I was born in 1944 at Cottage Hospital, where Dr. Claude Bohrer delivered a generation of Howell County newborns. I grew up with my brothers, Rick and Russ, on Cass Avenue, just a couple of blocks from Peoples Park, where our childhood play included exploring the shaded property of the Parkside estate.
At that time, we didn’t know the stately mansion had a name, or that it had formerly been the residence of R.S. Hogan. To us, it was simply Dr. Bohrer’s house, a grand edifice with a huge yard that had an almost mythical quality.
It was the home of a very important man in our community, yes, but I would later learn Parkside’s significance ran far deeper than we knew.
In 1978, I returned to my hometown to serve as editor and feature writer for the West Plains Gazette, a magazine devoted to recording the history of West Plains. My first major writing project was a two-part feature on the history of Parkside, detailing the impact of R.S. Hogan, Parkside’s builder, on early 20th century West Plains, and the equally noteworthy accomplishments of Parkside’s second owner, Dr. E. Claude Bohrer.
Robert S. “Bob” Hogan arrived in West Plains in 1885 at the age of 33 and soon established himself in a boom town that had risen from annihilation during the Civil War to a population approaching 3,000, making it the primary cultural and business center of south central Missouri. In 1895, after two terms as Howell County Clerk, he was elected president of West Plains Bank, a position he held until his death in 1934. During his tenure of nearly 40 years, the bank rose from modest beginnings to become one of the most respected financial institutions in all the Ozarks.
Bob Hogan was a walking man. Mornings, he’d stride the mile from Parkside to the bank, walk back home for lunch, then back to the bank for the afternoon’s business before another walk home at day’s end. Several days a week, he’d invite someone to join him for lunch. It might be a friend, a bank customer, an out-of-town visitor, or one of his many grandchildren, but whoever it was, they’d walk briskly to and from Parkside.
During these walks, Hogan was an attentive listener, more interested in what his guests had to say than talking himself. This helps explain why every day, there would be a line of people inside the bank, all waiting their turn to consult privately with him on financial matters or, often times, seeking his advice on personal issues.
With an unblemished reputation for fairness, discretion, and integrity, his word was taken as law. The fact that he was referred to by townspeople as “Uncle Bob” was not merely a colloquial expression. He was regarded by many as a trusted friend and extended family member.
A singular event serves as a metaphor for measuring his impact. It was in the late teens, after America had entered World War I, when the war effort had drained the region of its most able men. That, plus a period of extended drought, had brought the local economy to a point of crisis. During this difficult time, the State Banking Commission in Jefferson City started pressuring the bank to foreclose on a growing number of past due loans.
Bob Hogan came from humble beginnings in Tennessee and knew from personal experience what the bank’s customers were facing. Many were struggling just to survive and the banking commission was giving the order to abandon them. His response was classic Ozarks independence.
In his written reply, Hogan basically told the State Banking Commission to back off, saying we had our own way of doing things down here, that we were all in this thing together, and that he was confident the bank’s customers would make good on their loans in due time.
And he was right. The area did rebound and almost all those “bad” loans were paid. As word got out about what he’d done, it’s not hard to imagine how the hearts of many swelled with love and respect for this quiet man who stood up for them when the chips were down. Children were named after him.
About a year after Bob Hogan’s death, his estate was disbursed according to his will, and the remaining household effects sold at public auction. Among the crowd who attended that sale were Dr. and Mrs. (Thelma) Bohrer. After learning that none of Hogan’s heirs were interested in retaining its ownership, they purchased Parkside and took up residence there in 1935.
After 10 years of study and residency, Eldon Claude Bohrer received his M.D. degree from Washington University, returning to West Plains in 1923 to begin private practice. As a practicing physician and surgeon, he rose to prominence in state medical circles, while also joining his local community as an active participant in effortts to improve quality of life, both medically and culturally. Among his many contributions, he served for 15 years on the West Plains school board, 12 as its president, and was serving as president of the Missouri State Medical Association at the time of his death in 1952.
Beyond the practice of medicine, his interests were music, tennis, book collecting, and photography. An avid shutterbug, he took long walks around West Plains and the surrounding countryside, taking pictures to be developed and printed in his basement dark room. Thankfully, Thelma Bohrer entrusted the Gazette with his archive of photos, all carefully mounted and captioned in a series of scrapbooks. Over time, almost all his images were published in various issues, preserving and sharing a visual history which otherwise could have been lost.
Dr. Bohrer had a saintly quality, treating every patient with the same attention and respect regardless of their social status or ability to pay. A vivid personal memory exemplifies what he meant to the people of West Plains.
I was not quite 8-years-old and happened to be in the kitchen with my mother when the phone rang. It was my dad, and I was watching when the expression on mom’s face suddenly changed. She hung up and just stood there, motionless. “Mom,” I said, “What’s wrong?” Suddenly she hugged me close and began to cry, sobbing like I’d never seen. “Dr. Bohrer died,” she said. He had delivered her three sons and had doctored us all through whatever sickness came our way, and now he was gone. I cried too, and I’m sure there were similar reactions all over Howell County as news of his passing spread.
It was January of 1952 when his funeral was held at First Christian Church, where he was a lifelong member. The crowd that came to pay their respects remains the largest in the history of the church. The main sanctuary, with seating for around 350 people, overflowed until the church basement also filled to capacity, leaving a large number to stand on the church’s front steps, huddled against the winter cold to hear the services through outdoor speakers. His unexpected death stunned a grieving community. The only time in my life that compares came when I was in class at the University of Missouri and someone walked in to tell us President Kennedy had been shot. Some may think I’m exaggerating, but those old enough to remember the time of Dr. Bohrer’s passing know better.
Thelma Bohrer stayed on at Parkside until 1965, when advancing age forced her to move to a smaller home. Twice saved from the brink of destruction in 1977, Parkside was dedicated to public use as Butler Children’s Park in 1979.
Now there is once again talk of tearing it down. Now our city government is prepared to vote to destroy the home of the man who single-handedly saved the homes and farms, in fact, the lives of an untold number of families, to sign the death warrant for one of the town’s last remaining important landmarks, the home of a beloved doctor who escorted hundreds of our kith and kin into and out of this world.
With so much of our historic legacy already gone, the demolition of an irreplaceable historic structure that has stood intact for 112 years would be nothing short of cultural sacrilege.
The city government’s mission statement is “serving the West Plains community through innovation and excellence.” I fail to see any innovation or excellence in tearing down Parkside just to be freed from the responsibilities the city agreed to in accepting its ownership, especially when the volunteers and supporters of Friends of Parkside are ready, willing and able to take up the cause of its preservation and return to useful function.
Let’s once and for all banish the idea of tearing it down and focus instead on its positive potential. A restored Parkside can and should become a shining example of the rich heritage and community pride that makes West Plains unique.
Yes, it will cost money to revitalize the property, but what worthy cause doesn’t? The past is the repository of our shared experience, from which comes the wisdom to make decisions that will enhance the future, not steal from it. To be unmindful of this is like trying to sail a ship without a rudder. West Plains has always been, and still is, better than that.
Those of us speaking out in defense of Parkside know saving and utilizing it presents serious challenges, but mutual respect, creative thinking and a positive, can-do attitude will make it happen. The time has come to join forces and do the right thing. Preserve Parkside for the common good of our past, present, and future.