Senator Justin Brown’s Legislative Column for Dec. 2, 2019

Exploring the District: Phelps County

Continuing my exploration of the five counties within the 16th Senatorial District, this week we turn to Phelps County, my lifetime home. Phelps County was organized in 1857, just four years prior to the start of America’s Civil War. With boundaries drawn from portions of Pulaski, Maries and Crawford counties, it was named for John S. Phelps, a nine-time U.S. congressman who would become Missouri’s 23rd governor in 1877.

The county is home to about 45,000 residents, with a median household income of $41,600. The county seat is Rolla, population 20,000, located at the crossroads of Interstate 44 and Highway 63. Rolla is the largest town along the I-44 corridor between Springfield and the St. Louis metro area.  Both Rolla and nearby St. James are popular destinations for Route 66 enthusiasts, who make pilgrimages in search of landmarks from the heyday of “The Mother Road.”

Officially established in 1858, Rolla was named for Raleigh, North Carolina. The westernmost terminus of the optimistically named Pacific Railroad during the Civil War, Rolla was the supply point for Union troops in southern Missouri, with wagon caravans leaving the city almost daily. It remained firmly in Union control throughout the war.

Today, Rolla is best known as the home of Missouri S&T University. Originally established as the Missouri School of Mines and Technology in 1871, and later called the University of Missouri-Rolla, the school is consistently ranked among the top engineering universities in the nation. Offering 99 degree programs in 40 areas of study, Missouri S&T lives up to its name, with 70 percent of its student body enrolled in engineering programs.

Rolla is also the location of one of two National Geospatial Technical Operations Centers. The U.S. Geological Survey facility is tasked with creating “The National Map,” a high-tech, interactive rendering of every square mile of America. Previously, USGS topographical maps were hand-drawn at the U.S. Mapping Center in Rolla. The Central Midwest Water Science Center, housed at the Rolla Federal Center, monitors and studies surface and groundwater in Missouri, Illinois and Iowa. The Department of Natural Resources’ Edward L. Clark Museum of Geology is housed at the Missouri Geological Survey facility in Rolla and highlights the fossils, rocks and minerals of the Show-Me State.

The Phelps County Regional Medical Center provides health care services for 150,000 residents in a six-county area. The Leach Theater on the campus of Missouri S&T is the premier performing arts venue in the region. The Ozark Actors Theater is one of two professional live theaters in outstate Missouri. The 70-acre Audubon Trails Nature Center offers educational programs and outings for bird watchers.

There are four public school districts in Phelps County, with schools based in Rolla, Newburg, Edgar Springs and St. James. The Rolla Technical Center prepares high school students and adults for careers in skilled trades. Rolla is also home to three parochial school districts, as well as satellite campuses of Drury University, East Central College and Columbia College. A Boys and Girls Town of Missouri School is located in St. James.

Located east of Rolla, St. James is the site of Missouri’s original veterans home. One of seven long-term residential care facilities operated by the Missouri Veterans Commission, the St. James facility opened in 1896 as the Federal Soldiers Home.  With a population of 4,200, St. James was named in honor of Thomas James, founder of the Maramec Iron Works. The dominant employer in the area during the 19th century, this foundry produced low-grade “pig iron” used to make tools, farm implements and cannon balls.

Today, the James Foundation owns and operates Maramec Spring Park, historic site of the iron works and one of the most popular destinations for trout fishermen in Missouri. The 1,800-acre park contains Missouri’s fifth-largest natural spring, a museum dedicated to the Maramec Iron Works and ruins of the facilities’ kilns. The Missouri Department of Conservation operates a fish hatchery within the park and stocks the spring branch that flows into the Meramec River.

Recreational opportunities abound in Phelps County. The Meramec River and the Little Piney Creek are especially popular with trout and smallmouth bass fishermen. A significant portion of the county is comprised of public land supervised by the U.S. Forest Service. Hunting and fishing are permitted throughout the Mark Twain National Forest, which is headquartered in Rolla.

East of St. James, the tiny village of Rosati once attracted Italian immigrants who grew Concord grapes used to make juice and jelly. St. James Winery, Missouri’s largest winery, produces more than 500,000 gallons of wine each year. Ranked No. 14 in the state for aquaculture and 22nd in the production of fruit, nuts and berries, Phelps County was home to 728 farms in 2017. That year, nearly half of the county’s 145,000 acres of farmland and 80 percent of farm income were related to livestock production.

Other notable communities include Newburg, once a major refueling and maintenance point on the Frisco branch of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway. The historic Newburg roundhouse is long gone, but the Burlington Northern line still passes through town. The community’s Lyric Live Theater celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. In 1946, Centertown was renamed Doolittle in honor of the legendary World War II aviator. General Doolittle flew a B-25 bomber into the Rolla-Vichy airport to attend the dedication ceremony. Edgar Springs, in southern Phelps County, was declared the mean population center of the United States following the 2000 U.S. Census.

It’s my honor to serve as your senator for the 16th District. If you have questions or need any assistance, please call my office at 573-751-5713 or log onto my webpage at for more information.