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Milan, Sullivan County

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MILAN, Mo., town and county-seat of Sullivan County on the Quincy, Omaha and Kansas City and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroads, about 100 miles east by north of Saint Joseph. It is in an agricultural and stock-raising region, and in the vicinity of bituminous coal fields. The chief manufactures are flour and lumber. Milan is the headquarters of a division of the Quincy, Omaha and Kansas City Railroad, and the shops of the road are located here. The trade is principally live-stock, grain, lumber and flour. Pop. 2,191.

The Encyclopedia Americana, 1920.

Milan. No, not that Milan. The Milan that is the county seat of Sullivan County, sitting high up on top of a steep ridge, dominating the quiet, isolated valley west of Kirksville. It’s pronounced MY-lin, and its population has fluctuated over 2,395 people when this was a major hub of the Quincy, Omaha and Kansas City Railroad, to around 1,870 in 2014. An influx of Mexican American immigrants actually caused the population to increase in the first decade of the new millennium, drawn to packing houses that moved out to the country after World War II, ending the hegemony of places such as National City. The town has a bright future if it will be accepting of new immigrants.

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The town square, sitting at the peak of the low mountain or ridge, is in good condition, with relatively good occupancy. Above, the old city hall, replaced by one just to the east.

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It’s a rarity, but below we can see actual rusticated brick on the corner and cornice of this building on the square.

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The Hotel Stanley, Sanborn maps reveal, has existed on the site since at least 1914, if not slightly longer. There seems to have been a boom in construction right before the 1920s.

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It now appears to be a long term hotel, geared towards the elderly. The weather was nice and I saw a man out on the front porch.

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But as the Hotel Stanley shows, outside of downtown, the terrain slopes off dramatically. This a situation where the old Sanborn maps give us an interesting perspective of what life was like building on such rugged terrain.

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The first Sanborn map, from 1886, reveals mostly wooden buildings surrounding the square, and ravines are shown dropping off to the north and west. The original courthouse, which you can see in a picture here, was built in 1857 and even used stones from a Native American burial mound on the site that was destroyed in the process. Note in the old photograph how additional outlines have been added to the later cupola to delineate it from the sky behind. Again, as was common, the courthouse is in the Neoclassical style, with an almost Baroque cupola. The porch, interestingly, lined with columns, sits back under the second floor.

Milan 1886

Italianate houses, such as these two below, probably date back to the same time period right after the Civil War.

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The residential districts sit on gently to ruggedly sloping terrain, moving away from the town square. Much of the town probably looked like this. There was even a coal mine in town, according to Sanborn maps.

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By 1893, the square was beginning to fill in with more brick structures.

Milan 1893

Houses, such as the one below, probably began to be built on the more wealthy south side of town.

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By 1898, the ravine on the west side of town was starting to be filled in, finally, opening up new lots for building.

Milan 1898

Interestingly, even as 1906 rolled in, the ruggedness of the terrain was still manifesting itself in the still extant ravines to the west and north. But by 1914, they would finally be filled in.

Milan 1906

By 1914, the downtown had grown so much that it was split into two Sanborn maps. The courthouse was gone, having burned down in 1908.

Milan 1914 WestMilan 1914 East

The square sat empty for a while as seen in this tinted photograph, and the Sullivan County bought the old Quincy, Omaha and Kansas City Railroad Office Building, which is itself a National Register building.

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And these two buildings had appeared, seen in this tinted photograph, knocking down the building that was oriented north-south on the corner of 2nd and Market, seen in the 1906 Sanborn above. The building on the left was the First National Bank, while the building further down the hill was a Masonic Lodge.

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Both are still in good shape, and occupied.

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As is typical of many urban Masonic Lodges, the actual meeting place is upstairs (note the large windows now filled in with glass block), and there was always a store downstairs. Note the slope in elevation.

Milan Industry 1914

By 1914, the railroad had come to dominate the eastern end of town, at the bottom of the hill that rises so quickly up towards the courthouse. Most of the ancillary buildings are gone, including the roundhouse, which was quite large for such a small town, befitting Milan’s center of the rail transport in northeastern Missouri. All that is left is the railroad station, seen below, on the National Register. The town was so robust that it even possessed a power plant, no doubt to power the railroad-related industry and yards.

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The last major addition to the landscape of Milan was the completion, finally, of a new Art-Deco courthouse designed by local Lyle V. DeWitt, no doubt spurred on by Works Progress Administration funds, opening in 1938.

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It is interesting to see the courthouses of northeastern Missouri demonstrate architectural styles over the course of 70 years or more.

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See more historic photographs of Milan here. It’s interesting for me to visit these towns; sometimes when I get out of the car I feel like I’m an alien landing on another planet. The gulf between the city and country in America has never been greater. We must work to bridge that gap.

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