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Remembering the Stories and Lives of Two Joplin Women with the Murphysburg Historic District

Murphysburg Historic Preservation
Williams Seasoning ad that ran in the Joplin Globe in 1972

Two Friends, Neighbors and Members of the MHD work to highlight Joplin’s Historical Figures during Women’s History Month.

It's Morning Edition on KRPS; I'm Fred Fletcher-Fierro. Piecing together the origins of history, even local history can be a tricky proposition, especially when the events occurred many decades ago.

Regardless of the barriers, two friends, who are also neighbors and members of theMurphysburg Historic District in Joplin, are working to preserve the memories and stories of women who comprised the community during eras when men dominated the historical landscape. KRPS's Fred Fletcher-Fierro has more.

Have you ever approached a house you used to live in, knocked on the door, and asked to look around? That's where this story begins near the intersection of South Moffett and West 2nd Street in Joplin.

"Just really kind of throw away lines, yanno. How people come back to the neighborhood and want to see how the houses look like now. Their sister comes back from California, and they go, let's go by the old house.

People do that all the time. I've had strangers knock on my door, saying, oh, I used to live here."

That's Mary Anne Phillips, Secretary of the Murphysburg Historic Preservation in Joplin.

"We met, well, I moved here in '95. Yea, so we probably met cause we’re neighbors; I live right there, next door. There was a house between us in the beginning. Yea, we weren't always neighbors.

We tore the house down that was between us. It was a crack house. We finally got the opportunity to purchase it one day, and we said, "let's split it."

And that's Paula Callihan, the Treasure of the Historic Preservation District. These aren't just any old neighbors or historians.

You heard that right; these are friends and now neighbors who split the cost of purchasing the house between them to tear it now. There is now a green space where the torn-down house used to stand.

"One guy shows up, and he tells me what his last name is, and I say, oh ya, you used to live here, and I knew that because his name was engraved in the cement in the basement floor.

The houses Mary Ann and Paula reside in aren't just houses to them, but pieces of Joplin's living history that they are working to keep those memories alive this Women's History Month.

One such historical figure is Mary Kirk Kelly.

Murphysburg Historic District

"Kirk was her family name. It would later become her middle name, and she was a teacher at Joplin Junior College.

During that time, there were actually a lot of female teachers, and I think maybe because of the war, World War II, there just weren't that many male teachers or professors. I don't know, plus they came cheaper too."

This was in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the history of men was much easier to come by, but finding names, details, and stories about women was much more of a challenge.

The research to learn about Mary Kirk Kelly took Mary Ann a year to wind through and piece together.

"She did all kinds of amazing things. She started the UN Model at what was then Joplin Junior College, and she also received a certificate signed by President Kennedy thanking for starting UN Day in Joplin."

Like many of us who moved to southwest Missouri, Phillips and Callihan believe Kirk's employment at Joplin Junior College brought her to the area.

At JJC, she taught American history, U. S. government, and sociology; and was the faculty advisor for the student senate. Phillips tells us Kirk, upon retirement, found success in a new field.

"And then, of all things, later in her life, she became a ceramic artist. And she was internationally known. It is just crazy.

People from all over the world bought her ceramics, but her ceramics are real life, true to scale of vegetables (laughing) and fruit, and shrimp and mushrooms. They are just yanno edibles."

The story of Mary Kirk Kelly is more straight and narrow than that of the creator of Williams Chili Seasoning, Dora Kneeland.

Long before the large variety of prepackaged seasoning mixes we have today, they were made at home. Mary Ann Phillips with the Murphysburg Historic District says she came across the story of Williams Seasoning by chance.

"Bengy Rosenburg, he's well known here in Joplin. He's been on the city council. Anyhow, a throwaway comment, as he was showing his sister the old house and everything, he pointed across the street and told a neighbor on this side, on the Murphysburg side. He said, "Well, you know Williams Chili Seasoning started in that garage."

The story goes that in the mid-1940s, when Bengy Rosenberg lived in that Joplin neighborhood, everyone could smell the chili seasoning. This was back before everyone had air conditioners, and we're much more likely to open their windows when it was hot outside.

Mary Ann with the Murphysburg Historic District says that Rosenburg's account of the origins of Williams Chili Seasoning is at odds with what the company has on its website today.

"I started looking at just the typical stuff that Williams food puts out on their website. And it always kept saying that it was his mother's recipe. And Bengy said, "no, no, it was his mother-in laws recipe."

And I'm saying, you know, that's a big difference. That's two whole different people. Why should one get the credit when it really should go to the other?"

This opened the door for Philips and Callihan to dive deeper and research the life of Dora Kneeland.

They discovered Kneeland was widowed and came to live with her son-in-law and daughter on Sergeant Avenue in Joplin. Phillips continues.

"Then her son-in-law ran with it. He started mixing it, and they actually sold it out of that garage. They put it in paper bags and sell it.

The claim to fame is that nobody else was doing that at that time."

While the chili seasoning has maintained the Williams name, Phillips doesn't blame him for attaching his name to Kneeland's creation.

He was well known at the time in Joplin and had connections to the business community.

Fred & Red's in Joplin, MO reportedly still uses Williams Chili Season
Murphysburg Historic District
Fred & Red's in Joplin, MO reportedly still uses Williams Chili Season

"Mr. Williams was a very smart man, and he was a good businessman. And so, he built it into a thriving business, all the while still was a purchasing manager for a car parts place in downtown Joplin. 

This is where the connection to Webb City comes in. Williams tried to get a permit to manufacture the chili seasoning in his garage. Joplin denied his permit request, so Williams relocated the business a few miles north to Webb City.

Regardless of where the chili seasoning was manufactured, Phillips and Callihan admit that nailing down the facts behind any story that occurred in the mid-1940s is difficult.

"She dug deep enough, cause we're always in the back of our mind, okay we're just hearing this, we've got all these little bits and pieces all across information that we're trying to pull together, and the deeper she digs, the more proof she finds."

Uncovering Joplin's history, particularly women's history, can take time to trace.

Callihan and Phillips are always looking to add more context to each woman and highlighting the residents who make Joplin the city it is today.

"But we always ask in everything we do, if something's not right, or someone knows more to add to the story, let us know. It's pretty accurate.

As accurate as we can get it. We're always hoping people will call us and say, oh yes, I have this diary, and it says such and such."

The search continues.

Since 2017 Fred Fletcher-Fierro has driven up Highway 171 through thunderstorms, downpours, snow, and ice storms to host KRPS’s Morning Edition. He’s also a daily reporter for the station, covering city government, elections, public safety, arts, entertainment, culture, sports and more. Fred has also spearheaded and overseen a sea change in programming for KRPS from a legacy classical station to one that airs a balance of classical, news, jazz, and cultural programming that better reflects the diverse audience of the Four States. For over two months in the fall of 2022 he worked remotely with NPR staff to relaunch to an NPR style news and information website.

In the fall of 2023 Fred was promoted to Interim General Manager and was appointed GM in Feburary of 2024.
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