David Kelley and Missouri’s Bootheel

David Kelley 06-11-2016

I met David Kelley in Altenburg at the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum about the time he was helping found the Starzinger Family Research Library  in memory of his long-time friend, Margaret Starzinger Wills, whose family was from the area.

I became better acquainted with him when we kept running into each other at  Jackson’s Cape Girardeau County History Center, where he was creating memorials to the Talley side of his family.

How would you like to document The Bootheel?

It might have been Director Carla Jordan’s nudging that got him to broach the idea of having me document The Bootheel. I was intrigued, but not sure it was the right project for me.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kelley died of COVID, so he’ll never see the project through (and, to be honest, I’m not sure I will, either, for a number of reasons).

David E. Kelly, Sr.  1930 – 2020

David Kelley at his home in Steele 11-01-2014
David E. Kelley, Sr. was born on September 13, 1930 in Steele, MO to Pleasant Lafette (Jack) Kelley and Winnie Talley Kelley. He passed away on November 12, 2020 in Mt. Home, AR at the age of 90.
He lived in Steele until 2016, when he retired and moved to Mt. Home, AR.
David was a lifelong member of the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Steele. He was a veteran who served his country as a member of the U.S. Air Force. He had been employed as a teacher, farmer, and insurance agent. He was also a 32nd Degree Mason and a Shriner.
He was united in marriage to Barbara Lennox Kelley on November 23, 1955. She and his parents preceded him in death.
He is survived by two sons: David E. Kelley, Jr., and his wife, Donna, of Mt. Home, AR; Mark L. Kelley, and his wife, Lynn, of Van Buren, AR; five grandsons: Jared, Josh, Jonathan, Sean, and Dalton; four great grandchildren: Kayra, Kendall, Beau, and Noah.

What’s The Bootheel?

I guess it’s as much a state of mind as it is a geographical entity.

A Wikipedia entry defines it this way:

The Missouri Bootheel is the southeasternmost part of the state of Missouri, extending south of 36°30′ north latitude, so called because its shape in relation to the rest of the state resembles the heel of a boot.

Strictly speaking, it is composed of Dunklin, New Madrid, and Pemiscot counties.

However, the term is locally used to refer to the entire southeastern lowlands of Missouri located within the Mississippi Embayment, which includes parts of Butler, Mississippi, Ripley, Scott, Stoddard and extreme southern portions of Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties.

It starts at the Benton Hills for me

I consider The Bootheel to begin at about MM 82.8 southbound on I-55 just north of Benton. That’s where you leave rolling hills, and gravity takes you down to the flatlands that will carry you all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, more or less.

Mr. Kelley and I drove about 1,200 miles just surveying most of the counties listed above. During that overview, I learned much from his monologues, but shot less than two dozen photos.

I had trouble wrapping my head around the region. It was the very definition of FLAT, with few places to  gain any perspective. On top of that, many of the towns and villages had either disappeared or were in major disrepair.

I’m fond of shooting dying places like coal towns in SE Ohio or Cairo, Ill., but there was a dearth of places where I could feel the vibes of those who had passed through.

Pemiscot County

I can’t figure out how to show what I shot, so I’m going to post a series of random galleries, followed by links to blog posts I’ve done that might or might not put some of the images in context.

Here’s a selection of photos from Pemiscot county. Click on any image to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move around. Escape will take you out.

Pemiscot county was where Mr. Kelley and his family raised cotton for many years, and it was the place we talked about the most.

He said that when mechanical cotton harvesters came into common use in the 1960s, the county lost about 85% of its population. When the more skilled workers fled to places like St. Louis, Chicago and Memphis, and the lesser-skilled migrated to the smaller regional towns, the stores dried up for lack of customers. When the stores folded, so did the banks and other businesses.

I felt like I had let Mr. Kelley down because I couldn’t paint a portrait of the area like we both had hoped. It wasn’t until I started looking through all the blog posts I’ve done about the region that I realized that I had been working on this for a long time, even before I met him.

Pemiscot County links

Mississippi County

Dad built roads in Mississippi County, and I’m pretty sure we had our trailer parked in Caruthersville or Portageville at some point.

When I was about 10 years old, he took me to where they were getting gravel delivered by railroad hopper cars. He let me crawl under the cars with a hammer to cause the gravel to fall out onto a conveyor belt that loaded it on trucks.

He told me to stay under the rail car while a bulldozer pushed the next one up into position. “Just keep low and keep your arms and legs between the rails.” Can you imagine what OSHA would say about that today?

Mississippi County links.

Missouri – Arkansas State Line

I was curious to see if the arch was still there. We not only saw the arch, but we had a great lunch at the Dixie Pig in Blytheville. I’m pretty sure that the last time I was in Blytheville before that was in the mid-70s, when I wanted to rent a truck to carry a load of Dutchtown lumber to Florida to build a shed in the back yard.

Renting it one-way from Cape was going to cost a mint, but I found out that Arkansas had a surplus of trucks, and they wouldn’t hit me with a surcharge. The only thing was that I had to be careful of the mileage allowed, and renting in Arkansas, loading in Missouri, and driving to Florida meant I had to find the most direct route possible.

I ended up going on some backroads not normally travelled by tourists. When I gassed up at one tiny station, the kid who serviced me asked, “How much do they pay you to drive that-there truck?”

It was obvious that he had never seen a rental truck or understood the concept of one.

Here is an interesting historical nugget about the Arch area: 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.”

Curator Jessica meets the Hwy 61 Arch

Dunklin County

Once I established that I wasn’t some kind of pervert taking pictures of kids (apparently that had happened not long before), I got a friendly welcome from the folks at the Malden High School’s football game. The mosquitoes gave me a great welcome, too.

I also shot a reunion of people who had been stationed at the Malden Airport during World War II, but I never got around writing about it.

Malden’s Green Wave – High School Football at its best

Scott County

I never considered Scott City to be the Bootheel, but the southern parts of it, which include the north edge of Sikeston, qualify.

Scott County links

New Madrid County

I spent a lot of time in the New Madrid area trying to track down people I photographed being baptized in the Mississippi River in 1967. Unfortunately, the exodus from the area after mechanical harvesters arrived caused a lot of them to leave.

I’m going to put the Baptism gallery at the end of the post because it contains so many images.

Lights in the night

Cotton fields look like Christmas decorations.

East Side Cemetery

A day in New Madrid with Jennifer Schwent

1965 Sikeston rodeo with Jim Nabors

More 1965 Sikeston rodeo and Jim Nabors

Old men playing checkers in Matthews

Hornersville in Dunklin County

This was one of the few small towns I was able to find much to document. I was amused to find that my parked car’s dashcam captured me wandering around the street like I was a loose ball in a pinball game.

That drove Mr. Kelley crazy. He couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t just get out of the car, snap a picture, then head out to the next destination.

That impatience eventually brought an end to our collaboration. I left him in the car while I went to chat with an old man at a mostly-abandoned cotton gin. He was a little reluctant to be photographed, but just about the time I had won him over, Mr. Kelley started honking the horn to tell me I was wasting too much time.

After that, I became a solo explorer.

Stoddard County

Most of my time in Stoddard County was spent in Advance, but because we had extended family and friends in the area, I grew up sitting on a lot of front porches hearing and overhearing tall tales about the taming of ‘Swampeast’ Missouri.

Stoddard County links


City of Advance in Stoddard County

My mother and grandparents came from Advance. Dad’s construction company once had an office in the Prather Building, along with Welch’s Liquor Store. For awhile, we lived in our trailer parked in my grandparents’ driveway.

Because of that, I have lots of random stories and photos of the town, including some of its mysteries that are still unsolved to this day.

Advance links

New Madrid Mississippi River Baptism

This was one of the last things I shot before transferring to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, as a junior in 1967.

Most of the photos I had taken, up until I shot the Smelterville photos and the Baptism, were fairly pedestrian traditional newspaper photos. These two projects were the first time that my “style” started to show up.

I’ve always considered them to be my Missouri “final exam.”

I had hoped to do a Smelterville-type project where I tracked down the people in the photos, but the out-migration brought about by the change in farming methods and markets scattered most of the subjects out of the area.

I WAS able to find Bishop Benjamin Armour, one of the preachers in the river, in 2013.

The Last Words of Pvt. Ladd

Stoddard County Confederate Memorial Cemetery 01-27-2013Whenever visitors come to town, I drag them down to the Stoddard County Confederate Memorial in Bloomfield. The unique thing about this memorial is each stone tells how the soldier died.

Veterans Day is be a good time to examine the plight of a Stoddard county soldier who came to a sad end. In a way, it tells a lot about how the Civil War was fought in Missouri. For more detail, go to The Asa Ladd Story. It’s worth a read.

Asa Valentine Ladd

Stoddard County Confederate Memorial Cemetery 06-29-2013Asa Valentine Ladd, a farmer, enlisted in the Confederate army March 10, 1861, in Stoddard County. He took with him two horses and left behind a wife, Amy, and seven children. He served a mostly undistinguished military career and was involved in no general engagements. He was captured in Sedalia Oct. 16, 1864.

In a separate fight – The Battle of Pilot Knob, near Bloomfield in September 1864 – and having no connection with Pvt. Ladd, a Union Major, James Wilson and six of his men were captured by the Confederates. They were turned over to CSA Major Tim Reeves, called a guerrilla by the Union Forces. It has never been determined who gave the order, but Major Wilson was taken out and hung and his men were shot. When word of this murder reached Gen. Rosecrans, who was commanding the Department of the Missouri, he issued a retaliatory order to the effect that a Major and six enlisted men of the Rebel captives be shot.

Men were forced to draw lots

Stoddard County Confederate Memorial Cemetery 06-29-2013Prisoners were given the option to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Federal Government. Those who complied were paroled. Those who refused, including Pvt. Ladd, were marched into a room where they drew lots. A container of black and white marbles was held above eye level and the men were told to take a marble. Six black marbles meant death; a white marble won the soldier a parole. Pvt. Ladd drew a black marble.

Letter to his wife

Asa Ladd memorial tombstone 01-27-2013Pvt. Ladd wrote this moving letter in the last hours of his life:

Dear Wife and Children:

 I take my pen with trembling hand to inform you that I will be shot between 2 and 4 o’clock this evening.I have but a few hours to remain in this unfriendly world. There is six of us sentenced to die because of the six Union soldiers that were shot by Reeve’s men. My dear wife, don’t grieve for me.I want you to meet me in Heaven. I want you to teach the children piety, so that they may meet me at the right hand of God.I can’t tell you my feelings but you can form some idea of my feelings when you hear of my fate.I don’t want you to let this bear on your mind anymore than you can help, for you are now left to take care of my dear children. Tell them to remember their dear father. I want you to tell my friends that I have gone home to rest.

I want you to go to Mr. Connor and tell him to assist you in winding up your business. If he is not there, get Mr Cleveland. If you don’t get this letter before St. Francis River gets up, you had better stay there until you can make a crop, and you can go in the dry season. It is now past 4 a.m. I must bring my letter to a close, leaving you in the hands of God. I send you my best love and respects in the hour of death. Kiss all the children for me. You need have no uneasiness about my future state, for my faith is well founded…

Good-by Amy,

 Acey Ladd

 She never got the letter

Stoddard County Confederate Memorial Cemetery 06-29-2013Amy, it is said, never got the letter, particularly the part that warned her to wait out high waters on the St. Francis River. She loaded two wagons, hitched up the oxen to them and hired a man to drive one while she drove the other. One of the wagons tipped over crossing the flooding river and all its cargo, including the family Bible, was washed away. She ended up raising her children in Arkansas without ever seeing her husband’s last words.

A man who deserved killing

Stoddard County Confederate Memorial Cemetery 06-29-2013It’s easy to paint the confederate Major Reeves as the bad guy in this story, but the Major James Wilson he killed, according to some accounts, was “a heartless Union officer with a take no prisoner policy. He and his troops rode into Ripley Co. on Chrismas day of 1863 and killed 35 solders and 62 civilians, some as young as 12 months old, while they were eating Christmas dinner.”

From the book Shelby and His Men: “The execution of Major Wilson at Pilot Knob was an act of eminent justice, for he was a common murderer, and entirely destitute of manly and soldierly feeling.”

Rank has privileges

What happened to Major E.O. Wolf who was supposed to be shot along with the other five soldiers? He received a stay of execution.

John M. Ferguson, who had drawn a fatal black marble, was determined to have been a teamster and had served as a soldier only a short period of time. His name was stricken from the roll of death to be replaced by George F. Bunch. Ferguson, it was said, “was so rejoiced and grateful at this unexpected deliverance, that he shed tears and declared that hereafter he would fight only for the Union.”

Charles W. Minniken asked to say a few words before the sentence was carried out: “Soldiers, and all of you who hear me, take warning from me. I have been a Confederate soldier four years, and I have served my country faithfully. I am now to be shot for what other men have done, that I had no hand in, and know nothing about. I never was a guerilla, and I am sorry to be shot for what I had nothing to do with, and that I am not guilty of. When I took a prisoner I always treated him kindly and never harmed a man after he surrendered. I hope God will take me to his bosom when I am dead. 0, Lord be with me!” While a sergeant was tying his blindfold, Minniken said: “Sergeant, I don’t blame you. I hope we will meet in heaven. Boys, when you kill me, kill me dead.”

And, that was the messy way the Civil War was fought in Missouri. As Jim Denny wrote in The War Within the State, “Missourians did not have to await the arrival of an invading army to begin making war – they just chose sides and began fighting each other.”

Stars and Stripes Library / Museum

This spring I took Mother down to Advance for a Past Matrons meeting. After it was over, one of her friends insisted that we drive down to Bloomfield to see the new Missouri Veterans Cemetery and the Stoddard County Confederate Memorial, which I’ve already written about. She also said we should see the Stars and Stripes Museum / Library.

To be honest, I wasn’t all that crazy about going to the museum. It’s pretty nondescript looking from the outside. I figured I’d walk in, shoot a few pictures to be polite, then be back in the car in 15 minutes. I was hooked. We spent about an hour and a half in the place and didn’t begin to scratch the surface.

First off, I was vaguely familiar with Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. I knew that cartoonist Bill Maudlin and bush-eyebrowed Andy Rooney worked for it. I knew that General Patton tried to get it banned and Ike overruled him.

First edition printed in Bloomfield

What I DIDN’T know was that the newspaper started right here in Bloomfield, Mo., when soldiers from the Illinois 8th, 11th, 18th and 29th regiments found the Bloomfield newspaper office empty and decided to publish a newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. It was the first and only newspaper published there, but it started a tradition that continued through both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and our excursions into the Gulf today.

The Stars and Stripes Association, made up of former and present staffers, has a 30-minute video on its website detailing the life of the publication. I was glued to it.

Andy Rooney video

There’s a video at the museum of the late Andy Rooney telling about his stint with the newspaper and how Patton tried to shut it down.

You can touch the newspapers

The thing that struck me more than the exhibits, which are really well done, was that copies of the newspaper were spread out on tables where you could touch them, read them and discover stories that brought history alive. A story on the front page of the Sept. 27, 1945, edition said, “Gen George S. Patton Jr. described his comparison of Nazi power politics with Republican-Democratic party battles at a press conference last week as ‘an unfortunate analogy.'”

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Helpful Librarian Sue Mayo

Librarian Sue Mayo made us feel welcome and pointed out things we would have missed. The site is billed as a “Museum / Library.” I have the feeling you could do some serious research here. I would have written about the museum earlier, but the Stars and Stripes website has been down and I wanted to be able to link to it.

The museum and the Missouri Veterans Cemetery are side-by-side, so the same directions apply:

  • From Highway 60 take Highway 25 north exit toward Bloomfield. Travel approximately 4 miles north and the cemetery and museum will be located on the west side of Highway 25.
  • If arriving from the north on Highway 25, travel through Bloomfield and the cemetery and museum will be located at the southern edge of Bloomfield on the west side of the road.

Photo Galley of the Stars and Stripes Museum

Click on any photo to maker it larger, then click on the left or right side of the image to step through the gallery. We’ll have a story on Friday about servicemen from Perry County to commemorate Veterans Day.