History of Audrain County
Origin of Audrain County
The County of Audrain, the 52nd in Missouri, was officially organized on December 17, 1836. Named after James H. Audrain, a member of the Missouri state legislature, it was once mostly prairie.
Mexico, centrally located and the oldest town in Audrain County, was founded by two early settlers, James H. Smith and the Reverend Robert C. Mansfield and then designated the county seat. They chose the town’s name because of widespread excitement over Texas, then fighting for independence from the country of Mexico; it was the place to go to make your fortune and they were confident that the name would bring the new village good luck and “popularity.” The first county court met in Mexico in February, 1837 and within two years the first court house was built on the public square.
Most of the county’s early settlers originated in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. They first claimed land near woods and small streams, leaving the prairie in the eastern section of the county almost vacant. Prominent among them was John B. Morris, the first postmaster, owner of a general store, county official and operator of a tavern in Mexico. The county saw little growth over its first three decades with the population by 1850 being only 3,508. Most county residents were farmers, while a few were regarded as “mercantile men.” The one development in these early years that bore the mark of progress was the coming of the railroad. In 1856 the North Missouri, one of the state’s earliest rail lines, was laid through the county, promoting trade for Mexico county seat and the surrounding area.
Civil War Activity
During the Civil War Audrain residents were politically divided. An estimated 600 men served in the Union Army and around 500 with the Confederacy. No official battles took place although one skirmish did occur. The war record of Audrain County centers on the railroad, the occupation of Mexico and constant guerrilla warfare in the area. Because of the railroad, Fe
Federal troops made Mexico their headquarters for most of the war. The occupying Union army ousted elected officials, enforced martial law, with curfew and street patrols, damaged buildings and furthered unrest throughout the county. Ulysses S. Grant, then a Colonel, was among those assigned to the area for a short time early in the war.
Growing Agricultural Importance
The 1870s, 1880s and 1890s brought progress and prosperity to the county. More settlers arrived, particularly many Germans who settled on the eastern prairie, now more easily cultivated. Additional railroad lines were being built which increased trade and business to the local area. Vandalia, Laddonia and other towns in the county were founded and along with Mexico saw growth during these years. Farming, from its beginning the county’s main occupation, now became of primary importance. Audrain County was recognized as one of the state’s leading agricultural counties during this period with chief crops of corn and oats with livestock of horses, mules, hogs and sheep adding to the agricultural base.
The Firebrick Industry
Audrain also became known as the “Fire Brick Center of the World.” The importance of fire clay lay in its capacity to withstand extremely high temperatures without changing form or deteriorating. It was used to build industrial furnaces and became essential to many basic industries. As early as 1883 county leaders were promoting fire clay, but it was A.P. Green and his Fire Brick Company, established in 1910, that revolutionized the industry; by 1937 the firebrick produced in Audrain County was being used in applications around the world. The Mexico Refractories Company and other smaller firebrick companies strengthened the county’s lead in this field. Audrain County refractories companies played a major role in World War II and later in the exploration of space with county products being utilized on launch pads. Over the years the industry continued to expand and diversify, remaining a vital part of the county’s economy.
The county has always placed a great emphasis upon education. The Mexico Board of Education built the first public school in 1873 and by 1900 nearly one hundred country schools had been organized in an effort to serve all rural students. During the 1970s these smaller schools were consolidated into three larger school districts. For decades around the turn of the century two private institutions attracted students from across the nation. Hardin College for Young Ladies was founded in 1873 and flourished until financial difficulties forced it to close in 1933. Missouri Military Academy for young men was founded in 1889. A century later it was named by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the nation’s “Exemplary Private Schools” and it continues to be one of the county’s valuable educational assets.
Outstanding Citizens of Audrain County
Among Audrain Counties outstanding citizens have been two Missouri governors: Charles H. Hardin (1875-77) and Christopher S. Bond (1973-77 and 1981-85). Three Audrain attorneys have served on the Missouri Supreme Court: George B. MacFarlane, Ernest S. Gantt and Frank B. Hollingsworth. During World War II Admiral Samuel G. Fuqua was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for Heroism at Pearl Harbor. In the 1950s Walter G. Staley Jr. represented the United States in the Olympic Games. Many others have held prominent positions in commerce, medicine, politics, government, education, religion and agriculture.
After a Century and a Half
In 1986 Audrain County celebrated its 150th birthday. The 1990 census four years later listed seven incorporated cities besides its county seat, with a total county population of 23,599. Still one of Missouri’s leading agricultural counties, primary crops are currently soybeans, corn, grain sorghum and wheat, with hogs and cattle the main livestock. Along with its three public school districts and several private schools, the county once again has a college with its Advanced Technology Center.
Proud of its history, residents across the county have supported the restoration of historic buildings and the preservation of significant artifacts through a number of private organizations, including the Audrain County Historical Society with its restored mansion, museums and library.