Think back, way back, to another time in our country’s history — the 1880s. This was a couple decades after the horrific Civil War threatened to rend our United States apart. In this time of recovery and growth, ingenuity, invention and innovation described many of the happenings here and abroad. The first skyscrapers began transforming our cities, the first submarines opened our water travel options, phonographs revolutionized our entertainment, electrical power began its unstoppable incursion, and Coca-Cola’s invention gave us the “real thing” to enjoy. Some iconic artistic products to come out of that time include Pinocchio, Huckleberry Finn, Jekyll and Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, ragtime music and none more recognizable than the very Statue of Liberty. Yes, for the 50-plus million citizens and their Democrat President Grover Cleveland, progress in 1888 led right to the Ozark region in Southwestern Missouri.

In that same era, commercial brick buildings were built around the central courthouse square in Neosho when it incorporated as a municipal government in 1878. This rebuilding was needed as a result of the town’s rough handling in 1863 when much of the downtown was burned down in the war. During this reconstruction period, Neosho became a prominent commercial center in the area and the town would swell to over five times its population by the turn of the century. To handle this resurgence, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad reached Neosho in 1870 and the Kansas City-Fort Smith and Southern Railroad arrived in 1887 as well. 

It is in this climate that the Neosho National Fish Hatchery found its beginnings. While not the first federal hatchery, it is the oldest in the country that is still serving the American public. Established by Congress in 1871, the National Fish Hatchery System's original purpose was providing mitigation-of-species agreements to replace fish lost from dam construction, and to expand recreational fishing opportunities. Congress established the facility on July 12, 1888, and thus, 125 years ago this Neosho attraction was born.

Since the arrival of the first superintendent, William Page, on Feb. 20, 1889, the hatchery has been run by 12 other directors. Currently, and since 1990, David Hendrix is manager and for 23 years he has been a smiling fixture here. The former built the iconic “hatch house” that would stand for 72 years; the latter oversaw construction of our current, award-winning visitor center and its opening in December 2010. So many fish have been reared, people employed, visitors welcomed, and projects completed in the years between that space does not permit barely their mention. Suffice it to say there is real history here – enough to fill books and enough to fill a display wall!

You are all invited to stop by on our birthday this Friday for a celebration that only comes once. We’ll have festivities and birthday cake — but don’t forget, the merriment will be here before you can say quasquicentennial (look it up). See you all then!

Bruce Hallman is an environmental education specialist for the Neosho National Fish Hatchery