Wheaton's Train Depot Museum speaks volumes
City's history entrances visitors and locals alike
As the last, surviving train depot in Barry County, which houses the Wheaton Train Depot Museum on Main Street, the little depot not only holds volumes of historical artifacts detailing the city's history, but speaks volumes about the people and events that built an all-American city from the ground up.
Named after the wheat field it literally sprung up in, which in turn provided a living for locals, the town of Wheaton was born when the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad decided to establish a route there to transport agricultural goods.
"Wheaton is here because of the train depot," said Betty Lamberson, treasurer for the Wheaton Historical Society, Wheaton native and museum volunteer. "This was the first building in Wheaton in 1907, in the middle of a wheat field. One interesting fact people don't realize is, there were 11 train depots in Barry County at one time. And they're all gone, except this one. So, that was one of our reasons to restore the building."
It was only by chance that Wheaton became a town. The railroad had intended to establish a line from from Joplin to Helena, Ark., a distance of 365 miles, and the thriving towns of Rocky Comfort and Stella were in the path the railroad planned to take. Land dealer Truman Elmore of Seneca was contracted by the railroad to purchase the right of way and land for four town sites along the way. However, land prices went up and the MONARK Townsite Company, based at Neosho, decided they could buy land two miles northeast cheaper and established a whole new town -- Wheaton. The company suggested in its advertisements that land in the vicinity was fertile and perfect for growing fruit, wheat and other crops to be transported to market on the railway.
In addition to wheat, strawberries and tomatoes were a hot commodity.
"There were canning factories for tomatoes and green beans, and the ice house cooled the strawberry cars," Lamberson said.
The museum has been open to the public since 2009, and is run by about 15 volunteers, including Betty and her husband, Ralph Lamberson, both Wheaton High School graduates and lifelong natives.
Transforming the depot into a museum was their idea, but at the time, no one else was on board.
"They laughed at us," Betty Lamberson said.
Thereafter, she and Ralph wrote a comprehensive, 534-page book on the city's history, replete with photographs chronicling the city's history entitled, "Wheaton Echoes," to raise money for the project.
"We raised $30,000 from the book," she said.
No one's laughing, now.
"We bought the building from the city," she said. "It is the original, restored building where it sat on the same concrete piers it was built on in 1907."
Betty Lamberson's grandfather, Walter William Hoyt, was a state agent with the railroad from 1924-1947, giving her a special connection to the building and museum.
"I spent my childhood visiting my grandpa," she said. "My brother and I climbed into the baggage room because we thought that was more fun than coming through the front door," she laughed.
Upon walking in, a ticket window from the early 1900s, which came from a depot in Fairview, can be seen, giving one the feeling they have just walked into the past.
The first town lots were sold in the summer of 1907, luring early entrepreneurs, and a city and Main Street began to take shape. In November, O.M. Duncan and R.L. Reed established a general store. Later came Chenoweth and Frazier Store, and upscale department store, Wheaton Sundries Soda Fountain (owned by Floyd Hughes), a Post Office, drug store, furniture store, community hall, a hospital, bank, hotel, a church, school, wheat mill, park, newspaper, canning factory and more.
"Betty was born in the Wheaton hospital, and I was born on the next street over on Gardner," said Ralph Lamberson.
The town's first newspaper, The Wheaton Journal, was formed in 1910. For decades, it covered the community and the lives of its residents, changing hands before Mr. and Mrs. Wally Fox took over as publishers from 1926 through the 1960s. Thereafter, the paper changed hands again until 2001, when it was sold to Mike and Lisa Schlichtman of Cassville, who also owned the Cassville Democrat. In 2004, both papers were sold to Rust Communications, which, in 2005, ceased publication of The Wheaton Journal due to economic factors.
The museum houses articles and lithograph plates from newspaper, and an original table and chairs from Wheaton Sundries Soda Fountain, which was a popular spot for youngsters to gather, can be seen, along with a plethora of pictures from other prominent businesses, and a sign from the Bank of Wheaton, the city's first bank.
Walk a little further and visitors will see artifacts from the depot's operation including telegraphs, a vintage, crank telephone and vintage signaling lights.
"You could literally spend days in here to see all the memorabilia," Ralph Lamberson said. "It blows your mind. We have original tickets, too, that were sold. We still have original telephone wire."
Visitors can also go into an original, Frisco caboose.
"It's all been brought in one item at a time," Betty Lamberson said.
A reading corner is also available to view histories of the surrounding towns, dating back to the 1880s.
"I'm a genealogist and it's my own personal collection," Lamberson said. "And, we're really proud of our school. We have yearbooks and diplomas that go back to 1910."
The Wheaton Historical Society meets the first Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at the depot. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1-4 p.m., and can be reached at 417-652-3263. All who come aboard will be inspired and have a new admiration for the town of Wheaton and the residents who built it.