Himmelberger-Luce Land & Lumber Company v. Blackman and New Madrid County and Missouri Supreme Court


       In 1885 New Madrid County made a contract with Charles Luce to do reclaiming work by cutting ditches and to take payment in swamp. Work was to be paid for by the county at 14 cents per cubic yard and swamp and overflow land at the price $1.25 per acre. Included in the

contract was land in section 18, at $1.25 an acre. What part of section 18 was not specified in the contract; just a general statement about that block of land.

Before the contract was fulfilled, Luce died on September 15, 1886. At this time, work has started, but not completed. In fact little work had been stated, however little had been accomplished. Contract terms called for the work to be completed by January 1, 1894. On May 20, 1893, the contractor’s widow and his heirs successfully applied to the county court for an extension of the contract.

The heirs of the contractor assigned all their interest in the contracts to the lumber company.  A clause in the renewed contract allowed “any person in actual possession of any of the lands, who had made improvements and is not residing thereon, shall have the right to  purchase” eighty acres of the same at $1.25 per acre, paid to the contractor for land in payment for improvements.

In 1887, one Shelfer settled on the eight acres under dispute. He builds a fence, cleared and cultivated 15 or 18 acres, put up a house, and lived there until 1889. At this time he sold the property to Blackman and conveyed to him all rights and who the next year applied for a patent and was issued one to the settler, not the lumber company.

Under Missouri law, a claim of ownership by a “squatter” was to make “improvements” on the property.

Lawyers Oliver & Oliver for the lumber company claimed Blackman was not in possession of the land as required by clause eleven of the contract. Shelfer made the improvement to the land, not Blackman and had never lived there. Therefore, he did not meet the terms of the original drainage contract and thus ineligible to retain ownership of the land in question. Thus the county court had no right to dispose of that land as it had no jurisdiction in this matter.

Defense lawyers, H. C. O’Bryan said the county court was authorized to dispose of this land.  Blackman had a legal title to the land and he had made improvement, by at least a provable $400. When the original 1885 contract with Luce was made, the law in force recognized the right of settlers included proper right and improvement to any quality of lands, not seceding 80 acres.  Both the original and renewed contract must be read together.

J. Gantt, for the Missouri Supreme Court agreed with O’Bryan. The original contract between New Madrid County and Charles Luce in December 1, 1885, Luce agreed to dig a certain ditch or canal in the county from the Iron Mountain Railroad near Morehouse in a southern direction along Little River some twenty-three miles. This ditch was to be about 40 feet wide and ten feet deep for the draining and reclaiming swamp and overflowed land in the county.

When inspectors declared the contract completed, the lumber company submitted a bill for $267,114. 18 with the right to claim swamp land at $1.25 per acre (which divides out to 213,691 acres). As neither the old or new contract stated ownership of what land would full fill the county’s obligation, Blackman’s title was valid as the county had more than 400,000 acres to disperse, and therefore, other land was available to fulfill the contract.




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    Having grown up on Little River, I have been fascinated with it. Over the past several years, as a local historian, this area has been a special interest. 

     These areas have been treated much like step-children by Jefferson City and Little Rock. They seem to believe nothing has ever happened here.  Our history has been long and varied. Hope you enjoy my trip.  

    Near Puxico is the swampy Mingo Wildlife Refuge. One hundred and fifty year ago, most of the Little River Valley appeared that way. This valley covering two million acres was part of the largest wetland in America.

    Floods frequently intimated the Valley. Between 1815 and 2011, 15 major floods covered or threatened the area.

    Timber companies came in at the end of the 19th Century to clean cut the forest. Louis Houck, a Cape Girardeau lawyer and railroad builder, envisioned a rail network that covered the wetlands.

    Little River Drainage District (LRDD) Corporation was established in 1907 by an act of the Butler County (MO) Circuit Court. 

    Between 1909 and 1928 the LRDD dug nearly 1000 miles of ditches and constructed 30 miles of levees to drain 1.2 million acres of swamp and overflow land in Southeast Missouri. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama Canal.

    One surprise I had was the number of settlements in the area before 1811-1812. Another was the water connection between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis and I had no idea that Little River had enough current to run a grist mill.

    Norman Vickers


    January 2015
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    Little River's Geographic Past