By Dennis Bresnahan
I was camping out a few years ago in Southeast Missouri and decided to stop at the Greenville Recreation Area on Highway 67.
It is located on the northern end of Lake Wappapello on the St. Francis River.
The area has a campground, picnic sites, a playground, basketball courts, volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, a day use shelter, and a boat ramp with a courtesy dock.
The campground has showers and campsites with full hookups consisting of electric, water, and sewer.
The Greenville Recreation Area is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I had never been there before and was impressed with the facilities but what I was surprised to find out was that the entire area was once a small town that is now completely gone.
The old town of Greenville, Missouri, was founded in 1818 along the St. Francis River and later it was incorporated as the county seat of Wayne County.
The first of many floods happened in 1826. Flooding of the St. Francis River was a fact of life for residents of Greenville. Other major floods occurred in 1844, 1863, 1903, 1904, 1908, 1915, and 1935.
Efforts for flood control on the national level were successful in the 1930’s and plans for the Wappapello Dam began to take shape.
Construction of the dam began in 1938 and was completed in 1941.
Realizing that Wappapello Lake would soon be a reality, people started moving two miles north to a new site for the town of Greenville. Some people even took their houses with them.
Today, the old site is commonly referred to as Old Greenville and is officially “The Old Greenville National Historic Site.”
It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in March of 1990 because of its historical and archeological significance.
Old Greenville had been a town for over a hundred years and had weathered the civil war besides floods.
Old Greenville was occupied by both Union and Confederate forces throughout the course of the war and was the site of at least one known skirmish.
The town had the county courthouse, a new high school, two hotels, a Methodist Church, a post office, a newspaper, and a car dealership.
There were also many other stores, shops, and services such as a drug store, a café, a movie theatre, several service stations, two banks, a funeral home, and a tavern.
The railroad arrived in 1892 amid a developing timber industry, and a sawmill and planing mill was built in the town.
At its height, the population of Old Greenville reached a peak of 1,051 and 125 businesses served the surrounding area.
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Although the alleged purpose of the new dam was to prevent flooding, it also posed a serious problem due to the rising lake level as the existing town was sure to flood more severely and often once the dam was completed.
When the dam was being built in 1939, the population was down to about 570 and in 1940 the residents elected to relocate their town to higher ground nearby.
In 1941 about forty houses were moved from Old Greenville but most of the buildings that were too large and difficult to move were demolished.
By a clear majority, the citizens of Wayne County voted to retain Greenville as the county seat.
All that remains today of the town of Old Greenville are the streets and the sidewalks and the hill that the old Wayne County Courthouse sat on.
But you can still walk around on these sidewalks with a self-guided tour on a short historical trail called Memory Lane.
The first few times that I visited here, there were individual signs along the streets and sidewalks in front of the locations of former homes and businesses.
Each of these signs had a picture of the building that had once stood there along with information about the people who owned them.
These have been replaced by more and larger signs with pictures and panels with more information. These are placed on various city blocks and several of the signs have maps of the town and even old aerial view pictures.
The themes of some of these signs are: “Timmons Street Business District”, “Old Greenville Before the Wappapello Dam”, “Traffic Control on the Streets”, “Harry S Truman – On the Campaign Trail at Old Greenville”, “The Wayne County Courthouses of Old Greenville”, “Moving Greenville Above the Pool of Wappapello Lake”, and “Tie-Hacking” (making railroad ties).
Other signs and markers with pictures tell of “The Filling Stations of Greenville”, “The Cherokee Trail of Tears”, “Crossing the St. Francis River”, “Old Greenville’s Flood History”, and even several informational signs about local murders and the murderers’ trials in the courthouse.
I have since stopped here many times over the years, usually to show this place to friends who are with me. They are usually impressed and then show this historic site to other friends of theirs.
It is worth a stop to see Old Greenville, even if you are not planning on camping or picnicking here. The historic pictures in themselves tell the story.
Before you leave this area, visit the parking lot on the east side of Highway 67. There, next to the St. Francis River, are some more historic markers that tell the story of the Bettis Ford Ferry, the different bridges over the river here, and the place where the Cherokee Indians crossed the river on The Trail of Tears.
(Dennis Bresnahan can be reached at (314) 868-7297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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