La Grange, The Old Stone School

La Grange, The Old Stone School – by Gary Baird

Common School District #1 is the oldest tax supported school in Jasper County, MO.  It was called La Grange School, perhaps for the famed French scientist, Joseph L. La Grangem who died in 1813.  Certainly La Grange’s achievements were fresh in the mind of one Samuel B. La Force, a young man whose ancestral roots traced to France.  Having moved to Jasper County from Pike County, MO., La Force & his family settled on a plot northeast of Carthage in 1843.  The histories of La Grange School & Samuel B. La Force are as intertwined as they can be.

La Force was born 5/15/1815 in either Pike County, MO or Scott County, ILL.; historical records disagree.  His parents, Rane (from VA) & Martha McGee La Force (from KY), appear to have settled in Pike County about the time of Samuel’s birth.  Young Samuel developed a deep appreciation for life’s higher virtues, prizing education & personal integrity.  Details of his early life are lacking, but on 4/13/1837, he married Lucy Brown, & shortly thereafter the young couple (he, 22 years old, she, 15) visited the extreme southwest corner of the state.  They staked a claim to over 600 acres of land just north of Spring River, about three miles northeast of the center of present day Carthage.  Circumstances delayed their move to that homestead, & it was not until 1843 that they took up permanent residence there.

Samuel La Force, the pioneer, proved to be very civic minded.  He no sooner had completed construction on his own little log home when he turned his attention to encouraging the education of his own children & those of his few neighbors.  Built just a few hundred feet from his own modest log cabin, the schoolhouse was erected in 1843 or 1844 from laboriously hand hewn logs.  History does not record who the first teacher was, only that classes were held three or four months out of the year.  Many of the area’s schools were subscription schools, with parents paying for their child’s education directly.  This was apparently true of La Grange, too.

In 1846, La Force was elected to the first of two consecutive terms as sheriff of Jasper County (1846-1850), that making him only the second man to serve in that position.  After four years as sheriff, he was then elected as state representative for Jasper County, serving two years (1850-1852) in the sixteenth General Assembly.

In all that time, La Grange continued as a center for learning.  We do not know the names of those early students, not for sure.  And we can only speculate as to their curriculum & textbooks.  It is reported that much emphasis was given to the basics of reading, writing & arithmetic.

At the beginning of the 1860’s, political tensions ran high throughout the United States, & especially so in Missouri.  Jasper County citizens were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the rebel cause, but La Force & a handful of others were the exception, being staunch supporters of the Federal Government.  By the early summer days of 1861, Missouri’s Governor Claiborne Jackson, a Southern supporter, had recruited a force of about 6,000 mounted infantry.  Their determination was to march south to join up with Confederate forces, there to receive real military training.  That march was to bring them directly through Carthage.  Various other forces were arrayed in & around southwest Missouri.  Confederate General Ben McCullough was encamped on the Arkansas line with about 22,000 troops.  Confederate General Sterling Price had passed through Carthage in late June, along with over 1,200 mounted infantrymen, intending to join with McCullough.  Union General Nathaniel Lyon, with about 10,000 troops, was moving from Jefferson City toward Springfield, but was too far distant to thwart Jackson’s move.  Union Colonel Franz Sigel, with a contingent of about 1,100 volunteers & eight artillery pieces, had arrived in Neosho about June 26.  If the rebel forces under Governor Jackson were to be stopped from joining up with the Confederacy, then Colonel Sigel had to be the one to stop them.  His force alone stood in their path, & no other aid was available.

On the evening of 7/4/1861, Colonel Sigel arrived in Carthage, camping near the springs at the city’s east boundary.  He knew Jackson’s location & strength, as Jackson also knew his.  Governor Jackson was encamped that same night along the banks of Coon Creek, 12 miles north of Carthage.  On that evening, Samuel La Force met with Colonel Sigel at his headquarters.  La Force’s 18 years residence in Jasper County & two terms as county sheriff had made him thoroughly familiar with the terrain around Carthage.  His offer to serve as guide for Sigel was accepted.

At daybreak, July 5, La Force reported to Colonel Sigel.  The Union force broke camp, advancing to the northwest of Carthage.  About five miles north of town, along Buck Branch, the opposing forces first met.  Advance guards for both armies drew blood in this skirmish, one man being killed on each side of the battle.  Sigel advanced, crossing Buck Branch, moving north, crossing Dry Fork Creek about nine miles north of Carthage.  And there the real battle commenced.

Sigel’s plan had been to attack with suddenness with his already well trained troops.  He hoped the ragtag rebel force would scatter when the real fighting & dying began.  It was soon apparent that the hoped for outcome would not materialize.  Cannon fire thundered from both sides, the air sizzled with rifle bullets, but the rebels did not retreat.  Badly outnumbered, the Union forces had to withdraw.  Sigel, a seasoned military man, knew how to withdraw his forces in an orderly fashion, & did so, while inflicting casualties on Jackson’s forces.  The battle raged all day, with Sigel finally withdrawing through his previous night’s campsite, making good his escape by evening.  Forty-three men died that day in the first Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River.  It preceded the better-known first Battle of Bull Run by 16 days & Missouri’s biggest battle at Wilson’s Creek by more then a month.

We can only imagine the effect that the battle sounds had on La Force’s family.  The family home & the La Grange School were only two miles east of the battle line.  The thunder of cannonfire & the continuous roar of thousands of rifles must have filled the family with dread for Samuel’s safety.  But Samuel survived that battle, going on to eventually enlist in the Hundred & Fifty-Second Illinois Infantry.  Two of La Force’s sons also enlisted in the Union cause.

The school remained closed during the war years; after all, what Rebel would have wanted his child attending a Yankee school?  And because Missouri had remained with the Union, many residents fled south.  The Carthage are was a hotbed of military action throughout the war, culminating in its virtually complete destruction.  Though the war finally ended in 1865, the deep division it caused was slow to mend.  The 1860 census showed 6,883 county residents.  By the end of 1865, only about 30 remained.  Samuel returned home, but neither of his sons survived the war.  Losses touched every family, resulting in much bitterness, hatred & suspicion.  As evidence of this lingering animosity, consider the loyalty oath imposed by state law upon anyone who sought public office, & even upon teachers & ministers.  All had to swear allegiance to the Federal Gov’t.  Even to vote one must have taken the “test oath” or “iron clad oath” of loyalty.  To enforce this oath, the state appointed registrars for the counties, whose job it was to ascertain that the oath requirements were met.  Samuel La Force was the apointed Registrar for Jasper County.  In 1866, he was elected to the job of County & Circuit Clerk & Recorder of Deeds, where he served until 1871.

La Grange School survived the war, one of the few buildings in Jasper County to do so, only to burn in 1868.  It was replaced that year with a more durable native stone structure.  About this time tax support of the school began, & La Grange became Common School District #1 in Jasper County.  La Force entered into a contract with the county, agreeing that the land on which La Grange stood could be used for free, so long as a public shool operated there.  Afterwards, the agreement said, that land would revert back to La Force or his heirs.  So began public education in Jasper County.

Many of the school’s records have been lost over the years.  Once I found, a report from 1/15/1894, listed the teacher as Pearl Blake, her monthly salary was $32.50, & enrollment consisted of 20 boys & 25 girls.  The board of directors was Jacson Leidy, prsident, J. M. Grundy, clerk, & J. G. Blake.  The school term was then eight months per year.

Some other early teachers were George Frazier (1884), May Bonsill (1886), William Scantlin (1889), Agnes McCarthy (1890), Silas Rigby (1891), Lulu Stanley (1903), Pearl Yocham (1918), Florence McKillips (1919), & Ruth Dennis (1920).

La Force lived on for many years after the war, eventually moving his family from the farm into the town of Carthage, which had grown rapidly because of the mining activity.  There he died on 4/17/1899.  His burial chamber is easily found in Carthage’s Park Cemetery, its inscriptions still clear & legible.

La Grange School lived on, acquiring the nickname “The Old Stone School.”  This is the structure I knew when, on 9/8/1953, I began my very first day of first grade there.  We had moved into a house that Dad had constructed the previous November, just a quarter mile west of La Grange.  I remember well that first day of school.  Mom walked me to school that day.  A painfully shy boy, I wanted nothing to do with school.  Being away from home, having to mingle with a mass of strangers, being presided over by an adult stranger – none of that was for me.  Mom tells me I did not speak a word to my teacher, Mrs. Matthews, for three weeks!

La Grange, the “old stone school”, had existed active as a working school, for 110 years already.  Not that I thought about such things back then, but I knew the school was old, as old, it seemed, as the hills & rivers, older then memory.  Even in 1956, with a concrete block addition & when the native rockwork was stuccoed over to “modernize” the building, it still seemed old.

Mrs. Clara Matthews was my first grade teacher.  Mrs. Neva Winter taught me at grades two, three, & give through eight.  Mrs. Shirley Evans was my fourth grade teacher.  in 1956, just before my fourth grade year began, a large addition to La Grange was completed.  A substantial concrete block room with basement & indoor toilets was aded on.  Finally, no more outhouses!  All five of us Baird kids eventually attended La Grange, each for eight years, 40 years of accrued education according to my La Grange math instruction!  The youngest of my siblings, sister Charon, was graduated from the eighth grade in 1970.  By then we knew that La Grange was nearly finished.  Reorganization of the entire state school system had been in planning for some time.

The old stone school finally closed after the 1973 class graduated, its students absorbed into the Carthage R-9 School District.

The old stone school still stands today.  More then 25 years have passed since it was filled with the voices of happy children.  The old building probably will not last much longer.  The pressures of upkeep & land taxes & lost productivity of its site all work against the old place.  Some day, all too soon, the old stone school will be torn down.  What the Civil War did not accomplish, time will.  La Grange will cease to be, except in the memory of those who knew it.  A mark on some old maps, a few crumbling paper pages in county history, some scattered student yearbooks with “La Grange School” imprinted on their covers – these will be all that remain.  Of over 20 one room school houses that operated at one time or another in Jasper County, virtually all are gone, vanished into history.

Reflecting on its history & on the quality of education then & now, one of the old timers, who knew the school well remarked, “That’s progress, I guess”.

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