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El Dorado Springs Picking research projects, sometimes for me, is an agonizing problem that eventually turns into an enlightening experience; what was to be my American Humanities research project was just such an experience. I had preliminarily thought I’d look into cultural myths.
While researching myths, I ran across El Dorado Springs, MO., under the category of geographical myths, in the library computer.
I thought how interesting while also wondering why. The book listed had been published in 1887, with a question mark behind it, and was housed in the rare book collection of the main library. Off I went to the main library to see what the old book had to say. While looking through the small book, what appeared to be possibly a promotional pamphlet for the town, I thought perhaps the spring was why it was classified as a geographical myth.
While I read through this book, the librarian brought me another book she had found in their collection about El Dorado Springs. This one was written and published in 1962 by Paul Kemp titled The Wonder City.
Interestingly, Kemp started the book with a statement that really piqued my curiosity. “Indians who once roamed the area had known that the spring had medicinal qualitites, but, with characteristic reticence and secretiveness, they did not reveal this fact to the white man. They held the secret in their hearts as they gave ground and moved westward from the surging horde of white immigrants .
. . ” (1).
To my mind, this sounded like a fallacy; how did they know the Indians knew if they never told anyone? Could I find out if the Indians considered the water medicinal? Could I prove this statement false? Farther on in the book, I came to the section titled “For Whites Only.” “From the town’s founding[,] no negros have ever lived here.” This in itself, to me, was phenomenal, but the last sentence was what made me want to search farther.
“El Dorado still has no negro residents, but under today’s Supreme Court rulings on civil rights, we have lost face and must bow to the age of fading color lines (Kemp 30). Did the town, after 1962, the published date of the book, ever allow negros to become residents of the town? This town seemed to keep other cultures from entering its borders, the perfect topic for my American Humanities paper. When I submitted my topic, my teachers didn’t match my enthusiasm for El Dorado Springs and suggested I continue searching. I eventually found other material to write about but El Dorado kept haunting my dreams. I knew nothing about this town, but there was a tugging that pulled at the perimeters of my mind that could not be ignored.
Little things kept popping up about the town in conversations or in things that I read. Being a strong believer in “there are no accidents,” when my English instructor mentioned a teacher she knew who lived there but taught in Kansas City, I asked if I could tackle El Dorado Springs as the subject of my I Search for English. When the answer was yes, I set out to find if I could uncover the reasons for underlying feeling of my being pulled to this area. What did I really want to know about this town? Could I find information on the Native Americans that had inhabited the area, before the white settlers, and whether or not they had put any importance on the area and its water? Why was it important to disprove the statement in The Wonder City about the Native Americans? Did it tie in with the discrimination of African Americans the book alluded to? Would I find other instances of discrimination? Why did I feel drawn to this area?
Questions tumbled around in my head. I felt the first step in my search should be to try to find out more about the town. I had already exhausted the library’s information and searching the Internet turned up no information. It was time to contact the only person’s name I had that knew about the area, Susanna Swager, the teacher who worked at the Blue Springs campus and lived in El Dorado Springs. I called her and introduced myself.
“Ms. Swager, my name is Pamela Yeager, a student at Penn Valley Community College; my English teacher gave me your name. I’m doing an English research paper on the town of El Dorado Springs and I was hoping you could give me some information on the town.” “I would be happy to, though for the life of me, I can’t figure out why anyone would want to write about El Dorado Springs.” I told her about the information I had already collected; the statement of fallacy about the Indians and the “white only” section of the Paul Kemp book; how these had piqued my curiosity and a little bit about what I hoped to search for.
“El Dorado is a town that is what you could classify as “red neck,” they are, in most cases, very conservative people. I went to high school there and then later on I was a teacher at the high school for nineteen years. I don’t live in the town, I have a house about six miles out of town and I drive down and stay there weekends, but I know about most of the things that have happened there.” I was to learn later that Susanna had always danced to the beat of her own drum.
“Did you know about the “whites only” law?” “Oh yes, there used to be a sign at the edge of town stating that blacks were to be out of town by sundown. As far as I know that law is still on the books, but I know of one time it was overlooked. There was a girl, the daughter of one of the town’s wealthier families, that left El Dorado Springs after high school. I don’t remember where she ended up, but she married a black football player and had a child. Well, things didn’t work out for her; she ended up getting a divorce, so she brought the child back to El Dorado Springs for the grandparents to raise. They raised him and nothing was ever said about the child because the family was prominent and well to do.”
Ms. Swager asked me. “Do you know anyone else from the town to interview?” “No, I’m really going into this blind. I’ve just had a nagging sensation about the area that made me feel I needed to know more about it. I had planned on driving down to do some research and to hopefully find some other people to interview.” “When you come down and visit, you’re welcome to stay with me; I’ll tell you what I know and show you around.” I was surprised and pleased with the invitation. (Coming from the city, where people are usually a little paranoid, it was unusual for someone to invite a total stranger to stay at their house.)
We arranged a weekend that was available for both of us. I would go down on Friday during the day to get a start on my research, and then meet her when she arrived after 4:00. She suggested I visit the historical museum and the library, which was located in the municipal building in the park, and also told me that I might try to locate an older man, who as far as she knew didn’t have a job but was more like the town philosopher and hung out around the Sun newspaper office. The following week, loaded with a map and the rough draft of what I wanted to ask, I set out for El Dorado Springs. Driving down Hwy. 71, I thought about how I go through life assuming that what I know or what I feel extends also to the other people or areas of the world I live in.
As I drove down the highway past the huge oak trees that stand majestically in the fields, a silent testament to the changes that have or, in some cases, have not touched all of the world, my thoughts wandered; I thought about people and the world in general. As I looked off in the distance, I saw the water towers that mark where other groups of people have gathered to form a city. Do their thoughts ever wander off to consider hidden feelings of the world’s totality or are they just so busy trying to survive, that nothing ever reaches that inner core where you feel one with the world? Maybe some of the answers I sought awaited in El Dorado Springs. I arrived in the town and immediately located the famed city park, the site of the natural springs that, according to Kemp, the Indians had known about but did not tell anyone before leaving the area.
From earlier research, I had learned a little about the history of the town’s beginnings. It all started in June 1881, when Joshua Hightower, his wife Corniela, and Hightower’s brother were led to the spring as a stopover area on their way to Eureka Springs, Arkansas for his wife’s health. They had planned to remain only a day or two to rest before resuming their journey south. It was the water from the spring, at the campsite, that seemed to rejuvenate Mrs. Hightower. Instead of moving on as planned, they remained for two weeks since it seemed to be the water that caused the marked improvement in Mrs. Hightower’s health. When they broke camp, instead of traveling on, they returned to their farm in Vernon County and spread the word of the miracle cure the spring water offered. Word spread rapidly so when the owners of the land, the Cruce brothers, arrived at the site, they found hundreds of people drinking from the spring. According to accounts, they decided at once to lay out a town.
The town was platted out in such a manner that the spring and about ten acres surrounding it was designated as a public park. So it was on July 20, 1881, that the town of El Dorado Springs, Missouri became a reality (“Spa” 3). Joshua Hightower, according to one account, was the first man to build a house in the town, to be close to the curing waters. He was a strictly religious man, slave owner and southern sympathizer, with a son who had been in the Confederate Army. The family suffered grievously as the result of the border warfare between Kansas and Missouri when, at one time, Hightower himself was taken by a band of bushwhackers north to a neighboring town and was almost hanged (Kemp 6).
I drove around the park, to get my bearings and to see if I could locate the historical museum. I found it just north of the park, with a closed sign on the door. What now, I thought. I looked at my watch. It was about 11:30; maybe they were just closed for lunch. Right next door was the Chamber of Commerce office, so I went to see if they could provide information on the museum. There I met Lorraine Sturtz, the executive secretary, getting ready to close the office for the day. I inquired as to the status of the museum and learned I was a week too late. The first weekend in November they always hold a fundraiser and then close down the museum for the winter. When I informed Ms. Sturtz of my project, she responded with information and also names and telephone numbers of some women, who were considered local town historians, that might be willing to help out with my interviews. We talked for a while about the information I already had and she offered me an incident that happened at the high school when she was substitute teaching.
“As I was entering the class room, I heard a group of kids making racial slurs at each other.” I interrupted, “Were any of these kids other than white?” “No, but I didn’t like hearing the slurs, so I announced that we were going to have a discussion on other ethnic groups. As I said this, one boy in the back of the room yelled out, ‘Why? Whites are the only group that matter’. Instead of responding to him, I engaged the whole class in a discussion of cultural diversity. Later on, I was in a different class, but some girls who had been in that class came up to me to thank me for the discussion. They confided in me that that had been the best class they had ever had. They were finally able to talk about some of the things they had questions about. To me, that was so rewarding.” “So all of the students in El Dorado Springs are white?” “No, there is one young man in the high school who is black. He is the child of adoption. I don’t think it’s always been easy for him, though he did have a date for the prom this year with the daughter of one of the town’s ministers. Most of the girls are not allowed to date him.”
I had learned, earlier in our conversation, that Ms. Sturtz had only been a local resident for two and half years. She and her husband had moved there from California. I asked, “Coming from California, a place with a totally different ethnic background, do you see any differences between there and here?” “All places are different. It’s taken me about two years just to learn to live a slower paced life than I had in California, but a lot of the time that’s a blessing. Now that I’ve taken over the job here at the Chamber of Commerce plus substitute teaching, I keep very busy . . . It’s my time at the high school where I learn some of the changes that are taking place with the students and their attitudes. Often, some of the girls will tell me things, like one time when some kids went down to a shopping mall in Springfield. They go there often and meet other kids from around the area, many of them are black, and they do the things teenagers do, just hang out and gossip. It seems that the guy who gave them the ride down, one of the girl’s boyfriend, didn’t like hanging out with blacks and told them that if they wanted a ride home they had better leave then, with him, or they would have to find their own ride home. The girl surprised him and told him to go ahead and leave; they would find their own way home, which they did. She told me she later talked to her boyfriend and tried to get him to see her side. She really didn’t blame him for the way he felt because that was the way he was brought up, he didn’t know anything else. It’s young kids like her that will eventually make a difference in how the people of the area think and react.”
I thanked Lorraine for all her help and apologized for holding her up. I told her I would send her copies of the information I had and that she didn’t, and left to see if the library had information for me. At the library, I asked if there was any information on the history of El Dorado Springs available. The librarian told me that of the little bit of information they had, most of it was out and she really didn’t know that much because she wasn’t from the area. So I headed back to the car. As I was sitting in the car, contemplating my next move, a car pulled up next to me and parked. I looked over to see a young lady driving and an elderly, black gentleman as her passenger. They got out, walked through the park and into the municipal building. I sat there wondering, could I be bold enough to approach them and ask questions? After about ten minutes of debating with myself whether I should go in and try to find them, they left the building and headed back toward the car.
I thought to myself, “it’s either now or never,” so I got out of the car and walked toward them. I introduced myself to the young lady and told her I was doing research for a college paper. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” “About what?” “Well, in my research about the town, I found that no blacks lived here and I was surprised to see the gentleman with you. Does he live here in town?” She looked at me for a moment and asked, “Did you say you were from a newspaper?” “No, I said I was doing a research paper for a college class.” She was silent for a minute and then almost whispered her answer, “Yes, he lives here in town in a group home.” Paused and then even softer she said, “He’s the only one in town.” “Has he lived here very long?” “Yes.” “Would it be okay if I interviewed him?”
“Oh no, I don’t think you should. I would probably get in trouble for it.” She seemed to get very uncomfortable, so I apologized if I had upset her. I told her I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble so I thanked her for her help and let them go. She led the gentleman to the car, helped him in and drove off. I went back to the car and sat wondering why she would feel so paranoid about letting him talk to me? I had another question to add to my list. I decided then was not the time to try to figure it out. I looked at my watch, 2:30, time to find the newspaper office. Luckily, while I was at the Chamber of Commerce, I had gotten business addresses and a city map. I located the Sun newspaper office only a few blocks away and decided to drive over. I parked outside the office and looked around but didn’t notice anyone resembling the man Susanna had described to me so I went into the office to ask if they knew this guy’s whereabouts. The lady at the front desk looked at me as if I might be a little crazy when I described the guy I was looking for. She excused herself and went to talk to a man who was sitting at the computer.
They both glanced over at me a couple of times and then the man got up and headed over toward me. “You got a clothespin with you?” It was now my turn to look puzzled. “Pardon me.” He started chuckling, “If you’re looking for Pepper, you better have a clothespin for your nose. My name is Kenny Long,” he said extending his hand. “I’m the editor of the Sun. May I ask why you’re looking for him?” “I was told he is something like the town philosopher. I’m doing a research paper for one of my college classes on El Dorado Springs and I was hoping to interview him.” I explained a little about my paper and where in town I had already been and some of the resources I had already used. “Pepper’s not the guy you need to talk to . . . he’s just a guy on welfare who writes letters to the editor about himself . . . I would think the names of the ladies you got at the Chamber of Commerce would be able to give you more information. I also think I can dig up a copy of the Centennial Issue of the paper that we printed a couple of years ago . . . If you want to go use the phone to call those ladies, I’ll look for the paper.”
I did get ahold of Inez Hoffman, one of the women considered a local historian, and we set up a time to meet the next day. Mr. Long brought me the newspaper and told me to make myself at home; he’d be in the office if I had any questions. I thanked him and started looking through the paper. I was really happy to see an article on the Osage Indians who lived in the area before the white settlers; it was the first concrete evidence to answer one of my questions. In this article, Mills wrote that the villages of the Great and Little Osage had been located in the area. Many early explorers, such as Jules DeMon, Henry Schoolcraft, and especially Victor Tixier, who spent considerable time with the Osage after they were removed to the Neosho River area in Kansas, knew much about these Indians’ way of life. Among other things, the Osage knew the locations of the mineral waters and what specific water was the best medicine for certain ailments. They developed the use of mixtures of herbs, plants, and mineral sediment from the springs for medication to heal different ailments (“Our” 1).
Later, in my interview with Inez Hoffman, she also said that at one time an ointment, made from the mineral sediment of the springs, had been made by a local druggist and sold all over the country. Sifting through the one hundred years of the town’s history from the newspaper, what I was finding was a town that was steeped in history. It considered its finest asset to be a mineral spring that brought about amazing cures and the park that was set up to highlight it. As the news of the curative waters spread throughout the country and people arrived daily to find what cure the water would hold for them, the town built its survival around that.
When many of the visitors had expected the same type of facility that the east coast resorts provided, founding fathers built bath houses to accommodate a growing elitist group of visitors. Some of these bath houses soon came to boast their own tennis and croquet courts and other elegant amenities that drew in the posh clientele. The town’s growth and wealth centered, not only on the visitors to the springs, but also on bottling and shipping of the water throughout the country. But unfortunately for the town, the fads of medicinal cures changed to the more technological advances in medicine and the town lost its fame, its visitors and also much of its income. But what remained was the closeness of a small town that had, from the very beginning of its history and continued today, gathered every weekend of the summer to hear the town’s band perform or to attend every July 20th town picnic to celebrate its beginnings (“Centennial” 2).
The newspaper was a wealth of information into the lives of these people, so I asked Mr. Long if I could purchase a copy. He told me I could have it, along with some other issues he thought I might find interesting. I thanked him for his help. It was time to meet Susanna. We decided to go to dinner and she would show me around town and then I would follow her out to her house. When I finally met Susanna face to face, it was like coming back home to meet an old friend, that warm, cozy, familiar feeling that old acquaintances give you. As we toured the town, we talked about how my day had gone. First I told her Loraine’s story about teaching the ethnic class. Susanna said, “She could get away with teaching it because she isn’t there everyday …. Back when I was teaching in the town, some parents had come to me and told me not to teach creation science to their kids because they weren’t being taught the other view from the Bible. I told them I taught what the state mandated me to teach, not the churches.” “Sounds to me like strict fundamentalist thinking.” “I told you these people are very, very conservative. They want to restrict knowledge to just what they want people to know.”
Then I related the story about the young lady and the older black man in the park, Susanna thought she might have an answer for me. “Awhile back, a mental hospital in Nevada, Missouri closed down and they dispersed many of the patients to smaller group facilities all around the area. That is probably where this guy came from.” “But why be so paranoid about talking about it? Why not just say that’s what it was?” “What you don’t understand Pam, is that it’s easier to pretend something isn’t, than to accept what it is and have to change your views about it. It’s like that house there,” she said as she pointed to a really nice house, “at one time two guys lived there. They opened a business in town and even though most everyone knew they were gay, it was easier to think that they were just roommates, friends sharing a house; that didn’t upset the town’s view of the world, being gay did.” After picking up my car, I followed Susanna out to her house. We spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other. We shared our views of the world, which were strangely similar, and I soon became very impressed with the inner strength this woman possessed. The next morning, over breakfast, we continued our conversation.
She told me how she had grown up in Jericho Springs, a town just a few miles away, the daughter of a very conservative German mother and a liberal father, the town doctor that had offices in all the nearby towns. During the Depression, her father hired lots of servants so that as many people as possible would have a means to earn some money. I asked, “Were any of the servants black?” “No, they were usually just girls of local families that, if they didn’t work for our family, would have been thrown out on the streets to survive because there wasn’t any money to feed them. I don’t remember anyone having black servants.”
The part about black servants was also confirmed, later in my interview with Inez Hoffman, who had lived in the area over 20 years longer than Susanna. “Why did you think the help would be black?” Susanna asked. “Kemp’s book mentioned a black livery and carriage driver in his book, but nowhere in any of the other research have I found where black servants are mentioned. I’m beginning to wonder if Kemp’s view of the town was fictitious or possibly he was the only one who voiced his true views through his writing of the town’s history. I also wonder where their dislike for blacks came from if they had never been around any.” “Good question” Susanna said, “and not having read Kemp’s book, I don’t really know how much is true and how much isn’t.”
It was then that an old classmate of Susanna’s from high school, William (Bill) Barber, came by. I learned he had left El Dorado after graduation and now lived outside of Chicago but came back every other weekend to look in on his mother, who still lived in a home in the area. It was again repeated why I was in town and again that shocked look of “Why El Dorado Springs?” I listened while they reminisced about their school years together and related some funny stories. But I was interested in some other types of things so I asked, ” If the students here are not taught about the other people of the world, isn’t there culture shock when they leave here, which a lot of them seem to do?” “Not really,” Bill said. “We were taught the basics, right from wrong, good from bad and then just applied those things when we left.” “I understand that part because I came from the same generation that you two did, just a little later on, but what about the kids today? The view of life that they’re getting is a little more complex than what we had to put up with.” “You’re right,” Bill said, “But I still think they are getting a little better start here because life is less complicated here.” I still had questions but Bill had things to do for his mother, so I thanked him for his help. He told me he would really love to see a copy of my paper when I finished it.
I think he was curious because of the surprise in my picking El Dorado Springs when he had said there were several towns just like it within a twenty mile radius, all of which had the same views and outlook on life. A few of them were, supposedly, pockets of areas that fully supported Missouri’s militia. I told him that Susanna would probably have a copy he could borrow if he was really interested. After Bill left, Susanna asked if I wanted to go on her daily walk with her? She told me she always walked about five miles every morning she’s out at the house and if I wanted to go along, she’d cut it back to two miles. I thought to myself, two miles, crisp fall morning, fresh air and the sounds and sights of nature (we had already seen two deer, earlier that morning); sure I thought, I’ve walked over two miles just at shopping malls. But once we got started, I remembered that flat surfaces are a lot easier then what look to be gentle rolling hills from a car window. What turned out to be the two best things about the walk, besides Susanna’s company, was that I was challenging myself past my normal everyday limits, something I rarely do, and the turtle shell I found along the road we were walking.
To many Indian tribes, the turtle represents the earth mother and the circle of life we all walk while on this earth. Since I found the shell, after it was deserted and its former inhabitant had continued onto its next step in that great circle, it was perhaps appropriate that I found it. It was like a sign to show me that the challenge of pushing myself was the next step in my journey. After the walk, it was time to pack up my stuff and head into town for my final interview before I started home. It was hard to leave Susanna’s little corner of serenity but with all the heartfelt thank-you’s said I got in the car and headed off. Inez Hoffman lived about two miles northwest of the main part of town and with the directions she had given me, I had no trouble finding her house. When I arrived, she welcomed me and led me to her table that she had already filled with books, photo albums, and old newspapers, ready to help me with information on my paper.
During the interview, I learned a little about this woman who had been fortunate enough to be related to one of the town’s founding families and also was well respected by the “elite townmembers” so that as families grew and moved on, she continued to correspond with many of the people from the area. She had been one of the driving forces in setting up the town’s historical museum, had written many articles for publication about the area, something she confided to me was her favorite pastime, and for being in her eighties, she was sharp as a tack.
While we talked, she told me many things I had previously heard or read but there were also times when, if she found that the information I had was faulty, she corrected it and made sure that I paid attention. One such time was when we were going over background information on the town. She said most of the written material said that Joshua Hightower had come from Nevada, Missouri, but that was untrue, according to Inez. She was adamant that I get it right. Hightower had a farm up by Walker, Missouri, northwest of the present day town of El Dorado and it was the farmer, John Jackson, that led him to the camping area. As we continued to talk about books that had been written, I asked about Kemp’s book and the reference to blacks in the town. Inez said, “El Dorado was very much against blacks, in fact, they had an ordinance that none could stay overnight or eat in the restaurants.” She related two stories to me concerning this, the second one I had heard earlier that morning from Bill and Susanna, but she gave me more details on it. “Back when my husband and I worked in town, almost everyone would meet for lunch at a restaurant out on the highway, called the
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