Day 141: After the Storm: Joplin’s Lost Heritage

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This week being the anniversary of Joplin’s 2011 tornado, there have been several memorial and storm related events offered. Today’s first, After the Storm: Joplin’s Lost Heritage, a presentation offered at the Post Memorial Art Reference Library, highlighted an aspect of loss, as a result of the tornado, that I had not thought about before.

Created and presented by Leslie Simpson, director of the Post Memorial Art Reference Library, this 15 minute overview of the historic losses within the stricken area of Joplin was informative and very well done. I live and work and shop in the tornado zone. I know firsthand how the neighborhoods have changed. What I didn’t realize is that important pieces of Joplin’s heritage are gone, destroyed in 32 minutes on a Sunday afternoon.

Leslie focused on three sections of Joplin that were devastated, beginning with the Blendville area. Originally a mining community, Blendville was established in 1876, and was west of our current Main Street, extending to Maiden Lane. Thomas Cunningham owned the residential section, which he divided into lots and sold at low prices to miners. Hundreds of affordable shotgun style homes were built in this area so that miners could purchase them. Cunningham Park was named after Thomas, who donated the land to the city, and was the first park in Joplin. It was heavily wooded at the time with gardens and walking trails. St. John’s hospital was located in this area of town, built over abandoned mine shafts. The tornado wiped out most of the Blendville area, including the hospital and a large portion of the medical community.

The next section Leslie talked about included Schifferdecker’s First Addition, a residential area that began to be developed in 1900. Craftsman style homes and bungalows lined the streets of this neighborhood. The Joplin Globe referred to the area lying south of 20th Street and including Wall, Joplin, and Main Streets as “a beautiful new addition affording the most desirable building property” to be found anywhere in the city. Most of these homes were destroyed or heavily damaged in the storm. Included in this district, and taken out by the tornado, was Irving Elementary School, which has been rebuilt on Maiden Lane.  St. Mary’s Catholic Church was destroyed as well, except for the exterior cross that remained standing after the storm, becoming an icon of hope. The cross remains still.

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Schifferdecker’s Second Addition, which lies south of 20th Street and includes Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky Avenues, was in the second section as well. As the city progressed eastward, in the early 1900’s through the 1930’s, the houses became a mix of Victorians, Colonial Revivals, Tudors and the ever present bungalows. Further east, in the third area shown in the presentation, development progressed from the 1940’s – 70’s. This section covered Grand Avenue to Range Line, and encompassed the Eastmoreland area. The dominant housing style was the ranch house. Churches sprang up in this area in the 60’s, and early commercial development began with the Bel-Aire Shopping Center on the corner of 20th and Range Line.

Several large homes existed in this area, including James Campbell’s estate, which included riding stables and a lake. Dillion’s Grocery Store stood on the spot the lake once occupied. The store is gone, now, along with this section with its eclectic mix of homes. The churches have been rebuilt. Bel-Aire, which was completely destroyed, just recently completed construction on a new center.

Leslie showed a before picture of Kentucky Avenue, lined with trees and houses. All those trees were obliterated as well. This is my neighborhood. These are the streets my children rode their bikes on. I walked my dog past those houses that no longer exist. Rebuilding has flourished in all three of these sections, with new houses and businesses continuing to appear. What I had not considered before today was that with the destruction of these homes and business buildings, historical structures were lost, and will not be recovered. The recently constructed houses look great. Yet they are new. The charm, the character, the architecture are gone, reduced with the structures to rubble, and hauled away.

Thankfully, even as new stories are being told, the old stories remain. And Leslie Simpson had the compassion and ability to capture for us this flow of history that was once evident as one traveled from west Joplin, eastward. I am grateful.

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