A Short History of Lebanon, Missouri
Have you ever wondered about Lebanon Missouri’s history, or just wanted to know where it is and how to find it? If so, continue reading to learn more about this small town’s unique history, and why it holds a special place in the hearts of its inhabitants and many visitors.
Before the town of Lebanon existed, there was merely a trail frequented by the Osage and Wyota Indians that came to be known as the “wire trail” during the civil war due to the telegraph system running cross-country through it. In time, a small settlement arose in the area, called “Wyota” by the residents, named after the local Native American tribe. In time, the name was changed to “Lebanon” at the urgings of a respected minister who wanted it named after his hometown. Initially, most of the early settlers were hunters and farmers from Tennessee, but as word of the rich farmland, plentiful hunting, and beautiful environment spread, more and more people chose to move to Lebanon.
The people of Lebanon were never known for being easy to please. When Abraham Lincoln was running for election in 1860, he received just one vote from Lebanon. Little is known about this single contrarian, but a willingness to have an opinion, even when everyone else disagrees, is typical of the people who call Lebanon home. For example, when the town was asked for land to build a rail depot on, the residents refused, and the depo was sited several miles away from what was then “downtown”. This wasn’t the best long-term decision, as later the town center was moved closer to the depo to make life easier for everyone.
Lebanon was occupied by troops virtually the entire duration of the Civil War. Mostly, Union troops were responsible, but the Confederates also managed to camp out for half a year at one point.
Despite being located between Springfield and Rolla, it took time for Lebanon to gain a reputation for being a place to meet up or visit. The addition of an opera house, build in 1882, helped Lebanon build a reputation as a meeting place and event destination.
In 1889, it was discovered that local well water had magnetic properties, and the number of visitors to the Ozarks area continued to increase. It was believed that the magnetically-active waters of Lebanon had healing properties, and it was common for locals to drink and bathe in the waters anticipating improved health. This explosion in popularity led to the building of the largest structure to date in Lebanon, the Gasconade Hotel. It could hold an immense 500 visitors, and was fully equipped; ballroom, restaurant, reception rooms, and a bath house complete with the rejuvenating magnetic waters. Sadly, the hotel was never as profitable as it’s founders envisioned, and it did not long stay in business. Next it became a sanitarium, but not for long. The locals used it for community events, and there was talk of turning it into a college, but it burned down in 1899.
The old wire trail running through Lebanon eventually became Rt 66, the mother road that would see a great deal of traffic over the course of its lifetime. As the largest town between Springfield and Rolla, Lebanon was a popular stopping point for travelers. During WWII, Rt 66 was used extensively to ferry people and supplies cross-country. The inhabitants of Lebanon were quick to recognize this opportunity, and began offering places for travelers to stay. Camp Joy, a tent-camp where weary travelers could rest comfortably, was opened in 1927, and charged just $.50 a night.
Lebanon seemed like a nice place to stay, especially for those tired from traveling Rt 66 across the country. Businesses were quick to recognize the unique virtues and opportunities it could provide. In the early thirties, Arthur T. Nelson opened a 24-room hotel where Rt 66 and Highway 5 met. Across the street, he built his “Dream Village”, the layout having come to him in a dream. The village consisted of 12 units built of Ozark stone, surrounded by a courtyard with a fountain that was host to musical and light shows. It became so popular that people would line up for blocks to see it. Sadly, the Dream Village passed into memory when I-44 replaced Rt 66.
The loss of the mother road, and the popularity of the new I-44, did not kill Lebanon, but it did hurt it. Small businesses like motels and gas stations lost their road-side business, and it became common to see many of them shutting their doors in response to lost sales. Because I-44 was so close to the old Rt 66, and because of Lebanon’s central location, a great deal of traffic continued to pass nearby, and savvy businesspeople and sincere fans of Rt 66 and Americana in general gave the small Midwestern town another lease on life. Today, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities provide a much needed boost to the local economy through tourism, and the relatively low cost of living and crime rate make it a good choice for long-time residents as well as newcomers.