By Vicki A. Brady
Nestled in the backdrop of the forest and rolling Ozarks, next to the gentle Little Piney, lies the quiet community of Newburg, Missouri. At first glance, visitors recognize that the town has seen better day, but upon closer examination, Newburg has all the qualities of an ancient phoenix, ready to rise from the ashes and be born again.
One of the earliest recorded settlers to Newburg was William Coppedge, who in 1823, manufactured gunpowder using potassium nitrate, or saltpetre, from a nearby cave. Incorporated as Newburgh in 1883 with, the added “h”, the name was changed to Newburg when the post office misspelled the name. The town was essentially built by St. Louis- San Francisco Railway, Frisco for short, as a changing station, providing maintenance and crews for the railroad. By 1920, Newburg was a thriving community of over 1,200 citizens, hosting the famous Houston House Hotel, numerous grocery stores, restaurants, service stations, motels and the Lyric Live Theatre (known then as The Community Theater.) Life was good, work was plentiful, and optimism ran high.
On June 8, 1945, a sudden cloudburst sent a 10-foot wall of water rushing through Newburg, killing five people and ripping over 30 homes from their foundations. Guards and German Prisoners of War from Fort Leonard Wood were dispatched to help citizens with search, rescue, and recovery. The mayor’s wife and daughter were among the lives lost, yet the town pulled together and began the long process of rebuilding.
After WWII, another disaster befell Newburg, by the name of progress. New technology created diesel engines which could run much longer distances than the old coal ones, so the Newburg stop was closed. As the freight yards, roundhouse, and turntable were removed, slowly the town dwindled to less than 450 residents.
On the Horizon
Newburg may have been down for awhile, but like the phoenix, new life seems to be emerging. In 2008, Dr. Elizabeth te Groen, having traveled all over the world, chose Newburg as the home of an amazing children’s museum. The Newburg Children’s Museum is the only natural history museum between Springfield and St. Louis, housing thousands of fossils, seashells, African artifacts, and children’s activity centers.
On Friday evenings, people come from all around, even as far away as St. Louis and Oklahoma to Blues Too Restaurant and Dance Hall to kick up their heels and enjoy down-home cooking. Roy and Pat Stevenson, owners and members of the Together Again band, have a heart for Newburg and a vision for its future. Their restaurant is open for breakfast from 5:00 until 10:00 a.m. Monday through Friday, and for dinner on Friday from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m.
On most weekend, Lyric Live Theatre, established in 1919, performs plays and musicals frequently written by local playwrights. Next year, it will be celebrating its 100-year anniversary with special plans and performances in the works.
Looking to the Future
Every Thursday morning, members of the ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out) Club meet for breakfast at Blues Too Restaurant in Newburg. Most of the men were born or raised in Newburg and remember the days when there were as many as three grocery stores, five restaurants, and multiple service stations in town. In his five-volume series Newburg History in Pictures, Bob Forester tells the story of a Newburg bristling with activity; when men worked on the trains, went into the military, played baseball, and weathered disasters. He recalls the introduction of electricity to the community and the day “Ray” traded 25 hens and one rooster for twenty- five acres. The books were helpful resources for this article and are available through the Phelps County Historical Society. While friends and relatives in Newburg fondly remember the past, they are still making plans for the future. It was even suggested that Newburg would make a perfect movie set for serious productions.
Newburg will be celebrating Newburg Days on June 8-9 and it is a perfect opportunity for outsiders to get a peek at this remarkable community with all of its history and potential. The festivities include a parade, crafts, vendors, food, and music. For more information follow their Facebook page, Newburg Days Celebration.