Memoirs From Missouri

September 11, 2007
Filed under Destinations

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Were he still living in the imposing stone manse on a wooded hillside near Defiance, Missouri, Daniel Boone might gaze down on recently grown-up Boonesfield Village in the valley below and decide it’s time to move on. After all, Boone, who came from Kentucky to this mostly unsettled lush valley — the Femme Osage — just before the turn of the 19th century, famously believed that neighbors had built too close if he could see the smoke from their chimneys.

 

But, of course, Boone is long-gone; he died in 1820 in this Saint Charles County home which he had helped his son, Nathan, build. He lived here with his wife, Rebecca; Nathan; daughter-in-law, Olive; and their 14 children, on and off for the last 16 years of his life, said Cathie Schoppenhorst, our guide on a recent occasion. And the village the Georgian-style home overlooks is a re-creation, featuring buildings — many of which were standing elsewhere in the area — from when the frontiersman lived here.The dozen or so structures — a log schoolhouse, a millenary shop, a log cabin, a potter’s shop and furnace, a chapel, a log barn and a stone smokehouse, among others, are all historic, dating from 1800 to the Civil War (early 1860s), said Schoppenhorst, who dresses in period costume. The buildings, moved here over the last few decades, are arranged along a gravel road that forms the perimeter of a large rectangular commons, a grassy field typical of the era, she said. In Boone’s day, cows and sheep would have been allowed to graze on town commons such as this one. Now, an annual Pioneer Days is held there in early fall, with reenactors occupying dozens of tents in a pre-1840 encampment.

 

The two-day living history event (September 29-30 this year) includes period food, music, crafts, life-skills demonstrations and storytelling. There’s a black-powder shoot for adults, frontier games for youngsters and a reenactment of a frontier school day, circa 1830, at the historic schoolhouse. Schoppenhorst explains that the land the Boone home and Boonesfield Village occupy was originally a Spanish land grant given in 1799 to Robert Hall, a friend of the Boone family (the Spanish government was eager for Americans to settle the land). Nathan Boone — who came here from Kentucky in 1800, the year after his famous father arrived with some 25 families — persuaded Hall to accept a horse, a saddle and a bridle in exchange for the land, 800 Spanish arpents (680 acres) that stretch along the valley, which is bisected by Femme Osage Creek, and up the hills that rim it. Other than the fat green cedars, the woods are skeletal and bleak on a winter afternoon. But in springtime they are lavish with pink redbud and white dogwood blossoms.In summer, these hills are the color of rich-green jade, and in fall, that of every burnished metallic hue.

 

Daniel Boone also was given a land grant, 800 arpents on bottomland nearer the Missouri River, which arcs past about four miles south. The elder Boone, 65 years old when he arrived in the area, never built on his own land, Schoppenhorst said. Instead, he and Nathan built log cabins as temporary dwellings while they set to work constructing the fine home of blue limestone on the hillside. Shelf-like outcroppings of limestone are common in these wooded hills, and the Boone party would likely have included a stone mason, she said. The four-story home, a veritable fortress with two-foot thick walls and a half-dozen gun ports (Indian attack was always a possibility) took about seven years to complete. At the time, it was the largest stone house west of the Mississippi.

 

Daniel Boone — perhaps America’s most noted explorer, a foremost hunter and marksman, military officer risen to the rank of Colonel, former legislator in the Virginia Assembly, pathfinder and trailblazer, knowledgeable in the ways of the Indians — was already a national hero when he came to Upper Louisiana (now Missouri), said Schoppenhorst. Here, under Spanish rule, he served as commandant, or military authority, she said. After the Louisiana Territory became part of the United States in 1804, Boone was justice of the peace. He held court just outside the house under a towering American elm — the “judgment tree” — already more than a century old. The tree began to die in the 1970s, said Schoppenhorst. It was shored up with concrete, but finally, for safety’s sake, had to be toppled. Today, a 10-foot length of the massive trunk lies where the tree once stood (the rest, preserved by nature as if petrified, is in storage).

 

Visitors watch a 15-minute film about the life of Daniel Boone in the small theater, then Schoppenhorst proceeds with a tour of the home, three floors of which are on display (the top floor is used for storage). The home is furnished with period pieces from the area, though most did not belong to the Boones, she said. However, some of the artifacts were here in Daniel Boone’s day, such as a land survey signed by him and Nathan, and a black stone tomahawk dropped by Indians who had kidnapped Boone’s daughter, Jemina, and later picked up by the girl after her father and several others rescued her. Schoppenhorst also points out that four of the five black walnut mantels Boone carved for the house are still in place. Later, Pam Jensen, manager of guest services, said Rebecca Boone died in 1813, and her husband seven years later, shortly before his 86th birthday. Nathan and Olive sold their property in 1837 and moved to Ash Grove, Missouri (near present-day Springfield). After that the farm changed hands numerous times, and during each exchange parcels of land were sold off, until by 1925 only three acres remained with the house, which had fallen into disrepair.

 

That year Saint Louis attorney Colonel Francis Curlee, a descendent of Daniel Boone’s uncle, Benjamin, bought what remained: the three acres, the house, the judgment tree and the spring that has trenched the hillside near the house, and was the Boones’ water supply. Curlee upgraded the house and added many acres, as did subsequent owners Randall and Alean Andrae, who bought the property in the early 1960s and opened the home as a tourist attraction. They also began creating the historic village in the early 1980s, acquiring antique structures from the area and arranging them here. In 1998 the couple donated the property, which now totals 1,030 acres, to Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri, about 25 miles northeast, said Jensen. Now, the home and village are part of the school’s Boone Campus, which offers a variety of American Studies courses. Lindenwood has added numerous buildings to Boonesfield, including the stone house built in 1800-1802 by Squire Boone, Daniel Boone’s brother, near Old Monroe, Missouri. It’s considered the earliest American-built stone house west of the Mississippi, said site director C.W. Stewart, a descendent of John Stewart, who was married to Daniel Boone’s sister, Hanna.

 

The newest addition to the property is a historic stone fort, discovered inside a mid-19th century barn elsewhere in Saint Charles County in 2005. Stewart said the 842-square-foot fort, from San Carlos Commons (today’s Saint Charles), is believed to have been built in 1793 by the Spanish after Iowa Indians began stealing horses from settlers in the community. A local developer found the fort as he was about to tear down the antique barn around it to make way for a new subdivision. The “eight-gun ports alerted [the developer] that this was probably an important find,” Stewart adds with a grin. Stewart says he is still elated at their good fortune to acquire the fort and notes that the many thousands of stones were carefully marked before the structure was dismantled and moved here. Now rebuilt, a thatched cane roof added, the old fort stands in a clearing amid a thick grove of cedars overlooking the Boone home. Several other historic homes will soon be added to Boonesfield, as will an antique 46-foot covered trestle bridge that will be reconstructed over the creek the Boone spring fed. And even more plans for the area are in the making.

 

Numerous events are in store for 2007, including Pioneer Days (September 29-30), Daniel’s Birthday Party (October 21), Harvest Home Days (November 23-25) and Candlelight Tours (December 7, 8, 14 and 15). These and other events are designed, Stewart says, to help visitors better understand Missouri history and the pivotal role Daniel Boone and other early settlers played in shaping the nation.

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