A Tree in Paradise
"The lumber companies don't carry it anymore. You have to special order it. That wood used to be so plentiful around here. Now it's rare," said Delois Ellis, tourist assistant at Hunter-Dawson State Historic Site in New Madrid.
Ellis was describing a practical problem. Cypress lumber is hard to get in Missouri. She was also talking about the history of the Bootheel. Cypress trees once flourished in the swamps, saturated lands, and low ridges of Missouri's eight southeastern counties. Now, with the swamps drained and the higher ground converted to agriculture, most of the cypress trees are gone.
Speaking of the Hunter-Dawson Home, tour guide Barb Campbell said, "It is a cypress farm house, pretty much 100 percent cypress, except for the floor." Ellis added, "the floor on the main level was replaced with pine after the flood of 1927." Now, when employees of the Department of Natural Resources replace or repair any part of the house, they do it with cypress.
William Hunter began construction of the house in 1859. He was a merchant and farmer, who owned a gristmill and a sawmill. His mill and others like it supplied the lumber for his home and many others in the area.
"We find that many of the older buildings around here are built of cypress," Ellis said. "It's real hard wood."
David Wissehr, wildlife management biologist at Duck Creek Conservation Area in Stoddard County, confirmed that "Cypress is a pretty unique wood, amazingly resistant to rot and termites. It's a strong wood that has weight to it and a fairly high resin content.
The southern, or baldcypress, is a native of coastal wetlands from Delaware through Texas and of Mississippi River bottomlands as far north as southeastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois. Like the sequoias of California, baldcypress trees grow large and may live to a venerable age. They appear "bald" in the winter because, although they are conifers, they shed their small, slender leaves annually.
Commonly associated with swamps, cypress trees also grow in wet soils and even on dryer ground. According to Wissehr, "They're pretty adaptable and even occur on ridges. Well, they call them ridges down here, but I'm from the Ozarks. I call them small elevations, where the ground may be saturated. I've planted them on some fairly droughty sites. They're a real hardy tree, and they do just fine."
Because they live in wet soil, cypress trees develop flared trunks that help them remain erect in soft ground. When the trees grow in swamps, their root systems may produce point outgrowths, called "knees," that project above the surface of water or saturated ground.
Although they tolerate wet places, cypress trees do not thrive in standing water year in and year out. At Duck Creek, the Conservation Department maintains several pools as waterfowl habitat. Cypress trees flourish along the perimeters of all the pools. Pool 1 remains constantly full and serves as a source of water for periodic flooding of Pools 2 and 3. As a result, the cypress trees in Pool 1 are stressed, dying, and falling down. Many have been there nearly 50 years. But, Wissehr reports, "we lose a few every year."
Mindful of the cypress's need for fluctuating water levels, Duck Creek managers closed pool 3 to waterfowl hunting last year while they repaired and replaced the aging water-control structures that preserve remnants of greentree wetland habitat.
The restoration work, along with dredging a buildup of mud from drainage ditches, will enable the Conservation Department to vary water levels in Pools 2 and 3. A cycle that mimics natural fluctuations will permit seedlings to sprout and replace older trees, which have been suffering from early, prolonged flooding.
In the Bootheel, periodic flooding makes human life a challenge, but it provides the perfect habitat for cypress trees. During the Mississippian period, between 1000 and 1500 A.D., inhabitants of the area grew maize in the rich soils and built mounds to elevate their temples. These native people used the Mississippi and its tributaries to carry on a lively trade, but left vast forests largely undisturbed.
The New Madrid earthquake of 1811 lifted the Mississippi River out of its bed and caused monumental flooding in the Bootheel. Memories and tales of this even inspired settlers to avoid the Bootheel in favor of the rugged Ozarks. A few hardy souls did settle in the lowlands, farming small tracts and fishing the rivers and streams. Some built homes of notched cypress logs like the Hunter Log House, which was reconstructed in the 1980s by students in the Historic Preservation Program at Southeast Missouri State University.
In 1869, historian and entrepreneur Louis Houck arrived in Cape Girardeau and traveled south through the Bootheel. Houck's reminiscences, published in the Southeast Missourian on May 15, 1969, included description of vast swamps "all covered with heavy timber."
Despite his appreciation for the natural beauty of the lowlands, 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.