From Preservation Issues, Volume 4, Number 1

Historic Sedalia: By Day and By Night

by Jean Faust
"Traditionally, Americans have chosen to preserve buildings with positive historical connotations. Only recently has this practice been challenged by a new bread of preservationists, who feel its worthwhile preserving structures that may symbolize aspects of history we might like to forget." Patricia Leigh Brown

A colorful legacy of exciting historical events and a mosaic of architectural gems combine to form today's Sedalia, Missouri.

Founded in 1860 by General George Smith who wisely deeded land and right of way to the advancing Missouri Pacific Railroad, the small village soon grew to prominence and led the region in agriculture, industry, law, banking, commerce, and education. Gone were the large, roaming buffalo herds. The Osage Indian trails had become white men's roads. Today's Highway 50 follows one of these Indian trails, which had also become a well-traveled feeder trail leading into the Sante Fe Trail and points west.

Photo by Randy Kirby. Century-old bordello graffiti is amazingly well preserved in Sedalia's historic "red light" district. See this and more on an "adults only" tour at this year's annual historic preservation conference April 22-24. Photo courtesy of Central Missouri News, Sedalia. (Permission for electronic use is being sought.)

In the early years, Sedalia was a busy railroad town. It was the western-most railhead during the Civil War and therefore the site of a large Union military garrison, the destination of cattle drives from Texas (glamorized by the "Rawhide" television series). Sedalia's Rawhide Festival held each July celebrates the Indian heritage, cattle drives, and early history of the area.

Near the turn of the century, Sedalia became the cradle of ragtime music with the arrival of talented pianist and composer Scott Joplin, who helped create a new form of American jazz and lead it to international popularity.

In 1901, Sedalia became the permanent home of the Missouri State Fair. For more than 100 years, this annual event has drawn thousands of Missourians to Sedalia to celebrate the state's agricultural heritage.

The oldest "historic district" in Sedalia is located along Main Street adjacent to the Union Pacific tracks and along South Ohio Street. The very earliest structures were of wood, but due to the frequency of fires in those days, most have not survived. However, many of the brick structures of the 1870s and 1880s are still standing and in use.

During those early years, Main Street was a prosperous business district by day. But at night, because of the large number of male visitors always in town, it became a thriving "red light" district. In its heyday, there were more than 30 bordellos, so-called "hotel sleeping rooms" situated over many saloons, gambling halls, and dance clubs. As the town became known for its lively "sporting belt", more and more black piano players arrived to supply musical entertainment. These men, also known as "ticklers" (as in tickle the ivories), perfected their craft in the red light district. Many, like Scott Joplin, studying music harmony and composition at Sedalia's George R. Smith College for Negroes. Without the availability of steady employment for these talented black musicians in the bordellos and in the black social clubs and the opportunity to study music, this wonderful jazz known as ragtime might never have developed. Sedalia celebrates this musical heritage by hosting an annual international ragtime festival held the first weekend of June.

There are few landmarks closely associated with Ragtime music. Sedalia is fortunate to have three documented sites where the legendary "King of Ragtime", Scott Joplin, composed and perfected his syncopated piano melodies. Joplin often frequented a black social club on the second floor of Archie's Feed Store during his years in Sedalia.

Today, looking into the rooms of some of Sedalia's historic bordellos, one can see the old graffiti preserved there - century-old testimonials to specific women, men's signatures, naughty limericks, and caricatures that still cover the walls. Gambling hall and bordello architectural design is also worth noting, as each room was carefully supplied with amenities and multiple exits. Many of these larger block-long buildings were constructed of the finest materials and exhibit the skilled woodwork and fine brickwork of local craftsmen.

A stroll around Sedalia soon presents the observer with the typical potpourri of architectural designs so often seen in the Midwest. As civilization moved westward, local builders and architects often selected favorite designs and styles into which they would then incorporate their own innovations. Sedalia's built environment, its unique combination of building styles types, and siting, is like no other place in the world. Its preservation provides a visible memory of its historic past for Sedalians and visitors alike.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Although she holds a master's degree in chemistry, Jean Faust's lifelong fascination with history, art, and architecture led her away from the sciences to found her own company, Jean Faust Tours, Inc., in Sedalia. She has designed a special tour of Sedalia for the enlightenment and enjoyment of those attending this year's historic preservation conference, "A Missouri Classic," in Sedalia April 22-24, 1994.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
First electronic edition: 1995
Modified 28 January 2003
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