Editor’s note: Pike County celebrates its bicentennial in 2018. Following is the second in a series of monthly articles that will examine 200 years of local history.
Editor’s note: Pike County celebrates its bicentennial in 2018. Following is the second in a series of monthly articles that will examine 200 years of local history. The story first appeared in Louisiana author Brent Engel’s 2015 book “One More Thing.”
It seems almost ridiculously quaint today.
Why would anyone take the time to find people who were once neighbors, especially on vacation?
But long before Facebook, Twitter and other solitary, detached ways of making a connection, there were handshakes and hearty greetings.
And anyone who had at any time for any reason called a shoe-heel-shaped part of Northeast Missouri home was considered, at once and always, a Piker.
In some places, the term carried negative connotations. But in the Show-Me State, it was a badge of honor – literally.
A lively article in the magazine section of the Sept. 8, 1901, edition of the St. Louis Republic proves the point.
The writer was E.E. Campbell of Louisiana, and he worked under the headline “The ‘Pikers’ One Meets on a Tour of the West.” Campbell could hardly contain his excitement at coming across so many former Pike County residents spread across nine states.
Today, most every town and county can say its natives have put up shingles just about everywhere. But the 1901 story serves as a testament to native pride in an era when travel was more difficult and few ventured far.
“The Piker is to be found everywhere on earth – with perhaps enough exceptions to prove the rule,” Campbell says at the outset. “And he is mostly prominent. Take a trip through the western part of Uncle Sam’s domain and count the Pikers, and you will wonder that any one at all is left in the good old county whose broad side is laved by the great Father of Waters.”
The author writes of finding “Pikers galore” in a wide array of professions. There was a street car operator in California, a cowboy in Colorado, a judge in Oregon and a doctor in Utah.
He also met a mine owner, storekeeper, prison warden, sheepherders, a city attorney, cattle ranchers and many more. All were originally from Pike County.
“The Piker is probably the most migratory man in the world and that is why Pike County, great and glorious as it is, finds it a hard matter to show an increased population from one census to another,” Campbell offered.
Indeed, the county’s population in 1900 was 25,744 compared with 18,516 in 2010. Campbell took delight in an ability to locate his Missouri brethren.
“I hunted them up and talked to them and observed their conditions, and I came home much impressed with the huge part the Piker has played in the development of the West,” he said.
Campbell claims spotting a Piker wasn’t difficult, and sometimes it was downright easy. Take the day he came across a young woman at Seven Falls, a cascading tourist attraction near Colorado Springs. She wore a button on her hat that read “I’m a Piker. Show Me.”
“She told me that this button had gained her many courtesies in the course of her trip from people who had once lived in Pike, and that she could have sold fifty if she had only had them,” the writer said.
As with the woman, Campbell also benefitted along the journey. At Pike’s Peak, he ran across, who else, but a Piker serving coffee.
“A cup cost me 25 cents (about $7 today), but when I learned he was a Piker and told him I was, he insisted I should take another cup, without money and without price,” Campbell said.
The author suggests the Pike County Colony of St. Louis and the Pikers Home Organization of Louisiana look into designing a button to be worn by Pikers “for the purpose of glorifying (their) native land.”
Two songs may have done more to popularize Pike County than anything else. “Joe Bowers” and “Sweet Betsy From Pike” were famous tunes of the mid-1800s that continued to be prominent well into the 20th century. With the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis right around the corner in 1901, Pike also came up in conversations.
“A railroad official in Portland told me that at least half-a-dozen persons had already been to see him to learn what the rate to St. Louis would be…with stop-over privileges in Pike County,” Campbell explained.
The story contains tales of adventure, but it always taps into the character of the people. Campbell says that one of the “riproarinest” Pikers he meets was Billy Besten, the barber at the landmark Cullen Hotel in Salt Lake City, who “considers every person who ever set foot in Pike County” as a friend and “thinks the order of Pikers is a greater fraternity than Masonry.”
“If he even hears that a man from Pike County is going to pass through the city, he will rush down to the train bearing meat and drink and cigars, and if he can’t persuade him to step off, he will load him down with comforts for the rest of the journey,” wrote Campbell, who admitted to benefitting from Besten’s generosity.
Of course, some of the people Campbell encountered were not successful and others had lost their affinity for Pike County.
Campbell said he came across a Utah mining broker named Ab Pollock, who did not “seem proud that he was born” in Missouri.
“His wife died recently, however, and he proved himself a pretty good Piker after all by sending his two children back to the good old county” to live with a family, the article notes.
Campbell admits the term “Once a Piker, Always a Piker” is “a trite saying,” but believes Pike Countians used it out of “a determination not to go back on the land of (their) birth.”
The author finished his story by saying that as he visited more places, he began to better understand Mark Twain’s declaration that all great Americans could stake a claim as being from Missouri and, thus, should be known as Missourians “by right of their achievements.”
“Except that I would write Pike County and Pikers instead of Missouri and Missourians,” Campbell concluded.
The full article may be found by logging on to www.chroniclingamerica.loc.gov and using the search engine to select Missouri and 1901, followed by plugging in the word “pikers.”