Vol. II, No. 3, Winter 1989


Discovering Fredericktown

OzarksWatch Goes Visiting

by Robert K. Gilmore



The noise level in the van was considerable. We were driving through the old leadmines area of Mine La Motte, just north of Fredericktown, and the other passengers were eager to share with an interested outsider some of the heritage of this part of one of Missouri's oldest counties.

There wasn't a lot for a casual observer to see. The village of Mine La Motte, once a bustling mining community, now has only a handful of houses, and gives little hint of its former importance. Paula Shetley, driving the van over gravel backroads with a confidence born of having travelled these same paths many times, was quietly describing some abandoned mining structures ahead, while two or three of the back-seat passengers were sharing with the visitor their individual interpretations of the history, the culture and the landscape of the area.

The visitor was eagerly trying to look in all the directions being indicated by a half-dozen pointing fingers and desperately trying to hear and absorb everything that was being said by everyone all at once, when one voice dominated the rest. The visitor had no trouble hearing the announcement that,"Lead from Mine La Motte has been used in every shooting war that America has been involved in, from the Revolutionary War to Viet Nam."

When John Paul Skaggs speaks, people in Madison County tend to listen. "A compulsive saver" as he has been described, he is a legendary resource of historical photos, documents, and information. John Paul, everyone associated with historical preservation efforts in Madison County will tell you, is something of an historic treasure himself.

Paula had driven the big van down a narrow trail to point out the remains of an early pit mine. The road looked like it was going to dead end, but she poked the van's nose into a break in the bushes, backed and filled and quickly was headed back to Fredericktown. "I've been driving out here so much in the past couple of years," she explained, "1 know where all of these turn-arounds are."

(Historical maker)

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If John Paul Skaggs is the resident historical guru, Paula Shetley is the pusher, the motivator, and the organizer of Fredericktown's recent drive to discover and preserve its heritage. That's how other members of the group that gathered to greet the visitors from OzarksWatch characterized this Fredericktown "come here." She is a relatively recent arrival to this town where family names like LaChance and DeGuire, Schulte and Skaggs show continuity of the French and German families who were early settlers of the region. Paula, in her turn, lists the attributes and special contributions made by many others. Pride in their community, she insists, and a mutual respect and trust, has made the volunteer effort work.

Bob Flanders and I, as editors and publishers of OzarksWatch, had decided to visit Madison County and Fredericktown and see for ourselves just what was happening there. We knew that a number of historic probate records had been organized and saved on microfilm by an heroic volunteer effort (see article by Rick Bolin and Lynn Morrow on page 3); that Fredericktown had been given a Certified Local Government designation; that an extensive survey and inventory of structures in the town had been completed (primarily by volunteer effort); and that a volume of county history was almost completed. Furthermore, we had heard that the people of Madison County had approved, by a decisive margin, a one-cent sales tax, half of which is to be used for restoration and renovation of the historic courthouse! What was going on in this town of just over 4000 population?

It is possible to give too much credit to the decision of the City to seek a Certified Local Government designation (see box on page 12). Much of the activity might have taken place anyway. But certainly the survey of some 352 buildings, funded by the Division of Natural Resources as a result of the CLG designation, provided a focus of activity for a core of volunteers interested in historic preservation, and raised the level of heritage awareness for the remainder of the population.

The basis of interest was already present, in the form of the Madison County Historical Society, formed around 1974 by a group of private citizens. This group is still active and meeting monthly. The Heritage and Landmarks Commission was appointed by then-Mayor Leota Reagan and the city of Fredericktown for its CLG status, and is the organization responsible for completing the Historic Resource Survey.

John Paul Skaggs, Madison County history specialist, and his mother, Ruth Schulte Skaggs, at the family home between Fredericktown and Mine La Motte. Built 1847, the Federal Style house has been in the Schulte and Skaggs families since 1874.

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Historical Madison is the name of the book being compiled about the County's history by a group of private citizens. This 500-page work (referred to locally as "The Book") will contain information from the early days of the county to the present time. Almost half of "The Book" will be devoted to family histories. Advance sales have been brisk, and publication will be soon.

The center of operations for this county history is in a storefront building on the Square. This highly visible location, identified by a sign reading "Historical Madison," is usually open 8 hours per day, staffed by, of course, volunteers. George Knott and Beulah DeLand, as well as other dedicated folk, can usually be found there, answering the phone, sorting and caring for the hundreds of historic photos that are finding their ways out of people's attics. It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of this choice location, and the convenient hours it is open, to the whole Madison County historical renaissance.

So what is going on in Fredericktown, Madison County, Missouri ?Could other Ozarks communities interested in historic preservation follow their example? What has made the project work for them?

Karen Grace, of the State Historic Preservation Office in Jefferson City, says the many volunteers who are working so hard to capture the past of this interesting community have all contracted "a severe case of infectious enthusiasm." True, very true, but that is not the whole answer. In addition, the Fredericktown project has supported these enthusiastic volunteers with two key ingredients for success: organization and purpose.

We have all seen far too many well-meaning community volunteer efforts wander, wither, and die for want of clearly defined goals and effective leadership. Most Ozarks communities have an abundance of enthusiastic volunteers. The challenge then, is to provide these eager workers with direction and guidance.

Then step back out of the way.

The phone number at Historic Madison is (314) 783-3257.

OzarksWatch editor Bob Gilmore (left) with the Heritage and Landmark group at their headquarters on the square in Fredericktown.

Director Paula Shetley with Bob Gilmore and J.C. Shetley.

Ruth Schulte Skaggs by the walnut bed in which she was born, and the matching crib in which she, and her children in their turn, were rocked. She still sleeps in the bed, in the house she has occupied for all of her 83 years.

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