Bricks and Martyrs
Too many people look at our town, Poplar Bluff, and miss its colorful history and unique attributes and culture. They see only an ordinary, small rural city with its limitations and its idiosyncrasies. Live here, visit repeatedly or get to know one of our residents. You'll change your view.
The fact is, we support a bustling trade center built not by discount stores but by local men and women with vision and vigor who lived, worked and sacrificed through the last century and one-half to carve this city out of a 19th century wilderness.
Our history includes an era of shipping timber world-wide from our forests, of sawmills and stave mills and wood product factories. We were the home of a then-progressive adding machine sold worldwide, the results of these and other industries - as well as the many Southern influences -- can be seen today in our old homes, our library, our schools, and our way of life.We have historic bridges across our rivers, classic buildings in our neighborhoods, and accenting our uniqueness, we have our brick streets rolling gently throughout the oldest districts.
It was in 1909 that paving the streets with bricks was first proposed and planned. During the same year and the next drainage ditches were being built to clear some of the nearby swamp lands, a flood gate for the city was proposed because of severe flooding along Black River and a plan for a large arch to serve as a “Gateway to Poplar Bluff “ was presented by the Commercial Club.
The Commercial Club was organized by the merchants and leaders of the town in 1909. It was a forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce.
W.S. Randall, merchant and banker was president of the club in 1910 and presented the idea for an imposing arch at the south end of Main Street “where throngs of people pass going to and coming from the station “ (Iron Mountain Railroad, later Missouri Pacific). It was to be attractive at night as well with a “spectacular” electrical plan for lighting it.
Although well received, the flood gate and the arch did not materialize, but the drainage ditches did and the streets were paved but not until an ordinance was passed by the City Council in l912.
The first plan for paving the streets with bricks appeared in the Daily Republican newspaper on Nov. 13, 1909. One block of Poplar Street between Main and Fourth streets was to be paved.
“The first paving of streets with brick in Poplar Bluff is now being planned. Private enterprise is to do the work, but when the advantage
of a paved street is realized, it seems certain that the paving of the streets in the business district will follow,” the newspaper reported.
Later that month the newspaper reported that more paving was scheduled for streets in the business district. Second Street between Cedar and Vine, and Poplar Street from Fourth to Sewer Street (later known as Moran Street) or the Frisco tracks were to have brick pavement. This too was to be done by the property owners along the streets.
In the same story a representative of the first Poplar Street project property owners, G. N. Davis, announced that their paving would be done at the same time as the second plan.
Harvey I. Ruth, prominent citizen and large property owner in the paving district, stated that before the actual work was to take place, the property owners “want to get an expert paving engineer here to take charge of and carry on the work.”
On Jan. 6, 1910, it was reported that grading Second Street between Cedar and the courthouse square had begun and paving would follow.
It was later reported that the estimated cost for the work was too high, and apparently all brick paving was put on hold for another two years.
May 25, 1912, the following headline appeared in the Daily Republican ”Famed Engineer Studied Streets.” The sub head was “Henry Rohwer, Government Consultant Specialist and Father of Good Roads Movement, Here.”
The story reported that one of the most famous civil engineers in the United States was in Poplar Bluff on that day aiding City Engineer Edward C. Thomes in the work of preparing for paving of city streets.
Engineer Thomes laid out a paving district bordered by Second Street on the east; Vine Street on the north; Frisco Railroad tracks on the west and Ash Street on the south.
The streets within the boundaries were Second, Main, Fourth, Vine, Poplar, Cedar, Maple, Cherry and Ash. Rohwer of St. Louis returned to the city for a second time to help with the plans.Then on July 17, 1912, the City Council passed an ordinance accepting the plan and allowing an expenditure of $83,000 for the project.
A great deal of excitement went with the planning of the paved streets. On Aug. 23, 1912, the lead paragraph in a front page story in the Daily Republican read “Old Poplar Bluff will go to sleep tonight as usual. New Poplar Bluff will awaken tomorrow morning and start upon a new era of progress.”
This referred to the opening of bids that evening for the paving. The story went on to say “with this paving Poplar Bluff will become one of the best paved cities on this side of Missouri. Citizens who have followed the progress of this street paving business from the inauguration to the end believe that it means simply a revolution of Poplar Bluff’s business and civic prospects for the better. They regard it as an epoch in the city’s history”...
The contract for paving was awarded to the low bidder, Roy Williams, paving contractor, Cairo, Ill., for $86,645.24. The contract called for completion of the work in 90 days with an extension to be allowed “if the weather is antagonistic.” Cement for the base of the paving was purchased from Cape Girardeau Portland Cement Co. A contract for high quality bricks was signed with the Egyptian Brick Co., Murphysboro, Ill.
People lined the streets to watch Roy Williams and his crews of four experienced paving brick layers. Others followed in this technique as they learned. The late Rose Saracini, former circulation manager of the Daily American Republic when it was owned by the John H. Wolpers family, remembered watching the procedure. She was a nine-year-old child at that time and watched from the front of her father Michael Saracini’s Ice Cream Parlor and Confectionery in the 200 block of South Main Street.
A historic landmark bronze sign for the brick streets stands on North Main near Oak Street. It states ”In 1913 the City completed 3 1/3 miles of brick streets along Main and Vine at a cost of $86,645 following specifications established for brick streets in New York City....”
A story in the Daily Republican in 1913 informs us that the citizens of the town were very excited about the streets . Roy Williams completed his contract in April of 1913 and moved on to pave streets in Cairo. Meanwhile according to a newspaper story in March l913, the city council voted to extend the paving of Main Street to Gardner Street. Vine was extended to Tenth, Pine to Eighth Street and other revisions were made. New contractors finished this work and perhaps much more. It also is reported that many property owners petitioned for brick paving along their streets. It is difficult to ascertain just how much of the original plan was completed because parts of the streets have been covered with asphalt, and perhaps even with concrete in some areas.
However, we know the brick laying went on longer than just one year. Gene Brannum, Poplar Bluff Street Commissioner, recalls stories his father told him about coming to Poplar Bluff after serving in World War I and getting a job here laying paving bricks. This was in 1917. He also spoke of the crews of 50 men each working at three locations at a time.
The bricks on the hills such as Vine Street from Broadway east are beveled and laid in such a way to give traction to the horses' metal shoes as they pulled heavy loads up the streets years ago. The system was no doubt good but less than perfect, according to the late Robert M. Wolpers, former co-owner, and publisher of the Daily American Republic. He remembered as a youngster watching horses slipping and sliding and even falling as the teams climbed the bricked hills pulling loaded wagons.
Records of the street paving from 1909 through 1913 have not been located at this time. All of the research for this review was done by microfilm of the newspaper reports and a few personal experiences of individuals.
It is documented that in l962, Main Street from Vine to the south end of the street was covered with asphalt, along with Fourth Street (also known as Broadway) from North Main south and Poplar from Main to Second Street These streets were covered with asphalt to modernize the downtown in a desperate attempt by the merchants to save it from the shopping center sweep of the downtowns of the nation.
In spite of the covering, Poplar Bluff can point with pride at the brick streets that still exist here, not only because of their history, but because brick streets are being becoming popular again in cities throughout the nation.
Historic brick streets are being repaired, asphalt covering is being removed and new streets are being built..
An Associated Press story in the Sunday, Aug. 22, 1999, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed the interest in brick paving is increasing. The reason as explained in the report is that while the cost of laying brick is $3 to $4.50 per square foot more than asphalt or concrete, they last longer and patching is considerably less. For instance they state for patching, “putting bricks into a 10-square-foot area costs $330. compared to $675 for asphalt.”
People generally seem to like the old world look of the brick streets.
And even those who complain about OUR brick streets must surely see that these historic streets have a warmth and beauty about them that no piece of asphalt or concrete can approach...be it ever so smooth.
These streets are our heritage and we hope that when we pass them on to the next generation they, too, will protect them and pass them on. Perhaps they will even remove the covering from those that have been overlaid.
- Blanche Wolpers
General Research Sources
- City of Poplar Bluff: Street Commissioner Gene Brannum
- Poplar Bluff Public Library newspaper microfilm
- Photo of bricks (beveled edges) John Stanard collection