Ozarks Life: Honoring West Plains first celebrity

Polly Bradford was written about in national newspapers in the early 1900s.
Published: May. 12, 2023 at 5:59 AM CDT
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WEST PLAINS, Mo. (KY3) - They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time when somebody says your name for the last time.

In West Plains this past week, the city made sure someone in our Ozarks Life will be remembered forever.

At Oak Lawn Cemetery in West Plains, a modest congregation came out to pay their respects to Polly Bradford.

Polly has a small headstone with only her first name and the dates 1867 to 1920. She’s buried in the Langston family plot. Thomas Jefferson Langston was one of the founding members of the West Plains.

So why all the fuss over Polly whose headstone is curiously not in line with the rest of the family?

“It was very interesting,” Polly’s descendant Neil Langston said, “something we’ve never forgotten and has been passed down to our family.”

“The way that she ended up in West Plains is a little tragic,” Melissa Wharton, the director of tourism for the City of West Plains said.

“She came from Cuba, through New Orleans, to Marshfield,” Neil said.

And it was there in 1880, the historic cyclone destroyed Marshfield. It killed 100 people including Polly’s brother, Sidney, and her father, Dr. Thomas Bradford.

“When she returned home,” Mayor Mike Topliff said during a ceremony on Tuesday, “she started lamenting for her lost father and brother of... ‘Oh, Pa’ or ‘Oh, Sidney.’”

It was too much for the widow to handle. She reached out to her daughter, Sallie, in West Plains and asked if she could take Polly the Parrot.

Oh... did you think we were talking about a person?

“There’s a lot of unusual things like that in our family,” Neil said.

Polly was a celebrity in West Plains.

“They took the bird out on the screened-in porch and she would talk to people that passed by,” Wharton said.

Polly’s home is still standing at Main and Arkansas. It’s said, Polly would spread gossip whenever company came for a visit.

“When Mrs. Langston would have people over, Polly would try to get them to play the piano so she could sing,” Wharton added.

And Polly shared more of her vocal talents at church. The old Methodist Episcopal Church of West Plains once stood about a block from the square. Polly would sit by the piano and sing hymns during church. Records say one of her favorites was ‘Sweet Bye and Bye’ but she was far from an angel at times.

“I didn’t know she swore in English,” Mayor Topliff laughed. “I always thought it was just in Spanish.”

“I think (all these stories) add to the legend,” Polly’s relative, Tim Langston said. “It’s a good tale.”

And with tales like this, the good people of West Plains had to do something to honor Polly. The Council for the Arts won a grant from the Pomeroy Foundation to create a Legends and Lore marker.

“It’s a good day, whether our family deserves it or not,” Neil joked.

Well, I don’t know of another parrot buried in the area,” Mayor Topliff laughed.

“We’re glad she ended up here and we can share her history with others,” Wharton added.

P.T. Barnum heard about Polly and tried to buy her but the family would not sell her.

There are five Legends and Lore markers in Missouri, but just two in the Ozarks. The Sadie Brown Cemetery near West Plains was awarded a marker last year. That was an all-black cemetery just outside of town.

There are 2,115 historical markers the Pomeroy Foundation has awarded in the United States.

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