I.H. Severn and Harry Truman

Severn tombstone - Truman Sig 08-07-2015I’m starting a new project. David Kelly, whose family has farmed in the Pemiscot county area for generations, asked if I’d like to work on a documentary about the Missouri Bootheel.

After spending most of the driving on back roads and getting a feel for part the area, I mentioned that I was surprised to not see more small churches and cemeteries. He said we were near one that had an interesting tombstone bearing a presidential signature.

Isaac Harmon Severn obituary

Severn tombstone - Truman Sig 08-07-2015The sun was coming from the wrong direction to get a really good shot (click on it to make it larger), so I’ll let an obituary posted on the Find A Grave site fill in the blanks. (It’s a lot longer than I’m posting here, so you might want to follow the link.)

If we were to die tomorrow, do you think perhaps the next day our family would receive a message of condolence from the president of the USA? For most of us, the answer is no. But for the family of Isaac Harmon Severn of Steele, who died here in 1949, the answer was yes. His friend, Harry S Truman was president of the United States and was told about Severn’s death (probably by their mutual friend Judge Roy Harper but that is uncertain). So Harry sent a telegram to the family expressing his sorrow at the death of his friend and political ally and that message continues to attract attention at a local cemetery.

Truman and Severn good buddies

Truman and Severn had been good buddies, “big political friends,” as some put it, and fellow Democrats, for some years. Severn, Harper, Max L. Kelley and others journeyed together to political rallies at such places as Springfield or Kansas City.

And so it was that when Harmon Severn died, HST reached out from Washington, D.C. to touch the grieving family. They appreciated that and decided to inscribe Truman’s message on Severn’s gravestone: “Please extend my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of Uncle Harmon Severn, of whose passing I learned with deep regret. He was my friend through thick and thin and I shall always hold him in grateful remembrance.

Never forgot a friend

Harry never forgot a friend, it has been said, and he obviously never forgot “Uncle Harmon” – his friend in the deepest part of the Bootheel of the state that sent him to the Senate, a stepping stone to the White House.

Woodrow Davis, a grandson of Mr. Severn, remembers that the message from Truman was a telegram, so it would not have had a handwritten signature. However, the maker of the headstone was able to duplicate a signature from another source, and thus this attention-compelling stone.

“Give ’em hell, Harry”

There are those who think Mr. Severn might have been responsible for the slogan,”Give-em Hell, Harry.”

Severn used to yell out that phrase when Harry Truman would jar down on a particularly telling point while addressing crowds in pre-election gatherings in Steele. It may be that others did the same and that the phrase did not originate in this community, but some think it did. They recall political speeches at Main and Walnut when Mr. Severn shouted out the slogan while punctuating the air with his walking cane.

Severn took on the railroad

In 1910, Severn sued the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad Company for $175, the value of a mare he said was killed by a train that “omitted to either sound the locomotive whistle or ring the bell when approaching the road crossing at a distance of eighty rods therefrom.” He won the suit, but it was reversed on appeal because of confusion over whether the horse was killed in Cooter township or Virginia township.

I bet he punctuated the air with his walking cane when he heard the verdict.


Licking the Arkansas Arch

Jessica Cyders at Gateway Arch 11-04-2013_9935When Curator Jessica made her initial pilgrimage from Ohio to Missouri last December, I convinced her that every first-time visitor to St. Louis’ Gateway Arch has to lick the stainless steel icon.

She was a mere child of 29 at that time, and gullible.

Not falling for it at the state line

Jessica Cyders at MO - Ark arch 10-31-2014_4265When I asked David Kelley of Steele, Mo., if the old concrete arch over U.S. 61 at the Missouri – Arkansas border was still standing, he said, “Yep. It’s still there. It’s only eight miles away, let’s go see it, then go down to the Dixie Pig in Blytheville for lunch.”

U.S. Route 61 is the official designation for the highway that runs from New Orleans, past Memphis, past Cape Girardeau and St. Louis, ending up in Wyoming, Minn.This section through Arkansas was once a dirt trail called the North-South Road, and was in such poor shape that it might take as much as a full day to cover 15 miles.

Highway 61 called the Great River Road because it parallels the Mississippi River a good part of its run. It also answers to the name “Blues Highway” because of the path it takes through Blues country.

Now that she’s put 30 birthday candles in her back pocket and done several thousand Steinhoff Road Miles, Curator Jessica is older and wiser. She wasn’t falling for the old Lick the Arch trick twice. She did agree to risk death by posing under the arch so you could get an idea of its scale, roughly 15 feet high and 20 feet wide at the base.

Almost a lick

Jessica Cyders at MO - Ark arch 10-31-2014_4267I didn’t realize until I was editing the photos that she DID fake an almost-lick for the camera. I guess that’s close enough.

The arch was created by the Mississippi County Road Improvement District in 1924. Check out what the National Registry of Historic Places says about the arch and what Arkansas highways were like in the first quarter of the 20th Century. It’s a fun read and will make you appreciate modern roadways.

I love this part: The location of the arch on the directly south of the Arkansas-Missouri state lines had a somewhat strange economic effect. Highway 61 runs primarily north to south, but at the state line the road runs east to west for a distance of approximately one-half of a mile. The state line is located directly north of the section of  highway.

A lower gasoline and cigarette tax in Missouri led to a concentration of businesses on the north side of the highway. At one time there were as many as fourteen service stations lined up along the “line”. Along with the service stations came several nightclubs and small gambling houses. The area around the arch became known as “Little Chicago” because of the type of activity that went on there. A long-time resident of nearby Yarbo, Arkansas, once said of the arch, “It was a good place to go while the wife and kids were in church.”

Click on the photos to make them larger.