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Benton County History


In the early 1800's, the colorful Osage Indians hunted, lived on, and controlled the entire length of the Osage River valley. The French had earned the trust of this great tribe by creating a very prosperous fur trading business. As a direct result of this trust, the entire tribe shared their friendliness, excellent farming abilities and land with our ancestors.


The very celebrated Lewis and Clark expedition provided this area with its first recorded settler. Ezekiel Williams conducted several more independent explorations of the West. Even with this vast knowledge of the new frontier, Williams chose the Ozarks to settle due to the unlimited virgin timber, spring fed streams and lakes, and abundant wildlife.  


The pioneering homesteaders made the same discovery, and settled in small groups of three or four families in close proximity to each other. This not only provided security in a very remote back country, but in one or two of these new settler homes they constructed a so called porch kitchen which was used to instruct all the children in this settlement. This was the birthplace of the one room school in later times.  


Population was growing rapidly in this un-organized, un-chartered area later to become Warsaw, Missouri. A legal system was needed to control the influx of new pioneers.  Steven Houser built the first house in Warsaw, and provided a court room for several years to allow a legal system to assist and control community organization and growth.  


Overland freight was held up at the Osage River because crossing was available only during low water times.  Lewis Bledsoe built a strong, usable ferry in 1831 to solve this problem.  This brought a concentration of large freight wagons, teams, and drivers in need of rest, repair, and overnight accommodations.  Blacksmith shops, sleeping quarters, and saloons grew quickly to supply these needs.  Many blacksmith shops ran 20 or more forges to provide shoes for the teams, and repairs for the wagons.


As the area grew and prospered, the court ordered the area to name a county seat for Benton County.  After several years of heated disputes, Warsaw was declared the capitol in 1835, but it took seven more years for the name of Warsaw to become official.


The melody along the river in 1837 was the whistle of the riverboats announcing their arrival in Warsaw.  These early steamers provided an enormous economic impact with numerous freighters being unloaded and reloaded night and day along the Wharf.  St. Louis merchants were very pleased and eager to provide the new pioneers with much needed steel, salt, groceries, nails, and trading supplies for the Indians.  The new settlers re-loaded these steam boats with raw material harvested from the new frontier.  Items being shipped included animal hides and pelts from the abundance of wildlife, grain, dried fruit and vegetables, dried meat, honey, and large quantities of corn whiskey from their stills.


Slaves created working melodies as they paced their walk to the beat of the drum and carried the heavy packs on their backs, unloading and reloading the river boats.  The peak levels of navigation in the spring and fall created brisk business all along the Wharf in early Warsaw.


In 1840 the population of Warsaw reached 1200 as churches, schools, the first jail and courthouse were constructed.  Many merchants were opening shops to sell the new supplies.  Hundreds of slaves were registered in Benton County causing growing racial tension.  The Osage River served as a natural dividing line between the slave owners of the south, and the "free soilers" or "secessionist" to the north.  A silent Civil War with bloody raids claimed countless lives for many years before the Civil War was officially declared.


The click of the rails, the familiar whistle, and the smell of coal smoke brought the successful romance of the railroad to the area after the war.  Industry needed to move steel, grain, livestock and people at a faster pace so the railroads replaced the river boats.


Benton County had so many tributaries of the Osage River and the Grand River winding through the area that bridges became an absolute necessity to transport livestock and grain to the large river terminals.  Warsaw city engineer, Joe Dice, built 20 bridges and swingers with some being rebuilt upon failure.  Joe Dice left not only many very useful design and construction ideas, but he also had a reputation for his beautiful singing voice, often heard in local churches.


Severe economic depression hit the entire country in the 1930's, and Benton County was no exception.  These rough patches seemed to strengthen this area, even when the wars of the 1940's were followed by severe record floods.  All these hardships stimulated a serious plan for flood control.


From the very beginning, Warsaw was a rural based agricultural community.  This allowed for a very peaceful small town character where residents were often employed by personal friends and neighbors.  Skilled jobs were provided by the grain and livestock industry, the feed milling industry, railroads, and gunstock factories.


County educational leaders responded to continued growth with creative construction plans.  Approximately 100 one-room schools were reorganized, and consolidated to several middle schools as needed in the county, and a new high school was built south of the city.


As the 1960's appeared, plans for long time flood control were under way.  Truman Dam construction began in 1964, and was completed in 1979.  A 50 thousand acre pool provided adequate flood control.  As this flood control project was in progress, another important industry was being developed by the large number of tourists coming to the area.  The attraction and beauty of the developing new lake helped convince these tourists to considerr building new homes here and becoming permanent residents.  This large influx of new households required not only new and expanded banking facilities, and medical care, but additional eateries, and shopping.

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