Fayette is the county seat of the “Mother of Counties,” with deep roots reaching further back than the Civil War.
Originally possessing nearly one-third of the land that constitutes present-day Missouri, Howard County was organized back in 1816, five years before the state of Missouri was admitted into the Union. The initial boundaries have since been split into more than 40 different counties, including several in Iowa, earning it the name the “Mother of Counties.”
The largest city of the county, Fayette, boasts a population of 2,663 people, according to the 2020 census. Even though that is but a fraction of Columbia’s population of more than 120,000 people, it is still the largest city in all of Howard County. It is also home to over 1,000 students attending Central Methodist University, a private four-year liberal arts college located down the street from the center of Fayette.
Forty-two buildings revolve around the Howard County Courthouse, which together complete the Fayette Courthouse Square Historic District. The district has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1998. In fact, according to Harold Kerr, one would be hard-pressed to find a place in Fayette that isn’t on the register.
“Almost everything in Fayette is on that list somewhere,” he said. As a genealogist, the president of the Howard County Missouri Genealogical Society and a member of more historical societies and committees than he can remember the names of, Kerr has an intense understanding of just how much history lies within the places of Howard County and its seat of power.
Howard County was organized on Jan. 23, 1816, and was named after Benjamin Howard, the first governor of the Missouri Territory. It consists of nine cities: Glasgow, Armstrong, Fayette, New Franklin, Franklin, Lisbon, Roanoke — which is also part of Randolph County — and Steinmetz. The majority of settlers were from the Upper Southern states, bringing traditional agricultural practices and the practice of slavery with them. The area became known as “Little Dixie” because of the Southern influence. According to the 2017 census of agriculture, the county had 690 farms stretching over 200,000 acres of land.
Fayette was the third city in the county to be declared the county seat. Hannah Cole’s Fort, presently Boonville of Cooper County, was the first. The seat was moved to Old Franklin in 1817 but moved once more to Fayette in 1823 to avoid the frequent flooding of the Missouri River.
Decades later, during the Civil War, Howard County was the location of several Army regiments and skirmishes. Missouri, along with the rest of the nation, was deeply divided by the two sides of the war, officially remaining neutral. The state was largely sympathetic to the Confederacy despite the placement of Hamilton Gamble, a provisional pro-Union governor, in 1861. Guerrillas sympathetic to Confederates ranged various trails in the state of Missouri, including notable figures such as Frank and Jesse James.
Each historical society works hard to commemorate special anniversaries for the county. In 2017, the Genealogical Society published a book to honor the bicentennial of Howard County.
The South Howard County Historical Society is currently planning the celebration of the bicentennial of the Santa Fe Trail, a route that connects Franklin with Santa Fe and was historically used for trade with Mexico.
There are major events being planned for the Santa Fe Trail’s bicentennial. In June, a ceremonial wreath laying will take place in Old Franklin. In September, the exact month of the bicentennial, the local sect of the Daughters of the Revolution will place a monument at the home of one of the original settlers of Howard County. There will also be a Santa Fe-themed Christmas dinner, though it has not yet been decided whether or not it will be open to the public. Masks and social distancing procedures will be enforced at the scheduled events.
The community cherishes its deep roots, and while attendance at these events varies, Kerr said 300 to 400 people present would be considered a good turnout, with popular events garnering as many as 1,000 attendees.
Members of the various historical societies and the community alike share an investment in their town and county’s rich past. Its present, on the other hand, is largely guarded by students attending Central Methodist University.
It’s odd enough that there is a university in a sleepy little city like Fayette — one would think that, of all places in the world, the seat of Howard County wouldn’t have a reason to start a university.
If Central Methodist University was proposed in modern times, they‘d probably be right. However, the story of Fayette is intrinsically linked to the story of CMU. Not only is CMU a key staple in modern Fayette life, it has been a central feature of the city since before the Civil War.
“The school was at the center of some of the major routes of westward expansion and is located in an area of the state that was settled early,” the Missouri State Historical Society wrote. “The buildings from the 1850s must be among the oldest educational buildings in Missouri still being used for their original purpose.”
Other than the fact that the university’s history and the city’s history largely followed the same curve, CMU was also the site of an important skirmish during the Civil War.
A group of Confederate guerrillas led by “Bloody Bill” Anderson and George Todd staged an attack on Union troops stationed in Fayette in September of 1864, which took place across the whole town, ending at the college.
“The whole column of horsemen broke into a run and dashed through town toward the federal garrison at the north edge of Central College campus,” wrote Hamp Watts, a member of Bill Anderson’s guerrilla group.
The siege turned out to be largely a failure for the guerrillas, resulting in far more casualties on their side than for the garrisoned Union troops.
“This was the most scary, as well as the most dangerous, place I have any recollection of ever being in during those dreadful times,” wrote Watts.
Central Methodist University’s history and the history of Fayette share many important parallels and should be examined to form an understanding of the city’s role as the county seat.
Since 1823, Fayette has been the “room where it happens” in Howard County. It serves as the bridge between citizens and their county government. Since its establishment, it’s been the county’s population center; current mayor Kevin Oeth cites this as the main reason for the city’s status as the county seat.
“There’s a lot of things that are simply just because of the weight of the number of voters we have, as opposed to the weight that voters in, say, Armstrong have. Fayette carries a lot of weight because of that,” Oeth said. A U.S. Census webpage reported that Howard County consisted of 10,001 people in 2019. Fayette contains just under 30% of that population, while New Franklin contains 11% and Glasgow contains 13%.
Some people say, ‘As Fayette goes, as goes Howard County,’” Oeth said. When Fayette does something, the rest of the county follows.
For members of Fayette’s government, like Oeth, the biggest effect of being the county seat is an increase in convenience and accessibility. In fact, there is often overlap between the Fayette and Howard County governments themselves. Oeth worked for the county as election clerk before his time as mayor.
Another defining characteristic of Fayette as the county seat is the presence of the county courthouse. Originally built in 1826, it has been rebuilt several times, most recently in the 1980s.
“If you have a court date, you’re going to Fayette,” Oeth said.
Fayette’s larger population came back to center stage as local election season rolled around. In November 2020, Howard County experienced 72.91% voter turnout. A large percentage of the county’s 5,092 voters likely reside in the county seat.
“Howard Countians are usually pretty politically astute, and they will get out and vote,” Oeth said. It has continued to exert influence over the ‘Mother of Counties’ as the county seat, staying relevant from its foundation, through to the 21st century.