SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — One could argue that Springfield wouldn’t be the city it is today without the influence of the Frisco.
The railroad’s impact is felt in many aspects of the Queen City’s history, including at 2301 North Johnston Avenue. Multiple families have lived in the house since 1912, but its story began with the Frisco.
Built for a railroad clerk’s family, the home sits in the Ollis Brothers Woodland Heights subdivision. Sitting very close to the Frisco railyard, one can presume the neighborhood was developed for its proximity to the Ozarks’ foremost railroad company.
A brief history of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad
Better known as the Frisco, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad stretched across much of the Ozarks for well over a century.
The first footprints of the Frisco in Springfield were seen when the South Pacific Railroad Company took over another railroad.
A 1993 article from OzarksWatch magazine details how the company was already running trains the almost-90 miles between Franklin (now known as Pacific, Missouri) and Rolla when the company decided to extend rail service to Lebanon in 1869.
By May 1870, the first passenger train pulled into a new town created by the railroad called North Springfield. Not to be outdone, several competitors from what was known as Old Town Springfield tried to create their own footholds by creating a rail line between Springfield and Kansas City.
The rivalry between towns and railroads would fuel the construction of multiple railroad lines between the Queen City and other parts of the Midwest, such as Memphis, Tennessee and Fort Scott, Kansas.
The Frisco was officially incorporated in 1876. Just over a decade later, the competition between rail companies had diminished, and Old Town Springfield and North Springfield were consolidated into one town. The series of railroad ventures that had existed up to that point also merged into the Frisco.
The railroad would have some of the most iconic logos and slogans in history, becoming a major corporation that provided the best service possible while maintaining its homey, decidedly Ozarks identity.
The Frisco would exist for 104 years until it merged with the Burlington Northern in 1980, but many of the Frisco’s lines are still in service.
The Van Valkenburg family
The house on Johnston was built in 1912 for Ellis C. Van Valkenburg. He lived in the house with his wife Leila and their four children – Morris, Glen, Ires and Jean. Their fifth child, a daughter named Fern, would be born in 1919.
An immigrant from Canada, Ellis Van Valkenburg moved to the United States at 16 years old. When he came to Springfield, Van Valkenburg was serving as the chief clerk to the Frisco’s general superintendent.
While Van Valkenburg’s specific responsibilities are unclear, railroad clerks could serve a number of functions, including creating bills, maintaining accounts, payroll, regulatory reports and ordering supplies.
According to one news article from February 1920, Van Valkenburg had worked in the railroad industry for at least 20 years, starting as a bookkeeper in Birmingham, Alabama. Over the course of his career, Van Valkenburg held various positions in Memphis and Kansas City.
It’s uncertain exactly how many years Van Valkenburg was chief clerk, but he did serve under three different superintendents, including J.A. Frates, who would go on to create the Oklahoma-Southwestern Railroad that would later hire Van Valkenburg as its superintendent.
The Van Valkenburgs lived at 2301 North Johnston from 1912 to 1920, when Van Valkenburg accepted the position with the Oklahoma-Southwestern Railroad. The family would move to Oklahoma, where Van Valkenburg would live the rest of his life.
Van Valkenburg died in Sand Springs, Oklahoma in 1943 at 64 years old. Leila would live 20 more years until hear death in 1963 at 84 years old.
The Thomas family home
After the Van Valkenburgs, several other families would live in the home, including one that stayed for 34 years.
But by 2019, 107 years after its construction, the house was up for sale again and caught the eye of local realtor Stephen Thomas and his wife. At the time, they were living in an 835-square-foot bungalow with two bedrooms and one bathroom but had decided it was time to look for something a little larger that could accommodate a growing family.
The character of older homes, including their 1926 bungalow, was what drew Thomas to 2301 North Johnston.
“You can’t duplicate something that’s 100 years old [today],” Thomas said. “It’s lived in, it’s worn, it’s settled.”
A few updates were made inside the home over the years, including swapping the wood-burning fireplace for a gas insert. However, the hardwood floors, the stonework around the fireplace and the stairs remain original to the home.
Other features, including formal dining space, high ceilings, dormers and a huge backyard attracted the Thomases, who spent a lot of time in the home’s outdoor space watching movies projected on the side of the garage.