Route 66 - Springfield, Missouri

Springfield, Missouri, Queen City of the Ozarks, has a fascinating history. Even the origin of the name is interesting. According to local lore, a man named James Wilson lived in the then unnamed community. When it came time to name the town, he wanted it named after his home town of Springfield, Massachusetts. To encourage the local citizens, he offered free whiskey to anyone who would vote for "Springfield." The name was handily adopted.

On August 10, 1861, during the Civil War, the Battle of Wilson's Creek was fought just outside the southern city limits. Over 2,500 Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives in just 5 hours of intense fighting. The site is now designated as a National Battlefield, one of only two national parks in the state of Missouri. Some claim that during the dark of night, if you listen close enough, you can hear the screams of the fighting soldiers and the moans of the wounded and dying. Others say its just the wind in the trees.

Today, you can bypass downtown Springfield by leaving Route 66 and getting onto US-160 and then connecting with MO-266, but you would miss a number of Route 66 sites as well as the downtown Central Square, the site of a famous shootout involving "Wild Bill" Hickok. I would encourage you to go ahead and follow Route 66 through the city. Don't worry about a lot of traffic or bad areas. Even though it is the 3rd largest city in Missouri, it is a far cry from the negative aspects of Chicago or St. Louis.

Just a couple of blocks from the Central Square is the Gillioz Theatre, 325 Park Central East (N37 12 32.4 W093 17 24.7). It first opened on October 12, 1926, just 1 day after Route 66 was named. For many years it was the premier entertainment and "place to be seen" spot in Springfield. Until it closed in 1979, many well-known celebrities performed and watched plays there, including Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and Elvis Presley. Sitting empty and unused for 12 years, it was purchased in 1991 by the Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust. The Trust took 15 years to fully restore the building and it was finally re-opened on October 12, 2006; 80 years to the day since it first opened its doors. It is now open to the public and hosts everything from weddings to film festivals.

Cool mural on a building across the street
from the Gillioz Theatre
We made our way to Central Square and found a free parking lot just 1 short block away.  I glanced at the outside temp gauge in the truck before we got out and saw it indicated 98 degrees. The sun was fierce and there were no clouds or even a breath of a breeze to offer any relief. It was late May, but it felt more like July or August. As we arrived at the square itself, we found no trees or structures to offer shelter from the sun's rays and after a few minutes of walking around, we gravitated to the large water fountain where there were a handful of other folks braving the heat. We all stood around or sat on benches near enough to the fountain to get a cooling spray of mist from the gushing water spouts. I looked around and tried to imagine the gunfight that had taken place right here back on July 25, 1865.
Springfield's Central Square
Wild Bill Hickok and David Tutt both were making their living as gamblers and had, at one time, been good friends in spite of the fact that Hickok had been a scout for the Union army and Tutt had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Eventually though, the two men's friendship ended over women. According to reports, Wild Bill had a fling with Tutt's sister which ended up with her having his illegitimate child and Tutt was seen paying an ungentlemanly amount of attention to Hickok's fiancee, Susanna Moore. Wild Bill started refusing to play card games in which Tutt was playing. Tutt retaliated by openly loaning money and giving advice to other players in their games against Hickok.

Welcome cooling mist from the water fountain
in Central Square.
The conflict came to a head one day during a game of high-stakes poker as Bill was playing against a couple of other local gamblers. Tutt entered the room and once again began coaching the locals on how to beat Hickok and loaning money as necessary. Bill got on a winning streak and had won over $200 of what essentially was Tutt's money. Irritated, Tutt loudly reminded Bill of a $40 debt from a past horse trade. Hickok simply shrugged his shoulders and paid the $40 from his winnings. This made him even madder as he felt Bill was paying his debt to Tutt with Tutt's own money. He then claimed Bill owed him $35 from a past poker game. Bill refused to pay, saying the amount was only $25 and that he had a note in his pocket which proved it.

By now, a rather large group of Tutt's friends had gathered around and being encouraged by their presence and several shots of whiskey, he grabbed one of Bill's most prized possessions off the table, his gold pocket watch. Bill was livid, but being outgunned, he could only quietly demand the return of his watch. Tutt's reply was a mocking "wicked grin."

For several days, the men stayed away from each other, but threats, taunts, and demands were passed back and forth through others. Then came word that Tutt planned to stroll across the middle of the town square wearing Bill's watch. Hickok replied, "The only way he'll walk across that square wearing my watch is if a dead man can walk."

There was now no way out for either man. If Tutt didn't walk across the town square, he would be branded a coward and if Bill allowed him to, he would be branded a coward. The next day, at exactly 10:00 AM, David Tutt came to the square with Bill's watch hanging from his pocket in full view of everyone. When Bill was informed of this, he promptly went to the square himself and confronted Tutt. Angry words were exchanged, but a mutual friend was able to calm things down. However, Tutt then demanded Bill pay him $45 to get his watch back. Bill said he would pay the $25 he owed, but not a cent more. Both men declared they didn't want to fight and decided to go get a drink together and hash out their differences.

After a few drinks, neither man would budge from his stance and Tutt left, going back to the town square. Several hours later, he was still loitering there when Bill, with his Colt Navy pistol in his hand. approached to about 75 yards away and said, "Dave, here I am. Don't you dare cross this square with that watch." Tutt simply turned to face him and put his hand on his holstered gun.

Bill cocked the hammer on his gun and lowered it into his holster. There were a few seconds of total silence and then Tutt went for his pistol. Bill drew his and both men fired so close to the same time that a number of witnesses reported hearing only one shot. Tutt was acknowledged by most to be a better marksman, but Bill was calmer and his aim was true. Tutt's bullet whizzed close by Bill's head, but was a clean miss. Bill's bullet tore into Tutt, passing between the fifth and sixth ribs. Tutt staggered, but didn't fall. He stumbled several feet onto the porch of the courthouse, called out, "Boys, I'm killed" and fell back into the street where he died.

Bill was arrested and charged with murder. He spent several days in jail, but the charge was reduced to manslaughter and he was allowed to post a $2,000 bond. At his trial, 22 witnesses told their version of what exactly happened on the square that day. Hickok claimed self-defense, but there were conflicting stories as to exactly who pulled their gun first. The majority of the witnesses said it was Tutt, but several of Tutt's friends claimed it was Bill. Eventually, the jury decided Wild Bill was justified in shooting because Tutt was seen to have started it by taking Bill's watch and he had been humiliated and provoked by Tutt's actions.

Several weeks later, Colonel George Nichols, a writer for Harper's, heard of the gunfight and began interviewing Hickok. His writings would eventually turn the then unknown gun fighter into one of the great legends of the old West. During those interviews, it was noted that Wild Bill sported a gold pocket watch hanging from his vest.

Leaving Springfield on Route 66, we passed  this
cool mural on the side of a car parts business.
I sat there for a few minutes, my imagination feeling the tension, seeing the gunfight, hearing the gun shots, picturing the blood. The heat soon proved to be too much so Youngest-daughter and I walked beside each other across the Springfield town square, the same square that Wild Bill defended and where David Tutt's life ended. Unlike David, nobody challenged us and we made it safely across and back to the truck.

We wiped the sweat out of our eyes, opened bottles of water, turned the A/C on high and pulled out of our free parking spot. Youngest-daughter gave directions as I drove until we got back onto MO-266 (Historic US-66). "Just stay on this road for a while," she said. "Next stop, Carthage."

Go to the first Route 66 entry here.
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