Center was founded in about 1868. It was first named Jeff Town in honor of its first resident. First Centre and then Center, as it is called today, is located near the Center of Ralls County. The first settler to live here was Jeff Ellis, who lived where Miss Lila Myers’ property now stands. His dwelling consisted of his home, store, and he built the first U.S. Post Office in Center. It was bought and run by Tom Robinson in 1873. Some of the earlier residents were the Keithlys, Masons, Flowerrees, Briggs and Smiths.
At this time it is told the prairie grass was so tall and abundant in this vicinity that it would cover a man’s head when the man was on horseback.
About seventy years ago the only schools were one south of town taught by a man named Christian and one north of town taught by a man named Dunlop. Teachers were poorly paid and the only students were adults.
In 1878 there were four stores in Center, two drug stores, two banks and two clothing stores. The late Ben Briggs ran a clothing store and J. R. Dunlop a drug store. There was also a drug store built and run by Dr. C. H. Graves. A combination dry goods and grocery store was owned by Landia Whitamore where Gene Murphy now lives. George Smith opened a dry goods and grocery store later. The second store was where Joe Hughes’ filling station was before he ceased operating it.
The Christian Church was located at Mount Olivet Cemetery. It was struck by lightning and burned. It was then moved to Center and a new church was built in 1914 where the present building is now.
In 1888 a railbed was laid for a railroad known to us as the “Short Line.” A period of time elapsed between the time of the railbed and the laying of the rails. The railroad was completed in 1892. A wealthy lady from Europe saw the advantage of having a railroad through Jeff Town, so she donated the money. It was taken up by the present owners, St. Louis & Hannibal Railroad Co., during the months of July and August, 1943, due to lack of trade. In 1902 there were two trains daily except on Sunday. The railroad ran from Perry, Center, New London, Hannibal, Frankford, Bowling Green, Silex, Troy, Gilmore and St. Louis. The station agent in Center at that time was Robert Teague.
The first school in Center was a two-story building that was attended only by adults. It was built where Doc Asher now resides. The second school house was a brick building. It stood where Clay Roland now resides. The building was wrecked and some of the bricks were used in the building of Ira Allison’s house. The third school house was a frame building on the present school grounds. It was used after the present building was erected for agriculture and industrial arts. At the present it is used as a garage at the former “log cabin.” A three-story building was erected, housing the first eight grades on the second floor. Later a two year high school was added. In later years they added a three year high school and then in 1909 a four year high school was added. In 1939 an addition was made to the present school building with the aid of W.P.A. funds. The gymnasium is one of the best in this locality. It is used for basketball games and other sports.
In 1911 a bakery located on the Ernest Keithly property was run by the “Meladys.”
The first show house in Center was a two story building where G. C. Layne’s store now stands. It was operated by Mr. George Foster.
In 1902 George Phillips was publisher and editor of the Center Intelligencer, assisted by Mr. G. C. Layne, the paper being four six-column pages and published every Friday. A special edition was printed in book form that year, about 10 ½ x 14 inches, consisting of 36 pages. A subscription cost $1.00 per year and extra copies of the special edition were 10 cents each.
The buildings located in Center in 1902 were: J. M. Martin, dress shop; Theo. W. Clark, drug store; R. W. McCollum, physician; W. R. Sanford, furniture store; E. W. Keithly, real estate and insurance agent; Roy Keithley, agent for “Weems”, Hannibal Laundry; Alfred White, barber; Layson Carr, barber; Jas. Bond and Jas. Eddings, blacksmiths, who claimed to be the best horseshoers in the county; J. W. Combs, harness and saddle shop; J. D. Millon, auctioneer and real estate dealer; Mrs. V. A. McManis, millinery and dressmaking, three doors north of railroad; Epperson & Young, the enterprising clothiers; Geo. W. Young, cash store; J. T. Keithly & Co., general store; John Q. Piper, undertaker and funeral director; M. L. Hulse, flour and seed store; Farmers & Merchants Bank – Henry Shulse, president, Van B. Elzea, vice-president, Joe Carr, cashier; Marshall Hulse, livery, feed and sale stable.
There were two hotels in Center at one time. One was named Central. It was first located where Ernest Keithly lives. They moved it to where Lila Myers now has property. The hotel was run by a woman named Clayton. The Southern hotel was run by two women named Wicks and Brashears. Roy Keithley was porter at the Southern and often fooled traveling men by imitating the “Short Line” locomotive whistle.
In 1928 the pride of Center was beautiful Mason park before drouth killed the large shade trees. The town had two banks, three churches, one excellent school, four auto dealer and garages, two drug stores, one newspaper, one building material dealer, two dry goods stores, two hardware stores, two men’s furnishings stores, one confectionery, one jeweler, two shoe stores, one furniture store, one stationer, four coal merchants and five grocery stores. Local bank deposits totaled more than $700,000. The Blossom Brand Produce Company shipped annually $1,000,000 worth of live and dressed poultry and produce, and the Center Elevator Company handled grain, flour and feed in carload lots.