The Life Behind the Ozarks Trailblazer: John T. Woodruff

May 2, 2018

John T. Woodruff
Credit Springfield-Greene County Library District

  One the most influential people in Springfield’s history was a civic trailblazer during the first half of the 20th century.

 

John T. Woodruff moved to the Springfield area in 1904 and went on a 40-year spree of civic projects and expansion across the Ozarks.

 

But today, most people don’t know who he was or the impact he had on the community, says Missouri State University Library Dean Thomas Peters.

 

“There’s something about history. We all know sort of the basic surface of history, you know, there’s no depth to it. I just felt like, he should get more respect than that - acknowledgement. In some ways, Springfield is what it is because of John T. Woodruff,” Peters said.

 

Peters wrote an encyclopedic biography about Woodruff in which he details the trailblazer’s hundreds of civic advancements and construction influences, as well as some of his personal life.

 

John Woodruff was self-educated and a very quiet and composed man, which Peters says is not typical of visionaries of that time.

 

Woodruff is most often recognized for the Woodruff building, now SKY 11 lofts in downtown Springfield, but his reach goes far beyond that.

 

He moved to Springfield as an attorney for the Frisco Railroad, was the first president of the Route 66 Highway Association, and brought golf to the Ozarks.

 

He built many hotels, turned his farm into Hickory Hills Country Club, and brought the US Federal Prison hospital to Springfield. He’s also credited with moving and renaming the entire town of Camdenton.

 

Woodruff also valued higher education and was one of the linchpins in making what are now Missouri State University and Drury University successful institutions.

 

Woodruff joined the board at Drury.

 

Drury was having financial troubles so Woodruff traveled to New York and met personally with Andrew Carnegie. He secured funding for the university from Carnegie, and later, from the Rockefeller foundation.

 

“He was almost just quietly tenacious in working towards things. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and he just kept working at it,” Peters said.

 

Woodruff was vital in the placement of what is now Missouri State University.

 

The state wanted to build a fourth state normal school, a training school for teachers, in the southwest area. When the site selection committee came to Springfield, Woodruff was part of the team that chose the land.

Peters says Woodruff was a part owner of the land and he and the other owners practically gave it to the state.

 

John Sellars, executive director of the Springfield History Museum, said he has a “tremendous amount of regard” for Woodruff.

“He did what he did for civic pride and to benefit this community, in a way that people very seldom do now. They always want to put their name on it,” Sellars said.