A special thanks to Charlene at the Laclede County Historical Society for helping with the content of this page.
A road has always run through Lebanon
As America expanded west from St. Louis, a road has always run through Lebanon, Missouri. At first it was just a rough Indian trail, as tribes like the Wyota and Osage. During the Civil War that trail became known as the “Wire Road” because of the telegraph lines installed along it between St. Louis and Springfield.
Then, in the late 1920's, Route 66 was born and roughly followed that same path the Indians had marked. 66 extended along Lebanon’s south side. Archways proclaiming “Lebanon – Drive In – Our Town, Your Town” were placed over roads leading into town off of the mother road. Today I-44 follows roughly the same path as the old road.
Lebanon became a 4th Class City on October 17, 1877, in an action by the Board of Trustees of the Inhabitants. The board was led by Chairman Sam Farrar, and the first Mayor was E.J. Roberts. Lebanon is currently governed by a Mayor/Council form of government, and has operated as a 3rd Class City since 1959.
Founded on the site of the Wyota Indian village Lebanon began developing around the time Laclede County was established in 1849. That is when the Benjamin B. Harrison and James M. Appling Families donated the original 50 acres for the county seat. Also in this time lots in what is still known as Old Town began to sell. By the end of 1851 on the square formed by Main, St. Louis, Broadway and High streets both a log courthouse and jail were constructed.
Civil War Years
During the Civil War, Lebanon was continually occupied, usually by Union troops trying to protect the telegraph line. Sentiment for and against both sides ran strong in a town populated by people from border states. The turmoil surrounding the war brought progress to a standstill until the hostilities ceased.
Post Civil War
Lebanon started to into its own, as a town, in the 1850s. The name was changed from the original Wyota, and it took its name from the Tennessee hometown of one of its leading citizens, the Reverend Benjamin Hooker. After the war businesses and progress started to move forward again.
The railroad came to Lebanon in 1868, and it changed the town forever. The Frisco Railroad built the station a mile away from the main part of town, because the city fathers had refused to donate land to them.
This refusal to donate land kept a previous attempt to bring the railroad to town when the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad proposed building a depot in Lebanon. With the location of the Frisco depot being south of Old Town the locus of the community permanently changed.
Businesses naturally moved alongside the rails, and the “new” town was born. The tracks run parallel to Commercial Street, which is still the center of Lebanon today. The railroad served as the first big boost to Lebanon’s economy and guaranteed its growth by attracting commerce and industry to the formally rural area.
Perhaps the most unique piece in Lebanon’s history is the magnetic water. A worker digging a new city water well in 1889 found that his tools could pick up nails. The water had magnetized them. Bathing in the magnetic waters was said to have healing powers and visitors came to bathe in them, and drink from the well.
The Gasconade Hotel was built to accommodate them and no grander building has ever been seen in Lebanon. The frame structure could house up to 500 guests, who were transported from the depot via an electric railroad. Never a great success, the Gasconade burned after only 10 years.
Important Historical Figures
Two important politicians have made their homes in Lebanon. Richard Parks Bland, a native Kentuckian, represented Missouri in Congress from 1872-1899 and was a leading Democratic candidate for president in 1896. Phil Donnelly was a hometown boy who became the first man in Missouri history to serve two terms as the state’s governor. Donnelly occupied the Governor’s Mansion from 1945-49 and again from 1953-57 (consecutive terms were prohibited at the time).
Notable onetime residents include Walter Reed and novelist Harold Bell Wright, author of “The Shepherd of the Hills.” He served the First Christian Church as pastor from 1905-07, the time period when his most famous work was published. Wright set his next book, “The Calling of Dan Matthews,” in the fictional town of Corinth. The book was wrote in a three story home on Adams Street, and Lebanon residents recognized many similarities with their town, and weren’t happy with the depiction of their city.
Present Day Lebanon
Today Lebanon is an energetic, thriving town of over 14,000 residents. Lebanon has continued to thrive as a small community, catering to travelers along the edge of the Ozarks. A number of these travelers come to the area because of Lebanon’s proximity to Bennett Spring State Park, and its approximate one million visitors per year. A note of possible interest is that, according to Bob Shotts the county surveyor, Mercy Hospital sits on the highest point in Laclede County.
In 1983, Governor Kit Bond dubbed Lebanon the "Aluminum Fishing Boat Capital of the World;" with companies such as Tracker Marine, G3 Boats, Lowe Boats, Landau Boats, and Osagian Canoes all having factories here. Other major employers are Emerson Climate Technologies (Copeland), The Durham Co., Carmeco, DTE, Detroit Tool Metal Products, and Marine
A local success story is that of Shepherd Hills Factory Outlet. In 1972, Rea and Ida Reid started a small Case Knives store on the west edge of Lebanon. With just one employee, Ida worked to put her two sons, Randy and Rod, through the University of Missouri’s engineering school in Rolla. Today Ida has 100 employees, seven stores throughout the country, a catalog division and Shepherd Hills is the largest Case Knives dealer in the world. Sons Randy and Rod? They work in the business.
The Reids’ story says a lot about their community – Lebanon, Missouri, where friendly people work hard to make things happen.