An Ozark Journey: The Old Salt Road, part 2

Wayne Sayles

Silas Claiborne Turnbo

This Google Earth map shows how the Old Salt Road meandered through the hills and hollows of southern Ozark County, making its way over Salt Bald Knob, a familiar sight to anyone who travels Highway W to Pontiac.

Salt Bald Knob is shown at sunset in this beautiful file photo by the late Carol Ellis.

Last week’s column ended in 1842, when 30-year-old Joseph Washington McClurg was working with his father-in-law as a merchant and lead miner at Hazelwood, which is in Wright County near its border with Douglas County. To deal with the dramatically rising salt prices in the region, McClurg launched an ambitious project. He went overland from Hazelwood to Jackson-port, Arkansas, by horseback, noting the lay of the land as he went. From that White River port, McClurg took a steamboat to New Orleans, bought 1,000 bags of salt and shipped them by steamboat back to Jacksonport. From there, he hired teams of oxen and proceeded overland to the market in Springfield, carving a road through Ozark County as he went… 


McClurg’s intrepid wagon train, carrying bags of salt, passed through the Three Brothers area of Arkansas in 1842 and crossed into the state of Missouri north of that point. Ozark County barely existed then, having been carved out of Wayne County only a year earlier. In those days, Wayne County was larger in square miles than the states of Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts combined. Eventually, it would be divided into 32 separate Missouri counties. 

Despite its size, the whole of Wayne County had a population of fewer than 1,500 inhabitants in the 1820 census. Most of these early settlers lived well east of what would later become Ozark County. The new county was, in fact, a wilderness. There were no roads headed toward Springfield; McClurg had to carve his own. The impact of this road can be readily seen in the number of communities that later sprang up along it. Most were settled after the Civil War, and the Old Salt Road served some of them well into the 20th century.

As we trace McClurg’s path today, we often use modern place names for reference. Keep in mind, however, that those places all came along much later than when McClurg passed through. 

Very few maps give us even a glimpse of McClurg’s road, but in Campbell’s New Atlas of Missouri (1874) it is actually visible in Ozark County. Only three early communities appear on the road in this 1874 map: Piland’s Store, Melissa and Isabella. 

Of course, more communities had developed along the road by the turn of the century, but by then contemporary maps only showed isolated parts of the road. It is even unnamed in the Ozark County section of Campbell’s 1874 map, but at the point where it passes into Douglas County, we see the name “Salt Road” printed next to it. 

Once we have an idea, more or less, of where the road traveled, early topographical maps of Ozark County help pin down a more precise route. Entering the county from the south, the first place we find on this road, Charity School, shows up very near the Arkansas border in a 1930s topo map. From there, the road winds its way north to a landmark known locally as Salt Bald. Some of the “old timers” in the county, like Marv Looney and Rex Johnson, still know the hill by that name. 

Silas Claiborne Turnbo, a prolific writer, collector of reminiscences and acclaimed storyteller, was born in 1844 and lived in the Pontiac area with the Herd family during the most productive part of his writing career. In fact, the family lived very near the Old Salt Road, and Turnbo mentions it often in his writings. 

Turnbo’s extensive manuscripts are now preserved at the Greene County Library and are available free to the public online. In the lead to one of his published stories of local folklore, Turnbo wrote, “Most everyone in this section can trace the old salt road and they know where the salt bald hill stands, on the south and east base of which leads the road from Pontiac to Gainesville.” 

That would be what we today call W Highway near its intersection with Locust Road (County Road 603), which heads north. In the story, Turnbo mentions Henry Bratton and Mose Martin searching for a man who had left the Bratton Store one evening in a snow storm—headed south to Arkansas along the Salt Road. They followed his tracks in the snow and at the head of Turnback Hollow they passed Salt Bald. There, they saw where the man had left the road in an apparent state of confusion. Only “a short distance east of salt bald hill,” they found him, barely alive–but not for long. 

In yet another story, Turnbo reports, “This mound is 3 miles northeast of Pontiac,” and he mentions that it was named after the salt road that passed by it. What a treasure for someone trying to trace this road!

Henry Allen Bratton (also spelled Bratten), born in 1824, married Martha Jane Cantrell and moved with a young son to Ozark County about 1845. They homesteaded a 160-acre plot along the Old Salt Road north and west of Salt Bald at a point where two creeks merged. These tributaries of the Little North Fork of the White River became known as the North Fork and South Fork of Bratton’s Spring Creek. On this parcel of land was a large spring, about 10 to 12 feet in diameter, and another spring, slightly smaller, that fed the downstream flow from these two creeks. Near this point, Bratton built a small trading post that small boats could navigate to without much difficulty. Over time, he added a blacksmith shop and schoolhouse as well as the Bratton’s Store Post Office in 1856. 

The store and facilities were ravaged during the Civil War by a combination of Union forces commandeering supplies, Confederate forces trying to destabilize the region, and guerrilla activity that was mainly self-serving. Bratton apparently left the region for a time and eventually moved all of his efforts, including the post office, to the place that later became Isabella.

Heading northwest from Bratton’s Spring, the Salt Road followed a hollow to the ridge where today we find HH Highway. Then it continued near the spot where HH meets Highway 160 today at Isabella. 

Ozark County Times

504 Third Steet
PO Box 188
Gainesville, MO 65655

Phone: (417) 679-4641
Fax: (417) 679-3423