The Influential Dedication of John T. Woodruff
By Kaitlyn McConnell
Springfield would look much different — both figuratively and literally — without the life and legacy of John T. Woodruff.
Now nearly 70 years since his death, no dedicated monument stands to his memory. Time, also, has largely erased firsthand memories of this mover and shaker. But whether they know it or not, people in the city are affected by his work.
For around 40 years, Woodruff led the way in many defining elements of Springfield’s development. He was largely tied to the “Good Roads” movement, which ultimately led to the creation of Route 66 and its direction through Springfield.
He helped bring the Frisco Railway’s west shops to Springfield. He built the city’s first “skyscraper” — the 10-story Woodruff Building — in 1911. He was behind hotels in the heart of Springfield’s downtown district that have been repurposed but still stand in 2019.
He served multiple terms as president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, and led change for Springfield through the organization. He led efforts to acquire land for the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners to come to town. He was a force behind the location of O’Reilly General Army Hospital during World War II, which created nearly a second city within Springfield’s limits and drew thousands to the area.
"There are a lot of people who have the vision but aren't able to make it happen. There are others who can make things happen, but don't have a vision," says Tom Peters, a local historian who has written a biography of Woodruff. “He had both. That was really a rare combination."
More than anything, however: Through his advocacy and enthusiasm, Woodruff helped make Springfield a hub for easy transportation, whether by rail, road or air. Such efforts ultimately brought people and businesses to and through town. Many set up shop here, leading to industrial growth that long outlasted his lifetime.
“Mr. Woodruff always could see 20 years ahead of anyone else — and Springfield desperately needs that sort of vision,” proclaimed an editorial in the Springfield Leader & Press after his death in 1949. “But as far as we can observe, there is no one to take Mr. Woodruff’s place as our civic seer and prophet. Yet he was not only a prophet. He was an evangelist, too — and with a tireless combination of exhortation, energy and incredible industry, he made his visions come true.
“He had the vision for a better world and the faith to believe he could help make it come true. And he did.”
Starting in Springfield
Woodruff was not a native of Springfield, but according to some definitions of the region’s boundaries, he lived his entire life in the Ozarks.
He was born on Jan. 6, 1868 in Franklin County, the firstborn of teenage parents George Washington Woodruff and Susan Rowland Woodruff. His early and young-adult years were spent in the northeast corner of the Ozarks, until he eventually left home at age 16 to make his way in the world.
Those efforts took him to various towns and cities throughout the region, including Stanton, Sullivan, Bourbon, Sedalia and finally Vichy, where wheels were put into motion to affect the rest of his life.
It was in Vichy that he studied at the Normal School. Ultimately, that experience led to his lobbying of the school’s founder (and one of his professors) in 1890 to relocate the school to Steelville. His efforts were successful; it eventually moved, and was known as the Steelville Academy until it closed in 1897.
It was also where he became a lawyer.
Although he had no formal schooling in the law, as was common in those days Woodruff studied on his own for and passed the state bar exam in 1889. Newspaper advertisements regularly touted his services, noting that he specialized in damage suits, with “prompt attention given to collections and land litigation.”
Less than two years later, he began serving as prosecuting attorney of Crawford County. He was only in his early 20s when elected to the position.
In 1896, he was hired as an attorney by the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway. It was a selection greatly celebrated in his home community, as noted in the Mirror newspaper, which printed in January 1896 that “everybody in Crawford County will rejoice to learn of the success of that brilliant young lawyer.”
“‘Tom,’ as he is familiarly known among his associates here, is a self-made young man and through his own efforts has succeeded, thus far, in ascending the ladder of fame,” lauded the newspaper. “Mr. Woodruff is a careful, painstaking young man, and the Frisco company has made a good selection in choosing him to look after their legal business.”
The Frisco was not then yet what it was to become. The rail company was in its infancy, having been in receivership for three years when Woodruff started his job. Six months after he came to the Frisco, in June 1896, it actually sold out of foreclosure.
“Woodruff took a considerable career risk, then, in taking this Frisco job,” noted historian Peters in his biography of Woodruff. “When the Frisco was reincorporated, Woodruff was listed as one of the incorporators.”
The period was a busy one for Woodruff. In September 1896, he wed Jessie May Doak at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Cuba. The couple relocated to St. Louis for his work with the Frisco, and the couple’s daughter — Jessamine — was born in 1898.
It was also a period of civic support for Woodruff. Newspapers report his involvement as a congressional delegate. In March 1890, he was listed as secretary of the “Tariff Reform Club.” He was at least supportive of other betterment efforts, proven by an 1895 newspaper article that notes the “Grain and Grass Committee” met in Woodruff’s office in Steelville. In 1899, the newspaper notes he and other Frisco officials purchased 560 acres of land between Steelville and Cuba to start an apple orchard with 35,000 trees.
A tragic chapter in Woodruff’s life soon followed. In 1899, less than three years after they wed, his wife died of tuberculosis.
It seems the events took a toll on Woodruff’s health. The Mirror reported that a few months later, Woodruff took time to visit his parents, noting “his health is not very good at present.” The strain of his wife’s death could have been the culprit but, given the contagiousness of tuberculosis, it is possible he also had a mild case himself.
The turn of the century brought more change for Woodruff. He married his second wife, Lydia Brand, in October 1901. The couple ultimately had three children together: Susan, John and David. (David later developed a legacy in Springfield and Greene County for his work in the juvenile justice system.)
Also in 1901, Woodruff was promoted to assistant general solicitor for the entire Frisco system.
The job likely took him across the state, but it definitely took him to Springfield, as numerous newspaper accounts tell of his being in town. Tied to his work with the Frisco, he became involved in local affairs even before he moved to town. In March 1903, he is included on a list of officers and directors for the Springfield Trust Company.
In 1904, Woodruff was named Missouri Attorney for the Frisco. That same year, he, his wife and daughter relocated to Springfield, a decision he said in his memoirs was because the city was much closer to his work, given the number of cases that were tied to areas outside of St. Louis.
“...The springs, rivers and wooded hills of the Ozarks were calling me back home,” he wrote. “For better or worse, and with some misgivings, we left St. Louis for Springfield, February 4, 1904.”
Settling in Springfield
After moving to Springfield, Woodruff spent the rest of his life in Southwest Missouri. For approximately 40 years he invested time, money and visionary talent into the region. With his work, the city benefited from a variety of industries and financial investment — which in the early years often came by way of St. Louis — that otherwise would not have happened.
But Woodruff’s influence brought more than business. He elevated Springfield to a new level by posing the Queen City as a hub that the rest of the country couldn’t ignore. His enthusiasm focused on highlighting the finest elements of the region, to the point that he resented the promotion of “hillbilly” culture or tourism tied to it.
“If the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ was on TV during Woodruff’s lifetime, I’m sure he wouldn’t have liked it,” says Peters. “He didn’t like anything that put the region in a slightly less-than-stellar light.”
It would be impossible to list every project Woodruff sparked during his lifetime, but here are a few:
Frisco West Maintenance and Repair Shops
The majority of Woodruff’s work with the Frisco was done before he moved to Springfield. He began with the Frisco in 1896, moved to Springfield in 1904 and resigned from the railway company to pursue other development opportunities in 1909.
However, one of his contributions in his legal position ultimately proved a great benefit to the city as well as to the railroad.
After starting its “north shops” in 1873 on 40 acres of land in North Springfield, the Frisco’s presence quickly expanded within the city. The railroad acquired a lease on rail shops on the south side of town as well in 1901 when its rail systems united. "The consolidation made Springfield the central point of the Frisco and eventually meant much to the city," noted "A Brief History of Springfield," a book about the city's first century.
The shop facilities employed thousands of Springfield men who handled railroad-related repairs and maintenance, and growth was happening rapidly. According to Woodruff’s memoirs, the line grew from 1,052 miles to more than 5,000 between 1896 and 1902.
As the Frisco expanded, there was an “urgent need,” as Woodruff put it, for new and better shops. He learned that three cities were being considered for this construction: St. Louis, Monett and Springfield. In traditional Woodruff style, the lawyer didn’t waste time in advocating for Springfield.
“The chief engineer came here, and I spent three days with him looking over possible sites for a comprehensive shop layout,” Woodruff wrote. “This resulted in his selecting a site at the northwest corner of the city between the main line and the Bolivar Branch. Mr. Gray (the chief engineer) insisted at the outset that they must have a large tract of land. He said that in previous instances they had given no thought to future development. As a result, their operations in yards and terminals were cramped. He said for the new shops they must have at least a half section, or 320 acres. To acquire the property approved by the engineer, it would be necessary to work with 32 different owners.”
Woodruff was up to the task — especially after the city was told that the railroad said that if they were given the land free and clear, they would quickly begin construction and make an expenditure of $2 million or more within two years.
A local real estate name was engaged by Woodruff to secure options on all of the properties in question without disclosing what they were needed for. “Within two weeks, we had written options on every parcel and the purchase price aggregated $45,000,” wrote Woodruff.
On Jan. 27, 1907, the Republican’s headline heralded the news: “Frisco to invest over $1,000,000 in new car shops in Springfield.” The story explained: “New shops will give employment to over one thousand skilled mechanics at the start — immense plant for curing ties and bridge timbers to come with car shops.”
A committee of Woodruff and two Springfield merchants took on the task of collecting pledges. Newspaper accounts make it sound like a north-side versus south-side competition, something that wouldn’t be surprising since the two once were completely separate cities.
Within three weeks, promissory notes for approximately $50,000 were secured from throughout the community — and although they weren’t cash, St. Louis Union Trust Company loaned the money to purchase the land.
Just think: Within three weeks, the city of Springfield got contributions for what would be equal to more than $1 million today. This was also especially noteworthy because, in the past, railroads were seen as risky ventures. To convince so many people to invest would've taken someone with a very persuasive personality.
Work commenced quickly, and the shops were ready for dedication on July 4, 1909. It was such a big day for the city that the Springfield Republican printed a special edition in its honor — and, the day before, warned subscribers that they might want to acquire extra copies. “Get in line,” the paper printed. “Help boost Springfield by sending abroad one or more copies of Southwest Missouri’s greatest newspaper.”
The next day, the paper lived up to its promise: It was filled with content about the new shops, including a panoramic photo of the facilities as well as a detailed description.
It told of the free train service that would take the “throngs of interested sightseers” to the “gigantic” shops: “Thousands of visitors from over the Southwest will assemble in Springfield upon that day to assist in the celebration of the opening of one of the greatest assets of this city. The event, being held on the nation’s birthday, gives opportunity for a monster demonstration in connection with the usual celebration. Thousands will view the new shops, picnic on the beautiful grounds of the great plant and enjoy themselves to the fullest extent.”
There would be absolutely no fireworks, “on account of the danger from fire,” the paper noted. But there would be music, refreshments from church groups and societies, tours of the plant by hundreds of Frisco employees and speeches from several railroad officials. And: “In conclusion, J.T. Woodruff will make an address.”
Another random fact related to Woodruff, Springfield and the Frisco: Given Woodruff’s position with the railroad, there is a good chance he was involved in the decision to “require” Springfield to construct the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge in 1902. It was added to reduce liability from pedestrians crossing to and from Commercial Street over the rail yard.
Fourth State Normal School
It’s difficult if not impossible to imagine Springfield without Missouri State University. The institution sprawls through the city, drawing thousands to Springfield for education and employment.
And it’s in part thanks to Woodruff, who helped its start as the Fourth State Normal School in 1905.
In that day and age, the primary focus of “normal” schools was training teachers, and such an institution was highly sought after. In fact, after plans were announced for a fourth such school to be built in Missouri, this one in the southwest corner of the state, towns including Lamar, El Dorado Springs, Greenfield, Lockwood, Ash Grove, Mountain Grove, Walnut Grove, Marshfield, Lebanon, Aurora, Pierce City, Neosho, Webb City — and yes, Springfield — threw their hats into the ring.
A commission was formed at the state level to evaluate these sites. As part of the deal, the towns were expected to offer up incentives and explanations as to why their location was best for the school.
In Springfield, Woodruff was on the committee that organized these efforts.
“We in Springfield were eager to have the commission visit us in the hope that Springfield might be chosen as the location for the school in the southwest part of the state,” he later wrote.
The reasons for wanting the school were many, some of which were outlined in an advertisement in a Springfield newspaper in July 1905. Primarily, the benefits tied to money and increases in population:
“A Normal School is the best gift a state has at her disposal.” “A school here would soon have an enrollment of 2,000 students and a faculty of 75 teachers.” “The location here would mean 10,000 people added to the present population.” And “Every property owner, every business man and every citizen would receive direct benefit from the location of such an institution here, and as it will be backed by the state no further call will be made for aid when once established and then its permanency is assured.”
Working through the Springfield Club, a precursor to the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, Woodruff worked to raise money for a visit to Jefferson City to extol Springfield’s virtues. More importantly, the group worked to secure a few prospective sites that would be offered for the school if Springfield were selected.
“Springfield’s splendid condition, elevation, educational status and prosperity make an excellent impression on all our neighbors. But this city is especially strong on accessibility. It appears that most of them in presenting their claims showed that the students of the district could get to their places by way of Springfield,” noted a 1905 Springfield newspaper article.
“Our people should be active and manifest a sleepless vigilance in showing these commissioners not only that Springfield is the friend of schools and fostering mother of education, but that she is entirely united in asking for the location of this new state institute.”
While being driven around town, the state evaluation commission members were shown the sites the local committee thought would be acceptable. However, when they passed a place known as the Headly tract, a beautifully wooded spot of around 40 acres, one of the commissioners asked why it hadn’t been offered as an option — to which Woodruff said, ‘It might be if the commission would care to consider it.’”
Truth to tell, the land actually was partially owned by Woodruff. It had been purchased by him and two other local men a few months prior to be used as a residential subdivision.
However, for the good of the community, Woodruff and his partners sacrificed their own development plans.
“Then and there, the commission proposed that if we would give this property to the state and $25,000 in money, they would locate the school in Springfield,” wrote Woodruff.
That, however, wasn’t all of the story.
After agreeing to the terms, Woodruff and others hand-picked a group of around 200 locals to attend a meeting the next night to hear about this announcement. After hearing a presentation by the leader of the state commission and a few other speakers, a local senator read an agreement guaranteeing the gift of cash and land — $41,000 total — by the citizens of Springfield for this venture.
“At this juncture, we closed the doors of the auditorium and announced quite emphatically that no person present would be permitted to leave until each and every one had signed the agreement. Every member of the committee filed pass the table on which the document was spread, and all signed it. After this there was a rush on the part of nearly everyone to sign.”
According to Missouri State University’s website, classes began on June 11, 1906, with 543 students in off-campus facilities. The first building on the Springfield campus, known today as Carrington Hall, was completed in January 1909.
110 years later, the university has grown into one of the region's leading universities with more than 26,000 students in the system, nearly 4,000 employees, four campuses (one of which is in China) and more than 122,000 alumni.
While Woodruff still was busy with his Frisco work, he made time for choice civic endeavors. Soon after his arrival in Springfield, he was quickly installed on the Drury College Board of Trustees, which came at a time of need for the institution.
He was named chairman of the executive committee, ‘the idea being that I might be able to contact some persons friendly toward the cause of education and secure money for Drury,” he later wrote.
Woodruff even personally visited Andrew Carnegie in New York as part of his effort to raise funds for the college.
“I proceeded to tell him something of the history and background of the school, the needs it served and stressed particularly the young men and women of the Ozarks Region,” recalled Woodruff in his memoirs. “He replied that all of that was very persuasive, and inquired as to how long I would be in New York. I told him I had come solely on this mission and was prepared to remain as long as was necessary.”
After meeting with the president of the Carnegie Foundation the next day, Woodruff returned to Springfield. After a special meeting of Drury’s trustees, an application was carefully filled out and returned to the foundation.
“Within a short time, I would say within six weeks, the Foundation granted $50,000, which helped us out mightily,” Woodruff wrote.
Woodruff remained on the Drury board, serving under five presidents, and helping through many projects and campaigns.
Among his other accomplishments, Woodruff became known as a prolific developer, especially in Springfield’s downtown scene. He eventually left his job as a lawyer in 1909 to pursue this passion, but even while in the Frisco’s employ Woodruff’s thoughts turned to construction.
"He got to know the wealthy people of St. Louis. It's where he learned the 'noble' game of golf," says Peters of Woodruff's investors. "At least through the Great Depression, a lot of his money came from St. Louis."
One of his first forays into development came in 1907, when construction was complete on the now-gone Colonial Hotel. Located at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and St. Louis Street, Woodruff built the hotel, which became a landmark for many years. It officially opened on August 1 and, according to the Springfield-Greene County Library District's website, "became the main place in Springfield to have dances, proms and political meetings."
The next year, 1908, he purchased property at the corner of today’s Jefferson Avenue and Park Central East. There, he would build his namesake structure — the Woodruff Building — which would become Springfield’s first skyscraper.
"It contained 276 offices, with a bank, drug store, substation post office, and tobacco shop on the first floor," Woodruff recounted. "There was a billiards parlor, barber shop, and engineers’ quarters in the basement. The Springfield Court of Appeals occupied the tenth floor."
The Woodruff Building opened to the public on Feb. 2, 1911 – but it wasn't the only structure to wow locals. Citizens were invited to tour three of what the Republican described as Springfield’s "newest, most modern, fireproof business structures" that day. The other two were the newspaper’s own facility and another Woodruff creation, the Frisco’s headquarters in the 300 block of North Jefferson Avenue, which he built and owned after leaving his job with the railway.
"That this Trinity of Noble Buildings fittingly sets the pace through the new era of progressiveness for the Queen City of the Ozarks was the verdict of all who visited these structures last night," boasted the Republican on its front page. "A turning point in the Queen City's history was felt to be marked by the magnificent buildings, for in them Springfield was seen to have left behind the garb of a 'town' to take her just place among the important business centers of the Southwest."
The newspaper continued in its glowing recount of the evening:
"The new era of progressiveness was last night seen splendidly exemplified in the new ten-story Woodruff Building at the corner of Jefferson and St. Louis streets, which lifts its head proudly towards the sky like a beacon pointing the way to ever higher city developments. Its modern, well-lighted well-ventilated offices were decided to be the death knell of the dark and dingy offices of the old regime, for now it was made plain all property-owners must keep abreast the times if they desire tenants.
"A mighty railroad, with lines extending North, South, East and West, paid silent tribute last night before the throngs of visitors to the importance of Springfield as a commercial center in the erection of a mammoth home for the general offices of the Frisco System at the corner of Jefferson and Olive streets. Hand-in-hand the Frisco and Springfield have grown to places of importance in the country, and hand-in-hand the city and the corporation will go on through the years to come toward the goal of prosperity."
That year was a busy one for Woodruff and Springfield residents, who had a variety of grand openings to attend. In fact, there was another such opening less than a month before the aforementioned trio of buildings was unveiled to the public -- and one of them was another of Woodruff's projects: The Sansone Hotel, which was located on St. Louis Street back then, Park Central East now.
Known in the 21st century as The Sterling, Woodruff built the European-styled facility but leased it to Charlie Sansone, who previously operated a restaurant but lost his equipment in a blaze that burned the Baldwin Theater to the ground in 1909.
The next year, Woodruff acquired 76 acres that he would subdivide as a residential neighborhood called Country Club District.
"We laid out the eastern boundary, a highway we called Glenstone Road,” wrote Woodruff. “That road is the eastern boundary of the city and extends beyond the limits both north and south. Glenstone Road is one of the popular boulevards, a part of the boundaries boulevard system. The word 'Glenstone' was used because it was rather alluring."
In the early 1920s, Woodruff expanded his efforts away from Springfield and opened Pinebrook Inn, a resort in rural Howell County around 100 miles east of Springfield. Back in Springfield in 1925, Woodruff took on another great hotel project: The Kentwood Arms Hotel, which was formally opened on July 30, 1926.
"The hotel bids fair to become one of the most popular places of entertainment, comfort and rest in the city, according to the general consensus of opinion expressed last night," noted a Republican article after the grand opening event. "The traveling public is rapidly being attracted to the new hotel as was evidenced yesterday by the large number of rooms sold. The hotel was opened last Saturday morning for business and the first person to register gave his address as San Francisco. Guests from widely separated points of the country are daily registering at the hotel."
In connection with the hotel, Woodruff expanded opportunities for something he's said to have brought to the Ozarks: the game of golf.
Initially, he helped introduce it to town via the Springfield Country Club, which was located near Sunshine Street and Glenstone Avenue, and of which he was a charter board member. However, by the end of the 1920s, the business was experiencing difficulties, and Woodruff went forward with his own plans: Hickory Hills.
"Hickory Hills golf course, also owned and developed by Mr. Woodruff and located four miles east of Springfield on the Cherry Street road, will be operated in connection with the hotel, in that all guests of the Kentwood Arms may enjoy the privileges of the course upon payment of the regular greens fee, Mr. Woodruff said yesterday," noted the Republican in April 1926.
"'The great game of golf has become so great a part of our American program that it seemed inconceivable to me that Kentwood Arms should not boast a golf course,'" Woodruff told the newspaper reporter. "'The man who plays golf can touch elbows with the world and it seems highly probable that Springfield will soon become one of the golf centers of this section of the country.'"
Three months after the Kentwood opened, Route 66 was officially commissioned and took people right in front of the hotel from across the country. Three years after it opened, however, the Great Depression ravaged the nation, making it a challenging time to be in business.
Woodruff, however, weathered the storm.
"The Great Depression was tough," says historian Peters. "Woodruff was really proud that he never had to declare bankruptcy, which is pretty amazing considering what he was doing."
Camdenton and Bagnell Dam
Despite its distance from Springfield, Camdenton became another key project of Woodruff's. He is credited with creating – and naming – the town.
Camdenton came to be in the early 1930s with the creation of Bagnell Dam, which flooded the old community of Linn Creek.
But why was Woodruff involved? Fundamentally, it was because of his brother.
"Early in 1930, my brother William told me that two of his friends residing there sought to interest me in an effort to relocate the county seat. He was very insistent that I go with him to Linn Creek to look into the matter. So I went and he introduced me to Clinton Webb and James Banner, both prominent in affairs of that community. The State Highway Department saw the necessity of relocating some of the highway - particularly those portions seriously affected by the dam and the lake that would be formed upstream. The highways affected were State Highway 5 and Federal Highway 54. The highway engineers had made preliminary surveys of these. The two crossed at a point about four miles south of the then-county seat, Linn Creek. ... It was plain enough to us that here should be the site of the new county seat."
"We formed a little syndicate composed of Webb, Banner, William and myself, and acquired 320 acres of land at that spot. Shortly afterward, we petitioned the county court of Camden County to call an election to vote on the removal of the county seat at Linn Creek."
Despite some opposition, Woodruff led the way of Camdenton’s development and establishment as the county seat.
"The politicking and concerns from detractors of the idea to move the county seat were intense for several months, but by election day in November 1930 the campaign to move the county seat of Camden County to the new town of Camdenton won easily," wrote Peters. "During this type of political buffeting, Woodruff usually remained calm and focused on the desired outcome and the preferred future. He rarely took No for an answer. He patiently persisted in marshaling and applying 'the more constructive forces' until they carried the day. He seemed to apply patience more than brow-beating and bullying to advance his projects and realize his vision."
Although he would not live to see its success, Woodruff was also an advocate in other area dam projects along the White River, including Table Rock for power and flood control.
He spoke about the prospect in 1926, when a group of realtors was visiting the Colonial Hotel in Springfield. Throughout the 1930s, he served as chair of the White River Projects Committee of the Springfield Chamber. In July 1935, he presented a $35 million, four-dam plan to the state works administrator, which primarily focused on the generation of electricity.
In April 1936, he traveled to Washington D.C. for a series of meetings about funding for a dam at Table Rock. In 1940, he spoke before the U.S. House Committee on Flood Control about the prospect of a dam of the White River and its tributaries, which he pitched as a support for flood control.
Finally, in July 1941, the U.S. Senate passed a $275 million bill that included authorization to build dams at both Bull Shoals and Table Rock.
Woodruff's support of these efforts was so great that the Springfield Chamber voted in 1942 to propose the Table Rock's dam to be named Woodruff Dam.
World War II put a hold on plans, but not on Woodruff's enthusiasm. In May 1945, he and 200 other boosters formed the White River Valley Association "to urge immediate construction of multi-purpose White river dams at Bull Shoals in Arkansas and Table Rock in Missouri," noted the Joplin Globe newspaper that same month.
Sadly, Woodruff died before he saw Table Rock's dam completed and the lake filled. And while the idea of naming it Woodruff Dam was again proposed after his passing, the decade between his death and its completion seemingly dimmed the idea in popular opinion.
Route 66 and 65
What was to become the Main Street of America never should’ve come through Springfield.
Thanks to Woodruff, however, this iconic highway would not only bring thousands of travelers through Springfield, but it would also connect the city with the rest of the country.
In simplistic terms, Woodruff saw the value of connectivity. From his work with the Frisco, he saw the need for ease of transport and travel; such thoughts also were made clear through his later advocacy for flying when the medium began to emerge.
More than anything, though, Woodruff saw the value in good roads and their ability to easily link all sorts of people and businesses with the rest of the world. Thanks to him, Springfield became the so-called “Crossroads of America” by the intersection of Route 65, Route 60 and the iconic Route 66.
“By and large, this community has profited much, probably more, from highway development than from any other one thing,” Woodruff wrote in his memoirs..
After coming to Springfield, and long before Route 66 fame began, Woodruff was working on a local scale to promote “good roads.”
He helped the Greene County Court (today’s County Commission) to incorporate a Southeastern Special Road district, which led to the creation of 36 such districts in the community and later others outside of it. In 1915, he became chair of the Greater Springfield Committee, which helped organize the Inter-Ozarks Highway Association. Then came work with the Ozarks Trails Convention, and efforts to “Lift Missouri Out of the Mud.”
In 1921, Woodruff was president of the Springfield Chamber when the organization led a movement to build an automobile highway around the city.
Just a few years later, he would make history on an international scale. He is believed to have attended a meeting in Springfield — likely held in his namesake Woodruff Building — by highway officials and promoters who requested the federal government name a long-fought stretch of road Route 66.
The request was the result of a long battle to name the highway, which stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles. There was much debate over its name, which originally was to be 60. However, the number 66 was eventually offered as a concession. And finally, they learned the suggestion was approved.
“We talk about the story of when they sent the telegram to Washington D.C. to name the road, but the real work began after it was approved,” says Peters.
That work was led by the U.S. 66 Highway Association, which was organized the next year, and Woodruff became its president.
“One hundred and thirty-seven delegates from 32 cities of the Southwest, meeting here (Tulsa) today, organized the National Highway No. 66 Association and elected John T. Woodruff of Springfield, Mo., its first president,” read a datelined story from Tulsa printed the Springfield Daily News on Feb. 5, 1927. “From Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico the delegates gathered in Tulsa today determined that Highway 66, which runs from Chicago via St. Louis to Los Angeles, shall in fact become the ‘main street of America.’”
Around 15 years later, Woodruff already looked back at such moments and sentiments with pride in what had been accomplished.
“I make no claim that the Highway 66 Association is responsible for the popularity of the highway, but I do contend that the efforts of the Association advanced its completion by several years,” wrote Woodruff. “I have assisted in many other highway projects, but none thus far as interesting as U.S. Highway 66, “The Main Street of America.”
Two years after Route 66 came to be, Woodruff was already advocating for another means of travel: air, and the establishment of a “more modern” Springfield airport in connection with the Chamber.
“This city should be vitally interested in aviation, which will write the future of nations — as Springfield is so located to reap great returns from investments made now in this new sphere of activity,” he said via pages of the Springfield Leader in January 1928.
“‘But,’ Mr. Woodruff said, ‘if Springfield is to reap the full advantage of the opportunity now offered, it must act quickly before some other city in southern Missouri sees the great advantage offered us and takes the action we should take now.”
U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners
While the Great Depression did not affect southwest Missouri the same as some other regions across the country, the need for work still visited town.
When the chance to provide jobs came as well, Woodruff and other community leaders jumped on the opportunity — even if it meant providing nearly 450 acres of land free and clear to the federal government and bringing a prison to the outskirts of the city.
It all tied to 1928, when Sanford Bates, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, launched an initiative to “scientifically treat mental delinquents,” as Woodruff put it, in numerous federal prisons. That year, Congress authorized the construction of a facility to be built in the central United States.
“Many cities entered into competition for the enterprise, Springfield among them,” Woodruff wrote. “The requirements: A large tract of land suitable for the purpose and near enough to a city that public service facilities would be available.”
Woodruff notes that the Springfield Chamber took this project on “as never before to win this coveted prize.”
After Bates visited the city, and the land was offered to him gratis, Springfield was selected as the site less than a month later.
“Within a month, Springfield was selected and the Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign to raise the money,” wrote Woodruff. “Dr. S.F. Freeman, president, appointed a committee composed of Senator F.M. McDavid, C.W. Moody, Louis Reps, and myself.”
On April 1, 1931, the Springfield Daily News proclaimed that fundraising efforts had been a success. “Hospital $8,500 over goal,” the headline read.
“Title to the federal prison hospital site southwest of Springfield, upon which a $3,000,000 institution will be built during the next 18 months, today passed from Louis Meyer to the United States of America,” the newspaper noted. “A general warranty deed to the 445-acre tract was handed today to Louis W. Reps and John T. Woodruff, leaders of the hospital drive, after Springfield last night had swept over the top by $8,500 in its campaign to raise $133,500 necessary to purchase the land for the federal government.”
“Plans were launched today by chairmen of the Chamber of Commerce hospital drive committees for a citywide banquet one night next week, probably at the Shrine Mosque, in celebration of the campaign’s success and in special tribute to Mr. Reps and Mr. Woodruff. Every citizen of Springfield will be invited to the banquet.”
O’Reilly General Army Hospital
One of Woodruff’s last contributions to Springfield (in his lifetime, at least) came in 1940, when he sent a telegram to Eugene Reibold, a brigadier general and acting assistant chief of staff of the War Department:
“News dispatches indicate War Department soon to establish hospital in Seventh Corp Area. If such an enterprise is being considered, Springfield is deeply interested and wishes very much to present facts in support of its claim strictly on merit. Springfield is nearer the new training Rolla Center than any sizable city and we believe possesses many, possibly all of the features desired for such an institution. The successful operation of the Federal Medical Center, built here ten years ago, proves the wisdom of the choice. Be assured we are ready and eager to cooperate in any manner possible. We will donate site eligible in all respects.”
Despite the telegram, Kansas City was initially chosen by a committee evaluating prospective sites. However, the report wasn’t ultimately approved — and another committee came back to Springfield. That time, Springfield was selected.
Within two weeks, Woodruff wrote, he and Louis Reps raised the $70,000 necessary to purchase the land.
“The project is now underway and promises to be another great asset to the city,” he wrote.
Who knows if even Woodruff could envision what O’Reilly would become: a city-like presence all its own.
“Receiving is first patient a month before Pearl Harbor, the 3922-bed hospital comprising 258 buildings was ideally located on the fairways of beautiful Glenstone Country Club approximately two miles from the heart of Springfield, Mo.,” noted the final issue of “The Shamrock,” O’Reilly’s newspaper, which was printed in August 1946. “In addition to this 500 beds were available over a year’s period at Southwest Missouri State College for convalescent patients.”
The paper also notes other statistics: In less than five years, there were 115,000 X-rays taken, 69 operations daily (at its peak), 82,286 dental fillings, 42,282 patients and more than 6,500 employees.
Later years and lasting impact
Woodruff wasn’t in Springfield long enough thereafter to see the heyday of O’Reilly. He didn’t, in fact, even live in Springfield at the end of his life.
Dates conflict, but some years before his death, Woodruff relocated to Pinebrook Inn, the resort he started in Howell County. He retained a spot as a “director” of the Chamber, but was seemingly little involved physically in Springfield. Perhaps his influence had dwindled in some ways, or locals near the end of his time in Springfield didn't fully understand him: He ran for mayor in 1936 and 1940, but lost both elections.
"These failed attempts to become mayor indicate that Woodruff was not broadly understood and supported in the community," writes Peters in his book.
In January 1949, Woodruff died while visiting his daughter in Minnesota. It was a quiet end to a life that accomplished so much. Yes, for Springfield — but also for the region, country and world.
There were dreams that he didn’t see accomplished during his lifetime but, nevertheless, his life made a significant and far-reaching difference. A longtime advocate for the idea of Table Rock Dam, his efforts paid off in 1959, when 50 years after the dedication of Frisco’s shops, the dam was dedicated.
Newspaper articles upon his death hailed his accomplishments. Others at times predicted that many monuments would be erected in his honor. The day after his death, a Springfield newspaper wrote its editorial in his honor:
“Springfield today is a city in which its inhabitants, new and old, take pride — and with reason. Modern development of a crossroads village, it is therefore still a transportation center, operation center of the Frisco railroad, a trade and tourist center on transcontinental highway 66, and with modern airport facilities; a city of modern office buildings, fine hotels, an excellent state college, an attractive country club, two large government institutions.
"The thousands of new Springfieldians who have swelled the city’s population in the past decade share the civic satisfaction in all these things and many more.
"But they never can realize, as the older residents cannot fail to realize, how all of these things were so largely the result of one man’s efforts, one man’s vision and energy."
Passing years have largely seen Woodruff's name pass from memory. However, his legacy was revived in 1999, when Woodruff was heralded by Springfield News-Leader columnist Mike O'Brien as the city's "Most Influential Springfieldian" of the 20th century.
And while several buildings he owned and built still stand, the last remaining “monument” to his name faded away in 2015: The Woodruff Building, standing at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Park Central East, was remodeled into student housing and renamed Sky Eleven.
But perhaps that would not have bothered Woodruff, a man who loved the best in the region and worked to make it better.
"I think people should remember him as more than just a developer,” says Peters. “He did things even if he knew they wouldn't make any money. If he thought it was the right thing to do, he'd do it.
"Most of the projects he did were successful, but that's not why he did them. He was just a true Ozarker, and he believed in the region."
"A Brief History of Springfield, Missouri," Kenneth Shuck, 1974
“Alumni of school defunct 39 years will meet today,” Gasconade County Republican, June 25, 1936
"Christened 'Camdenton,'" Springfield Leader, Dec. 8, 1930
"City turns out en masse to visit beautiful trio of modern fireproof office buildings, just completed," Springfield Republican, Feb. 3, 1911
“Death of Mrs. Jessie May Woodruff,” Crawford Mirror, July 27, 1899
"Eighteen-hole golf course feature of new hotel," Springfield Republican, April 26, 1926
“Everything is in ready for celebration of opening of Frisco’s gigantic shops,” Springfield Republican, July 4, 1909
“Frisco to invest over $1,000,000 in new car shops in Springfield,” Springfield Republican, Jan. 27, 1907
“Fund for purchase of site practically assured,” Springfield Republican, Feb. 9, 1907
"Hotel Sansone is opened in blaze of beauty and glory," Springfield Republican, Jan. 11, 1911
“John T. Woodruff,” Crawford Mirror, July 9, 1891
“John T. Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri, in the Ozarks,” Thomas A. Peters, 2016
“John T. Woodruff elected to head ’66’ association,” Springfield Daily News, Feb. 5, 1927
“John Thomas Woodruff,” Springfield Leader & Press
"Many attend dinner dance," Springfield Republican, July 30, 1926
“The O’Reilly Shamrock,” August 1946
“Reminiscences of an Ozarkian and early tourism developments,” John T. Woodruff, 1941
“The Republican’s special edition (advertisement), Springfield Republican, July 3, 1909
"Search for 'Most Influential Springfieldian' is over," Mike O'Brien, Springfield News-Leader, Sept. 6, 1999
“Springfield is still leading,” Springfield Republican, July 20, 1905
“Springfield of the Ozarks,” Harris and Phyllis Dark, 1981
“Urges modern airport here,” Springfield Leader, Jan. 15, 1928
Advertisement (State Normal School), Springfield Republican, July 2, 1905
No headline (Frisco appointment), Crawford Mirror, Jan. 2, 1896
No headline (Tariff Reform Club), Crawford Mirror, March 19, 1890
No headline (Grain and Grass Committee), Crawford Mirror, Aug. 29, 1895
No headline (marriage), Crawford Mirror, Sept. 3, 1896
No headline (apple orchard), Crawford Mirror, Feb. 23, 1899
No headline (ill health), Crawford Mirror, Aug. 17, 1899
Advertisement (Springfield Trust Company), Springfield Republican, March 13, 1903