The town got its start when construction of the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks began through the area in the 1850s, roughly following the Old Springfield or “Wire” Road. A townsite was planned about 1.5 miles east of the present town and streets were laid out and lots marked off. The new village was to be named St. Cloud.
This soon brought a number of railroad workers to the region, most of whom were Irish and were used to drinking whiskey. Other settlers were encouraged to come due to the availability of inexpensive land from the railroad. Others homesteaded and soon there were farmers and ranchers living in the vicinity.
Just west of the proposed village, a man named Richard Turner established a general store on his property to serve the needs of both settlers and railroad workers. Turner soon imported barrels of a new brand of whiskey called Bourbon, which was becoming popular all over the New West. He placed one large barrel labeled “Bourbon” on the porch of his store. Before long, the railroad workers were calling the new settlement Bourbon and it stuck.
A post office was established in September 1853, which was first called “Bourbon in the Village of St. Cloud” and homes and businesses began to spring up along the railroad tracks and along the Old Springfield Road. Later, the town name was shortened simply to “Bourbon.”
In the 1890s, the old Bourbon Hotel was built to serve travelers of the railroad. For years it served as a hotel until passenger rail service declined and afterward became a hostel before closing in the late 20th century. Today, the old building continues to stand though is abandoned and deteriorating.
Bourbon was incorporated in 1907.
Route 66 was aligned through the town in 1926, and several new stores opened to cater to the travelers: garages, service stations, and cabins. This continued until 1953 when the new four-lane alignment of US 66 bypassed the old business district.
Today, the town is called home to about 1600 people. There are several interesting stops in town such as the Circle Inn Malt Shop, family-owned since 1955. It is located at 171 S. Old Highway 66.
There is also a private residence here that once housed the Bourbon Lodge. Right next door are a couple of old Bourbon Lodge Cabins. The old Bourbon Lodge, at 834 Historic Route 66, once featured a cafe, four cabins, and a Phillips 66 gas station. Today it is a private residence.
About seven miles beyond Bourbon is the turnoff for Leasburg, Missouri where visitors have the opportunity to take a side trip to a spelunker’s paradise – Onondaga Cave State Park. Considered one of the nation’s finest “show” caves due to its onyx formation, the Onondaga Cave is a designated National Natural Landmark. The park is also home to Cathedral Caves, also well decorated with many formations. Above ground, there is also plenty of natural beauty. The Vilander Bluff Natural Area provides visitors with a panoramic view of the Meramec River, for which canoeing and fishing abound. The state park is seven miles southeast of I-44 at the Leasburg exit. Along this road can be seen several painted barns for the cave, similar to those for Meramec Caverns.
Returning to Route 66, the old highway travels through one of Missouri’s finest wine and grape-producing regions. Some vineyards can be observed from the road and several roadside stops sell grapes, grape juice, wine, honey, and other locally produced products in the summer and fall months.