Ancestors, Legends & Time

John Webb’s choice: Be a farmer or a mine owner

Picture of Jeanne Newby

Jeanne Newby

June 12, 2024

It was a bright June morning in 1873, (151 years ago), with the sun shining bright. John C. Webb stepped out of his log cabin not knowing his life was going to change that day. He went through his normal routine for the day: milking the cow, feeding the farm animals, chopping a bit of wood for cooking and walking around the farm yard to check on his property.

As he was finishing up, Ruth called him in for breakfast, a simple fare of eggs and a bit of bacon. Being a warm day, he didn’t want to eat too much, as he had plans to plow that day. Giving Ruth a quick peck on the cheek, John headed east from the cabin about a third of a mile to the acreage he wanted to work up and get ready for planting.

The sun brought out the sweat on his brow. His handkerchief was always ready to wipe that sweat away. He loved plowing. He had been a farmer all of his life and had owned this land in Jasper County for 17 years. Farming was in his blood. He enjoyed improving the land and enjoying his bounty at the end of the season.

He had made many improvements to the cabin over the years. He had added a wooden floor, a second fireplace and glass windows. It was shaping up to be a mighty fine home. His thoughts of the cabin were interrupted as his plow hit a snag. A rock had worked its way up in the ground and the plow had found it. He reached down and dug the rock out and tossed it aside. He had to keep going before the day got too warm.

Needing a break and drink, John sat down on a nearby log and rested. As he sat there his mind continued to wander and he couldn’t help admiring the land. His eyes rested on the rock he had cast aside, just as the sun moved over it. There was an unusual shine to that stone. He got up and wandered over to pick it up. As he turned the rock, the sun made it glisten. In the back of his mind, he had an idea that this was some of that lead that was being mined over at Leadville (Oronogo), but he wasn’t interested. That mining was tearing up some beautiful land over there. Men were crowding into the area wanting a job and had no place to live. He didn’t want any such thing to happen to his land. However, he did carry that rock home and placed it on the fireplace hearth. It looked mighty pretty when the flames danced off the shine in the rock.

One evening, a drifter by the name of Murray knocked at the door for a handout. John and Ruth were of a generous nature, and they had fed Murray before. They invited him in for a hot meal and a bit of conversation. Murray knew most of the happenings in the area as he traveled so much. John and Ruth didn’t leave the farm very often and were hungry for some news. After dinner, Murray and John sat by the fireplace and talked as Ruth cleaned up the supper dishes.

During their talk, Murray saw the rock on the hearth. He got excited as he asked John, “Do you know what this is?” John kind of ignored his question as he tried to interest Murray in another conversation, but Murray was too excited. “This is lead in this rock, where did you get it?” Murray asked. “If there was lead on the surface there is bound to be lead below the ground.” John finally gave in and told him how he had come to have that shiny rock. Murray tried to convince John that they needed to mine that farmland immediately. John thought it over and said he might be interested in trying to dig a bit, but it would have to wait until after the harvest, as that was part of his survival. Murray wasn’t happy about the delay but at least was encouraged that they were going to dig.

In the fall, they began their adventure, with John supplying the land and the tools and Murray contributing his knowledge of mining. Things did not go as smoothly as anticipated because the deeper they dug the more water seeped into the hole. Each morning, they would have to empty the water before they could start to dig. Murray was beginning to lose interest, so it was no surprise when John’s neighbor W.A. Daugherty came by to check on what John was doing that Murray did not hesitate when Daugherty offered him $25 dollars to sell his part of the partnership with John.

Webb and Daugherty had the same problem with the “Devil water.” They were trying everything to keep the water away. About that time, Granville Ashcraft came by, and he knew there were ways to control the water. So John Webb leased the farmland to Ashcraft and Daugherty.

Ashcraft brought in Thomas N. Davey to use his invention to control the water and Benjamin Hatcher to help with the powder and fuse. Ashcraft went down in the shaft and barely made it the 30 feet back to surface before the explosion of the powder went off. When Ashcraft climbed back down, he saw an open vein of pure lead. He brought up 15,000 pounds of lead that first week. That was the beginning of the Center Creek Mine Co.

That was the beginning of a new life for a farmer in Jasper County.

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Jeanne Newby

A lot of us appreciate the Bradbury Bishop Fountain, but Jeanne actually worked behind the counter making sodas while she was in high school. She knows everything about Webb City and is a member of the Webb City R-7 School Board.