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Legacy of Little River

Posted Wednesday, October 17, 2012, at 9:53 PM

During the early days of the 20th century, a large part of southeast Missouri was commonly referred to as "Swamp East Missouri," because the forces of nature had decreed that this area should be a "catch basin" for the rain and flood water that regularly came rolling out from 750,000 acres of Ozark hills. This water spread through seven counties, as it meandered over 100 miles on its way to the Mississippi River, making a large part of this area unsuitable for human habitation.

It was easy to see that this swamp water was covering some of the richest soil in our nation, and early in the 20th century a group of visionaries began making plans to divert this floodwater directly into the Mississippi river.

The Little River Drainage District was formed in 1907. In the process of creating the Diversion Channel, dredging the lateral ditches, and building levees, this project became the largest drainage system in the world, moving more dirt than was moved in digging the Panama Canal. The system provides drainage for over a million acres of good fertile soil.

Construction of the headwater diversion channel was started in 1914. The channel extends from the foothills of the Ozarks in south Bollinger County, through Cape Girardeau County, and into Scott County, emptying into the Mississippi River. This diversion channel does just what its name implies, as it diverts the water from Castor River and other smaller streams directly into the Mississippi river, a distance of about 40 miles.

I was born and grew up on a 50-acre farm just one-half mile from the head of this diversion channel. I now own the land joining the point where the Castor River was diverted into the channel, and I am probably the only living person to have witnessed the final cut that let the water from Castor River flow down the Diversion Channel.

I have searched every source I can think of, and have not been able to establish the exact date that this cut was made. I did, however, find records stating that "Construction of the Headwater Diversion Channel began in 1914 and was completed in 1920." If this 1920 is the date of the final cut, then I would have been 6 years old when my father hitched old Nellie and Dan to our farm wagon and took our whole family to see them turn Castor River down the Diversion Channel.

Today, I let my mind wander back to the time before Little River and remember the way it was back then. Our little four room house was sitting on a knoll about forty yards from the bank of Cato Slough, which was the first natural outlet for the flood waters of Castor River, and I remember having waded water up to my knees in our front yard, as Castor River came rolling out of the Ozark hills and spread out over the flat land.

These floods could occur at any time of the year; however, they were more prevalent during the winter and early spring, so we didn't dare start planting our crops before the first of June, and even then there were times that all of the crops that survived the floodwater were small patches on knolls or high ridges in the field.

Here we are, nearly one hundred years later, and I wonder if, we the people of Southeast Missouri realize that the engineering skill of the Little River Drainage District, in draining "Swamp East Missouri" was responsible for the greatest transformation of landscape to ever occur in the United States. Are we aware of the fact that the seven-county area south of the Diversion Channel was once the largest segment of Wet Land in the State of Missouri, whereas today, thanks to Little River, this area is the richest farming area in the state, producing one-third of Missouri's agricultural wealth.

Photo is taken from the History of the Little River Drainage District of Southeast Missouri.

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The date that Mr. Corbin has on his computer for this story is August, 2011, but I'm not sure if that's the date he wrote it. If it is, he was extremely prolific at that time, because a number of his stories have a 2011 date.

I'll continue to post blogs for him, with his permission, using a zip drive to get them from his computer in the Advance Assisted Living Center to my computer. We can't let his work molder in obscurity!

-- Posted by Madeline1 on Wed, Oct 17, 2012, at 10:04 PM

It is a real joy to read Mr Corbins account of early southeast Missouri. I was born in 1931 and can remember as a young boy we could dig in the yard of our home and 'hit water' in just a few feet. I thought my goodness I could dig a few more feet and land in China. Funny how the young mind works, I remember thinking I could not even speak Chinese.

Keep the stories coming as it is a joy to read of the past.

-- Posted by Dexterite1 on Thu, Oct 18, 2012, at 5:44 AM

Thanks to Bobby Greer for getting Mr. Corbin's blog put back on the Statesman site. I don't know how many readers even knew about it on the NSC site.

-- Posted by Madeline1 on Thu, Oct 18, 2012, at 4:36 PM

Very informative for a relatively newcomer. Corbin, you make the history of this area so interesting!

-- Posted by swift on Sat, Oct 20, 2012, at 10:50 AM

Oh, and Thanks Madeline!

-- Posted by swift on Sat, Oct 20, 2012, at 10:52 AM

Thank you, Swift, but Mr. Corbin has been writing blogs since June 25, 2008 and columns for the NSC since 2001, shortly after I started writing for the NSC. I met him while doing one of my first stories for the paper in 2001. He helped us with our Progress edition that year.

Writing has provided him with a wonderful outlet for his creativity. He once told him that writing had "saved" him, after his wife died.

-- Posted by Madeline1 on Sat, Oct 20, 2012, at 9:06 PM

Oh, did you mean that you were the "relative newcomer," Swift? I think I misunderstood.

-- Posted by Madeline1 on Sat, Oct 20, 2012, at 9:10 PM

Yep, I'm the newcomer relatively speaking. Sorry for the misunderstanding. We've been here in Stoddard County 16 yrs now and we're still just beginning to learn all the ins and outs of this great place. Thank God for bloggers like you and Corbin!

-- Posted by swift on Mon, Oct 22, 2012, at 3:23 PM

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Bunyan Tales
Paul Corbin
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Paul Corbin is a 100-year-old historian, humorist, and amateur archaeologist from Advance, Mo. He grew up in the Greenbrier area west of Advance, where he attended Stepp School on the banks of Cato Slough and the Castor River, important waterways throughout his life. In an age when many area residents did not go to high school, the young Corbin made the decision to walk the five miles to Zalma, graduating in 1933. Throughout his life, he was an enterprising businessman, selling Watkins products from house to house throughout a large area - and later opening a variety store in Advance. He and his wife Geneva traveled throughout the United States, even following the route that the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled. His knowledge of Native American culture is extensive, and he has donated a sizeable collection of his artifacts to the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center and the Bollinger County Museum of Natural History in Marble Hill. Throughout the years, he has submitted articles to TBY, the North Stoddard Countian, the Ozark Mountaineer, and several other Missouri publications. He has also written two books - "Reflections in Missouri Mud," and "Fragments of my Feeble Mind." The first one is out of print.
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