A Brief History of Downtown Sedalia
Sedalia was founded by George R. Smith who purchased 503 acres of land and recorded the first plat of the new town, named Sedville in 1857. He began selling parcels as early as 1858, for up to $75 per lot. Until October 16, 1860, when it was re-platted as “Sedalia”, the town had existed only on paper. But in 1861, due to Smith’s efforts, Sedalia became the terminus of the Pacific Railroad and saw its first train passengers arrive in January.
While Sedalia’s growth was interrupted by the Civil War, as terminus of the railroad, it became a strategic location and a federal military post. Though it escaped most Civil War skirmishes, Confederate troops shelled the lightly protected town in October, 1864. Confederates overtook the town, confiscated arms from the captured Union men, and rode away later that evening.
Post War businesses tended to expand in an east-west pattern along the railroad tracks, with construction generally occurring no farther south than Main Street. Most businesses (groceries, dry goods, harness shops, blacksmiths, drugstores, hotels, hardware stores, and general stores) located in the two block area along Main Street from Ohio Street west to Kentucky Avenue. The buildings themselves were boxy frame buildings, and were highly susceptible to fire.
The summer of 1865 marked the beginning of a great building boom in Sedalia, about the time the town’s first manufactory–a flour mill–was begun. In 1867, Ohio Avenue was paved and in 1868, gas works were constructed to provide lighting. That year, a total of $286,000 was spent to build brick business houses, with brick commercial buildings quickly outnumbering those of frame. A second railroad reached town in 1869, the Tebo & Neosho Railroad, which later became part of the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad (MKT).
Sedalia served as the starting point for many of the trade routes to Texas and American Indian Territory and remained a trade center even after the railroads replaced wagons. The town also served as the terminus for the first of the long cattle drives from Texas. The first, in 1866, saw some 260,000 cattle depart Texas, but few actually reached Sedalia. Between confrontations with American Indians, the rugged Ozarks woodlands, and irate farmers fearful of diseased cattle, the challenges of the Sedalia Trail kept all but a few steers from reaching town. Soon, the Chisholm Trail was the route of choice terminating at a rail head in Abilene, Kansas.
Sedalia’s transformation from a frontier community to a contemporary town occurred in the 1870s directly as a result of the growth of the railroads. Sedalia offered public schools, paved streets, several newspapers, and public utilities. The Sedalia waterworks were established in 1872-73. The gas works were reorganized in 1872, and The Street Railway Company was organized in the mid-1870s, becoming an important means of transportation for downtown Sedalia for many years.
A Railroad Boom Town
As far as 1870’s railroad infrastructure itself, the Missouri Pacific Railroad established a shop for car repair and a roundhouse for engine storage and repair on the east side of Third and Engineer Streets and a depot was on the west side. A roundhouse for the MKT Railroad was built at Broadway and Hancock; while its depot was built at Fifth and Hancock.
During this 1870s boom, the business district began a gradual move south of Main Street, with twenty-two brick buildings constructed on South Ohio in 1871. Two more banks, a brick city hall, and a new post office chief among those. Milling became increasingly important, with most of the mills extending along Main Street, in close proximity to the railroad. Foundry businesses benefited by the commercial construction with columns, cornices and other structural components built in town.
Several events marred the town’s prosperity during the 1870s, including the Panic of 1873; a smallpox epidemic in 1873; the burning (by arson) of the Court House; other fires that engulfed whole city blocks; and in 1875, a plague of grasshoppers destroyed crops.
While South Ohio was now the heart of the business district, Main Street retained a different flavor. The city became well known as a center of vice, especially prostitution, that accompanied its large floating class of railroad workers and commercial travelers. In 1877 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called Sedalia the “Sodom and Gomorrah of the nineteenth century.” Middle-class businessmen made money off illegal prostitution as building owners and lessees; others did business with people in the industry, who banked, used lawyers, etc. in town.
Railroads continued to fuel growth in the 1880s. In 1881, they employed 562 people. The Missouri Pacific Railroad constructed a brick shop building and the MKT Railroad established a hospital. A new reservoir for the waterworks was among the $500,000 the city spent in the 1880s. Newspapers were continuing to grow and expand as well, The first telephone was installed in August, 1880 and by 1881,over 200 telephones were in use.
Bottling works became popular in the 1880s, with both the soda and beer industries becoming major businesses and employers in the city for a number of years. Two new brickyards supplied Sedalia by the 1880s. However, fires continued to plague the town in the 1880s, with some of the towns oldest buildings being destroyed. In 1883, the town had forty-four fires.
Music & Cultural Diversions
Cultural activities and organizational groups focused on the downtown, and became increasingly popular. The Wood’s Opera House opened at Second Lamine in 1883. Music was an important part of cultural life in Sedalia, evidenced by the performances of numerous choral clubs and bands throughout the business district.
Famed ragtime musician Scott Joplin played cornet in the Queen City Concert Band in 1894 and studied music theory at George R.SmithCollege. Joplin played piano at the Maple Leaf Club, a gentlemen’s club and bar at 121 East Main Street. Joplin’s popular “Maple Leaf Rag” was published in downtown Sedalia in 1899 by John Stark, becoming the first piece of U.S. sheet music to sell more than 1 million copies
Sedalia’s population exceeded 14,000 people by 1890, and large, impressive buildings reflected the city’s continued vibrancy. The Trust Building (322 S. Ohio), the F.E.Hoffman Building (502 S. Ohio), the Cassidy Building (508 S. Ohio), and the Royal Tribe of Joseph Building (201 S. Ohio, now a parking lot) were all built in the late 1880s and early 1890s. To the east of the central business district, the MKT Railroad constructed a two-story depot at Third Street and Hancock Avenue in 1896. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
In an attempt to increase employment opportunities, Sedalia committed private donations and land in 1903 for the construction of Missouri Pacific’s railroad shops, built at a cost of $2,000,000. The shops employed more than 1,800 men making and repairing railroad cars. (The shops remained Sedalia’s largest employer into the 1950s.)
By the turn of the century, the population of Sedalia was more than 15,000, and building continued at a steady pace. Theaters became more prominent in the central business district. Between 1908 and 1918, over twelve theaters occupied storefronts in the downtown. Open air theaters appeared close to the downtown, with the Garden Theater, the Air-dome Theater, and the Skydome Summer Garden Theater; all now gone.
The onset of Prohibition in 1919 affected a number of businesses in and around the central business district. The Moerschel Brewery, located on West Main Street, closed, as did many of the town’s saloons. A railroad strike in 1922 shut down the shops in Sedalia and idled 2,500 workers. The stock market crash of October 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression hit Sedalia hard. In fact, Life Magazine declared Sedalia the city second hardest hit by the Great Depression in the entire United States. In 1932, three banks had closed and two others were limiting withdrawals. Employment at the Missouri Pacific shops dropped to 450 people and the MKT shops closed and did not reopen until World War II.
Downtown buildings reflected the times. Many buildings were empty; others were subdivided to house numerous businesses, while still other towering structures built during prosperity were decapitated to reduce taxes.
Despite the hard times and gloom of the Depression, a few bright notes occurred. The Sedalia Symphony Orchestra was organized in 1935; the air-conditioned Uptown Theatre opened in 1936; and the city received good news regarding highways.
In 1932, a route through Sedalia was chosen to become part of U.S. Highway 65 while an east-west route through town was also chosen to become part of U.S. 50. The junction of these two highways was a boost to the community. Sedalia’s population reached 20,428 by 1940 and had weathered the worst of the Depression. The Missouri Pacific shops were employing over 1,000 men again, and business was beginning to improve at local stores.
The Car Culture
Downtown Sedalia, like many other American communities, began to experience a change in retailing in the mid twentieth century. The affordability of automobiles led to expansion and development along the city’s two US highways. Shopping centers, franchises, and a multitude of commercial businesses popped up along west Broadway and south U.S. 65 or Limit Avenue.
Sedalia’s reliance on railroads as a major employer eventually undercut the importance and vitality of its downtown as their payroll, operations and significance declined. Modern manufacturing companies in the 1960’s and later built facilities far from downtown’s traditional industrial corridor. Beginning in the 1990’s, globalization led to closures of long established employers such as Lamy’s (Levi-Strauss) as jobs were consolidated elsewhere or outsourced to other countries.
As downtown economic activity waned, its buildings deteriorated either through neglect or dubious remodeling efforts. Inevitably, jewelry stores, clothing stores, restaurants, and home goods stores either closed or relocated adjacent to the highways and the thousands of vehicles they carried.
Fires and neglect also destroyed several significant downtown buildings in the last four decades of the 20th Century, including the Terry Hotel at Second and Lamine, the 1892 US Post Office, the beautiful Broadway Elementary School, the 1860’s jail, and countless other landmarks.
Revitalization in the 21st Century
But thankfully, all is not lost. In 1993, the Sedalia Commercial Historic District was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Sixty eight buildings, primarily along Ohio and the south side of Main, were cited, and described in the nomination. Forty six more buildings were added to the Register by virtue of a boundary expansion of the original district in 2009. Now over 100 buildings (in the District alone) are eligible for a 21st Century rebirth.
Historic buildings serve as reminders of the past. They embody the intentions, assumptions, and lives of those who built or lived or worked in them. They have stories to tell about what the community was and how it became what it is, and they help us understand who we are. When people understand the uniqueness of a community, learn what is has gone through and see visual reminders of their past then they can feel more connected to a place.
If you can envision how historic preservation can benefit your entrepreneurial dreams, Sedalia Downtown Development Inc. (SDDI) stands ready to help open or relocate your business anywhere downtown. We can guide you to incentives afforded not only by federal and state tax credits for buildings in the Historic District, but also with general economic development incentives offered at the federal, state, or local level. Contact SDDI for more information or study the “Resources” and “Available Properties” pages of this web site.