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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales from Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

Deering: A Company Town in the Bootheel

A view in Cardwell, Dunklin County, in about 1908. The plank sidewalks are much like those that would have been in Deering. State Historical Society of Missouri, Merritt F. Miller Collection, C3921.
State Historical Society of Missouri, Merritt F. Miller Collection, C3921.
A view in Cardwell, Dunklin County, in about 1908. The plank sidewalks are much like those that would have been in Deering. State Historical Society of Missouri, Merritt F. Miller Collection, C3921.

Logging in the Bootheel began in earnest in the late 1800s. Several timber companies operated in the area, exemplified by the Wisconsin Lumber Company. The company operated on 60,000 acres initially purchased and leased starting in 1898 for logging by William Deering, founder of the Deering Harvester Company. The Wisconsin Lumber Company formed in 1899 to conduct timber cutting on the land. The company needed lumber for machinery built in Chicago for Deering’s company.

The company built a sawmill and town to process and move the timber. The story is they began moving the heavy equipment to the site, intending to go farther west, got stuck in gumbo 15 miles west of Caruthersville, and just built the town where they stopped. Deering’s Sawmill was the original name of the town, after the company’s founder. Several companies, including Deering’s, later merged to form International Harvester in 1902. A new post office came in 1903, when the official name of the settlement became just “Deering.”

The company constructed a railroad, the Deering-Southwestern, to move timber to the mill and later as a passenger line as well. The line extended from Hornersville, where it connected to the Cotton Belt, to Caruthersville. Initial construction began in 1903 using draft animals, and by 1911 the railroad completed the final segment to Caruthersville. Workers had their own name for the DSWR, undoubtedly because of the unstable swampy soil underlying the roadbed--the “Darn Slow Wiggling Railroad.”

The town had electric lights run by a generator at the mill, running water, and fenced yards. The builders used planks from the abundant wood to construct sidewalks. Employees rented houses from the company. The town boasted a hotel, bowling alley, and amusement hall for movies and dances. The company paid workers in scrip, and workers worked 6 a.m.-6 p.m., making a tidy sum of $3 per day in 1916. Two hundred men worked by 1911, processing 50,000 board feet per day and 15 million board feet per year. The company’s lands began with an estimated 100 million board feet.

By the late 1920s, lumbering exhausted the timber, and Wisconsin Lumber Company ceased timber cutting in the area February 29, 1928. In contrast to some other lumber companies, Wisconsin tried to sell cleared land for agricultural uses and made sure to clear farmland around town. Nonetheless, much of the land that failed to sell was later sold by the county to pay back taxes.

In 1935 International Harvester sold the town, mill, and 2600 acres of cleared ground for $110,000 to Charles Baker. Baker farmed using a “plantation style,” on a larger scale than most farms of the time. He established a McCormick Deering dealership in Deering in 1938 and he made sure tractors replaced mules in farming.

Baker built a fire station, large lumber shed, beauty shop, and restaurant in Deering. The Works Progress Administration constructed a high school in 1941. Baker chartered his company in 1942 and moved the dealership to Kennett. Baker Implement sold the largest volume of IH equipment in the United States.

Today Deering is unincorporated and has few buildings. Over time, traces of the Wisconsin Lumber Company have disappeared. A windstorm almost destroyed the original mill building in 1948. The town does remain to remind us of the time when Southeast Missouri provided lumber for much of the Midwest.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.