As I explore the horizons of my new yard, I found a little piece of local history among the rising blades of grass. A large number of volunteer strawberry plants confirmed what I had already discovered through a little local research – the neighborhood where I now live was once part of Speakman’s Fruit Farm. The farm was one of several local fruit farms that combined strawberry fields with apple orchards. The heyday of the fruit farms was in the first part of the 20th century but the legacy lives on in my backyard. Although I know that John Lennon didn’t the song that the Fab Four made a hit in 1967 about Neosho, I like to think that I have my own “strawberry fields forever”!
Strawberries were once one of the area’s major crops. I’ve read that in strawberry season that the local schools cancelled classes so that the children could join everyone else in the fields to pick the sweet, ripe berries. A Strawberry Festival with a parade and a queen was once one of Neosho’s favorite local events. In 1922, a Kansas City Southern pulling 62 cars of Neosho grown berries made a record and was dubbed “The Strawberry Special”.
Howard Speakman was the local farmer who owned Speakman Fruit Farms. He built one of Neosho’s beautiful old homes, the brick Queen Anne style home on West Spring known as “Twin Oaks” and he also perfected the Aroma strawberry variety, the type most often grown in this area. His fruit farm lay three miles west of the Neosho Square and the borders of the farm corresponded very closely to the Greenwood edition where I now live.
Local legend tells that Twin Oaks was built with the profits from just one year’s profits from the strawberry fields. When it was built in the early 1900’s, the land lay on the edge of Neosho and was one of the first large homes to be built outside the hills that surrounded the Neosho Square. Although Howard Speakman died young from pneumonia and was unable to enjoy many years in his fine home, his parents lived in the home until their deaths.
The property then was bought by Judge Baldry, a prominent local judge and attorney. Since then, several families have owned the lovely three story mansion first built by Howard Speakman.
I don’t know yet when the fruit farm passed out of the Speakman family or who may have owned the land in later decades. A few of the old apple trees survived for years but most of those are now gone. The strawberries, though, remain and I’d wager that they are Aromas. My lot was platted in the late 1950’s and I would like to know the history between the heyday of Speakman’s Fruit Farm and the first houses that were built. I plan to research that as soon as the last of the boxes are unpacked from our move.
In the meantime, I’ll watch those strawberry plants grow and move at least a few into a permanent bed to preserve the past. With a little imagination I can see the gently sloping hillsides covered with blooming strawberry plants and later filled with sweet, ripe berries. I can imagine the hard working folks who picked the crops and taste that sweet strawberry taste of spring on my tongue. And, most of all, I savor the piece of Neosho history growing in my own backyard.