Sedalia is a city located about south of the Missouri River in Pettis County, Missouri. U.S. Highway 50 and U.S. Highway 65 intersect in the city. As of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 21,387. It is the county seat of Pettis County. The Sedalia Micropolitan Statistical Area consists of Pettis County. Sedalia is the location of the Missouri State Fair and the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival.
Indigenous peoples lived along the Missouri River and its tributaries for thousands of years before European contact. Historians believe the entire area around Sedalia was first occupied by the Osage (among historical American Indian tribes). When the land was first settled by European Americans, bands of Shawnee who had migrated from the East lived in the vicinity of Sedalia.
The area that became the city of Sedalia was founded by General George Rappeen Smith (1804–1879), who went on to found nearby Smithton, Missouri. He filed plans for the official record on November 30, 1857, and gave the area the name Sedville. The original plat included the land from today's Missouri Pacific Railroad south to Third Street. In addition, the version filed jointly by General Smith and David W. Bouldin on October 16, 1860, displayed the city spreading from Clay Street to the north and to Smith Street (i.e., today's Third Street) in the south, and from Missouri Street in the west to Washington Street in the east. Smith and Bouldin anticipated that the city would grow to the north; however, it grew in a southern direction.
During the American Civil War, the US Army had an installation in the area, adding to its boomtown atmosphere. With the coming of two railroads connecting it to other locations, in the post-Civil War period, Sedalia grew at a rapid pace, with a rough energy of its travelers and cowboys. From 1866–1874, it was a railhead terminus for cattle drives and stockyards occupied a large area. At the same time, the town established separate segregated schools for white and black children, churches, and other civic amenities.
In the 19th century, Sedalia was well known as a center of vice, especially prostitution, that accompanied its large floating class of railroad workers and commercial travelers. In 1877 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called Sedalia the "Sodom and Gomorrah of the nineteenth century." Middle-class businessmen made money off illegal prostitution as building owners and lessees; others did business with people in the industry, who banked, used lawyers, etc. in town. Reluctant to raise taxes, residents allowed money to run the city and provide services to be raised from fines charged to prostitutes. In the 1870s brothels were distributed throughout the city, but in the 1890s, they became more concentrated above businesses on West Main Street, as the middle class tried to isolate less desirable elements. These establishments also provided employment for musicians, particularly piano players, contributing to a thriving musical culture which fostered the development of many artists including the renowned ragtime composer Scott Joplin.
While the city attracted many commercial travelers and railroad workers, its population of married couples also grew. By 1900 having a population over 15,000, it was the fifth-largest city in the state. It had developed an entrepreneurial middle class that created separations between its residential areas and those of working class and African Americans.
During World War II, the military built Sedalia Glider Base in Johnson County to the west. After the war, this was passed to the Strategic Air Command and converted to a bomber base, the Whiteman Air Force Base, named after a man from Sedalia killed in the 1941 Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. After a massive construction program, the base became the center of 150 ICBM silos and administrative offices. These were decommissioned in the 1990s.
Until the city was incorporated in 1860 as Sedalia, it had only existed "on paper" (i.e., from November 30, 1857 to October 16, 1860). According to local lore, the town council changed the name from Sedville to Sedalia in part because "towns that end in -ville don't amount to anything." (Lawrence Ditton, Sr.). Here is another account:
Following a victory for those proposing the "ridge route" for the railway over those advocating the "river route", the railway reached Sedalia in January 1861. Sedalia's early prosperity was directly related to the railroad industry. Many jobs were associated with men maintaining tracks and operating large and varied machine shops run by both the Missouri Pacific and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad lines. The Missouri-Kansas & Texas Railroad was most widely known as the "KATY", from its "K-T" stock exchange code.
For nearly a century, Sedalia's economy was tied to the railroads. By the end of the 19th century, the MK&T had numerous buildings and a wide variety of workers in the city: the MK&T shops, stockyards, roundhouse and the hospital for employees working on the Sedalia Division were among the Katy’s properties in Sedalia.
Today the "KATY Trail" is the nickname of the 225-mile-trail following the railroad right-of-way through much of Missouri. It is used by bikers, walkers, and horseback riders. This has been the largest in the nation among the late 20th-century federal and state "Rails to Trails" projects.
During the Civil War, despite the presence of the Union soldiers guarding the railroad, Sedalia was almost taken by the Confederate forces of Major General Sterling Price. Some 1,500 of General Joseph O. Shelby's Iron Brigade cavalry associated with Price's Missouri Expedition surrounded Sedalia, overpowered the Union militia that were under the command of Colonel John D. Crawford and Lieutenant Colonel John [?D.] Parker, and began to loot and sack the town on October 15, 1864. Once Confederate General M. Jeff Thompson arrived in Sedalia, he ordered his men to stop the destruction, and moved them on, leaving Sedalia once again in Union hands.
While the Civil War delayed the building of the town, it also meant that Sedalia was the terminus of the railroad for three years. Once the war was over, many of the thousands of Union soldiers who had been stationed more or less permanently at Sedalia and recognized its potential, made the choice to migrate there from their pre-war homes in other locations across the United States. The population grew rapidly.