HISTORY OF THE COMMUNITY
The first inhabitants of northeast Missouri were native Americans, the Sax and the Missouris. Explorers and traders established camps along the Mississippi in the late 17th century. Father Hennepin, a French Monk, making his way down the Illinois River in 1681 to the Mississippi, landed near what is now called “Bayview,” a campground between Hannibal and Palmyra. For many years it was called the Bay de Charles. Father Hennepin erected a cross and claimed the land for the King of France.
R. I. Holcombe’s HISTORY OF MARION COUNTY published in 1884 (reprinted in 2003) includes the following excerpts describing Palmyra’s beginnings:
“The city of Palmyra, the county seat or capital of Marion County, is situated on portions of sections 23, 24, 25, and 26 in township 58, range 6. It is seven miles due west of the Mississippi river, the same distance from the southern boundary of the county, ten miles from the northern boundary, and sixteen from the western. It is twelve miles northwest from Hannibal and sixteen southwest of Quincy as the crow flies.
A log cabin now marks the spot where, in 1818, Benjamin Vanlandingham settled his family by the “Big Spring” in a home constructed from hand-hewn logs taken from the deep forest that surrounded the town. By 1919, the town of Palmyra had been laid out in the form of a parallelogram. The original streets going north and south were Bradley, Spring, Dickerson, Main, Lane, Home and Last. Streets going east and west were Olive, Lafayette, Main Cross, and Water. In 1820, the first store was opened by James Vaughn. He sold powder, lead, a few groceries, coffee, pepper, salt, coarse muslins and woolens, some cutlery, and a small assortment of “notions.” In 1822 the first frame house was built in the city.
In 1829 a hotel and tavern was built on South Main that became a stagecoach stop between St. Charles, Mo. and Des Moines, Iowa. With community support, Heritage Seekers, a local historical organization, maintains the Gardner House, which now serves as a local museum and community information center. A narrative walking tour of the business and historic district developed by a local Boy Scout as his Eagle Scout project is available at Gardner House.
In 1840, the first brick house was built in Palmyra by a Mr. Shannon. Many fine brick houses followed, some still being lived in. The large number of antebellum homes and buildings maintained in Palmyra are a source of community pride.
An ambitious but misguided plan for a “Golden City” on the Mississippi was developed by early Marion County settlers William Muldrow and Dr. Ely. Marion City was founded in 1835, financed by eastern money raised by speculators who inspired interest and confidence in the plans for a elaborate commercial center connected to the country by river traffic and the earliest railroad beds surveyed and laid in Missouri. Muldrow, along with some local developers, laid out an ambitious city and built several buildings as hundreds of investors poured in, mainly from Pennsylvania. But he had chosen his site unwisely, along the river bottoms east of Palmyra—a problem he dismissed, pointing out that St. Petersburg and Chicago were built on swamps. Floods of 1836 washed the town away, but it was partially rebuilt. Subsequent flooding over the next 15 years all but wiped the settlement off the map for good. Charles Dickens was said to have drawn upon descriptions of Marion City as his “Eden” in Martin Chuzzlewit. Using modern flood control methods and a series of embankments, American Cyanamid utilized the site in the 20th century to build a large plant employing hundreds of area workers. The company was sold to BASF in 2000.
An all boys school, St. Paul’s College, opened in 1848 and was run by headmaster Dr. William B. Corbyn. The Missouri Legislature chartered the school as a college with the powers and privileges of a university in 1853. The building currently serves as a private residence.
William Russell, along with Majors and Waddell, founded the famous “Pony Express.” Russell
William Russell’s home, 1858
Old County Jail, 1858
In 1862, what some called the darkest crime of the Civil War, the “Palmyra Massacre,” was committed in Palmyra. Palmyra had been occupied by the Union Army, and local men who refused to join the Union army or who had actively engaged in seditious acts were jailed in the County Jail, which was used as a federal prison during the Civil War. During a raid led by Col Porter of the Missouri Militia (southern forces) to an attempt to free those prisoners, Porter’s men kidnapped a Union sympathizer, 62-year-old Andrew Allsman. The Union forces demanded that Allsman be returned within ten days or ten prisoners would be shot. It was later believed that Allsman had been killed by some of Porter’s men; in any case, he was not returned, and Col. William McNeil of the Union Army made good his threat and had ten prisoners executed at the old county fair grounds. The grounds were never again used as fairgrounds. Frank Sosey, publisher of the Palmyra Spectator, wrote the book “Robert Devoy” based on the event. A monument was erected in the early years of the 20th century dedicated to the ten men who where shot. The jail where the men had been held was built in 1858; it served as the county jail until 1992. Landmarks of Northeast Missouri, a local preservation society, is restoring it as a Civil War museum.
Monument to the victims of the Palmyra Massacre
During the Civil War, a pure copper ball adorned the steeple of the second courthouse erected on the site of the first. When Confederate troops raided the courthouse, they took target practice on the old copper ball. The ball is now displayed in the rotunda of the current courthouse, built in 1900. When direct solicitation of funds failed to raise enough money to pay for the building, William Jennings Bryan was brought to Palmyra to deliver a fund-raising speech in June of 1901. “Lady Justice,” which adorns the building, is one of the few statues of its type that depicts the lady without a blindfold.
“Boots” Howard (Hiram Sylvester Howard), was the first aviator in Palmyra. He learned to fly by the seat of his pants, flying the mail through the mountains of West Virginia without instruments and often stopping off in Palmyra for a visit. Hot air balloon demonstrations captured the imagination of fairgoers during county fairs.
Early newspapers were essential to the growth of the new city. Early papers were the Missouri Whig, the Palmyra Courier, and the present Palmyra Spectator. Mergers and changes in management resulted in today’s Hannibal Courier-Post and the Palmyra Spectator, which is Missouri’s oldest weekly, serving continuously (under various names) since August 3, 1839, when Jacob Sosey, publisher, established “The Missouri Whig and General Advertiser.”
Actress Jane Darwell (given name Patty Woodward) was born in and grew up in Palmyra. She won an academy award for her role as Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Her father was superintendent of the Hannibal-St. Joe Railroad, and their family home is a private residence today.
Harold Harris introduced the use of the automobile to deliver mail to and from Palmyra. Prior to 1901, mail delivery in and out of Palmyra was handled by New London. Mr. Harris drove a Model-T, known as the Tin Lizzie. Local lore says that Elizabeth Luckenbaugh, a resident of the city, had a Ford Motor Company dealership in the early days, and “Lizzie” sold so many Model-T’s that Ford named the “Tin Lizzie” after her.
Down on the Rhine. Saturday night was the night everybody did their shopping, visited—and drank. The streets were packed with shoppers, and the taverns—all located in the 100 block of South Main—were packed with men who said they were going “down on the Rhine” for a beer.
The Hanley Opera House was flourishing by 1857. Audiences could enjoy musicals and “entertainments”, often from distant cities, or hear flowery or impassioned speeches by William Jennings Bryan and Champ Clark. The building today houses a seed store.
The Bicentennial Oak