Bob Mitchell: The Cassville and Exeter Railroad’s demise

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Going back into some incidents involving the Cassville and Exeter Railroad history brought a question concerning what had caused the facility that had fed this community for goods from 1896 to 1956 to end.

Taking on the title of World’s Shortest, Standard Gauge Railroad — a claim that was never really verified — the “Cream and Eggs,” as she frequently called, was a longtime important part of this community.

In the early days of railroad expansion, thoughts here concluded anything going through this part of the county would necessarily pass in proximity to the county seat. When it was learned this was not to be, Cassville appointed a committee to investigate a short line facility to connect with Frisco lines that were going through Exeter.

The facilitator of this project was banker J.M. Bayless, who appointed a committee of C.D. Manley of the family building and owning Manley Courts in Cassville. He was the father of Bon Manley, World War II-era chairman of the wartime County Ration Board. In the original committee were Charles Ray (my grandfather and the second Cassville Democrat publisher) and W.L. Martin.

The group quickly discovered the project was one Cassville wanted. Funds were secured and a right-of-way was secured. Rail laying began in June of that first year. The first of these “ribbons of steel” were at the uphill portion of the four miles, connecting at the Frisco, and then proceeding south to the bypassed Cassville. Whether it was the topography of the land or what other factors that may have been involved, they seemed to fade into obscurity.

Where to connect?

One segment of the early project leaders were in favor of connecting with the Frisco at Butterfield, but when Exeter heard of this, that community donated $1,200 for the project. Capitol stock came from throughout the Cassville community, consisting of more than 100 participants, ranging from $1-$500, except for Bayless’ $2,100.

One of the contributions was a stallion that was to be sold and made available for work. So interested was the community that there were instances of donating labor along the way to provide this service to the community.

For years, the length of the railroad was touted as four miles. Original information about the survey put the distance at five miles and 400 feet.

The arrival of the first train in Cassville started “one of the most significant events on record” at that time.

Early history was blurred by one incident where a runaway car broke loose and smashed into a home at the southeast end of the track, and a young girl was killed.

A bankrupt railroad

Shortly after World War I, the original railroad organization faced a shortage of funds and bankruptcy, which interested Clint Ault and Dave Dingler, who became interested in ownership. The Dinglers had a son, Ray, who was a neighbor of the Ray family for years. He operated the railroad until he volunteered for the Navy in WWII, rising to a chief electrician. Ault later got out of the railroad business, and his holdings were acquired by financial and business interests.

The Dingler family continued operating the railroad several years, letting an interest in Cassville’s “claim to glory” go a railroad buff from Iowa, A.P. Wheelock, who put the railroad back in operation. Operations continued until 1956, when it was deemed by some interests that the railroad had outlived its value. A piece of valuable history and what would have been a continued attraction for Cassville, was destined to disappear.

In later years, Ray would continue his father’s practice of providing water for wildlife in ponds along the route in times of drought. He never hunted, but enjoyed seeing quail flush before the train, and he and wife Lona always enjoyed a mess of quail for their frying pan.

Served well for years

The railroad had served Cassville and community well. It made the hundreds of acres of strawberries a market throughout the region. The railroad carried rock, rails, timber, coal, lumber and building supplies, and oil for paving area roads. It also provided transportation for other items and equipment, and even provided free rides to school children in the early days.

There were those in Cassville who presented a number of reasons for the sudden announcement. Paramount among these included, competing businesses of some of the leading stockholders who had come to town and were using the railroad extensively in developing their business, and who were becoming hard competition for the older firms and their interests and supporters.

The Cassville and Exeter Railroad — even if it had been permitted to set on the tracks in front of the old Depot or even make runs along the rails in a tourist season — was now gone forever. Those disposing of this piece of this community’s history and development wasted little time making sure there was to be no use of the “Cream and Eggs” between Cassville and Exeter for any future generations.

Bob Mitchell is the former editor and publisher of the Cassville Democrat. He is a 2017 inductee to both the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame and Missouri Southern State University’s Regional Media Hall of Fame.