A Tree in Paradise
Houck spent the next 30 years acquiring property, promoting development, investing in railroads and encouraging lumber companies to come to the region. The short rail lines he constructed in the 1880s and 1890s connected lowland forests with timber markets in Cape Girardeau and beyond. Because of his great success in railroad building, local newspapers called Houck the "Father of Southeast Missouri."
In 1905, supporters of economic development formed the Little River Drainage District, a public agency that planned and constructed an enormous system of ditches, canals and levees to drain the swamps and open the Bootheel to farming. District boundaries stretched from Cape Girardeau to the Arkansas line, covering some 540,000 acres in Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Dunklin, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Scott and Stoddard counties. Mississippi County formed its own drainage district. Property owners paid taxes to support facilities that eventually drained or provided drainage outlets for more than a million acres of wetlands.
Corporations, speculators and modern-day pioneers rushed in to claim large tracts in the lowlands. Between 1900 and 1920, lumber companies cleared hundreds of thousands of acres of rich alluvial land. Enterprising farmers hired families to clear additional land at a fixed price per acre. When they had finished clearing a tract, these families pulled up stakes and moved on.
Land clearance continued in the 1920s, after the boll weevil drove cotton growers and sharecroppers north out of Arkansas into Missouri's newly drained lands. The population boomed as southeast Missouri became cotton country. Sawmills whirred along railroad lines. Some timber remained in the Bootheel in 1930, but lumber companies cut it at a rate of 12 to 15 million board feet per year.
Manufacturers used cypress wood for fence posts, coffins, docks, poles, railroad ties and boxes. Because of its water-resistance, builders used it for exterior siding. According to St. Louis architect Jack Luer, "In the early twentieth century, cypress also became popular for interior trim."
The Great Depression of the 1930s did not stop land clearing in the Bootheel. At least one Mississippi County cotton farmer, Thad Snow, had to cut more trees as he struggled to hold onto his land. His daughter, Fannie Delaney, recalled in an interview that he had to cut and sell a lot of cypress during hard times. "It really hurt him to do it. But he needed to pay bills. He was just trying to make it."
In the 1950s, Snow retired to the Rose Cliff Hotel in Van Buren, where he worked on a book about his life in "Swampeast Missouri." His book, From Missouri, vividly described environmental and social changes in the Bootheel in the first half of the twentieth century.
One of Snow's closest friends, George Burrows, of Van Buren, reflected that Snow had many second thoughts about those changes. "He wished that land had never been cleared," Burrows said.
A short stretch of county road in Mississippi County offers a hint of what the Bootheel was like before the turn of the century. Along route AB, on the south side of Big Lake, cypress trees tower above thick forest growth. Occasional breaks in the foliage afford glimpses of still water, mottled by shadows and brimming with life.
Remnants of the old wilderness swamps and bayous survive in protected areas like Big Oak Tree State Park near East Prairie and Mingo National Wildlife Refuge near Puxico. But there is little virgin cypress left in Missouri. Some trees, planted after the great lumber boom, have reached the size of old growth. But nearly all the land in the Bootheel was logged at one time.
Houck, who tirelessly promoted economic development in the Bootheel, expressed some regret later in his life, when he published his History of Missouri (1908). For readers who would never see the land in this pristine condition, he wrote, "Missouri is a land of beauty now, but in a state of nature, before touched, and too often defaced, by the work of man, Missouri was a terrestrial paradise (Vol. 1, p. 31)."
In that paradise, cypress trees were abundant.
Cypress trees now grow in fencerows and along the edges of sloughs and drainage ditches. People plant them as ornamentals in their yards. But the time when Louis Houck could rest "on a hillside on the left of where Dexter now stands, looking over a vast forest of timber on all sides, greatly impressed" is past.