Sedalia, Missouri, the county seat of Pettis County, got its start in 1857 when the first plat for the town was filed in hopes of attracting a railroad.
Before white settlers came to the area, the region was occupied primarily by the Osage tribe, along with bands of Shawnee Indians.
Sedalia was founded by General George Rappeen Smith when he purchased 503 acres of land and recorded the first plat of the new settlement on November 30, 1857. He initially called the town Sedville after his daughter Sarah, who was familiarly known as “Sed.” He began selling parcels as early as 1858 for up to $75 per lot but was ridiculed because he sold lots in a “town” where nothing but dense prairie grass existed.
Smith also bought a tract of timberland and erected a sawmill to facilitate building construction. However, from November 30, 1857, until October 16, 1860, the town existed only on paper, with just a few houses in the area.
In another plat, jointly filed by General Smith and David W. Bouldin in October 1860, the original plant was enlarged, and the town’s name was changed to Sedalia. In the meantime, Smith had been advocating for a railroad through the area, and due to his efforts, Sedalia would become the terminus of the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
That same month, a public sale of lots occurred, which was the town’s beginning. Many lots were sold, most of which were on Main Street or north of the railroad tracks. It was soon after this sale of lots began that the first buildings were erected, and the town became a reality.
The first business was a small store and country post office that was operated by John Hodges, located in a barn-like house north of the railroad tracks. Hodges was also the first postmaster, but he would not last long because he joined the Confederates the next year when the Civil War erupted. Several houses were also built and B. H. Offutt kept the first hotel that General Smith owned. Another hotel was established called the Sedalia House, owned by George Smith and George Emory. By the end of the year, the Missouri Pacific Railroad arrived, and the first passenger train came through on January 17, 1861.
Sedalia’s early prosperity was directly related to the railroad industry. Many jobs involved men maintaining tracks and operating large and varied machine shops. Another driving force was the trade to the southwest along the Santa Fe Trail. At that time, most supplies made their way to New Mexico, which was years away from having a railroad. Sedalia was soon crowded with wagons with goods brought there by the railroad and taken by wagon trains to the west and southwest. Large stores from Otterville, Syracuse, and Tipton were moved to Sedalia, which included their stock and, in many cases, the buildings or portions of them. Buildings and businesses from the county seat of Georgetown, located just a few miles north of Sedalia, also moved. As soon as the railroad reached Sedalia, it also became the headquarters of the great Overland Stage Line.
Most of these early businesses were confined to the two blocks between Ohio and Kentucky Streets on Main Street. These included the store of C. F. Lohman & Co., a small frame storeroom occupied by John A. Reed, and the large store and commission house of Cloney, Crawford & Co. Other businesses included grocery stores, dry goods, harness shops, blacksmiths, a drugstore, hotels, hardware, and general stores. Most of these buildings were wooden frame buildings that were highly susceptible to fire. The second hotel in town, known as the Sedalia House, burned in 1866.
Though Sedalia was off to a great start with a population of about 300, its growth was interrupted by the start of the Civil War in April 1861. Soon afterward, the town became a military post under military command as its railroad terminus was strategic to the war effort. During this time, Missouri was divided in its sentiments. Though the state had pledged to support the Union, many of its citizens did not agree. As a result, Sedalia became an active theater of operations for military supplies and a target for Confederate sympathizers and soldiers, keeping the inhabitants of Sedalia in a high state of excitement. That year, Union General Nathaniel Lyon had an encampment of about 25,000 troops near the fledgling city before his fatal march to Wilson’s Creek.
“Every new town has its challenges. Consider Sedalia, which was founded in October 1860—six months before the Civil War began. The war turned Sedalia’s focus from settling to survival, from building to bushwhackers. Every person was affected by the war and had a story.” — Becky Imhauser, Sedalia, Missouri Historian
In February 1864, Sedalia received its charter as a city and established a civil government. Sedalia became the Pettis County seat, officers were elected, and the courthouse met in various locations until a was built later that year. The worst fire early on occurred on March 4, 1864, destroying 15 buildings, including the Missouri House Hotel, and eight people died.
On October 15, 1864, despite the presence of the Union soldiers guarding the railroad, Sedalia was almost taken by the Confederate forces of Major General Sterling Price. At that time, about 1,500 of General Joseph O. Shelby’s Iron Brigade cavalry associated with Price’s Missouri Expedition surrounded Sedalia, overpowered the Union militia under the command of Colonel John D. Crawford and Lieutenant Colonel John Parker, and began to loot and sack the town. However, once Confederate General M. Jeff Thompson arrived in Sedalia, he ordered his men to stop the destruction and moved them on, leaving Sedalia in Union hands.
Despite the chaos of the Civil War, later that year, the city officials erected a large frame courthouse near Ohio Street and the alley between Second and Main Streets for $1,200.
From the Confederate raid on Sedalia, for about six months, from October 1864 to April 1865, Sedalia was at a standstill. But with the close of the war, the town began a new life. Many of the thousands of Union soldiers who had been stationed at Sedalia and recognized its potential decided to stay and move in with their families. The population grew rapidly.
It may safely be said that no inland town in Missouri has been cursed and more blessed by the present war than Sedalia. — Sedalia Advertiser, February 1865
The first terms of the circuit court were held at the courthouse in the spring and summer of 1865. This marked the beginning of a great building boom in Sedalia. In June, Theodore Hoberecht began to build the first flour mill, completed in the fall. At about that time, P. G. Stafford and J. G. Magann built the first brick commercial building at the southeast corner of East Second and South Ohio Streets. The Sedalia Weekly Times print shop operated in this building. James G. and John Tesch also erected a two-story brick building on West Main Street. This was the start of building permanent brick structures in Sedalia. At first, bricks had to be brought from Boonville, Washington, and Jefferson City, until 1866, when a brickyard was established two miles north of town. The Presbyterians built the first church building at the corner of Lamine and Second Streets, and F. Zelleken established the Sedalia Brewery. By the end of 1865, Sedalia was called home to about 1,000 people, and the number of businesses had increased fourfold. In the meantime, the railroad continued westward.
During the spring and summer of 1866, some 260,000 head of cattle were driven north from Texas to the terminus of the Missouri Pacific Railroad and Sedalia became a cowtown. Stockyards were built to receive cattle from the drives at a time when Chicago slaughterhouses were willing to pay almost any price for beef. At that time, longhorns were worth only about three to four dollars each in Texas, while a steer was worth ten times that amount in Chicago. However, many of the cows didn’t wind up in Sedalia due to confrontations with Indians, the rugged wooded hills of the Ozark Plateau that were difficult for the animals, and irate farmers who were concerned that herds might spread Texas Fever to their own cattle. However, drovers continued to make the trek because the cost of the cattle was about a dollar per head, making the drives worth it.
Sedalia also continued to serve as the starting point for many trade routes to Texas and Oklahoma and remained a trade center even after the railroads replaced wagons. By 1866, the city was called home to about 1,500 people, and that year, there was at least $250,000 expended on new buildings. The First National Bank and several churches and schools were established.
The following year, Joseph McCoy started efforts to lure people away from the Sedalia Trail by laying out the Chisholm Trail. By 1868, more cattle were headed to Abilene, Kansas, the terminus of the Chisholm Trail, than Sedalia. However, Sedalia remained a cattle shipping point throughout the 19th century.
In 1868, $286,000 was spent on the brick business, and frame buildings rapidly became outnumbered. At the same time, several manufacturers moved to the city, including Kelk’s Carriage Works, Barley Brothers & Co. Agricultural Machinery, and the Barrett Brothers Novelty Works, which furnished sashes, doors, blinds, and moldings to many of the early businesses. Civil improvements were also made, including the paving of Ohio Avenue, and the gas works were constructed to provide lighting. At that time, the population had grown to about 6,000.
In 1870, Sedalia gained a second railroad when the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway (Katy) arrived. The second line brought the energy of numerous railroaders, cowboys, and other travelers making their way to and from Sedalia. The city became well known as a center of vice, especially prostitution, and brothels were distributed throughout the city, alongside gambling halls and saloons. These establishments also employed musicians, particularly piano players, contributing to a thriving musical culture. It fostered the development of many artists, including the renowned ragtime composer Scott Joplin.
During this 1870s boom, the business district gradually moved south of Main Street, with 22 brick buildings constructed on South Ohio in 1871. Two more banks, a brick city hall, and a new post office were chief among these. Milling became increasingly important, with most of the mills extending along Main Street, and foundry businesses were also benefitting. Four newspapers served Sedalia during this period.
The Sedalia waterworks were established in 1872-73, and the gas works were reorganized in 1872, with a gas plant to make gas from coal, making gas lights available.
Several events marred the town’s prosperity during the 1870s, including the U.S. Financial Panic of 1873, a smallpox epidemic that same year, the burning by arson of the Court House, other fires that engulfed whole city blocks, and in 1875, a plague of grasshoppers destroyed crops.
In the meantime, vice continued vigorously in Sedalia, supporting numerous brothels and gambling houses. Since its beginning, Sedalia was a “wide-open town” replete with gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, and other assorted toughs. Though prostitution and brothels were condemned by polite society, they were patronized by the men in control of the legal system of police and the courts, the church, and the press. They had become part of the economic structure of Sedalia. Prostitution also provided a certain degree of economic security for women with no other options for employment while enriching the city through repeated fines or bribes. In 1874, the building that stands at 217 West Main was built became a brothel. The two-story Italianate-style brick building initially held a clothing store on the first floor, and the upstairs rooms operated as a brothel. Through the next decades, it would continue to host prostitutes and their customers far into the 20th century. The building remains today and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. It is located in the Sedalia Commercial Historic District.
The Street Railway Company was organized in the mid-1870s, becoming an important means of transportation for downtown Sedalia for many years. The railroad continued to build, with the Missouri Pacific Railroad establishing a shop for car repair and a roundhouse for engine storage and repair on the east side of Third and Engineer Streets. A depot was on the west side. Three hotels were built in the vicinity. The Missouri Pacific Railroad also had a depot at the Ives House, a railroad hotel on Pacific Street. A roundhouse for the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad was located at Broadway and Hancock, and that line’s depot was at Fifth and Hancock.
A new post office was constructed in 1877 at Second Street and South Lamine Avenue. While South Ohio became the heart of the business district, Main Street became known as a center of vice, so much so that it prompted the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to proclaim in 1877 that Sedalia was the “Sodom and Gomorrah of the nineteenth century.”
Railroads played an important part in Sedalia’s growth in the 1880s. In 1881, the railroads owned $210,000 worth of property and employed 562 people.” The Missouri Pacific Railroad constructed a brick shop building, and the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad established a hospital. The Missouri Trust Company was established in 1880, and the Third National Bank was established in 1882. The first telephone was installed in August 1880, and by 1881, 225 telephones were in use, with phone service extended to the suburbs outside of the city.
This enduring prosperity for the city meant continued growth of the central business district, which expanded along South Ohio Avenue. Sedalia got its first permanent courthouse in 1884. It was a fine capitol-like building constructed for $100,000. During these years, bottling works became popular, with the city’s soda and beer industries becoming significant businesses and employers for several years. Both soda pop and beer industries are still major employers in Sedalia today. Two new brickyards supplied Sedalia by the 1880s. However, fires continued to plague the town, and in 1883, there were 44 fires, including one which destroyed the Enterprize Flour Mill on West Main Street.
In 1886, the Salvation Army established a post in Sedalia, and the Army’s founder, William Booth, traveled from London to attend the event. When Captain George Parks was asked by The Sedalia Democrat why William Booth had purposed to locate “his salvation army” in Sedalia, Parks responded,
“Because Sedalia is a desperately wicked city, and if souls can be won to Christ in Sedalia, they can be won to Christ anywhere.”
Parks was later beaten severely in downtown Sedalia; he traveled home to Chicago, where he died nearly a year later from his wounds, making him the first martyr for The Salvation Army in the United States.
In 1886, the Missouri Trust Company bought land at 4th and Ohio Streets and began construction on the Trust Company building. Built of Missouri limestone, the large rectangular structure displayed Romanesque/Chateauesque architecture, including a multi-gabled roofline accented by a tower, turret, arched window openings, and elaborate corbels.
When it was complete, the first floor held the Trust Company’s banking offices, the second floor was used for offices and commercial club rooms, and the third floor — a large open room, was used for lodge meetings, dances, etc. The floors were covered with imported velvet in mahogany shades and several Smyrna and Persian rugs. Curtains and drapes were of the finest imported lace and fine cotton, and chandeliers of hammered brass with Venetian globes lighted the building. The Trust Company prospered, and banking transactions continued in the building until February of 1932, when the company failed due to the Great Depression. However, six months later, the lobby and vaults were again in use when the Sedalia Bank & Trust Company opened its doors. This institution lasted until about 1950, and afterward, the building was utilized by various companies. The Trust Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and continues to stand today.
Cultural activities and organizational groups focused on downtown and became increasingly popular. The Wood’s Opera House opened at Second Street and South Lamine Avenue in 1887. Several musical clubs, choirs, and bands were formed, and music education was offered at the Ruth Ann School of Music and later at the George R. Smith College’s music department. The first permanent post office building was completed in 1891 and served in that capacity until the 1930s.
In 1894 George R. Smith College opened, providing black students classes leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree. Eight courses of study were provided, including classical, philosophical, scientific, normal, commercial, English, musical, and industrial. Implementation of the school began in 1888 when the daughters of George R. Smith gave land to the Freedman’s Aid and Southern Education Society of the Methodist Church for a school “devoted to the moral and intellectual culture of the colored people of the west.”
The four-story red brick building measuring 126 x 105 feet was built on 24 acres in the northeast part of Sedalia for $40,000. The building contained 62 rooms, including a chapel, dormitory rooms for 75 students, apartments for teachers, the presidential suite, a kitchen and dining hall, labs, and a library. A football ground, a baseball diamond, and a running track were also part of the campus.
The main building was completed in January 1894, and classes began with 57 students. The college received a state charter in 1903. The college operated until it burned down on April 26, 1925, after which its assets were merged with the Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The school was attended by none other than the young African American ragtime-music piano composer Scott Joplin. Joplin also played cornet in the Queen City Concert Band in 1894 and played piano at the Williams brothers’ Maple Leaf Club, a gentlemen’s club and bar at 116 East Main Street. Joplin’s famous “Maple Leaf Rag” was published in Sedalia in 1899, and soon afterward, Joplin left Sedalia and became a noted musician of the time.
In 1896, Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad constructed a Romanesque Revival-style depot at Third Street and Hancock Avenue. One of the largest MK&T depots between St. Louis and Kansas City, the building featured a dining room and second-story offices. Local newspapers touted the depot as an example of Sedalia’s importance in the railroad industry. The beautiful building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, serves as the offices for the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. It is located at 600 East Third Street and is open to the public on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The same year, Sedalia tried to relocate the capital from Jefferson City, citing its location at the junction of two railroads, its fine schools, and its city utilities and improvements. The campaign ultimately garnered enough support that the choice was submitted to the voters, but Sedalia lost the bid as it was defeated by a statewide vote of 65 percent in favor of retaining the Capitol in Jefferson City.
In 1899, Andrew Carnegie awarded Sedalia a $50,000 grant to construct a new library. Located at 311 West Third Street, the new building was dedicated in 1901, replacing a smaller library located in the basement of the Pettis County Courthouse.
By the turn of the century, Sedalia boasted a population of 15,231, and four newspapers continued to serve the community, but the city was down to four banks. Building continued at a steady pace, with theaters becoming more prominent.
Despite the reform efforts of the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, prostitution continued to thrive in Sedalia well into the 20th century. At the beginning of the 1900s, the 200 Block of West Main Street was the location of most of Sedalia’s brothels. Prostitution was open, and though proper folks condemned it, it was sanctioned by the city; prostitutes came into court voluntarily and paid their fines (bribes), so their houses would not be raided. However, arrests of women for “frequenting wine rooms” or “late hours” were made in an attempt to control street walking, and arrests of couples for “lewd conduct” occurred when the woman’s occupation as a prostitute could not be verified.
While Sedalia had not been successful in luring the state capital, it was selected as the site of the state fair, having competed with five other cities. The first fair was held in 1901, with more than 17,000 paying visitors attending. Several buildings were built in the early part of the 20th century, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places today.
Soon, cars would be driven along roads all over the country, and livery barns and stables began to convert to garages as autos became more numerous.
More Missouri Pacific shops resulted in a substantial population increase for Sedalia by 1920, when the city boasted 21,144 people, with about 2000 men working for one of the two railroads.
The passage of the Prohibition constitutional amendment in 1919 went into effect in 1920, affecting several businesses in and around the central business district, including the Moerschal Brewery and many saloons.
During Prohibition, bootlegging was common, and Sedalia’s prostitutes were involved. A raid by federal agents in August 1925 discovered a bootlegger selling and hiding pints of whiskey at the “dance pavilion” managed by Polly Howe, a well-known madam.” Other aspects of Sedalia’s underworld were thriving during the 1920s, including gambling houses and brothels that existed above stores on Main Street.
Sedalia’s second courthouse burned down in June 1920, destroying the 1884 French Second Empire building, and plans were soon made to construct a new one, which was completed in 1927.
A railroad strike in 1922 shut down the shops in Sedalia and idled 2,500 workers. After months of negotiations between the workers’ unions and the U.S. Railway Board Relations board, the strike dealt with contracting out for shop labor, eliminating overtime pay for Sundays and holidays, and proposed wages.
In 1927, Sedalia’s tallest building, the Hotel Bothwell, was opened by John H. Bothwell, who recognized the need for a modern, fireproof hotel downtown to serve the increasing number of business travelers and tourists. The seven-story Classical Revival style hotel, built for $410,000, then served as the center of social and business activity in Sedalia for many years, and today is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During its heydays, President Harry S. Truman, actress Bette Davis, and actor Clint Eastwood were guests at the hotel. Fully refurbished today, the historic hotel continues to accept guests at 103 E. 4th Street.
The stock market crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression hit Sedalia hard, like the rest of the United States. Within five months, three banks had closed, and two others were limiting withdrawals. Three leading bankers killed themselves in quick succession. Employment at the Missouri Pacific shops dropped to 450 people, and the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad shops closed and did not reopen until World War II. When the Depression was over, Sedalia claimed to have been the town’s second hardest hit by the Depression after Gary, Indiana.
By 1940, the town had mostly recovered, had a population of 20,428, and the Missouri Pacific shops were employing over 1,000 men again. However, the Depression had taken a toll on the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad, which eventually closed its shops.
The World War II years affected the industry of Sedalia, and the military built Sedalia Glider Base in Johnson County to the west. After the war, this facility was transferred to the Strategic Air Command and was converted to a bomber base now known as Whiteman Air Force Base.
The brothels on West Main Street remained viable in Sedalia’s economy until the 1930s and 1940s when prostitution moved to a neighborhood north of the railroad tracks. However, the reputation of the West Main Street area remained stained for several years. Local norms maintained up through the 1960s that “a respectable lady was not seen on Main Street after sundown.”
In 1940, Sedalia received nationwide recognition for its red-light district when Life magazine said the town had “one of the midland’s most notorious red-light districts.” Despite complaints from the citizens, the churches, and the press, prostitution continued. In fact, leading merchants extended credit to prostitutes, local banks arranged mortgages on bawdy houses, and well-known citizens patronized the brothels. Although the city’s red-light district centered north of the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks during the 1940s and 1950s, prostitution remained a part of Sedalia until the early 1970s.
A major fire in 1943 at the Shryack-Wright Grocery building resulted in a loss of $140,000. Other landmark buildings lost in the ensuing years included the Kaiser Hotel (last known as the Milner Hotel) and the Sedalia Theater, dated back to 1905.
With the decline in demand for passenger train service, fueled by the growth of the automotive industry, the last Missouri, Kansas & Texas train passed through Sedalia in May 1958. The historic Katy Depot is the only structure remaining as a reminder of MK&T’s once-extensive passenger operations in the city. However, much of the railroad’s right-of-way through Missouri has been converted to a 240-mile multi-use trail utilized by bikers, walkers, and horseback riders. It is one of the largest trails developed in the nation among the late 20th-century federal and state “Rails to Trails” projects.
Like many other American communities, Downtown Sedalia began to experience a change in retailing in the mid-20th century. Two shopping centers opened, and the downtown businesses suffered, causing some to eventually close. The affordability of automobiles led to expansion and development along the city’s two U.S. highways, and new manufacturers were drawn in.
Sedalia reached its peak population in 1960 at 23,874. Fires destroyed several significant buildings in the 1960s, including the 1967 fire which destroyed the Terry Hotel (formerly the 1883 Woods Opera House)
In 1974, the Missouri State Fairgrounds was utilized to host the Ozark Music Festival, one of the largest but least remembered major music festivals of the 1970s. While the plan was for the pop/rock/bluegrass festival to sell about 50,000 tickets, an influx of about 184,000 fans and many rock bands strained the capacity of the fairgrounds and the city. Some estimates put the crowd count at 350,000, not far from the 400,000 spectators who attended the famous Woodstock music event in New York in 1969. Counting as one of the largest Rock Festivals in history, it was hosted by well-known radio personality Wolfman Jack.
Today, Sedalia is a thriving community of almost 22,000 with numerous businesses, including several manufacturing companies, a two-year college, and numerous historic buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Missouri State Fair continues to welcome nearly 400,000 visitors every August. The city hosts the annual Scott Joplin Festival in early June and other events throughout the year.
Sedalia is located in west-central Missouri, about 90 miles east of Kansas City and 190 miles west of St. Louis.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2022.
The Shawnee Trail – Driving Longhorns to Missouri
Christopher, W.T., Preserving Historic Sedalia, 1981
City of Sedalia
Demuth, I. Macdonald; The History of Pettis County, Missouri, The Printery, 1882
Imhauser, Rebecca Carr; Sedalia; Arcadia Publishing 2016
Sedalia Historic District Nomintation