Firmin T. O'Dell: A quiet visionary
The dotted lines on this January 1928 map represent gravel portions of Highway 36 across Missouri. Solid lines show what portion of the road was concrete. F.T. O’Dell’s construction company was responsible for grading from a point three miles north of Marceline to the city limits of Macon and preparing the roadbed for rock and oil. MAP FROM MARY LOU MONTGOMERY’S COLLECTION
Photo of Firmit T. O'Dell, below, contributed by his grandson, Rodger O'Dell Riney.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Crossing the state of Missouri on the four-lane U.S. 36 is a breeze today, but that wasn’t always the case.
Long before the concept of a four-lane highway was dreamed of, visionaries were hard at work on a more basic plan: The mid 1920s establishment of a two-lane, all-weather road reaching across the state, from Hannibal to St. Joseph.
Firmin T. O’Dell of Hannibal, a man of great vision during his generation (which spanned the mid 1880s until the early 1960s) was an individual who could look at a situation and see possibilities.
Throughout his lifetime, he owned and managed companies that not only provided his family with a comfortable lifestyle, but also put other people to work. And while no memorial exists celebrating his contributions, a lasting legacy lingers.
A quiet, behind-the-scenes sort of businessman, Mr. O’Dell made contributions that continue to serve the populace 50 years after his death.
During the summer 1927, the F.T. O’Dell Construction Company of Hannibal was in charge of grading U.S. 36, from a point three miles north of Marceline to the city limits of Macon, and preparing it for oiling and graveling. The 24-mile gravel sub base project was managed by Richard Rodger Riney, who would later become the son-in-law of the company president. State-of-the-art equipment was shipped to the construction site directly from the factory, and four crews of men and teams were put to work in order to finish the project by the first day of September. A construction camp was established for the workers, and operations were directed from Macon.
Work started at the top of the hill just west of Macon, and simultaneously at Marceline.
While portions of the highway were concrete, this portion was constructed of packed gravel in order to save money.
The Macon Republican on Aug. 26, 1927 (newspapers.com) described the process:
“As soon as the grading reaches a point where its completion can be assured in such time as to allow a continuity of the application of oil, the oil will be started.
“The oil will be put on in several applications. The machine will start out and oil one-half of the road at a time, after which the gravel will be placed on the half that has been oiled, and traffic diverted over the oil and gravel portion of the road, then the oiling operations will be continued on the other one half of the road upon which the oil has not been applied.
“Gravel will immediately follow on the second half. The machine will then go back and make a second application to the half of the road first oiled and more gravel will be applied on that portion and then continued on the other half. This will give the entire road two complete applications of oil.”
The newspaper reported that the method described “has been used in several of the eastern and northern states and the results have been very satisfactory.”
In 1936, Mr. O’Dell was appointed acting Hannibal postmaster. Eleven people applied for the position. O’Dell was not an applicant. The salary of the Hannibal postmaster has been $3.400 a year. He replaced Joe O’Hearn, who had been postmaster at Hannibal for the previous 12 years.
O’Dell was born April 2, 1883, in Wayne County, Mo., a son of Joseph and Emily O’Dell.
F.T. O’Dell married Mary Elizabeth Hough in 1904, and they had one daughter, Rita Leanna O’Dell (1906-1991). They lived in Farmington, some 70 miles south of St. Louis, until the mid 1920s, when they relocated to Hannibal.
Early records of F.T. O’Dell’s years in Farmington reveal that he was a farmer. During the early 1920s, he won bids for supplying gravel on several highway projects in the area. He also sold cut wood for county use, such as to heat the jail. He was a home owner in Farmington, renovating a house purchased from Justice William Good.
Move to Hannibal
The 1927 Hannibal City Directory lists O’Dell, then 44 years old, as a road contractor, living at 2828 Hubbard. Throughout the next few decades, he would win a number of highway construction bids, working in mid and southern Missouri, as well as in Northeast Missouri.
In addition, he expanded his business interests in Hannibal.
Jack Kretzer of Yuma, Ariz., grew up in Hannibal, and has fond memories of F.T. O’Dell. Jack’s father, John Kretzer, worked for Mr. O’Dell for much of his career. That gave Jack an insider’s view into the business operations under O’Dell’s management style.
Grand View Burial Park
Kretzer said that during Mr. O’Dell’s travels, he saw a cemetery with flat markers, and believed that to be a novel concept for Hannibal.
1930s: O’Dell purchased 30 acres south of Hannibal and established Grand View Burial Park. Virginia Canote (later Tillett) went to work for O’Dell as secretary-bookkeeper for the cemetery. Hillard and Sara Crowell purchased the burial park from O’Dell’s estate in 1965, and expanded it to 60 acres.
1936: O’Dell and his son-in-law, Rodger Riney, incorporated as the O’Dell and Riney Construction Company, general contractors.
1948: O’Dell purchased 1,020 acres of land in the Marion County Drainage district northeast of Palmyra. This purchase made him the largest land owner in Marion County. The land included 160 acres from Bob Snow, 140 acres from Marion County Land Investment and 700 from the Mark estate. By 1950, he had 600 acres of the land planted in rice. The rice was flooded with three to four inches of water, which was pumped through sand points. The rice was to be harvested in October and sold to markets in Arkansas. (Kansas City Times, July 15, 1950 newspapers.com)
1949: The Division of Resources and Development reported that Empire Milling Co., with F.T. O’Dell as a principal stockholder, had been formed to operate a rice drying mill. Empire purchased Hannibal Milling Co., and rebuilt its plant. (August 30, 1949 Mexico Ledger newspapers.com)
1955: O’Dell’s Empire Milling Co., was the motivational force for the construction of the Hannibal Grain Terminals in 1955. Hannibal’s riverfront provided access for the shipment of grain via rail and river, and O’Dell negotiated terms with the city to construct the facilities. By the time construction got underway, Hannibal Grain Terminal Inc., with F.T. O’Dell as its president, had acquired Empire Milling Co. (Story of Hannibal, Hagoods)
1950s: O’Dell Finance Corp., was located at 520 Broadway, and O’Dell Insurance Agency, was at 200 North Fourth St. John T. Kretzer was manager of the insurance agency.
Leo Riney, who operated a concrete business in Hannibal, got into business through Mr. O’Dell. Leo was brother to Mr. O’Dell’s son in law, Rodger.
“Mr. O’Dell was an interesting guy; a nice man,” Jack Kretzer said. “He got his hands into a lot of things. He created jobs for people.”
Including Jack’s parents. “$500 a month was dad’s highest salary, and Mom sold lots for Grand View,” Jack said.
One of Jack’s favorite memories was the day Mr. O’Dell said to Jack’s dad: “’John, go into the vault and get a $50 bill for Jack.’ That was big money for this guy who delivered newspapers for pennies,” Jack said.
When the Kretzers moved to 602 Flora in 1940, the O’Dells still lived at 2828 Hubbard. Later, the O’Dells moved to property they called Edgewood, on Route 168 just north of Hannibal-LaGrange University.
Notes of interest:
• John T. Kretzer, who worked for F.T. O’Dell, grew up in Clarinda, Iowa, in his high school graduation class was Glenn Miller, who went on to become a famous orchestra leader.
• The Clarence Lampton family lived at 2828 Hubbard until early 2015, when Clarence Lampton died. Lynn and Bob Simms live in the two-story brick house on Route 168 where the O’Dells lived until Mr. and Mrs. O’Dell died in 1963.
• F.T. O’Dell is grandfather to Rodger O’Dell Riney, founder and CEO of Scotttrade, headquartered in St. Louis. Wikipedia .
F.T. O’Dell was the motivating force behind the construction of the grain terminals on Hannibal’s riverfront. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION