Shelby County Towns and Villages


At the organization the county was divided for voting purposes into two townships, North River and Black Creek. Afterward and for many years, it was divided into eight townships: Black Creek, Bethel, Clay, Jackson, Jefferson, Salt River, Taylor and Tiger Fork. Lately Lentner and North River have been added, making ten. At the time of the organization a commission was appointed to select a place for the future county seat. This commission was composed of Elias Kinchloe of Marion, James Lay of Lewis, and Joseph Hardy of Ralls.


This commission selected the land where Shelbyville now stands as it was near the center of the county. A title was obtained and a plat made for a town, leaving a square in the center for the courthouse. Then the village commenced. The first county and circuit courts were held at the house of W. B. Broughton at Oak Dale and Shelbyville in 1838. Afterward wings were built to this for the use of the county and the circuit clerk and this building was used for over fifty years, when it was consumed by fire. Then a good, substantial courthouse was erected with ample accommodations for clerks at a cost of only twenty-five thousand dollars; but building material and labor were much cheaper then than now.

The first levy for taxes made by the county court was twelve and one-half cents on the hundred dollars and poll tax thirty-seven and one-half cents. At the close of the year Collector Duncan reported a delinquent list amounting to two dollars and sixty cents. How much he collected is not stated. Russell W. Moss received for his services as assessor twelve dollars and seventy-five cents.

The first circuit court was held in November, 1835, at the house of W. W. Broughton, Hon. H. McBride, judge of the second judicial circuit, presiding;

Robert Duncan, sheriff; Thomas J. Bounds, clerk. The grand jury reported no business. Three attorneys, all from Palmyra, were present: J. Quinn Thornton, John Heard and James L. Minor, The last named was afterward secretary of state.

Only two cases were before the court: one was for partition and the other was dismissed. The total expense of the term was sixteen dollars, eighty-seven and one-half cents.

The next term was in July, 1836, at the same place; and the third term in December of that year at the house of Thomas J. Bounds in Shelbyville. At the July term the first indictment was found. It charged Henry Meadly with grand larceny; but the case was dismissed. In 1838 a number of persons were indicted for gaming, playing ''loo.'' Of these, one was fined five dollars, one two dollars, one one dollar and the others escaped clear. Shelby has had less crime than most sections of the country; especially in homicide has it been below the average. The first one occurred in 1839 when John L. Faber shot and killed John Bishop in the tavern at Shelbyville. Faber and Thomas J. McAfee were fighting and Bishop went to Faber's aid; Faber, being in close quarters, drew his pistol and discharged it, thinking he was shooting McAfee but he killed his friend, Bishop. On preliminary examination he was released and never indicted. The second homicide occurred in 1842, in what is now Taylor Township, when Daniel Thomas was killed by Philip Upton. Thomas had spoken slanderously of Upton's daughter. The former had a pistol and the latter a rifle. At the preliminary' examination Upton was discharged on the ground that he did the killing in self-defense; but subsequently he was indicted and convicted of manslaughter in the second degree and sentenced to three years in the penitentiary; but at the end of two years Governor Edwards gave him a pardon. As everybody carried weapons in those days, it is not surprising that many homicides occurred in many parts of the country.

Anyone who examines the early decisions of the Supreme Court, those before the Civil War, will discover that much litigation was, in one way or another, connected with the institution of slavery. At that time there were no banks in the country and notes and accounts were collected by lawyers. These things together with unsettled land titles and a disposition to litigate caused more lawsuits in proportion to business than now. For twenty years after the Civil War there was considerable litigation in this county, and each term of court was very busy, often working at night and continuing ten or twelve days. In late years, however, people have been more inclined to settle disputes, and the court has had little to do. At some terms there has not been even one jury trial, and usually not more than two or three. The term holds only from four to six days and the court is idle most of that time. The last legislature gave the county three terms of court, one in February, one in June, and the other in October. Though there is little business, as the lawyers say, numerous terms are desirable to prevent so much delay in legal matters. In fact, if each county had a circuit judge and court was open practically all the time, it would doubtless be a great improvement.

The members of the legislature from Marion at the time the charter for the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad was asked, had a clause put in the charter requiring the road to go through Palmyra. Had the representative from Shelby been alive to the situation and required the road to be built through Shelbyville, there would have been no Shelbina as it is today, and the county seat would have been a much larger and more important place than it is. Not being compelled to go by way of Shelbyville, the company constructing the road preferred to take an easier route, and also through a country where the land could be bought for a little money and new towns laid out. This gave a good chance for speculation. At that time a strip of prairie extended from Salt River near the eastern border of the county to the Macon line. A few farms jutted out into this prairie, but it was mainly unbroken, just as Nature had made it, and covered with a luxuriant growth of wild grass. Railroads usually take the line of least resistance; and it was far less expensive to build a road over this level prairie than through the hills between Palmyra and Shelbyville. Palmyra was six or eight miles too far north for a direct line so the road was run from Palmyra sharply to the southwest until it struck the Monroe line; then westward bearing a trifle north over the strip of prairie mentioned across this county; then the men building the road formed a land company, bought tracts and platted town sites where the stations were to be, and thus Hunnewell, Lakenan, Shelbina, Lentner and Clarence were laid out and lots sold.

Under these circumstances Shelbyville grew very slowly, and for more than forty years the people of that town wished and hoped for some rail communication. They were always ready to jump at each of the many propositions to build a road from Iowa southward, which were made from time to time. But though they spent some money on these efforts, no railroad materialized. But at least these people learned the lesson taught by the fable of the bird nest in the field of wheat, and in 1906 concluded to build a road themselves between the capital and Shelbina, which lies eight miles directly south. Joseph Doyle, who had long published The Herald at the county seat, aided by V. L. Drain, Esq., and other enterprising citizens soon succeeded in building this short line, when they once determined so to do. For some years Shelby has had the distinction of having a railroad wholly owned by its own people; but lately, Louis Houck, a nonresident, has become the owner. Since the building of the road Shelbyville has improved more rapidly and the road is a benefit to the whole people. That little city contains about one thousand inhabitants and has an electric light plant.


During 1857 the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad was built as far west as where Shelbina stands. A station was established on the level prairie and the town began at once to grow. It became the place to receive goods for Shelbyville and all places within twenty-five miles north, and for Paris eighteen miles south, and other points. It became the market place for a very large scope of country. With these advantages business thrived and the place grew rapidly. The war checked this; but after peace came it took a new start and has become a beautiful little city of some twenty-five hundred inhabitants with many elegant homes, fine church edifices, and commodious store-buildings. The city owns it's electric and water plant and has a fine sewerage system, all of which cost about one hundred thousand dollars.

One year after Shelbina was started, Clarence, which is twelve miles west, was also laid out. It is surrounded by a fine agricultural country and has become a substantial city of fifteen hundred people. It has churches and schools, little, if any, inferior to those in Shelbina; and it owns a good electric lighting plant.

Hunnewell is near the southeastern corner of the county and it was laid out the same year as Shelbina. It has about six hundred inhabitants and is a good business point.


Lakenan is half way between Shelbina and Hunnewell, and contains three churches and several stores.


Lentner is half way between Clarence and Shelbina, and contains several stores, a bank and one church.

These towns were all made stations on the railroad about the same time.

Communistic Colony

The most interesting story, especially to a sociologist, connected with this county is the history of the communistic colony of Bethel. David R. McAnally, D. D., for many years the able editor of the St. Louis Christian Advocate, in an editorial on the subject of Communism, said that the communistic settlement at Oneida, New York, and the Bethel colony in Missouri with its offshoot, Aurora, in Oregon, were the most notable instances of the application of the communistic theory upon American soil. And, doubtless, this is correct. Since then, several sketches have been published in metropolitan newspapers in reference to this colony; and Dr. William G. Bek of the University of Missouri has published a small volume giving most of the details connected with the founding and managing of this peculiar settlement.

The founder was Dr. William Keil, a Prussian by birth, and later in Pennsylvania and Ohio a Methodist preacher. It is said that in his native country he practiced the ''black art," whatever that is; but in this country he professed to have been converted under the powerful preaching of Dr. William Nast, the founder of the German Methodist church. In the presence of Dr. Nast, he burned the secret formulae of his art and renounced its practices.

Later on, the church was dissatisfied with his preaching and took away his authority. But he had secured a large following among the Germans of the two states mentioned; and he proposed the establishment of a colony in the distant West. In 1844, Adam Shuele, David Wagner, and Christian Tesser were sent to spy out the country and select a location. These men purchased a considerable tract of excellent land on North River, and the next year they and Dr. Keil, at the head of about five hundred colonists, came by wagons to this land of promise. The title to the land was taken in the name of a few individuals, who really held it for all. While there was no written contract or articles of regulation, all seemed to go on harmoniously and peacefully. Everything was taken on faith. The colony seemed to be one great happy family, whose code, moral and religious, was the New Testament, especially the Golden Rule, and whose motto was, ''Gott mit uns."

There were no drones in this hive. Dr. Keil managed everything through superintendents of different works. Each man and woman had certain duties, and these seem to have been discharged with fidelity. Eleven hundred acres were enclosed in one field and cultivated. The colony owned four thousand acres. There was a treasurer who took charge of the funds; a common storehouse; and a commissary to allot to each what was needed. The married people lived in separate houses and received food and clothing from the storehouse. A large boarding-house accommodated those without families. A mill was built to run by steam, no doubt the first one in all this section of the country. After some years a woolen factory was connected with the mill. There was also a glove factory which turned the skins of the deer, and these were abundant in that day, into coverings for the human hand. In 1858 these gloves took the premium at the World's Fair in New York. The skins of cattle were made into shoes, and there was also a hat factory. Then, too, these colonists established a distillery where corn and rye were turned into alcohol and whiskey.

In 1848 a large brick structure trimmed with stone was built for religious purposes. The church was finished with black walnut lumber; the floor made of large square brick or tile; and large galleries helped to accommodate the people, as all were required to attend. Dr. Keil officiated as minister. This church was also used as a schoolhouse. Moses Miller, who crossed over the river only a few years ago, was the first teacher and he had one hundred and thirty pupils. At one time there were almost one thousand people in the colony. Most of the houses faced one street, and were built mainly with a frame filled in with brick and mortar and plastered outside and in. Usually these were of two stories height.

East of the town, and down the picturesque North River, was erected a mansion-house, called ''Elim." It contained a large banquet hall, and here the head of the colony lived as became a feudal lord, except that he assumed no superiority but what was necessary in directing the affairs of the colony.

In 1851, a branch colony was formed in Adair County where eight hundred acres were purchased, and this was called Nineveh. Then, a few years later, Dr. Keil sent out spies to the land ''where rolls the Oregon" of which he heard so much. The reports from these spies were so enchanting that the favorite son of the leader at Bethel determined to go to Oregon. But after preparing to do so, he sickened and died. Yet he had exacted a promise that his remains should be laid at rest in the distant land. Then the father made haste to fulfill his promise to his dying son and an emigrant train was organized, composed of Dr. Keil and such as desired to go towards the land of the setting sun. The corpse was placed in an iron coffin filled with alcohol, sealed up, and placed in the front wagon of the train drawn by six mules. Thus, amid the lamentations of all the colony, there was begun what is perhaps the strangest and longest funeral march in the history of America.

The doctor fulfilled his promise, but he never returned to Missouri. This colony in Oregon was named Aurora. After Dr. Keil left. Dr. Christopher C. Wolf became the leader at Bethel. He was not the equal of his predecessor, yet the colony continued to prosper. When the war came on, the people of Bethel were strong Union men, and they became and continued Republican in politics. Twice the Southern forces demanded and obtained provisions at the mill. Some of Green's and Porter's men robbed some of the stores, but the commanders made the men return the goods. These people were not for war, and only two or three, and they quite young, entered the army.

In the '70s some of the people became dissatisfied and proposed to bring legal proceedings to get their share of the property. Then D. Pat Dyer, now United States judge, was consulted, and by mutual agreement parties were appointed to make a division. The land was divided and deeded to individuals according to their rights. Of the personal property on an equitable division, it was found that each man was entitled to receive the amount he originally contributed and $29.04 per year for each year he had lived and labored at Bethel; and each female one-half of this sum for her services. Thus ended after thirty-five years, this interesting communistic experiment.


The most important of the early mills, however, was built on Salt River about five miles southwest of Shelbyville by William O. Walker and George W. Barker; and soon a store and post office were established there, and the place was called Walkersville. This was in 1840 and this mill, which did sawing and grinding and also ran a carding machine, remained there for more than thirty years. It was a great place for the people from all the southwestern part of the county to gather. After the railroad was built. Walkersville, like other trading points off the line of this road began to decline and in the course of twenty-five or thirty years, ceased to exist as a village, and the mill was abandoned.


© Missouri American History and Genealogy Project
Created August 16, 2017 by Judy White

Source: History of Northeast Missouri, edited by Walter Williams, Volume I, Lewis Publishing Company, 1913