The History of Lebanon Missouri
Laclede County, named after Pierre Laclede, the founder of St. Louis, was formed in 1849 from parts of Camden, Pulaski, and Wright Counties. Situated in the breathtaking Ozark Mountains, the county shares borders with Webster and Wright Counties to the south, Dallas County to the west, Camden County to the north, and Pulaski and Texas Counties to the east. Lebanon, the county seat, lies approximately 155 miles southwest of St. Louis on I-44 and is home to more than 35,000 residents.
The area's history dates to 1820 when Jesse Ballew became the first white settler, constructing his log cabin on the east side of the Gasconade River. Soon after, other pioneers like Henry Anderson, William Montgomery, William Gillespie, William Tweedy, Leonard Eastwood, Jesse Williams, Spencer O'Neil, Josiah Tygart, Aaron Span, and James Campbell made Lebanon their home. Laclede County was surveyed between 1835 and 1840, officially becoming a county on February 24, 1849. Initially called Wyota, the county seat was later renamed Lebanon at the request of a local minister who wished to honor his hometown in Tennessee.
Lebanon played a significant role as America expanded westward. Initially, it was connected by a rough American Indian trail used by tribes such as the Wyota and Osage. During the Civil War, this trail, known as the "Wire Road," gained prominence due to the installation of telegraph lines between St. Louis and Springfield. Later, in the late 1920s, Route 66, which closely followed the path of the Indian trail, brought further significance to Lebanon. Archways proclaiming "Lebanon – Drive In – Our Town, Your Town" welcomed travelers entering town from the famous mother road. Today, I-44 largely follows the same route, preserving Lebanon's historical importance as a crossroads.
Lebanon officially became a 4th Class City on October 17, 1877, and has been governed by a Mayor/Council form of government since. In 1959, Lebanon achieved 3rd Class City status, a testament to its growth and progress.
Lebanon's early settlement began around the time Laclede County was established, utilizing 50 acres donated by the Benjamin B. Harrison and James M. Appling families. The town began to develop, and by the end of 1851, a log courthouse and jail were constructed on the square formed by Main, St. Louis, Broadway, and High streets.
During the Civil War, Lebanon faced the challenges of occupation by Union troops striving to protect the telegraph line. The town's population, comprised of people from border states, held strong sentiments both for and against the conflicting sides. Progress and development were significantly hampered until the conclusion of the war.
In the post-Civil War era, Lebanon experienced a resurgence. With the end of hostilities, businesses and progress began to flourish once more.
The advent of the railroad in 1868 revolutionized Lebanon. The Frisco Railroad established a station slightly away from the town center after the city officials declined to donate land for its construction. This refusal had also thwarted a previous attempt by the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad to establish a depot in Lebanon. Consequently, businesses sprung up alongside the rails, giving birth to the "new" town. Today, Commercial Street, running parallel to the railroad tracks, remains the vibrant heart of Lebanon.
Lebanon's history also boasts a unique and fascinating chapter centered around its magnetic water. In 1889, during the excavation of a city water well, workers discovered that the water had magnetized their tools, enabling them to pick up nails. The magnetic water gained a reputation for its purported healing properties, attracting visitors who came to bathe and drink from the well. The grand Gasconade Hotel was built to accommodate these visitors. Unfortunately, the Gasconade Hotel was destroyed by fire after a decade of operation.
Lebanon has been home to notable figures throughout its history. Among them is William Tecumseh Vernon, an esteemed educator, minister, and bishop who also served as a director of the U.S. Treasury Department. Vernon's contributions to Lebanon and beyond have left an indelible mark on the community. Another prominent figure is Richard Parks Bland, a Kentuckian by birth, who represented Missouri in Congress from 1872 to 1899 and was a prominent Democratic candidate for president in 1896. Phil Donnelly, a hometown hero, served two consecutive terms as the state's governor, a feat previously unprecedented in Missouri's history. Walter Reed, known for his groundbreaking work in medical research, and Harold Bell Wright, the renowned author of "The Shepherd of the Hills," also resided in Lebanon. Wright, during his time as pastor of the First Christian Church, published his most famous work. He also found inspiration for his novel "The Calling of Dan Matthews" in a fictional town named Corinth, which drew several parallels to Lebanon, much to the locals' discontent.
Additionally, the town is proud to claim modern prominent natives, including Jim Bohannon, a renowned radio news and talk show host; Justin Britt, a talented lineman for the Houston Texans; Michael S. Hopkins, an esteemed NASA astronaut and Air Force colonel; Betty Wagoner, a professional baseball player for the South Bend Blue Sox; Lanford Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright; and Jerry Schoonmaker, a professional baseball player for the Washington Senators. These individuals exemplify the diversity and achievements of Lebanon's residents, further enriching the town's vibrant tapestry of history and success.
Lebanon thrives today as a vibrant and dynamic community, home to more than 15,000 residents. Known for its proximity to Bennett Spring State Park, which attracts approximately one million visitors each year, Lebanon continues to flourish as a small-town catering to travelers exploring the beautiful Ozarks. The city's economy is bolstered by major employers such as Tracker Marine, G3 Boats, Lowe Boats, Landau Boats, Osagian Canoes, Copeland, The Durham Co., Carmeco, DTE, Detroit Tool Metal Products, and Marine Electrical Products.
Lebanon, Missouri, is a testament to the perseverance, hard work, and friendliness of its residents. Its rich history, from early settlement to the present day, reflects a community that continuously strives to make progress and create opportunities for all who call it home.