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Flora from the past
CAMPBELL, Mo. -- At 161 acres, Morris State Park is among Missouri's smallest state parks. But it represents a much larger geologic phenomenon known as Crowley's Ridge.
The ridge runs for some 150 miles along the Mississippi River floodplain of Southeast Missouri into northern Arkansas. Its wooded hills rise up to 250 feet above the surrounding fields of cotton, corn, rice and soybeans.
The ridge itself produces a bounty of fruit, earning Campbell the title of "Peach Capital of Missouri."
Chris Crabtree, a natural resource steward with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, led a hike through the park, which contains some 300 species of plants and more than 100 species of birds.
"During the winter, you can see how rugged the land really is," Crabtree said. "This is steep stuff, not as high as the Ozarks, but very steep."
At an overlook, he pointed through a clearing in the trees to the lowlands below. "You can see there's not another hill between here and the Mississippi River," he said.
A mission of the state park system is to preserve Missouri's distinctive landscapes, and what's found at Morris State Park is among the rarest of the rare.
The park is a day-use park and its modest amenities include a gazebo overlook, the two-mile Beech Tree Trail that heads from the top of the ridge to the bottomlands, and outdoor exhibits that explain it all. It also boasts 19 plant species that grow only in Southeast Missouri.
Several of the trees and plants found in the lush woodlands are at the farthest north, or farthest west, of their range, meaning the park's foliage resembles that of the southern or eastern forests of the United States.
The park's giant beech trees, with their gray trunks looking like an elephant's legs, and stands of Hercules club, a small tree with a thorny bark, are usually found in forests of the southeast. Sugarcane plumegrass grows 10 feet tall in a fragment of an extremely rare sand prairie at the base of the ridge.
What caused this plant community to thrive only at Crowley's Ridge?
Kiosks along the paved walkway to the gazebo explain that the area was a shallow sea some 30 million years ago. White sand and prehistoric shells found in the park are remnants of that ancient history when the Gulf of Mexico met the Mississippi River in Southeast Missouri.
As the Ozark and Appalachian highlands rose, rivers ran down and poured sediment into the area. The Mississippi cut through, at times running on either side of the ridge. While most of the land was washed away, only the ridge -- and the plants that grew there -- remained.
Clouds of wind-blown dust added several layers to the ridge. The layers of sediment were evident at an area where a large section of the ridge collapsed near the end of the Beech Tree Trail.
"We get a lot of birders and people interested in Missouri geology," Crabtree said of park visitors. "A lot of people I run into are from northern Arkansas. They love to come up and hike the trail."
Losing the farm
The park also has an interesting human history.
The ridge itself is named for Benjamin F. Crowley, a War of 1812 veteran whose family started the first settlement on the ridge.
The park is named for Jim D. Morris, who donated land he purchased near his family's homestead.
The park is home to rare acid seeps in which orchids and other unusual plants thrive. A large spring courses through the park and has breeding populations of spotted salamanders and crayfish.
Morris, who is 76, said his parents, Homer and Daisy Morris, were cotton farmers and later grew vegetable plants for sale.
"I was driving a pickup truck route to the country stores myself when I was 12," he said. "I started at 75 cents a day."
The family spent winters in California, where Morris shined shoes on Venice Beach, getting 15 cents a shine. His father worked in an asbestos plant, a job that led to his death.
"I was lucky to get out of high school," Morris said. "We lost everything we had, down to the pickup truck."
After graduation, he got a job driving a gasoline bulk truck. Five years later, at the age of 23, Standard Oil Co. gave Morris a 100 percent loan, with no co-signers required, to buy his own oil business. He built it into the largest independent marketer for petroleum fuels in Missouri. Morris Oil owns the Village Mart string of convenience stores in the Springfield and Branson areas.
Morris has been a generous donor to civic and charitable causes in the Springfield area. He and actor Brad Pitt, a native of Springfield, co-founded a program called Care to Learn that has helped 25,000 disadvantaged youngsters.
"They scheduled me to meet with Angelina Jolie and I said, 'No, I want to meet Brad,'" he said. "I didn't know who she was."
Morris also bought some 40 farms in the area around his old homestead, and still owns about 2,000 acres, some of it in peach orchards.
"Out of respect for my dad, I started buying up farmland," he said.
Morris donated land to the state in 1999, and the park opened two years later.
"The land has so much history behind it," he said. "And I had no one to guard these old trees. I didn't want them to be cut for firewood."
Morris State Park is five miles north of Campbell on Route WW in Dunklin County.