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History History of Transportation


The Coming of the Roads and the Wagon Wheel Boys

The tradition of traversing long distances by water stretches back almost as far in time as the existence of humanity itself. It's a safe bet that the first people came by such a road--up or down the Mississippi to the White River, then west to the confluence of the North Fork of the White. A short distance north and a jog left at a spring-fed tract, and here they were.

North Fork of the White River
The North Fork of the White River

Anyone who has floated our streams can easily imagine the wonder these first ones felt on entering this corridor of lush forests, high bluffs and deep hollows. They may have been seeking refuge, or filling their year's supply of meat. We will never know. We do know that others followed, ages passed, and eventually there came those who settled and stayed. Gradually bottomlands were cleared and farms replaced hunting camps

The Coming of the Roads
1905 Freight Wagon
Freight wagon purchased in 1905 at Aid Hardware in West Plains by Mr. William Cobb of Dora. He used the wagon for hauling goods from West Plains to the Cobb Store in the former town of Lawndale in Ozark County. Photo taken at the Harlin Museum, West Plains.

At some point, perhaps when the settlers' focus changed from getting their worldly goods into the wilderness to getting the products of their labor out, roads were built connecting farms with villages, villages with towns, and towns with major population centers. People who had not ventured from their wilderness homes since they first arrived could travel to visit kin, purchase supplies, and perhaps secure a husband or wife for their grown offspring. 

Village storekeepers purchased the new, sturdy Springfield wagon, built for rugged, rocky trails, designed and constructed in nearby Springfield, Missouri. They sought out and contracted with the owners of strong and capable teams of horses, and improved their stocks of goods by tenfold overnight. 

The Wagon Wheel Boys

Soon, the team owners purchased their own wagons and began to serve the stores and individuals in small villages and farms along an established route. Wherever the roads went, there also went the teamsters, hauling supplies in and produce and manufactured goods out. 

Called "wagon wheel boys" by the people they served, they soon joined with others of the same profession in a loose association that eventually became a powerful labor union. Long after the invention of the gasoline engine and the design and construction of vast fleets of tractor-trailer rigs, they have retained the name they went by first: the teamsters. 

The Local Express

Businesses and manufacturers today move materials and products in and out of the watershed either via their own or others' trucking companies, or, for smaller loads, via business shippers such as United Parcel Service or Federal Express. There still exists, however, a kind of local transportation subculture with its roots deep in the Ozarks hills. Nearly every small town has one: a local express. Just like in the early days of the watershed's economy, an enterprising individual, outfitted now with a small sturdy truck with a box bed, a direct descendant of the early Springfield wagon, goes business-to-business along an established route around the watershed, picking up and delivering special orders of all kinds.  They then drive the truck to Springfield, the nearest major metropolitan area, shop for their customers' needs, and return. 

Watch for them on the highway; they'll likely be in a hurry. On the sides of their box-beds will be a legend that reads "Mountain Grove Express," "Ava Express," "Gainesville Express" or something similar. Give them a wave. You've just met one of the "wagon wheel boys." 


More Articles

The Railroad

Ozark Hotel

Old River Road

Mountain Grove Express

Written by Marideth Sisco.

This is the Web site of the Bryant Watershed Education Project, based in West Plains, Missouri. Our site is a toolkit for exploring the Bryant Creek, North Fork, Eleven Point and Upper Spring watersheds in the southern Missouri Ozarks.
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