Midco Ruins

 Randy Turley walks toward the long abandoned Midco ruins in Carter County. His family has owned the site for nearly a century.


Most people in Missouri have never heard of Midco, despite the city once being the largest town in Carter County and home to one of the state’s largest industrial developments. The reason why is a century ago Midco was nearly wiped out as the rural Ozark’s worst hit town by the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic 

At its height Midco featured a population of many thousand, dozens of community buildings, an iron mining foundry, wood-reduction chemical plant and 165-foot tall smokestack in the town’s center. The federal government further invested millions in its operations as part of its World War I production effort. 

In October 1918, the Spanish Flu outbreak in Midco killed several dozen residents and infected thousands more. The impact was so severe the town never fully recovered from the ordeal. In fact, Midco was abandoned to ruins less than three years after the epidemic.  

Support local journalism and never miss a story in Phelps County Focus. Sign up here.

The global COVID-19 pandemic is now regarded as the most serious public health crisis since the 1918 Spanish Flu. To better understand our current moment in time, Salem Publishing Company, publisher of Phelps County Focus and The Salem Newslooked to the past to learn more about Midco and how an outbreak of disease can impact an isolated Ozark town.  

Midco’s birth  

Archived historical documents provide much of the evidence that Midco ever existed. One of the best sources on the subject is a collection of contemporaneous newspaper articles collected and published by the West Carter County Genealogical Society. It details the rise and fall of Midco took place over the span of roughly five years from 1917 to 1922. Other sources available are manuscripts in the archives of the State Historical Society of Missouri as well as federal reports on file with the National Archives.  

Multiple sources detail Midco first came to life after a group of Kansas City investors planned to leverage the cheap land and cheap timber of the rural Ozarks to establish an iron-based boom town. A valley in north Carter County was picked for development due to having nearby iron ore, a large spring for water access as well as an immense expanse of surrounding timber. They named their venture the Mid-Continent Iron Company. The company town they founded to be its home was called Midco.  

A total of 3,700 acres was first leased from Peck Ranch namesake George Peck for Midco’s main operations. Workers toiled up to 70 hours a week to build worker housing and company facilities in the spring and summer of 1918. A rail line spur was also stretched to the site, connecting to the Frisco Railroad network.   

The engine which made Midco possible was its large charcoal blast furnace, which upon construction was reputed as the world’s second largest in operation. It was designed to refine up to 100 tons of iron per day by burning 180 cords of wood cut from the surrounding countryside. When the company reached its zenith, it had access to more than 24,000 wooded acres across a multicounty area of southern Missouri. At the time, it employed more than 700 workers as woodcutters and laborers. 

Mary Weaver later provided an eye-witness account of visiting Midco. 

“The noise, confusion, hurry and scurry of a busy industrial city was all about us,” Weaver wrote of arriving in 1918Great buildings, offices, etc., were watched over by huge smokes belching ash, smoke and flame. As we came in sight of the ranch house we found it no longer alone in its stately beauty. A board walk ran from the ranch house to offices, stores, a barber shop, drugstore, and other shops necessary to meet the needs of large numbers of people.”  

With the entry of the United States into World War I, the federal government signed an agreement with Midco’s owners to pay 60 percent of the $2 million cost for building a modern chemical plant on the company’s grounds. In 2020 money, that $2 million investment is the equivalent of nearly $34 million.  

The primary products to be produced were methanol (or wood alcohol) and acetate for making airplane dope, a thick varnish-like solvent used to coat the canvas wings of aircraft used during that era of flight. Routine aircraft maintenance at the time required six coats of airplane dope to be applied to wings regularly for waterproofing the canvas, adding durability and making the vehicle more aerodynamic.  

Midco’s chemical plant was one of at least eight similar facilities the US Army funded to supply a steady flow of methanol and acetate for the war effort in Europe. The American supply of acetate had already been bought out by the British government to produce cordite explosives.   

To obtain the chemicals, the Midco plant used a pyrosis process to distill the base elements from hardwood trees felled to make charcoal for the blast furnace. The wood was heated in retorts up to 650 degrees so chemicals could be collected after being boiled or evaporated from inside the timber. The remaining charcoal husk was sent to the furnace as fuel. Contemporary press reports list the daily production potential at Midco as 22,500 pounds of acetate, 1,350 gallons of methanol as well as a steady flow of wood tar and wood oils.  

A special 1918 report on Midco by the Kansas City Star detailed the chemical plant included two giant tanks with more than a dozen ovens and retorts, plus 20 different smokestacks ranging from 64 to 165 feet tall.  

Kansas City Star reporter Lee Shippey wrote, “Oddly enough, the greatest of these developments has come to Carter County, the most backwoodsy of all Missouri counties, with less taxable wealth, less population, fewer schools, and less tillable land than any county in the state. Here in a mountain-locked valley of surprising scenic beauty, the Mid-Continent Iron Co. is spending close to two million dollars on an industrial plant of such importance that Secretary [of the Treasury William] McAdoo is expected to visit it shortly.”   

Spanish Flu hits  

Although grand in its ambition, history would reveal Midco was hobbled soon after its construction was completed. The company’s worker housing and general facilities were built the first half of 1918, with the blast furnace and chemical plant initially due to go online by summer’s end. However, flooding and labor issues delayed the finish to the fall.  

During the final fall stretch of work newspaper reports document Midco, like the rest of the world, saw a wave of death descend on the town beginning in October 1918.  

Carter County historian Gene Oakley wrote the crowdedness of Midco was a big factor for why the Spanish Flu was so devastating for its population. 

“The flu hit the town at a time when the houses were crowded and there were many men in Midco who had no one to care for them,” Oakley said. “In some cases, whole families were virtually wiped out. People died by the score in the worst tragedy to ever strike the young town.”  

An eyewitness account of Midco’s conditions was later provided by Dorris Ursery, who sold produce there with her family. She said although there were some families at Midco, most of its population were single men.  

“Some lived in tents with dirt floors,” Ursery remembered. “Some of the tents were nothing more than a tarp. They were jammed up against one another. It was crowded.”  

One Midco survivor, Bob Hart, later told historians he and his father were among those living in tents at Midco.  

“I froze many a heel that winter,” Hart said. “My cotton socks weren’t much. It was a hard winter with a lot of snow and ice.”  

An itinerant religious publication named The World’s Cresset was printing from Midco when the Spanish Flu hit and provided the only firsthand press accounts of the crisis. It reported hundreds had fallen ill throughout the town.  

U.S. Army soldiers guarding Midco’s industrial installations had the town on lockdown during the outbreak. Lt. Maskell Ewing of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps wrote to superior officers that sanitary conditions at Midco were deplorable and needed to be addressed. To better manage the situation, Lt. Ewing ordered only workers wearing badges identifying themselves as members of the Army Air Service were to be permitted entry into plant areas. He also asked for a fence to be built around company grounds to ensure proper isolation.   

Ursery remembered stores at Midco also had a hard time keeping supplies in stock as her family would make multiple trips to peddle eggs, butter, melons and wild greens.  

“We would drive up through camp and couldn’t unload (the produce) fast enough,” Ursery said. “The women would pick over it. We never made it through the whole town.”  

Unbeknownst to the workers, they were further under surveillance by military intelligence informants looking for bootleggers, German sympathizers or other potential troublemakers. National Archive documents reveal a military intelligence agent was sent to Midco during the Spanish Flu outbreak to appraise the situation 

In a report dated Oct. 28, 1918, the agent wrote, “Just now there are only two guards on each watch at the plant, the others being sick with influenza, which is sweeping the place and has kept everything at a standstill there for weeks.” 

The World’s Cresset reported unrest embroiled the town as the disease spread. It noted soldiers were passing through the worker’s camp and that work is going slowly here on account of the discontent. We have been refused our honest pay and we must know why.” It also added, “There is much dissatisfaction between the men and the company. They cannot agree, more men come here and leave in just a few days – many of them.” 

Plant Accounting Officer W.A. McMahon wrote to his supervisors that the situation was deteriorating.  

“The latest instance is a case where a workman has threatened to blow up the plant, and if these remarks continue to go unheeded there is bound to be considerable trouble at some future date and of a serious nature, McMahon said.  

The worst of the Spanish Flu’s toll unfortunately went unrecorded. On Oct. 24, 1918, The World’s Cresset distributed only half its regular content and noted it would not publish again until the Spanish Flu epidemic was over. Its next edition didn’t come out until Dec. 26, 1918, after its publisher abandoned Midco to relocate in Leachville, Arkansas. 

The Current Local, a newspaper in Van Buren, reported the death toll at Midco from afar with a series of articles. On Oct. 17, 1918, it reported no less than nine people were dead of Spanish Flu and at least 50 infected. The following week the death toll was up to 25. By early November the paper reported the death toll at approximately 30.  

Particularly hard hit at Midco was the Sanders family. Sarah E. (Johnston) Sanders saw one daughter and five sons die over nine days before she too was killed by Spanish Flu. Other families enduring loss at Midco were the Butts family with three dead children, Ellerman family with three dead members and Freer family with two dead children.   

Later retrospective stories about Midco estimated as many as 1,600 people may have been infected with Spanish Flu in the town and the death toll was likely much higher than 30. Ursery recounts Midco had no undertaker when the epidemic hit, and two government gravedigging crews had to be hired to work in shifts day and night to keep pace with the dead.  

Many of those killed by Spanish Flu were interred at the hilltop Midco Cemetery. The Carter County Genealogical Society reports it has death records for 51 people in the graveyard. Of those, Spanish Flu, influenzapneumonia or lgrippe are listed as the cause of death for 27 individuals dying from October 1918 to March 1920.  

During a private tour of the cemetery, The Salem News determined more than one hundred bodies may be interred within the Midco Cemetery’s boundaras indicated by markers and ground depressions. Unfortunately, only one grave has a readable etching. The other burial sites are marked by only stacked stonessmall boulders or moved earth 

Midco’s collapse 

Due to Spanish Flu-related delays, Midco’s industrial operations ended up not going into production until Nov. 30, 1918 - two weeks after World War I ended. Midco’s guarding soldiers were sent home with WWI’s end and work staggered on at the furnace and chemical plant under civilian control. Unfortunately, Midco missed its chance to establish a market share and struggled to find buyers for its products in the post-war economy 

By 1921, the company’s fate was sealed and its operators began dumping its remaining supplies into a sinkhole situated along a branch of Carter County’s Pike Creek. The pollution eventually worked its way underground to Big Spring, from which it ran into the Current River. The volume was significant enough downriver Doniphan threatened a lawsuit for spoiling the town’s water supply. However, the controversy dissipated as the river water cleared.  

The Current Local thereafter documented the company’s decline with a series of layoffs. Bankruptcy was later declared and the Mid-Continent Iron Company put into receivership by the end of 1921. Some workers remained in Midco in the years after the company folded in hopes it would come back to life. Several unsuccessful efforts were even made to revive the industrial operations in the 1920s, but the town never rebounded and the last of its old-timers were gone by 1930. Midco has been abandoned to the elements ever since. 

Beginning in the 1920s, the Midco grounds and its vestiges began to be purchased by the Turley family of Carter County. Due to open pits and other safety hazards the site is closed to public access as private property 

At the request of The Salem News, a private tour of Midco was permitted for this story. Most of the worker houses and community buildings were long ago demolished. Prickly pear growths on their foundations provide the only visible evidence the structures ever existed 

All that’s left of the chemical plant and iron foundry are their great concrete walls and foundations. Their empty halls are today covered by lichen, moss and wild tangles of vines. The most impressive monument which remains is no doubt the company’s original smokestack, which remains 165-feet tall and the tallest structure in any of the surrounding counties.  

The Turley family has helped preserve Midco’s past by re-marking the boundaries of the old Midco Cemetery and erecting a new monument to the site. The Turleys have also added their own loved ones to the departed. Buried on the edge of a hill overlooking the Midco ruins is Paul Turley, whose father, C.P. Turley, originally purchased the Midco property. On his headstone is etched the following epitaph:  

“Ah, mighty master of this silent solitude,  

How long canst thou maintain thy barren fortitude?  

Standing there amidst cinder, slag and spreading thistle,  

Dost thou long for evening whistle?  

O monster of mortar, clay, and steel  

Tell me what dost thou feel?” 

  • Untitled Ode to the Midco Smokestack 

Paul Turley, 1959