The Osage River as it looked in 1967, before the river was dammed.

From The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine
The Ozarks Herbalist column, Summer 2012

Rivers once played a prominent role in the life of  towns and communities. A river was the reason many towns were established, access to the river meant access to the goods of commerce by way of boats. A river, too, provided a substantial amount of food to the residents who lived nearby.

Taberville, built just above the banks of the Osage River, was intentionally located where it was because of the river. The Osage Indians were there first with a settlement. The French claimed the area in the 1700s and built Forth Manoa atop the bluffs above the river, just a short distance from the still occupied Indian village. The French were traders with the Indians and shipped beaver pelts and other goods downriver and their very existence and commerce depended upon the river.

During the Civil War there were numerous skirmishes between Union soldiers and Confederate sympathizers throughout the area along the Osage. While Unions soldiers were camped nearby, one of the Union doctors, Dr. Tabor, took notice of the area around the old fort and thought it would make an excellent location for a town. Residents had been forced to evacuate the region when General Order No. 11 was issued by Union General Thomas Ewing, which had cleared out residents of both farms and towns in four counties along the Kansas border of western Missouri.  After the War was over, Dr. Tabor returned to the area along the Osage River and bought up large tracts of the abandoned land.

Dr. Tabor established the town of Taborville (later changed to Taberville through a spelling error on maps). He laid out the town on a grid with streets and alleyways. His new town map covered over what had been the location of Fort Manoa a century before, although as recently as the 1960s, evidence of the outline of the fort remained.
Taberville Hotel, about 1920s.

All three settlements, spanning several centuries, depended upon the river. The Osage Indians lived on the high ground above the river as a defensive position, the better to see approaching enemies. That location, too, meant fewer mosquitoes than nearer the river afforded. The French, also, built on the upland well above the river, again for protection from marauders and to escape the summer insects. Both communities depended upon the river for food, as well.
Baptisms were often saved until there was flood waters near the church.

In each of the three settlements, the river was a character of the community, the beating heart of daily life. The river had personality - raging and destroying in flood time, placid calming and romantic when quiet. The river, when angered and flooding, could rip up centuries-old trees and roll them over and over in the current of the river, moving the giants miles downstream and depositing them in a new location as debris. When placid, the mighty Osage provided fish, frogs, turtles and birds for the dinner table, along with transportation to other areas up or down river.
Me, age 15, Don Wecker, my father and Joe Poling, with the fish we caught.

I grew up on the Osage River and like countless generations of boys and men before me, both loved and feared the river. Every summer from my early teenage years until I left as an adult, I spent myriad hours setting, running, baiting and removing fish from trot lines. I dug fishing worms on the sticky, gummy river banks, I camped, floated, boated and swam in the muddy waters. Fish was as common on our dinner table as pork or beef and I was an almost daily companion of the river.
My great uncle, Paul Garrison, with a channel catfish he caught on a trotline.

Every family in Taberville had a connection to the river in some way or other. Some fished for a living, selling their catch to neighbors and outsiders. Others fished themselves, or knew someone who caught more fish than they could eat and were willing to share. When the river was in flood stage, which meant at least once every couple of summers, the river waters cut off all outside transportation and the town became an island, a prisoner of the river.
These fellas were just back from running their trotlines on the Osage.

Fish was as common as food from the grocery store. Young or old, some part of the weekly groceries included fish. Various families had their preferences to which kind of fish they ate. Some preferred carp or buffalo, the big ones - 15 pounds or more being the best, smaller ones were canned like salmon. Other folks preferred catfish, either flathead, channel or blue catfish. I remember one neighbor who wanted only gar or eels and I took any I caught to them as our household would eat neither of those.

The connection people had to the river was as close as the connection to the church or school. It was an everyday part of community life. From town one could hear any motorized boats that came up the river. If the river was coming up or going down in flood time, someone monitored the changes on an hourly basis and reported to anyone within earshot of the Post Office or grocery store, like it was an ailing patient. The Osage was the blood veins of the community, intertwined, pulsing with life.

Rivers are less important in communities today. The mighty Osage has been tamed and corralled by the Truman Dam near Warsaw, MO, into being the upper reaches of Truman Lake. Life no longer revolves around fish and fishing as part of daily survival. Rivers now are seen as recreational, something to do for fun but no part of daily life depends on the whims of the river. I’m glad I grew up where and when I did, it’s a past I am proud to have experienced.

More of my stories and writing can be found at jimlongscolumns.blogspot.com.