Springfield: The Story of A Watch, Wager, & Warning

Published by: David E. Sneed
Published on:
03/13/24
Text & Images Copyright © David E. Sneed, All Rights Reserved - Historic images courtesy History Museum on the Square
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As kid growing up in the Ozarks, I would often hear folks talking about ‘Springfield Wagons.’ So intertwined were the two words that it seemed like it was a unified and ubiquitous term applying to all wood-wheeled wagons. Surely, every wagon must be a Springfield-Wagon. That was the limit of my knowledge in those days. I was a young adult before I understood that Springfield was one of thousands of wagon brands. The overwhelming dominance of that name in this part of the world, though, is largely due to the fact that, over its 70-year history, Springfield not only managed to secure a sizeable segment of the farm, freight, ranch, logging, and circus wagon business but it also was one of the last major wood-wheeled wagon makers in the U.S. From the country’s central states to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the Springfield brand was a well-known set of wheels.  



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The Springfield Wagon Company dates its beginnings to 1872.

 

Living so close to the old factory grounds, I’ve traveled a number of times to the area. Ages ago, I even had the privilege of interviewing the last two, surviving factory workers. In the midst of those early research outings, I stumbled upon another part of western history tied to the city of Springfield, Missouri. It was a pair of brass markers positioned alongside and in the middle of a downtown street. Today, with the increases in population and traffic, just getting a personal glimpse of these historical reminders can be about as risky as the occasion they commemorate.


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The round markers here show where Davis Tutt stood and fell in his shootout with Bill Hickok.

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The images below show where Bill Hickok stood - facing northwest - on the square in Springfield, Missouri. 

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The place? Springfield, Missouri. The date? Friday, July 21, 1865. No one could imagine the history about to happen. America’s Civil War was officially over, and the country had recently marked eighty-nine years of independence. Gamblers were in the frontier town and, as-per-usual, not everyone was winning. One table had a group of poker-playing, risk-takers pitting their chances against each other. Among them, a former Union soldier by the name of James Butler Hickok was being heckled by a man he knew from Arkansas.


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James Butler 'Wild Bill' Hickok

 

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Davis Tutt


Born in 1837 in La Salle County, Illinois, Hickok was twenty-eight years old when he found himself saddled with gambling debt in Springfield. During the card game, Davis Tutt from Yellville, Arkansas who was a supposed friend of Hickok’s, was pushing him for payment of a wager he had lost to Tutt. Taunting him, Davis went too far. In a spontaneous moment, he seized Hickok’s pocket watch as collateral for the debt. It was a tense exchange with Wild Bill issuing a threat that Tutt better not be seen in public with the watch.


The warning wasn’t heeded and on that fateful day in July, Wild Bill spotted Tutt flaunting the watch on Springfield’s public square. It was a bold public challenge by Tutt that was the final straw leading to a showdown. According to records of the event, the men faced off a full seventy-five yards apart. Drawing their pistols, Tutt’s shot missed and before he could get a second round off, Hickok’s bullet found its mark – right through the chest!


No small occurrence, this was the first recorded one-on-one gunfight in the Old West. Tutt, the fight-picking ruffian from Yellville, Arkansas had lost his final bet while stoking the fires of dime novel sales and the enduring legend of Wild Bill.  

 

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Spingfield, Missouri's Park Central Square occupies the location of America's first one-on-one gunfight.


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Leading up to the draw-down, Hickok was no stranger to violence and danger. As a young man, he helped his family run a station for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Later, he was a constable in Kansas as well as a stagecoach driver and freighter on the Santa Fe Trail. He also served as a courier, scout, and spy for the Union Army and even a police detective for the city of Springfield.

 

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After the gunfight, Wild Bill was put on trial but a court soon acquitted him of all charges. There were some who felt that Tutt got what was coming. Nonetheless, Hickok quickly left Missouri as there were plenty of others looking for a lynching. After putting some distance between him and Springfield, Hickok ultimately accepted several law enforcement jobs in Kansas and even a theatrical play with Buffalo Bill in New York. In 1876, eleven years after that fateful day in Springfield, and just four years into the Springfield Wagon Company’s newly-established business, Hickok was murdered in Deadwood, South Dakota.

 

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Today, those markers on the old square are worn from countless vehicles rolling over them. Still, they’re a nod to the outlaw days and ways of early Springfield as well as a reminder that it wasn’t just the terrain that had to be navigated in the Old West. Everytime I see a Springfield wagon, it reminds me of the western history of the town. The community also has the legacy of being the birthplace of Route 66. From Civil War battles and frontier gunslingers to a number of firms tied to America's first transportation industry, the name 'Springfield' is full of history and intrigue.


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Special thanks to the Springfield History Museum on the Square. If you’re in the area, it’s a great stop with a lot of local history, including an entire section dedicated to Wild Bill and his time in Springfield, Missouri. You can visit them online at www.historymuseumonthesquare.org


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