History

A Long and Storied Heritage

The earliest evidence of human habitation in Macon County dates back to the Paleo-Indian Culture, about 12,000 years ago. The last Native Americans to occupy the area were the Sauk and Fox tribes in the 1830s.

Pioneers began arriving in the early 1820s. They followed an ancient Indian trade route along the great divide between the Missouri and Mississippi watersheds. Rapid growth in the area resulted from the development of two railroad lines — the Northwest Railroad (1859) and the Hannibal and St. Joseph Line (1857) — which intersected in Macon County.

By June 1861, over 7,000 Union troops populated Macon County, garrisoned here to chase off Bushwhackers and to protect the railroads. Only one battle occurred in Macon County: On August 8, 1862, the six-hour Painter Creek Battle left 60 wounded after a gunfire barrage. The present Macon County Courthouse, built in 1864–1865, is one of the few public buildings constructed in the region during the Civil War.

James T. Haley established Macon in 1852. The Bee Trace, a popular route to search for honey, brought travelers to the region. The county seat was moved to Macon from Bloomington in 1863 (this was both economically and politically motivated; Bloomington was a center of Rebel activity in the area). The town and county of Macon were named for Nathaniel Macon, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, U.S. congressman, and friend of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.

Macon’s economy exploded in 1860 with the discovery of coal. Englishman Thomas Wardell brought commercial coal mining to the area. Macon thrived in the first half of the 20th century. Two benefactors, Col. Frederick Wilhelm Victor Blees and Theodore Gary, made contributions that are still felt today.

The St. James Academy opened in 1875; Blees became its headmaster in 1892. Upon the death of his parents, Blees came into a substantial inheritance, which he invested in the construction of Blees Military Academy. The school survived only until 1912. In 1914, it became the Still-Hildreth Sanatorium, which closed in the 1960s. The building was fully renovated in the 1980s, and it is now known as Lakeview Towers, a senior residential facility.

Theodore Gary, a prominent St. Louis businessman, made his fortune promoting the telephone in the 1920s. He became fond of the Macon area and helped develop Macon’s lake, building his summer home here and opening a savings and loan business. Gary’s support led to the funding of Macon’s golf course, swimming pool, library, and hospital.

Macon is known as the “City of Maples.” In 1872, John Beaumont donated 10,000 young maple trees to the city as payment for back taxes totaling $116. Today, the town has more than 275,000 maples.

Macon serves as an agricultural center and the home of Missouri’s first “New Generation Co-op,” a farmer-owned, modern ethanol plant. Macon is a popular vacation destination for hunters and campers, as the development continues at Thomas Hill Lake and the Long Branch State Park.

Visit the Macon County Historical Society Museum!

The Macon County Historical Society Museum, at 304 S. Missouri, serves as the home to Macon County artifacts and memorabilia. Displays are on three levels, and the main floor being handicap accessible. Visitors will find items and information representing the towns in Macon County and beyond.

The military section showcases Col. F.W.V. Blees’ desk and other articles from the Blees Military Academy. Uniforms from Macon County citizens — of both men and women — are shown from World War I through the present, with all branches represented. A lighted gun cabinet holds guns and other materials from the 18th and 19th centuries. Also included in this area is a 4-foot, hand-welded map of Missouri, with battles of the Civil War depicted along with rivers, highways, colleges, important persons, and more.

Another part of the building’s history is shown with items from the world’s first Still-Hildreth Sanatorium Osteopathic Hospital. The sextant used by Admiral Byrd to go to the North Pole is on display, along with other items from Lester Dent, author of Doc Savage.

Equipment from the Shockey Mill, located at Cox Town and in operation from 1905 to the mid-1950, is set up in a display made from its original building. Other areas include a country school classroom, hospital room, sports room, antique kitchen, buggies, church setting, courtroom, mining room, farming tools, and even a 1904 pea huller.

The MCHS genealogy research library has a large selection of probate, cemetery, and school records, along with family files, maps, county history books, and much more information for those searching for their own genealogy.

An extension of the museum is the memorial rock located close by, where the Macon Massacre occurred during the Civil War. A Civil War tour, Macon town tour, or museum tour are available on request. For more information about a tour, call 660-395-5135.

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