Book, speaker series part of Clarksville bicentennial

A few items from Clarksville's past, including a bank money bag, a local telephone directory, a photo of construction at Lock and Dam 24, a car wheel maker and a photo featuring an old bicycle.
For the Courier-Post
Posted: Apr. 20, 2017 12:01 am

Clarksville has an intriguing history, and it’s about to captivate again through words and pictures.

A colorful coffee table book and the first in a speakers’ series are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, April 22 and 23. The free events are sponsored by the Clarksville Bicentennial Commission and are part of a yearlong observance in 2017. Additional information may be found on the commission’s Facebook page.

"Celebrating 200 years of life in Clarksville is an exceptional opportunity for the city and its people," said Mayor Jo Anne Smiley.

A reception for the book "Clarksville: Two Hundred Years on the Mississippi" will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the historic Grace House – the former Grace Episcopal Church – at 101 S. Third.

Copies will be available for $25 and author John Andrews plans to attend. Owners of the historic home, which was built in 1869 and featured in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article in 2014, are Kirk and Mary Ostertag.

"Clarksville’s historic charm and artists’ community drew us in," Mary Ostertag said. "The adventure of discovering and restoring the Grace Church, along with wonderful friendships, has created great memories."

While important dates and places are mentioned, the book shines a spotlight on Clarksville residents and their stories.

"In this volume, the history of events and people of Clarksville will be highlighted in pictures and writing," Smiley said. "The excitement will arise as the stories are told of those who invested their lives and their love in this community, shared in its tribulations and rejoiced in its accomplishments."

"The Clarksville community has a fascinating history that has been recorded several times," noted Helaine Mackey, Bicentennial Commission co-chair. "The women of the Cotorie Club that produced ‘Tales and Talk’ in the 1970s would be very proud of the work John did to pull the stories and pictures together to continue the tradition of preserving our local history."

Meanwhile, the speakers’ series kicks off at 2 p.m. Sunday with "Clarksville’s First 100 Years." The presentation will be made by local educator Debra Crank-Lewis, a history professor at St. Charles Community College.

It will be held at Clarksville United Methodist Church – where Crank-Lewis is a member and liturgist – at the corner of Highway 79 and Howard Street, with a reception to follow. Bicentennial books and shirts will be available for purchase, and memorabilia from the Clarksville Antique Mall will be on display.

"Clarksville, while not unique as towns along the Mississippi go, seems to hold a special place for those affiliated with it," Crank-Lewis said. "Perhaps it is the proximity to a majestic river, the unique landscape of the region or just the pleasant ease of a quaint burgh which reminds us of simpler times. The history of the community is a snapshot of the American frontier and its settlement. Additionally, the town has not been immune to the shifting fortunes of modernity."

Clarksville traces its roots to the late 1700s and early 1800s, when temporary settlements were established on the banks of the river. Early pioneers included James Burns and Samuel Ewing.

The name – either given in honor of famed explorer and Louisiana Territory governor William Clark or his older brother and Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark – was permanently used starting in 1817.

"The legend is that between 1815 and 1820 General (George Rogers) Clark was en route from the south to one of the northern forts with a company of soldiers, on a keel boat, and that on account of the heavy ice which met him at this place he was forced to come ashore and winter here," according to the 1883 book "The History of Pike County, Missouri."

Even before Missouri became a state in 1821, steamboats were plying the route between St. Louis and Pike County. As with most places at the time, Clarksville became a self-contained community, offering stores, a hotel, restaurants and factories. Residents made and shipped products as diverse as vinegar, barrels, tobacco and lumber. Mills ground grain and produced paper. There were farm products and cash crops such as grapes and apples.

Missouri Gov. John Miller is credited with laying out the community, which was finally incorporated in 1847 and chartered by the state in 1850.

On the flip side, Clarksville does not have flood protection, although efforts launched in recent years are ongoing. All of the top 10 inundations in community history have occurred since 1973, and four of the six most severe have happened since 2001. The church at which Crank-Lewis will speak is known worldwide for its hospitality by volunteers who pour in to help each time the waters rise.

And then there’s tourism. In the late 1800s, Clarksville was an epicenter of bicycle racing, attracting hundreds of fans who boarded northbound steamboats in St. Louis. More recently, thousands of people come to town every year to visit the artists’ shops mentioned by Ostertag and attend events such as Eagle Days and Applefest.

Perhaps it’s that never-say-die spirit of residents which sustains the town. The bicentennial book certainly showcases it, and Crank-Lewis can recite many more examples than she’ll have time to fit into her presentation.

"This effort to acknowledge our bicentennial is part of what has kept us from becoming irrelevant," she said. "Looking back always gives us a path to the future."

Even the 1883 publication recognized a certain audacity.

"Few towns of like size have been more enterprising than Clarksville," it said. "Anxious to advance her own interests, she has contributed liberally to every measure likely to accomplish the desired end."


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