A book review by Crystal Payton
A visitor driving into the St. Clair County seat, Osceola, today sees a small town with some 19th century store facades, a classic Art Moderne movie theater (now empty), a mural proclaiming its rich and sometimes violent past and a million-dollar jail.
Courthouse towns are more resistant to oblivion than many small towns. And Osceola is just a mile off US Highway 13, a major north-south artery.
Beyond the square, a fatter Osage River stalls as it becomes the backwaters of Truman Reservoir. The riverfront is quiet – no boats or fishing docks or swimming beaches. Only the mural, “A town where history lives,” hints at the town’s rather amazing story.
In his new book, “Osceola: A Town on the Border,” Lawrence Lewis defies the borders or boundaries of the local history genre, opting instead for setting his small hometown in the context of history, philosophy, and environmental wrangling.
Lewis identifies three key events that have shaped the town and brought it to its current state: the burning of the city by Jim Lane and his Kansas bushwhackers during the Civil War; 1870 bonds on the taxpayers to build a railroad that never materialized; and, last, the building of Truman Dam and the tremendous impact that had on the small city’s politics, population, and tax base.
The event that still rankles and has shaped its self-image was the 1861 burning of the town by Kansas Jayhawkers. Before the Civil War conflagration, Osceola had been a bustling trade center.
In his research, Larry Lewis found an enthusiastic description penned by the newspaper editor in 1860: “Osceola can boast of better hotels, more accommodating landlords, deserving landladies, prettier women, handsomer men, faster horses, warmer weather, meaner water, more business, better whiskey, lager beer and ale, and (fewer) churches, preachers and church-going people and Sabbath Schools than any other town in the state, St. Louis not excepted.”
With such a lively burg and its likely prospects for prosperity, it’s no wonder the event is still central to the town’s identity.
As well as intriguing stories and characters, “Osceola: A Town on the Border” relates some little-known geologic history. Only recently was it determined that Osceola sits in a bowl created by an asteroid strike 350 million years ago.