Have You Been To Phenix?
by Loretta J. Goodwin
Buildings across the nation hold clues to the existence of a town north of Springfield that has all but vansihed. The once-thriving town of Phenix, Missouri--just south of Walnut Grove on Farm Road 43--was the home of one of the country's largest marble-producing quarries, and it was all discovered by accident.
When the Memphis & Gulf railroad blasted a roadbed through the present site of the town in the late 1800s, a lime manufacturer by the name of Patrick Dugan noticed that there were good veins of limestone in the area. Patrick Dugan started a lime kiln that turned out to be a very successful business.
The Kansas City, Clinton, and Springfield railroad was built in the 1890s, and its route included Phenix. The growth of the town was unquestionably aided by the existence of two railroads.
In the early 1900s, the Phenix Stone and Lime Company was sold and it then became known as the Phenix Marble Company. When it was discovered that Phenix stone was of such a high quality, the burning of lime was halted and the workers concentrated on the marble.
A marble finisher from Milwaukee, W. J. Grant, discovered the stone would take a high polish. It is said that the Phenix stone "polished like glass."
After the marble was cut, there were crews who polished it. Craftsmen, all the way from Italy, were brought in to polish the stone.
The gray marble extracted from the quarry resembled a French marble developed at the time of Napoleon. This is how the trade name, Napoleon Gray Marble, came about.
The glossy marble was used in many locations. In 1929, some 50 railroad car loads of Napoleon Gray Marble were shipped from the Phenix company to San Francisco to be used in the new 34-story Russ Building being constructed. It was the tallest building in San Francisco at that time.
Other major sales included the Petroleum Securities building in Los Angeles, the Southwestern Bell Telephone building in Kansas City, and the Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City.
But not only did Phenix marble dominate the construction of the Missouri Capitol building in Jefferson City, Phenix marble also was used in both the Greene County Courthouse and the Greene County Jail.
One of the finest stone buildings ever built can be seen at 820 Cherry, in Springfield. It is the First & Calvary Presbyterian Church. The original building for the First Presbyterian Church (as it was then called) was built in 1929. All the marble used in that building came from the Phenix quarries.
The men who worked for the quarry were hard workers. The quarry operated year-round and the men had to be willing to work long, laborious hours. The average worker put in 10 hour days, six days a week.
The men worked in the hot, scorching sun in the summer and also when the frigid north wind whipped around their bodies in the winter.
Depending on the job they did, the men were paid from 30 to 50 cents an hour. By today's standards that seems like incredibly low wages, but in the 1900s it was considered very good money.
The work was hard. Early workers stripped stone by pick and shovel. The rock was cut by a steam-driven machine called a channeler. It ran on a track, channeling up and down the rock, making a groove about two inches wide. rock that was scrapped was hauled by horses and wagons to a dump site--and some of that scrap still can be seen in the vicinity of old Phenix today.
In 1922, a power house was built in Phenix. Saws inside the mill were run by electricity. The saw blades were made of steel and had no teeth. They could be set for any desired thickness. Flint, sand, and water were poured over the blades to help cut the stone into small blocks.
The men needed a place to relax after working all week, so on payday they would go to Ash Grove or Walnut Grove. They spent a lot of money in those two towns. It has been said that on a Saturday night you couldn't find a parking place in either town.
Sometimes the men got pretty wild, especially when they got hold of some cider. When things started to get a little out of hand, a Phenix pastor by the name of Norman A. Goode, came to straighten them out. It is said that he succeeded quite well at that task.
Phenix had a train depot, a general store, a post office, two hotels, a Methodist Church, a recreation hall, and a school house.
The Phenix company built about 32 houses in town and rented them out to the residents. The houses were three and four rooms each. They were considered large for that period in time. A few even had electricity which was definitely a luxury. Something else that was interesting about those houses were the colors. They were painted alternately red and yellow by the company.
So how did such a prosperous town almost disappear? Some say it was due to the Depression. Others say money and politics played a role--substitutes could be bought elsewhere at a cheaper price. Still others say it was because all the choice stone had been removed from the quarry.
Whatever the reason, business at the Phenix Marble Company slowed down. During the 1930s, only a few men still worked at the quarry to fill small orders.
Many people had to leave Phenix to find new jobs. All the houses that could be moved were loaded up and the houses and the people went on to new places. Workers were allowed to buy the homes they had lived in, and they paid $75 each for the three-room houses, and $85 each for the four-room houses.
In 1945, the company was sold to the Vermont Marble Company, which was headquartered in New England. And about 1952, the Vermont company sold to the Carthage Marble Company. In recent years, sections of the land once owned by the Phenix Marble Company have been sold to different individuals.
Not much is left in Phenix. About all that remains of the "old Phenix" for people to see is the quarry, the power house, the lime kilns, and one old stone house.
But for people like Velma Ooley, who was born in Phenix, and Avis Brady, who lived there most of his life, there are always memories. They can picture in their minds the quarry, and the way the town used to look. This cannot be taken away from them.
There are a lot of other people who don't want to forget the way Phenix was. On Sunday, June 26, 1988, a "Phenix Folks Reunion" was held in Ash Grove. More than 90 people came to reminisce and renew old friendships. They came from as far away as California.
If you had been there you might have heard them talking about anything from grandchildren to Bonnie Parker, of the famed Bonnie and Clyde duo.
One man said he and Bonnie Parker went to school together in Phenix. It also was noted that an uncle of Bonnie Parker once worked in the quarry.
One thing is certain...as long as people pass on their memories to others, Phenix will always be remembered!