Economic History

Hound Dog Trail Railroads, hangers, tornados, insulation, gunstocks, convicts, even brassieres have played a role in the colorful chronicle of Cameron’s economy. The twin threads of agriculture and transportation have continued to weave through the evolution of Cameron commerce through the Civil War, Great Depression, and Cyberspace Revolution. If you think your digital PCS is groundbreaking, consider the shock to an 1850’s Cameron farmer, at a time when the pinnacle of power was a draft horse, upon seeing his first locomotive.

Cameron’s first entrepreneur was a chap named Isaac Baldwin who, in 1830, established a post office. But, since the Elvis stamp was more than a century off, he sold whiskey for 25 cents a gallon...and water to weary travelers at a dime a jug. Perrier had nothing on this capitalist. For good measure, he added a “house of entertainment,” as Cameron’s 1955 Centennial book called it, and fathered 16 children…Quite a busy fellow this Baldwin.

Early settlers arrived by stagecoach and covered wagon over Hound Dog Trail, much of which is now U.S. Highway 36. A ticket on the daily Hannibal to St. Joseph stage route cost $16 plus $4 for “living expenses” which, presumably, included some of Baldwin’s fare. The trip took 48 hours.

But the big kick in early Cameron’s economic pants came on rails and credit goes to a Cameron duo. In 1847, George Smith, who was later elected Missouri Lt. Governor, successfully petitioned the legislature for a Hannibal to St. Joseph rail line, but financial shortcomings halted the venture. Salvation came from another Cameronite, Colonel M.F. Tiernan, whose volunteer engineers surveyed the entire 206-mile route in 80 days stimulating the sale of railroad stock, and the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad was in business. From St. Joseph, mail continued west on the celebrated Pony Express, which lasted only a few months until rail and telegraph overtook it.

In 1859, with a population of 100, the first load of livestock was shipped by rail from Cameron. By 1881 the census had grown to 3,000 and records show 300 carloads of livestock a year originating in Cameron. In 1871 a second rail line, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific also extended a line to Cameron, and the City’s later claim as Crossroads of the Nation had its beginning.

Cameron’s growth as a retail and commercial trade center suffered a huge blow when a disastrous 1871 fire destroyed 45 buildings including most of the downtown and left one-third of the town’s residents homeless. The blaze began in a livery stable.

For 47 years Cameron was a college town. The Cameron Institute, a private, post-secondary school, opened in 1883. When acquired by Methodists it became Missouri Wesleyan College, which survived a 1919 fire, but not the Great Depression, and it closed in 1930. One of its buildings served as Cameron High School until the 1960’s.

Cameron had its share of manufacturers with a 1909 skirt factory among the earliest. Glove production occurred early in the century in the spacious basement of the Musser mansion, built by Cameron’s first mayor who was tried three times for assaulting a widowed teacher in a case the local paper called “Rich, Rare and Racy Proceedings.”

Cameron got on the communications bandwagon when the Dixie Radio factory opened in 1926, and the garment trade continued until 1931 when the Grant Apron factory burned. From 1938 until the 1950’s, as many as 75 women produced brassieres in the Hollywood Maxwell factory. It seems all manufacturing was called “factory” back then. The Clover Hill Cheese factory had a capacity of some 700 cheeses while the Chapman Ice Cream plant produced edible delicacies from 1904 to 1926.

Cameron’s penchant for making things continued in the 1950’s with Garrison and Son’s barrel stave factory; the Thompson Company made holders for radio tuning crystals; the Campbell Broom factory; and the Dildine Bridge Company which turned out 300 tons of steel a month. In 1950 N-W Electric began providing power to eight rural cooperatives.

The weather is responsible for Cameron’s most enduring industry. In 1892, the fear of Mother Nature brought about creation of a regional tornado protection company for farmers which grew into today’s Cameron Insurance Companies now employing 170. Such is loyalty to this stalwart that tenure now averages over 12 years. In 1964 the company hit a pair of milestones: It bought 48 acres for a new headquarters and acquired one of the first IBM computers in the Midwest.

From the rail crossroads of the 1870’s came a new vehicular juncture-one of concrete. In the 1960’s a pair of major automotive transportation accomplishments would redirect Cameron’s economic future. U.S. 36 was re-routed to the north edge of town becoming 4-lanes while the new Interstate-35 brushed the city’s eastern flanks. Some downtown merchants bemoaned the demotion of U.S. 69 while others embraced opportunity at the New Crossroads. Today over 40,000 vehicles a day pass through the namesake intersection.

The next industrial boom occurred in the late 1960’s when Mayor Roy Eagan and his troupe ventured to Ithaca, NY to persuade the Ithaca Firearms Company to locate a gunstock manufacturing facility in Cameron. The firm employed as many as 80 and specialized in creating walnut rifle stocks. Product liability issues forced the company out of business in the early 1980’s. Following default on industrial bonds, the City acquired the building and, after several years of vacancy, Clinco Industries found a home therein providing contract packaging services, recycling processing, and maintenance for Missouri highway rest stops.

The other 60’s newcomer was Rockwool Insulation which built a 130,000-square-foot plant just southwest of town along the rail line. The company turned three carloads of iron ore slag a day into fluffy, non-combustible insulation and employed 135 before the construction slow-down of the late 70’s forced it to close. Rumors of Rockwool starting up again every six months or so proved only wishful and the building languished for over a decade. After years of negotiations with the Colorado-based parent of Rockwool, the City acquired the by-then-dilapidated structure and sought a tenant. A tiny ad for the building in the Kansas City Star placed by a local real estate broker caught the eye of a KC coat hanger maker, and in 1992 Midwest Hanger began churning out a million hangers a day in Cameron, plus thousands of hog rings, which are actually industrial staples. Customers included cleaners, uniform companies and garment makers. From a start of 25 staff, Midwest’s Cameron plant employed over 100 and earned Small Business of the Year honors in 1996 from MoKan Development, Inc. Midwest became the third largest producer of wire hangers worldwide. In 2002 Midwest Hanger was acquired by CHC Industries of Palm Harbor Florida which consolidated Midwest’s Kansas City and Cameron plants to Cameron. A year later, however, in the face of intense foreign steel competition, CHC closed the Cameron plant as well as one of its other facilities. Shortly thereafter, CHC declared bankruptcy.

In 2006, Sukup Manufacturing, a grain-handling equipment manufacturer headquartered in Sheffield, Iowa, purchased the Midwest Hanger facility as a regional distribution center. While Sukup spooled up operations, much of the building was used by Case New Holland as a warehouse operations training center which insiders referred to as “boot camp.”

Also in 2006, Case New Holland, the international farm and construction equipment giant, announced construction of a 500,000 square-foot parts distribution depot employing 150-200 with an investment of $30 million on a 48-acre site in the bustling Crossroads Corporate Center. The facility serves 560 dealers in ten Midwestern States with overnight delivery. CNH consolidated operations at Omaha, Kansas City and St. Paul to the new Cameron plant.

The trifecta of 2006 came as Dohrn Trucking of Rock Island, IL began construction of a transfer station at Cameron and relocated its St. Joseph operation to the Crossroads. The Cameron project adds some 30 truck drivers and dock workers to the 15 transferred from St. Joseph.

One of today’s buzzwords is the term Virtual Headquarters, and Cameron has one. It began in 1980 when a pair of entrepreneurs, TWA mechanic John Riead and Ken Raffety, a loan manager, formed Rieadco after inventing a lighted fishing float called the Night Bobby. While production continues today in Independence, the firm’s administrative and office functions remain in Cameron. Popular Science magazine reported on the device in 1988 saying it was visible for 200 feet. Rieadco has since added fluorescent daytime bobbers, lighted bath toys, eyeglass retainers, and its newest product, Brite Wheels, which screw onto bike and auto valve stems. Rieadco sells over a million units yearly at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Cabela’s and stores in five foreign countries.

And then came prisons….
A few years ago, a Kansas City TV news feature dubbed Cameron the “Town that Loves Prisons” in deference to its pair of state corrections institutions. Love them or not, Cameronites’ regard for their houses of incarceration can best be described by events of 1996 when voters opted for a 3/8-cent sales tax in order to fund a $3 million sewage plant upgrade to handle a second a margin of nearly 80%.

At a meeting in Buckner, Missouri, which was then considering entering the race for a state prison, the printed program listed “Cameron Video” which was to be presented by prison opponents after a day taping numerous, negatively-opined Cameron residents. But when the Big Event came, the MC announced that the video would not be shown after all. It seems not a single vocal Cameron prison opponent could be found.

To explain we must refer to those bleak early 80’s when both of Cameron’s manufacturers closed. Northwest Missouri banks collapsed. Courthouses began opening only four days a week. The effects of the Soviet grain embargo were widespread. Banks would not loan money to farmers. Farm liquidations hit an all-time high. Chasing smokestacks to combat unemployment was futile…companies were closing, not expanding. Economic sage Gib Keith of N-W Electric called a meeting to suggest an alternate economic path; one of institutional pursuit-for a proposed state veteran’s home. But, alas, Gib reported, funding for such a facility would be years away. Then, amid groans of disappointment, Gib produced a magazine article which proclaimed that Missouri was considering construction of a new prison. “I wonder,” pondered Gib, “if we should go after that?”
Sixteen years and two prisons later, the Missouri Veterans Home at Cameron admitted its first resident in 2000.

Originally written for Cameron Newspapers’ “Progress” edition in 2000 and updated.