West Plains’ name ties to its founding in the 1850s — it came to be called that because the settlement was west of nearby Thomasville — but the town today is known for other names, too. Legacies that began locally include famed musicians Jan Howard and Porter Wagoner, baseball legends Bill Virdon and Preacher Roe, and actor Dick Van Dyke.
While those people and more who left West Plains have done great things, other moments of significance have continued at home.
The community has changed in phases since its inception before the Civil War. After being nearly destroyed during that period, it rebuilt in the 1860s. When local men lobbied to have the railroad come through town in the 1880s, a rapid growth in population commenced. According to West Plains’ application for its downtown to be added the National Register of Historic Places — which was approved in 2003 — the town’s population exploded by 800% between 1880 and 1900.
That development through people and businesses has continued ever since, creating a unique culture that supports regional history and heritage (its Ozarks study center and an annual old-time music festival are two examples), students at Missouri State University-West Plains, health care that’s close to home through its local hospital, and needs through the Community Foundation of West Plains Inc.
“In times of crisis, the people of West Plains are there,” says Eric Gibson, president of the CFWP. “If it’s putting muck boots on and going to clean up a creek, okay, we’ll do that. If it’s filling two semis with water, we’ll do that too. But the passion of the people of West Plains makes it easier for us to do our job and to raise the dollars.”