on a sunny afternoon. Founded in 1836, this ”small-town” city is named for New York Governor DeWitt Clinton (1769 to 1828). Why name a city way out in Missouri for a New York state governor, you might ask? It does seem odd unless you remember that this New York governor championed the building of the Erie Canal, which basically connected New York City’s Hudson River to the Great Lakes, creating the first successful east-west trade route in the country. In the early 19th century, the canal brought easier trade to the Midwest along with settlers to places like Clinton.
The city square is a Registered National Historic District and certainly deserves that title. Over a ten-block area surrounding the square, visitors can enjoy the architecture of more than 85 well preserved and repurposed Victorian and Italianate buildings. Right in the center of it all stands “the jewel of downtown Clinton” according to the city website–the all-limestone Henry County Courthouse built in 1893.
This county was originally called Rives after Virginia statesman William C. Rives, but apparently the practice of political renaming was alive and well even back then because, when Rives switched from Democrat to Whig in 1841, locals of the Democratic persuasion renamed the county after Patrick Henry. I won’t attempt to explain here the meandering meanings of Democrat, Whig, and Republican. You can try to look that up yourself! And good luck!
A thought-provoking monument on the shaded green in front of the courthouse depicts two Civil War-era soldiers—one in Union uniform and one in Confederate uniform. Again, this might seem odd unless you remember that Missouri was a border state that actually sent men and supplies to both sides of that gruesome. internecine war. There were separate Missouri governments for each side, with stars representing Missouri on the flags of both sides. Official records show that Missouri contributed 110,000 troops to the Union and 40,000 troops to the Confederacy. The monument inscription proclaims simply, “They Stood Tall.”
As we strolled around the square, we admired the clever way Clinton artists have shared the history of their city. A wall of each building with historic significance displays a “postage stamp” painting depicting the building’s story—newspaper office, fire station, and city hall among others.
The next morning, right after crossing into Arkansas, we stopped for lunch on the outdoor porch of Wood’s Riverbend Restaurant near Mammoth Spring. As I remember, the nachos were delicious, and we had great fun watching wildlife cavorting on the hillside between the porch and the Spring River. Not being a native of that part of the country, I’m not sure what the furry brown creatures (gophers? muskrats? prairie dogs?) were, but they were having a grand time scampering in and out and about while large black birds dive bombed and argued with them over food scraps tossed down from the porch.
We finished off the afternoon exploring Mammoth Spring State Park in the northeast corner of Arkansas. Once again, we’d found a great place to relax, stroll a while and learn a little. Mammoth Spring is a National Natural Landmark and home to one of the world’s largest natural springs—nine million gallons of water bubbling up every hour into a lake that empties into the Spring River. We circled the lake in sunshine, then climbed around the remnants of a once-active hydroelectric plant, crossed the dam on a footbridge, and visited the restored 1886 Frisco railroad depot.
The Frisco (officially the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway) operated in nine southern and midwestern states from 1876 through 1890. The name was familiar to me because, during WWII, it was this railroad line that transported German POWs down from Birmingham on the last leg of their journey from New York City to Camp Aliceville in Pickens County, Alabama. That journey is one of the early features of my book, Guests Behind the Barbed Wire.
Our last discovery at Mammoth Spring was The Big Gun, which has an interesting history that pairs well with the “They Stood Tall” monument back in Clinton, MIssouri. In August 1890, the park held its first “Reunion of the Blue and Gray” and invited Civil War veterans from both sides. So many showed up from northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, mostly by team and wagon, that it became a popular annual event with veterans and their families trading goods, participating in shooting contests, and sharing war stories. There was even a mule-drawn merry-go-round.
In 1893, the US War Department donated an 1861 model “Ordnance Rifle” which became known as The Big Gun and is fired daily at sunrise and sunset during each reunion. Eventually, the gathering was renamed the Old Soldier’s Reunion and remains a popular event.
Then we were off to Memphis.