I have been to Sikeston, Missouri many times over the past twenty years, but I have never
seen its downtown area until this last trip. I have usually stopped to eat, get gas
or take an overnight break in my travels up and down Interstate 55. I was determined to see
downtown this trip—I was pleasantly surprised.
Sikeston, located both in southern Scott County and northern New Madrid County, is situated just north of the "Missouri Bootheel", although many locals consider Sikeston a part of it. By way of Interstate 55, Interstate 57, and U.S. Route 60, Sikeston is close to the halfway point between St. Louis, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee and three hours from Nashville, Tennessee. The city is named after John Sikes, who founded it in 1860.
The first explorers and settlers came to a region of cypress swamps and forested prairies. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Little River Drainage District was formed to reclaim the land. This was the world's largest drainage project, moving more earth than completed during the construction of the Panama Canal.
The area was claimed by the French as part of La Louisiane, and they ceded it in 1763 to the Spanish after being defeated by Britain in the Seven Years' War. In 1789, by order of the King of Spain, an overland route was laid out to connect the cities of St. Louis and New Orleans. This frontier road was known as the El Camino Real or King's Highway.
In 1803 the United States acquired this area under the Louisiana Purchase. More Americans began to settle west of the river. From December 16, 1811 to February 4, 1812, the area was struck by a series of more than 2,000 earthquakes, known as the New Madrid Earthquake, a series of shock waves believed by some to have been the greatest in North American history.
Today the King’s Highway, also known as Business U.S. Highway 61, serves Sikeston as a primary north–south street. It is lined with businesses and older historic homes. Sikeston's downtown area includes Malone Park, the city's oldest park, and the historic First Methodist Church columns. These six pillars are all that remain of the 1879 church which was destroyed in 1968 by fire.
The first house in Sikeston is believed to have been located at 318 Baker Lane. The "Baker House" was probably built in 1855, about five years before the town was founded. One of the early inhabitants of this house was Lee Hunter, for whom one of the elementary schools is named. The house once had a large barn, located on the site where Lee Hunter School was later built. The Baker family moved into the house in 1888 and purchased it from the Hunter family in the early 1950s.
Although Sikeston was a small village during the Civil War, its position at the railroad and highway intersection gave it strategic significance. Around July 1861, Confederate forces of Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow planned to link up with units commanded by Sterling Price and Benjamin McCulloch for an advance on St. Louis, using the Sikeston-area road of King’s Highway. In preparation for this advance, Confederate General Jeff Thompson gathered Missouri state troops and irregulars near Sikeston; he robbed a bank in nearby Charleston to pay men and buy arms and supplies. Legend has it that he hid part of his money in Sikeston under one of the oak trees at the corner of New Madrid Street and King’s Highway.
In 1862, Sikeston was used as a transportation connection as Union Brigadier General Pope sent his artillery across the river to Commerce, Missouri, to be sent by rail to Sikeston for cart transportation to New Madrid, in preparation for the Battle of Island Number Ten. On February 28, 1862, Pope left Commerce with his army of 12,000, arriving in Sikeston on March 2. US Colonel William Pitt Kellogg, future governor of Louisiana, commanding the 7th Illinois cavalry, was the first to encounter the rebel sabotage of recently burned bridges and other obstructions. The federals were attacked just south of Sikeston by a small group of rebels led by General Thompson (he was called the Swamp Fox, a nickname after the Revolutionary War Brigadier General Francis Marion). Thompson commanded a detachment of 85 horsemen and four to six experimental cannons that had been manufactured in Memphis. Seeing that Colonel James Morgan's Illinois troops were reinforced by Brigadier General Schuyler Hamilton's 2nd Division, Thompson fled.
One of the first rail lines west of the Mississippi River ran to Sikeston, and it was the terminus of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad until 1872. By 1900, Sikeston had a population of 1,100, and two drainage ditches had been completed. By this time, the city had two banks, two newspapers, and three hotels. One of the hotels built between 1895 and 1898 was a three-story brick hotel later known as the Mashall-Dunn Hotel. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Sikeston Memorial Municipal Airport was built in the 1930s, opening in July 1934. From 1940 until 1944, it was known as Harvey Parks Airport. Long barrack-style buildings were constructed to hold the Missouri Institute of Aeronautics, established after General Hap Arnold asked flight training operations to triple their enrollments. The first U.S. Army Air Corps inspection officials arrived in July 1940 with the first flight cadet arriving that September. In June 1940, a home at West Gladys and New Madrid streets was transformed into a district infirmary in coordination with the building of the new air barracks. World War II flying aces Robert S. Johnson and Harold E. Comstock trained at this location. The original gated entrance to Harvey Parks Airport now serves as the entrance to the city's Veterans Park.
During World War II, local National Guard unit Company K was assigned to the Western Defense Command in California. Sikeston-area students helped raise money to have three B-25 bomber named the Spirit of Sikeston, "the Sikeston Bulldog", and one other. These three planes were supposedly used in the Doolittle Raid, during which they went down and are at the bottom of the Pacific between Japan and China. The local International Shoe factory had a contract for a major shoe order for the US Army during the war.
In 2000, the remains of Mason Yarbrough, a Sikeston native and World War II marine, were found in the Pacific area on Makin Island and returned to his hometown for a military funeral. The George E. Day Parkway is named for Medal of Honor winner Colonel George E. "Bud" Day, a F-100 Super Sabre pilot who is the only known American POW to escape into South Vietnam. He was later recaptured and sent to the Hanoi Hilton.
The Sikeston Depot, a train depot built in 1916 and on the National Register of Historical Places, is now used as a cultural center and museum. The Sikeston Depot was constructed by St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway and now home to art and history exhibits. The Depot's Art Gallery features displays by artists in a variety of mediums. The Depot Museum exhibits the history of Sikeston and Southeast Missouri through permanent and rotating displays.