As Platte County continues to celebrate the 175th anniversary of its founding in December 1838, officials are digging deep into local history for grand events to commemorate — Bonnie and Clyde’s heists, Civil War battles, the sinking of the steamboat Arabia, Col. George Park’s creation of Parkville.
But throughout the Northland, the descendants of the area’s settlers have never stopped preserving the history of the people who built Platte County. They repeat their forebears’ stories for the next generation, add the names of newborns to long family trees and preserve everyday artifacts from the mid-19th century that have become family treasures.
The loving work carries existential importance.
Martha Brenner Noland, a historian, genealogist and fifth-generation Platte Countian, quotes from John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”: “How will we know it’s us without our past?” to explain what drives her work.
For the family of Jane Hagg of Dearborn, the tangible remnants of that past date to Platte County’s founding year. In 1838, her great-great-grandfather received a deed from the United States for the land he homesteaded north of where Hagg now lives. She keeps that deed and another from 1844, two of many that the federal government issued as settlers were drawn by the Platte Purchase of 1836.
These families established the county’s churches, schools, courts, newspapers and businesses. They were resourceful and persevered through personal hardship, floods and the Civil War that split family loyalties along with national bonds. Most of the settlers were farmers, many of then raising hemp until tobacco supplanted it as a major commercial crop. They raised food for their families and shared their skills.
The settlers — many from Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and Germany — founded towns with names like Lickskillet (now Dearborn), The Falls of Platte (Platte City) and many defunct communities such as Tiffany Springs, Mudlake, Gooseneck and Fancy Bottom.
Of the 70 or so communities that Platte County settlers established, mostly in the 19th century, only 17 remain incorporated today. They are remembered through old cemeteries — some with both Union and Confederate graves — and memorabilia in families like Noland’s.
A prized record of Noland’s family history is a quilt embroidered with names of most of the families that in 1930 lived in what would become Riverside and Northmoor.
From another branch of her family comes a desk that belonged to Johnson Underwood, a surgeon who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the first of four Johnson Underwood physicians in the Northland. His office in downtown Parkville was a one-stop shop with a pharmacy and soda fountain.
When the pharmacy was sold, it included a poison book from 1881 that listed buyers and their intended uses for strychnine, arsenic, carbolic acid and corrosive sublimate. People used the poisons to get rid of varmints, bedbugs and freckles, and Underwood sold morphine for “killing bodily pains,” the book recorded. Reporting on the sale of the store, a local newspaper opined, “a business as well as life seems to run a tenure of time and usefulness and then is no more.”
Noland, 91, feels sorry for people who “don’t know what it was like growing up when things were simple.” Her father, John W. Brenner, farmed, cut wood where the Argosy Hotel Casino and Spa now stands, donated land for Brenner Ridge School and boarded teachers. Her mother, Bessie Millsap Brenner, went to Kansas City each week on her day out to sell eggs and butter, and then stayed to shop.
Noland’s family life centered on home and St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside. Saturday night dances were held at homes, and anyone who played a musical instrument was welcome.
“It was such fun growing up.” Noland said, “I had no worries, was never afraid and didn’t lock doors.”
She did not, however, experience a raid by bushwhackers as her German immigrant great-grandfather, Peter Brenner, and grandfather John Peter Brenner did during the Civil War. They lost a single-shot gun but saved their Kentucky musket. Noland’s maternal grandfather, John Millsap, joined the Union Army when he was 16.
Saranna Johnson Temple, 93, was born on a farm where Park Hill Baptist Church now stands. Her family later moved to Parkville, attracted by better schools and Park College.
In 1837, Temple’s great-grandparents, David and Mary Ann Johnson, built a house that still stands across Missouri 9 from the present-day St. Therese Catholic Church. According to “Paxton’s Annals of Platte County,” David Johnson “was a man of sound judgment and successful enterprise, and started a life of a useful set of sons and daughters” — 10 in all.
Temple recalls stories of great-grandmother Mary Ann Johnson, who lost her nose in 1863 when she investigated a noise outside and was shot by one of Quantrill’s Confederate guerillas. Her youngest son, Franklin, was born a few weeks later.
Another of Temple’s great-grandfathers, Samuel Brown, homesteaded on the present site of AMC BarryWoods 24 Theater. He had a reputation for fast horses and a little brown jug full of apple jack. Temple has the jug.
Brought up on the adage of “waste not, want not,” her grandfather John Johnson was the ultimate recycler. He wore his long underwear in the winter, Temple said, and then stuffed them with straw in the summer for use as scarecrow in the garden.
Some things have gotten better as the county aged. Temple remembers when others could listen in on a telephone when someone called her family (who had an audible signal instead of a phone number: two shorts and a long) and when castor oil was used as commonly as penicillin is today.
“Health care is the best thing today and heating and communications,” she said.
As far as Temple is concerned, the best thing about the past was the peacefulness of her childhood and Sunday dinners at relatives’ homes. Making sausage was a family event, and men gathered to harvest each other’s crops while their wives prepared the noon meal.
The worst thing today? It’s the lack of personal responsibility, Temple said.
“Courts are bogged down with lawsuits,” she said.
Carolyn Bless Larsen, a fifth-generation resident of Weston, a former state archivist and curator of the Weston Museum, agrees with Temple there.
“People once took responsibility for their actions,” Larsen said.
Larsen’s great-great-grandfather immigrated from Germany in the 1850s, and his son Bartholomew bought the Weston Chronicle in 1886. It remained in the family until 1984 when Larsen and her sister sold it to the current owner.
Ink still seems to flow in her veins. She has written two books on Weston’s Laurel Hill Cemetery, including “We Too Lived 1850-1950,” a genealogy of African-Americans in a Midwestern cemetery.
Larsen has researched the history of Weston, which was founded in 1837 and is now the oldest Platte County town still in existence. At one time it had a river port where 10 steamboats could tie up at once, Larsen said. It was supply center for the area, including Fort Leavenworth across the Missouri River. Troops and supplies were ferried across the Missouri by John B. Wells from the wide-open town of Rialto, south of Weston, where guns and liquor were readily available.
Emotions ran high at the time, and a Weston doctor, William Shortridge, was arrested for treason for treating wounded Confederate soldiers. When caught he was taken to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. He played chess with the commandant there, Larsen said, before he was released and returned to his practice in Weston.
Nature eventually ended Weston’s boom. The flood of 1858 ruined part of the port, and the flood of 1881 finished the job by moving the river channel. Within a year, Larsen said, the population of the progressive town — which established a Court of Common Pleas in 1851 and had macadam-paved streets in 1852 — dropped from 5,000 residents to just a thousand. About 1,600 people live there today.
The steamboats that floated past river towns like Weston sparked romantic and dramatic stories that Northlanders still tell.
Weatherby Lake resident Bill Ohlhausen’s German great-great-grandfather immigrated to Missouri, where he met his wife while his steamboat was frozen in the ice near Liberty. Their son, William Henry Harmon Ohlhausen, the head engineer on a steamboat at the age of 17, had the good fortune to be stranded in Weston when the grist mill was broken down. He fixed it and became the first of three generations of the family to work as millers.
Schools, going back to the one-room schoolhouses, are another focus of family stories that Northlanders have handed down for generations. They were the pride of many early settlements.
Barbara Baker, 87, a former Weston mayor and alderwoman, recalled that city kids thought they were pretty smart until the country kids transferred to their schools. The country kids, their new classmates quickly found out, had had the advantage of hearing the lessons for all the grades in those tiny schoolhouses.
Jim Farley, a lawyer for 61 years whose great-grandfather Josiah platted Farley in 1850, recalls when all the lawyers in the county would fit in two cars. He graduated from a one-room schoolhouse and says he “wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”
A Civil War buff, Farley and his late son, John W. Farley, wrote “Missouri Rebels Remembered,” which documents the battles between the Union and the Confederacy, and their sympathizers.
“The role of Missouri in the Civil War is unique,” Farley wrote. “Missouri did not secede but was claimed by the Confederacy as one of its states.”
Union troops burned the courthouse in Platte City, and two churches and many houses in Camden Point. The impending war closed the flourishing Camden Point Military Academy.
Farley also wrote “Gone, But Not Forgotten,” about the murder of Sheriff John Dillingham by the town’s doctor, Sterling Harrington, in 1900.
Farley’s grandfather founded Farley State Bank. Later, he said, his father was considered to be a good judge of character.
“People told me my father loaned them money when no one else would,” Farley said.
The bank survived the Depression when many others did not.
Farley regrets that society is impersonal today and there is less civility.
“I miss that from the old days,” he said. “You don’t know people as well now.”