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This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
BOIS D’ARC – Stately stone structures remind of better times in Bois D’Arc, a small community in Greene County that said hi to its heyday around a century ago. Ghosts from those moments gone by, however, will appear on Sunday, Nov. 20, when the Greene County Historical Society leads a free program about the town’s past.
“A vivid sense of history on the ground, conveyed through stories, buildings, and landscapes,” says Dr. John Schmalzbauer, president of the GCHS and Missouri State University Religious Studies professor, of what he hopes attendees take away from the event.
“The stories are one thing, but to walk the streets and imagine life there a century ago is a different matter. I think of the men and women who dedicated the stone structure of Bois D’Arc church in the 1930s after sacrificing so much during the Depression. When you see it, it is easier to imagine.”
That church is where the event begins on Sunday, at 3 p.m., and includes a program at the church and a walk through the downtown area. The event will be led by Schmalzbauer and historian Gregg Johnson, who has six generations of connections with Bois D’Arc, and who sees the town of another time in his mind.
“To learn that we used to be more than just decaying buildings,” he says of his goal for people attending the program. “And how to pronounce and spell the place.”
The start of Bois D’Arc
Bois D’Arc – pronounced BO-dark – began in its current location in the 1880s. According to historian Arthur Moser’s “A Directory of Towns, Villages, and Hamlets Past and Present of Greene County, Missouri,” Bois D’Arc was originally settled near Clear Creek Cemetery, around two miles from its current location.
“It moved because of the railroad,” says Johnson. “Where we are now is ‘new’ Bois D’Arc.”
The term Bois D’Arc was what Europeans called the Osage Orange tree, one perhaps most visible because of its inedible fruit: hedge apples.
While some of those trees still appear to live thereabouts, they weren’t the only way the town has shown growth, particularly in days gone by. People and families and development were other areas that showed progress.
“The area also illustrates the connections between Greene County in Missouri and Greene County, Tennessee,” says Schmalzbauer, noting that local names such as Cotter, Doty, Johnson, Squibb, Yeakley have roots in the same communities in Eastern Tennessee. He’ll be sharing more about this aspect of community history on Sunday.
“Some of these pioneering families were quite prominent,” Schmalzbauer continues. “Thomas Yeakley was one of the largest landowners in the county. Some of the families who settled in the Ozarks were connected to the New Hope Meeting of Quakers in Rheatown, Tennessee, which may have been a stop on the underground railroad.”
The Bois D’Arc community seemingly continued to expand through the early part of the 20th century.
“It had a little depot, it had several general stores, a drug store, a blacksmith,” says Johnson of the community at a point in its history. “There was actually an indoor gas station later in life – can you imagine that now? It was great when it was raining, I guess. And they were probably smoking a cigarette when they pumped the gas.”
However, Bois D’Arc’s roll into decline began years before the majority of Johnson’s memories in the 1970s. He points to the Good Roads movement – and the Great Depression, which led to the closure of the town’s bank – in the early 20th century as significant moments that slowed the town.
“Ironically, I think it was Route 66,” Johnson says of a reality in 1926 that gradually led the town to fade, “because we were so close to Springfield that once it got easier to get there, people started working in town and shopping in town.”
Bois D’Arc today
A few people still live in Bois D’Arc, but not enough to be immediately visible in 2020 U.S. Census records, and there is little of a business district to anchor the community. Instead, current key elements are its churches, post office – and school, which it has managed to keep.
There was a change to the latter, however, in the late 1950s when Bois D’Arc consolidated with Ash Grove and lost its high school. Today, the stone building is still where around 150 children in grades four, five and six are educated.
“During the original merger, it was part of the deal that there would always be a school presence in Bois D’Arc,” says Johnson. “Now, that’s been so long ago – if they closed it, I’m not sure what we could do about it.”
Out front, the year 1937 still shows from when it was a Works Progress Administration project, and likely constructed by local masons. Those factors and more are why it was chosen for inclusion on the Greene County Historic Site Register in 1998.
“Bois D’Arc is unique because it represents a school that first existed as a rural district, then a consolidated district and later as part of the larger and existing Ash Grove R-4 School District,” notes information in the registry.
The list of sites has been nominated and approved by the Greene County Historic Sites Board — a different entity from the county historical society — as significant to the area’s past.
While inclusion on the registry does not protect a site or provide resources for its maintenance, it does deem it important and identifies it with a brown sign out front. The school has one of those signs, as does the nearby Frame-Bouling House (built in 1869 of handmade bricks by Samuel Parker Frame, a farmer, merchandiser and lumber dealer) and the aforementioned Bois D’Arc United Methodist Church (constructed of native stone in the 1930s).
The latter is also where Schmalzbauer’s wife, the Reverend Susan Schmalzbauer, currently serves as minister in a two-point charge with nearby Yeakley Chapel.
“Back in 2014, Susan and I stumbled upon Bois D’Arc United Methodist Church on our way to a wedding in Ash Grove,” says Schmalzbauer, who said the couple spent a few minutes exploring the area since they were early. “We were struck by the beautiful building and I snapped a photograph of her with the church in the background. I had no idea that someday she would preach there.”
Visuals such as the church, school and historic images will be shown on Sunday as part of sharing the town’s history.
“I also hope people take away a sense of the fragility of our history and the need to preserve old buildings,” says Schmalzbauer. “Bois D’Arc United Methodist just went through a costly repair of its bell tower and basement. More work is needed on the building. It isn’t cheap, but it is a way of preserving a beautiful historic structure for the community for years to come.”
Those who wish to attend the event should gather at the Bois D’Arc United Methodist Church, located at 10463 State Highway T, at 3 p.m. on Nov. 20. To learn more, find information here.