Gordon Manor shines, even as a charred ruin

On Nov. 14, the "sentinel which stood as a guard at the east portals of Columbia" for 175 years was gutted by fire. The beautiful color photo by Denise McGill prompts me to ask, "Can the ruins now guard our east portal?"

On Nov. 18, 1818, David Gordon and 34 other men, organized as "The Smithton Co.," bought land at $4 to $6 an acre "to project a town ... and thus apportioned to the different purchases as each member might elect." Historian William Switzler in 1882, said they purchased "certain rich and eligible lands, in the midst of a fertile agricultural district, possessing advantages of healthfulness, water, and timber." Water was the main attraction because Smithton had no "living water" — no springs that "didn’t stop."

Buying land to resell was a profitable venture because it came after the Indians had relinquished claim to land north of the Missouri River and settlers were coming into the area. The population of Howard County jumped from 500 in 1815 to 9,000 in 1818. We can thank the 35 planners of The Smithton Co. for Columbia’s 100-foot-wide "Broad Way" and its many parallel downtown streets.

This was once a wilderness known as Upper Louisiana, on a "highway" packed down by the feet of many oxen and ruts made by the wheels of covered wagons. The route meandered from hilltops in wet weather to shortcuts in dry times, following the tracks made by Daniel Boone’s sons who came this way in 1806. The trail was north of Smithton but was moved in 1823 to take immigrants down the main street of the new town called Columbia.

That same year, Missouri was only 2 years old and David Gordon’s new two-story brick mansion stood alone on his farm east of the cluster of dirt-floor cabins called Columbia. Gordon’s slaves dug clay from the ground, formed it into bricks, dried them and burned them on the site. They burned limestone rocks from Hinkson Creek to make wall plaster and hewed walnut trees for beautiful wood fittings for the home. In recent years, this handmade mansion was called Gordon Manor.

David Gordon was followed by relatives and many other settlers who came from Madison County, in central Kentucky. Historian Edwin Stephens, in "History of Boone County" published in 1876, said these families were among those who "possessed energy, integrity, dauntless courage ... the best blood of Kentucky and Tennessee-brave, determined and nurtured in the noblest precepts of Christianity, they were embodiments of manhood that would have honored any country."

William Switzler later reported that "the ball of improvement was rolling through our country" and many, including David Gordon and his wife, Jane Boyle Gordon, had "considerable wealth." Gordon was instrumental in starting the Agricultural Fair. He also was a justice of the peace. Other Gordons were lawyers, judges and professional men. Switzler said, "It is to the eloquence and energy of John Boyle Gordon" — David’s son — "that Columbia is indebted more than to any other man for location of the State University."

After 125 years, David Gordon’s mansion is gutted, but it is not gone. I had dreaded to view the charred remains. I was surprised, however, to see a beautiful white monument to the brave and determined pioneers, to the slaves who made those bricks, to forward thinking planners and to education.

As with the Coventry Cathedral ruins in England, I vision the horror of destruction giving way to beauty, respect and even reverence.

Can this be Columbia’s historical monument in the making?

More about early Columbia next Tuesday.

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