By Laura (Abernathy) Huffman
I have traveled through Potosi, Missouri several times a year since 1981. As a child I peered out the back windows of the family Thunderbird at the town as dad wheeled us through Potosi on the way to Grandma & Grandpa’s home in Southeast Missouri. In 1984, on the way to our family Thanksgiving, I remember seeing firsthand the destruction that a killer tornado had unleashed on the town. My first solo road trip after getting my driver’s license was to Grandma’s via Potosi- the same journey I had made as a passenger. Potosi was familiar, a comforting landmark during these trips “home”. In all those years of passing through I had never taken the time to get know Potosi. Yesterday, 35 years after my earliest memory of driving through town, I officially introduced myself to Potosi with the help of the friendly folks with Mine au Breton Historical Society and Paranormal Task Force.Those two organizations have teamed up and offer a unique experience to get to know Potosi. Yesterday’s event was presented in three parts- Haunted History Tour, Interactive Investigative Tour and Overnight Ghost Hunt. Prior commitments limited me to just the Haunted History Tour.
After checking in, Greg Myers, President of Paranormal Task Force, encouraged us to join our local historical societies and spoke of PTF’s dedication to historic preservation. He described Potosi as a “historic and haunted jewel of Missouri”.
LONG-BANTA HOUSEAs a group, with PTF Vice President Danny Brumley, and Mine au Breton Historical Society President Jerry Sansegraw, Vice President Jim Richeson, and MABHS member Jason Griggs we made our way to the nearby Long-Manta House. Advertised as “historic and haunted” the home is a picturesque Victorian built by James Long circa 1865. Sansegraw gave us the scoop on the home and her inhabitants before leading us across the threshold. The home was built over an old rock cellar from a previous house and generations of the Long family grew up here. The home was never owned by anyone outside the family before it became the property of MABHS. All the furnishings in the home were donated by the family save for one couch in the front parlor. Each room was staged to represent the area’s function. The front parlor included a rosewood piano dating to 1876 and custom paintings on either side of the door leading to the study. The study was styled to Parke M. Banta’s era. Mr. Banta married Mr. Long’s granddaughter, Gladys Nichols. The couple lived in the home until their deaths except for when Mr. Banta’s work in Washington D.C. kept them away. Mr. Banta was appointed by President Eisenhower as the first General counsel for the Department of Health, Education, & Welfare. A framed photograph of President Eisenhower hangs over Mr. Banta’s desk just as it did when the desk was in Washington. The dining room included a unique feature- the steam heated radiator had a built in warming oven. The tour continued upstairs through the bedrooms and to the maid’s room. The maid’s room has a staircase that descends directly into the kitchen below. Sansegraw told us a story of a woman, who during a paranormal tour, saw a spirit in the middle of the staircase and refused to go down them. I didn’t let a tale of a ghost tale deter me, so I followed the group down the steep and narrow staircase. The kitchen seemed to jump into the future as it had been renovated in 1961. It took me a moment to process that the newest, most modern room in this house reminded me of my grandmother’s kitchen.
OLD PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH & MOSES AUSTIN
Next we ambled over to the Old Presbyterian Church. Griggs filled us in on the background of the building. The church is believed to be the oldest public building in Potosi and is recognized as the oldest still standing Presbyterian Church building west of the Mississippi. Constructed in 1833, the two entrances demonstrate a tradition that has been lost to time. Single men and unmarried women would enter separately and sit in the pews in that respective section. Married couples could enter through either door and worshiped from pews in the middle. The building’s interior includes another unique feature- a second floor balcony that faces the pulpit. In antebellum years slaves and free Negroes worshiped in this galley. The congregation held services here until 1907 when they moved to their new church. Since then the building has been used as a silent movie house, as a Boy Scout Hall (Troop 409), a county library, and a Christian bookstore. The church housed a museum during Potosi’s Bicentennial in 1963 and continues to do so to this day. Inside were carriages, a loom, maps, photos, information on the gruesome Lapine murders, and an impressive miniature of the Long-Banta House.
Beside the Old Presbyterian Church is Moses Austin’s second, and hopefully, final resting place. Austin’s tomb had first captured my attention around 2009 when I stopped to take pictures of it on my way to Grandma’s house. It had slipped my mind before I returned home and I had forgotten about it until reading “A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart” by Emmy Award winning travel writer John Drake Robinson.Our host, Richeson, preceded to tell us a tale that was familiar to me, but just as fascinating as it had been when I first learned it. Moses Austin had been authorized to form a new American colony in what is now Texas. He was to lead 300 families to settle there. While returning from a preliminary trip he became ill and made it back to the Potosi area before succumbing to the sickness and dying. Austin was buried very near where he died, and his son Stephen Austin, continued the mission- and was very successful. Austin, Texas is named after Stephen and his father. Family members decided to move the senior Austin’s grave to the cemetery in Potosi where it has lain ever since. However, in 1938, a Texas undertaker named Weed, armed with a chisel and a hearse as a getaway vehicle, attempted to retrieve Austin, known as “The Grandfather of Texas”, to reunite him with his son who was buried in the Lone Star State. Richeson was able to throw in personal stories to the mix- he pointed to the still standing home where the occupants heard the moonlit retrieval attempt and alerted the Potosi Marshal, C.J. Richeson, his grandfather. Although a written record hasn’t been discovered as of yet, some townsfolk claim that the State of Texas apologized to Potosi. Also, very close to Austin’s tomb, in an unmarked grave, are the remains of the Lapine family who were brutally murdered, and perhaps dismembered.
As we walked south on Missouri Street to the Austin-Lucas Store Richeson pointed out other historical sites- Dr. Townsend’s home, a former stagecoach stop, a mercantile, the Ford dealership, the Washington County Courthouse, the Liar’s Bench, the site of Durham Hall (Moses Austin’s home), the relocated Casey Cabin and the le four à pain bread oven. The traditional oven is fired up once a year for the annual Moses Austin Heritage Festival and draws quite a line of bread purchasers.
The Austin-Lucas Store looks quite plain and uninteresting on the outside. Richeson revealed a history of the building that was rich and intriguing. Originally constructed as a one room log cabin by Moses Austin to be used as a store and post office just before the turn of the 19th century , the building eventually grew into an 18 room residence. On the road to the mine field just a block south, Austin himself enlarged the cabin to a two room dog trot. A tragic tale of the Austin-Lucas Store is the death of Frank J. Flynn. Flynn was a banker, possibly embroiled in a financial scandal, whom suicided in the home in 1932 by shooting himself in the heart with a .38 caliber revolver. Rumors persist that the suicide may have actually been a covered up murder- perhaps Flynn’s own brother as the killer. The last private owner was Mabel Lucas whose family also owned the land to the west that is now Heritage Park. At one time the building was converted into six three room apartments. Now the building owned by the Mine au Breton Historical Society houses collections of mining tools, rocks and minerals (including a sample of the tiff that miners dug for) a picture gallery, a Veteran Gallery and the Gallery of Washington County Notables. In places portions of the drywall have been removed to expose the original timbers of Austin’s cabin. This museum has a very intricate miniature replica of Durham Hall and a crocheted miniature of Friendship Church.
SWEET MEMORIES SHOP
The Haunted History Tour officially drew to a close at the Austin-Lucas Store. After purchasing a copy of the Historical Society’s publication “Washington County Notables” I trekked north up the hill to 105 West Breton, where we had begun our journey. I was invited by PTF to attend the next two events of the night but had to beg off because of prior commitments. I wish that I had been able to stay and experience the rest of the evening. The Paranormal Task Force team were very friendly, outgoing, and knowledgeable. Before I said my goodbyes and parted ways I was introduced to Sweet Memories owner, Cindy Merx. As I drank an ice cold Mountain Dew (I was parched- the mercury hovered over 80 degrees throughout our three hour tour) Merx recounted some of the pranks that the in-house ghost Harriett has pulled over the years- including completing a jigsaw puzzle, playing hide and seek with table decorations, and canned mandarin oranges tossing. Merx is also very active with the Old Mines Historical Society and made sure that I added the first Sunday in October to my calendar to attend the Annual Fete de l’Automne. In 2016 the event saw over 6,000 visitors. Merx now uses this old home as headquarters for her Sweet Memories catering company. Her carrot cake is known as the best around and foodies from St. Louis will drive for miles to get a piece.
POTOSI- MORE THAN A “DRIVE THROUGH TOWN”
As I made my way towards home thoughts of Potosi’s fascinating history swirled through my mind as I navigated scenic Missouri 8. I had never known that Potosi was a town before Washington County was a county, even before Missouri was a State. I didn’t know that Potosi had once aspired, and prepared, to be the capitol of Missouri. I did not know how many historic homes and buildings line her streets, and did not know of all the significant citizens that helped shape the history of Missouri- and even Texas. I didn’t quite grasp her importance in the mining industry. Now I knew her better, understood her better, and appreciated her more. Like a first play date that had went well I was already planning my next visit to spend more time with my new friend. She truly is the “historic and haunted jewel of Missouri.”
To best experience Potosi I recommend joining a Paranormal Task Force event. If ghost hunting and somewhat scary tales are not your cup of tea you can arrange daylight tours of the properties that I visited with Jerry Sansegraw, MABHS President at 573-438-3093. The Historical Society is in the process of changing and updating their website. You can follow them on Facebook in the meantime. The Historical Society hosts Moses Austin Heritage Festival annually in June. The museums are open to the public during the festival. For other things to see and do in Washington County check out www.visitmo.com. For supervised paranormal investigations in Pulaski County, Missouri, I recommend Paranormal Investigations of the Historic Talbot House.. Tell ’em Population 91 sent you!
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