In 1880, James and Sarah Duncan were living in western Maries County, Missouri. Their neighbors in those years were the families of Pankey, Hughes, Lee, Goforth, Strickland, Bumpass, Copeland, Lawson, Yoakum, Veasman, and Helton. In 1889, James R. Duncan owned 800 acres of land in Miller, Maries, and Pulaski counties. A Civil War veteran, he was also a prominent stock dealer in his community, a member of the Agricultural Wheel, and a member of the Masons.
Among their thirteen children was Milford, born in 1868. In the early days of the twentieth century, it was Milford Duncan who owned the land we now know as Farm. He owned not just the present day sixty acres of mixed pasture and oak-cedar scrub but he also owned at least another 140 acres, his holding stretching to the north, from Section 13 into section 12 of Township 39, Range 12 West. Some of the land he owned north of Farm was secured by way of a 1916 grant through the Homestead Act. At the moment I am unclear as to why, if in 1905 he was already listed as owning the 80 acres directly north of Farm, he would have to secure claim to it by way of official homestead decree eleven years later. Perhaps the title was not clear?
Per Pat Vaughan—onetime owner of Farm himself—the Farm House was built in 1910. I believe Milford was living at Farm in 1910, meaning it was Milford Duncan who built that house. He, along with his wife at the time, Stella Burns Duncan (born 1880 in Maries County). They had two children together, Jasper in 1900 and Burton in 1902.
Milford’s marriage to Stella was not his first. In 1890 he married Malinda D. “Josie” Louder. They had three children together. The first, Alice, died as a baby (1891-92). Ralph Bland Duncan was born in 1893 and lived until 1975. Third was Willard, who was born in 1895 but died as an infant in 1897. Sadly, Josie herself also passed away in 1897. Two years later, Milford was married to Stella Burns.
I don’t know when or why the marriage of Milford to Stella Burns collapsed.
But knowing so gave me reason to view the life of Milford Duncan with a certain wariness. His marriage to Stella was finished by 1919 at the latest. This I know for sure because in early November of 1919 Milford was married for the third time, to Ella Noblett (b. 1881, location unknown).
Ella Noblett herself had previously been married; she widowed a man named Coates, an Englishman who was closely associated with the rise of Maries Bank. Said to be a shrewd businessman, he also had a hotel operation in Vienna, Missouri. When he died in 1917 from influenza, he was said to be worth rather a lot of money.
Milford and Ella Noblett had no children together. Though Milford is listed as residing in Miller County in 1910 and thereafter perfected title to 80 acres directly north of Farm in 1916, both he and his third wife Ella Noblett are listed as living in Jackson, Maries County, MO in 1920. Maries County is just a short walk away from Farm—the property’s eastern edge represents the county line—but I am not sure where Jackson would have been. I’ve looked. Regardless, it would appear that by 1920 Milford Duncan had left Farm.
Pat Vaughan told me that Willie Sampson Lee—his step-grandfather—did not buy Farm until 1935. That leaves a gap of something like 15 years from 1920 to 1935 in which I am not sure who was living at Farm and in the House there. Humphrey?
Sadly again, the story of Milford Duncan does not end there. Milford Duncan killed himself. At some point, he and Ella Noblett began having problems. Perhaps it was this difficulty in their marriage that led Milford Duncan to leave the Farm. Perhaps Ella Noblett didn’t want to have anything to do with farming.
Or maybe when he married her in 1919, Milford saw in Ella Noblett a widow flush with money in the wake of her banker-hotelier husband’s death. Though his father James Russell Duncan—and his father before him, Alvis Duncan—had owned and worked land at the eastern edge of Miller County for decades, it could have been that Milford was never all that excited to be a farmer. It’s possible that he had only ever been following in the family tradition. Maybe Milford and Ella both thought it expedient for Milford to sell his acreage in Miller County and join her at an estate in Maries County, where they could live a fancier, more comfortable life.
A newspaper article from July 28, 1927 indicates Milford and Ella had been having problems off and on for years. They had been living apart for some time. Most recently they had “been conducting a boarding house in the old Prof. Cole Residence.” This was in Dixon, MO, not far south of Farm, as the crow flies. I’m not exactly sure what is meant by “conducting a boarding house” but I take it to mean this was an attempt to salvage their marriage, one last chance.
That chance fell through. Story goes that Milford Duncan took out a revolver and, while still inside the boarding house, shot at Ella Noblett twice. He got her once in the arm, and once in the hip. Ella managed to exit the house and Milford followed her out. The people of Dixon stopped what they were doing and looked on in late afternoon light. Sensing perhaps he alone had the power to end the madness he declared to the townspeople, “Look here, boys!” Then he put the revolver to his head and pulled the trigger, taking his own life on the lawn at the southwest corner of the residence.
A man named H.G. Brittain carried Ella Noblett to his vehicle and rushed her to Rolla. Milford Duncan was dead at 59, an ugly end to a calamitous life. The newspaper article goes on to explain that Milford Duncan had “had trouble with his former wives, having whipped one of them repeatedly.” But, “when he attempted to thrash one of them she pulled a revolver on him and fled.”
I am presuming that it was his second wife, Stella Burns, who one day grabbed a gun and confronted her tormentor, sometime thereafter removing herself from Missouri altogether, leaving behind not just present-day Farm but much surrounding acreage. She traveled north, and in 1926 married a man named McCready in Custer County, South Dakota. She lived until 1940, eventually buried in a cemetery in Council Bluffs, IA.
Ella Noblett survived, too. Despite being shot twice she was able to recover nicely from the wounds. She, too, would marry again. Later that year she wed Wilk Alexander, two days after Christmas. She lived to be 91 years old.
A Standard Atlas of Miller County, Missouri, 1905,
Bureau of Land Management Records