Bob Mitchell: How wrong they were

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Back 94 years ago, the Missouri Ozarks were predicted to become “the greatest grape region of the country” and possibly challenge growers in France for mastery of the crop. That’s according to an article in the Springfield Republican, forerunner of the Springfield Newspapers. The article was recently republished in a 150th reprint of a 1923 issue that was brought to my attention by Ruth Thompson.

Also in the reprint was an interesting article about Roaring River State Park, beginning a series about “visiting pleasure resorts.” Bear in mind the number of years ago this reprint originated, before Branson was nothing more than a float fishing destination, or take-out point run by Jim Owen when the publication actually covered the region, including Barry County. But, that’s another story that could be the subject of future columns.

Back to the grapes

The possibility of a grape industry growth in the Ozarks came to the front recently when a Concord Grape advertisement appeared on TV, bringing back memories of when both Exeter and Seligman vineyards produced bunches, at one time harvested entirely by hand, for the popular company that marketed both juice and jams.

There were a number of large vineyards between Cassville and Exeter owned by the Shoefstall, Tomblin, Sigmond, and Charles families, most of which were visible from Highway 86, between the two towns. Then there were growers just outside of Seligman, off Highway 112 on the way to Roaring River State Park. In later years, Gene Cowherd of Butterfield established a new vineyard that also fell to weather problems.

The marketing location was the Concord headquarters in Springdale, Ark., which was close to those growing sources west of that community in Tonitown. The growing process was flourishing for a number of years, until weather and other factors began favoring other parts of the country, but not before the harvesting process of clipping the bunches by hand went to mechanical methods.

This machinery basically slapped the posts holding wire for the vines and deposited grapes in a bin on the machine, which wasn’t considered sufficient damage to the grapes considering the speed of gathering the grapes against the hand-picking method.

Railroad predictions

Making the prediction of grape industry growth in the Ozarks was an agricultural supervisor of the Frisco Railroad who was interested in the crop from the existence of their tracks going through Exeter. Their interest extended to other crops, plus grape production in the Mountain Grove area. The railroad was apparently speculating on other crops — apples, strawberries and tomatoes.

In the process of compiling the information, the railway official was placing value on the crops of strawberries and tomatoes at $1 million for each crop. On the other hand, apples were providing about $4 million in the tills of the areas blessed with apple orchards back in those days. These, with peaches, which were especially subject to weather, were also valuable in those days.

Canning factories

Back in those days, any good source of water would usually find a large tin building at the site to house a tomato-canning factory. One of these, operated by the Rush Co., was located east of the Seventh Street Bridge at Flat Creek in Cassville. A large broiler provided water, taken from the creek and heated, to steam and cook the produce, which each summer provided employment for boys washing the peeler’s buckets after storage from the last season.

Flat Creek was important to this industry, as were sources at Exeter, Corsicana and Leann, especially in this area.

Tomato growers found the rocky soil of Barry County ideal for the crop, making the hillsides easily adapted to growing a variety adaptable for both juice and tomato proper. Especially desirable in war years were those packed in No. 10 cans and used by the military, which was a shipping number for railroad connections.


Barry County strawberries found their way into eastern markets, originating their shipment on the Cassville and Exeter Railroad for cars picked up in Exeter and hurried to other points. Reefer cars were packed heavily with ice for the trip.

This requirement for the crop distribution brought a much- needed industry to Cassville, the Railways Ice Co., which was located in the north parking lot of what is now Arvest Bank.

In those days, refrigeration was confined to the ice source for preservation of food in the home. Supply was available by a route that would look for cards placed in a home window designating the amount of ice required at that particular time. Some might remember the company representative here, Hershel Horine and his principal delivery person, Johnnie Brock.

They provided both chunk and crushed ice for residential and commercial customers throughout this area.

Bob Mitchell is the former editor and publisher of the Cassville Democrat, and a 2017 inductee into Missouri Southern State University’s Regional Media Hall of Fame.