Few Neosho residents today know the name Howard Speakman although they may know the house he built more than a century ago on the profits from a single strawberry season.
It stands, three stories tall as a brick landmark on West Spring Street, mere blocks away from the businesses and traffic found on Neosho Boulevard. From the upper stories, the view encompasses the railroad tracks as they wrap around the hills and It’s possible to view in the distance the area where Speakman once had a fruit farm.
Turn back time to the early 1900’s when Speakman owned a large fruit farm, consisting of apple and peach orchards as well as strawberries in season just outside Neosho in the area just west of Business 49 where Greenwood Boulevard, Ozark Drive and Hilldale are just a few of the streets that now stand where his crops once grew.
Apple and peach orchards were once common in the Ozarks and in some areas, orchards remain. In the Neosho area, however, strawberries were also once a profitable crop. Speakman was instrumental in developing the strawberry business in the area, a boom which continued from around the turn of the 20th century into the 1940’s.
The Speakman Fruit Farm specialized in strawberry production along with extensive orchards. His weren’t the only ones – orchards also abounded along what is now Neosho Boulevard and the area where the high school complex now stands. Speakman and his parents relocated to the area from Monmouth, Illinois, primarily for what they saw as the fertile potential that existed her.
Speakman didn’t limit his interests to farming, although he was cited in an August 1904 issue of The Western Fruit Grower magazine as “probably the best-informed man in the entire region of the strawberry business.” He served as a founding director of the First National Bank, as a City Council member at the time of his death in 1905, and a member of the Neosho Commercial Club. He was also active in both the Missouri State Horticultural Society and the local Fruit Growers Association.
By 1904, Strawberries had become a big business in the Neosho area and Speakman was a spokesman, key player, and leader in the industry. At the height of the strawberry years, wagon loads of the delicious berries lined up to ship across the country in downtown Neosho. Berry sheds were constructed to hold them until they were loaded on waiting trains.
By the summer of 1904, the Speakman home had been built. An image of the home appeared in the August 1904 issue of The Western Fruit Grower, a national publication based in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Speakman’s civic duty and his agricultural interests were not his only visions. He had plans for a city park for the growing city of Neosho but the spot he chose wasn’t considered ideal by all. Although a civic move to create a park began in 1886, the location was not determined. Some events had been held at Island Park, a piece of land located near today’s Morse Park along the banks of Hickory Creek but Speakman wanted a park in the central part of town, a park that could be enjoyed by all.
A feed lot and tannery had long operated in the area that today is Big Spring Park but that spot seemed ideal to Speakman. The feed lot sat where the main park does today, and the tannery was located across the street. Local legends also indicate that prior to the feed lot, local women utilized the spring there to do their weekly laundry on Mondays. Many local residents were against the spot being used as a park.
The desire to create a city park began in 1886 but the current location of Big Spring Park was not considered until three years later. Some local opposition to the proposed site existed because at that time it housed a feed lot and a tannery operation existed across the street. Possible locations were considered and debated until 1903. Speakman thought the current site was ideal for a public park.
The Commercial Club, influenced by Speakman who saw the property as a viable and attraction location for a city park, decided to buy the feed lot. The proposed park would encompass most of what is now Big Spring Park and extended up the hillside toward Central School. The Big Spring itself remained under private ownership for a number of years.
With Speakman’s enthusiasm fueling the project, the grounds of the new park were leveled. Grass, flowers, and shrubbery were planted. A bandstand was under construction by the spring of 1904, in the area where today’s Grecian wading pool now exists. The grotto over the spring at the rear of the park was enclosed by native stone.
The first major public event held at the new Big Spring Park, designed by Speakman, was the first Strawberry Festival on June 9, 1904. A parade led from the Neosho Square to the park where Diva Rudy was crowned the first Strawberry Queen of Neosho. In later years, Diva Rudy Barlow would remember Speakman as a “fine fellow of large and robust build.”
Although the park Speakman envisioned remains today and has become what many call the “crown jewel” of Neosho’s Park System, the story has a sad ending. In March of the following year, Speakman became ill after battling an early spring hard freeze that threatened his orchard and a subsequent trip to Northwest Arkansas. He came down with pneumonia, which was then one of the top three causes of death in the United States (the other top illnesses were the flu and tuberculosis). Despite a 7-week long battle aided by local Dr. Lamson, Speakman passed away on March 24, 1905 at the age of 37 years, 4 months and 7 days. After a funeral held at the home, he was laid to rest at Neosho IOOF Cemetery, outliving both his parents, JB and Anna Speakman. They lived in the home he built until their deaths. Lines from Mrs. Speakman’s obituary in the Neosho Daily Democrat on January 19, 1920 read, “Mrs. Speakman’s son, Howard, was the moving spirit in the creation of the strawberry culture and industry of Newton County.” Speakman passed away in his thirties, before he could marry or have children. Had he lived, it’s likely his contributions to Neosho would have continued over many decades.”
His most lasting contribution is Big Spring Park.
Were it not for Howard Speakman, fruit farmer, local banker, and community servant, there might not have ever been a Big Spring Park. Although his life ended far too soon, the legacy he left behind outlasted the fruit trees and the strawberries, leaving Neosho residents the park they know and love today.