|Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992|
by Robert K. Gilmore
By the turn of the century, most Ozarkers were no longer riving in a frontier environment. There as enough social maturity and economic sufficiency in most towns and villages for people to consider ways of improving the quality of their personal and community lives.
Community improvement efforts were motivated by such factors as civic pride, economic development and the desire for expanded cultural opportunities. Citizens held education, temperance, and religion in high esteem, and never ceased to be thankful for the beauty of the area in which they lived and for the good people who were their neighbors.
Weekly newspapers were numerous throughout the Ozarks, and through these newspapers the editors kept the people informed, not only of local happenings but also of events in the broader world outside. The newspapers also provided the forum and the leadership for many community betterment campaigns.
here was considerable excitement in southwest Missouri in the spring of 1905, for in March of that year the State Legislature had authorized the establishment of two new Normal Schools. One, the Fourth District Normal School, was to be built in some fortunate community in southwest Missouri.
Springfield, of course, was eventually selected as the site of the new Fourth District School, and it is difficult now to imagine it located elsewhere. But in early 1905 no fewer than 12 southwest Missouri communities were convinced that they should be the location of this center of learning. One of these was Ash Grove.
The campaign to attract the new school to that northwest Greene County town was led by J. O.
Waddle, the aggressive editor of the weekly newspaper, The Commonwealth, whose masthead
proclaimed it to be "The Official Organ of the World." Editor Waddle matched his masthead in
forthrightness, and was not the least timid about expressing his opinions in print on any matter
that caught his attention. Hardly an issue of The Commonwealth was printed that did not inform,
threaten, cajole, coerce, shame, or appeal to the pride of the citizens of Ash Grove.
The opening round was fired by editor Waddle in a Commonwealth article on April 20, 1905. He cited a number of reasons why Ash Grove was the best possible location for the institution. But first, he analyzed the opposition. Springfield is already badly overcrowded with schools, he alleged, as well as saloons -- "More drinking places than dry good stores as we reckon." Greenfield, he allowed graciously, "is a pretty fair town," but with only a "little jerkwater" train that goes to "that burg," it really shouldn't be taken seriously. "You couldn't reach it from anywhere in a week or 12 days."
Webb City is a risk. "Let its mines fail and it would vanish from the map as though it had never been." And as for Neosho, "Where is Neosho anyway? Is it in Missouri, Kansas, or Arkansaw? Never saw anybody who had ever been there or who would ever go there."
Then the editor listed the attributes of Ash Grove. Situated on a main line railroad, the Frisco, in the heart of "the best agricultural district in this section of the state," the town is made up of people who are content to stay. "Ash Grove has more cultured people within its borders than any town of its size within 300 miles," he wrote, and a moral tone unsurpassed by any town in the state. "We are a town of churches and no saloons," he averred, introducing an argument that was to be repeated and expanded upon many times. He stressed the benefits of a farm community:
The farm is the mainstay of the world. The farm produces not only the bread and meat of this mundane ball, but also a cast of the very best folks that God ever made. The Creator did not see fit to make the first man a merchant or a manufacturer, or a banker or a lawyer or a railroad president or a miner or a mechanic or a trust magnate, or a printer or a preacher. He started the world with a farmer. Ash Grove is in a farming community. Our people are of the best.
A local resident, Mrs. Lieda West, fired the next major round in the campaign for the Normal School in a letter to The Commonwealth printed in the May 11, 1905 edition. Ash Grove would be easily accessible to Normal students because of its central location in the southwest district, on the grand trunk line of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad, where all trains from Birmingham to Kansas City stop. Ash Grove is composed of "law abiding, intelligent, energetic, Christian people," she wrote, and furthermore, "There are no saloons and public sentiment is so strong against saloon license that there will never be one in this generation." Instead there are several church denominations represented, each having "commodious church buildings with fine Sunday Schools and flourishing young people's society." Should the Normal School be located here, she assures her readers:
Parents need have no fear in sending their boys and girls to Ash Grove, that they should fall into bad company or find too many distracting attractions to entice them away from their school work.
She goes on to make economic and cultural arguments for the Ash Grove Community:
Ash Grove is located in the heart of the finest farming lands in Missouri on the northwest slope of the Ozark Mountain Range with excellent drainage and pure water and is surrounded by hundreds of acres of all kinds of fruit. The Ash Grove Fruit Growers Association shipping their fruit to eastern markets in carload lots. The people of Ash Grove are not only looking after material things but the intellectual and artistic side of life are looked after as well. Our businessmen are supporting weekly concerts by Ash Grove Silver Band whose reputation for musicianship is more than local An up-to-date Literary Club is looking after intellectual advancement. Several music teachers, both instrumental and vocal, are helping to throw a refining influence around the rising generation.
In the same issue the editor compares the claims of a moral, temperate community like Ash Grove, with "whiskey towns like Springfield or mining camps like Webb City." Ash Grove may be a smaller town, he concedes, but the fact that it is a better town is what should count. "Parents desiring to educate their children are not anxious that they should go to a large city. They want them to go to school."
An Ash Grove businessman, W. T. Chandler, noted that Ash Grove had some ten passenger trains stopping at the depot every 24 hours. "No town in the state can boast of greater healthfulness and better water," he boasted in the May 18, 1905 Commonwealth, and promised hungry students the town is "capable of furnishing an abundance of everything needful in the way of table necessities, a most important consideration." Mr. Chandler called the fact that "Ash Grove has no saloons and is never likely to have any" a powerful argument in her favor with the members of the Commission who will be choosing the location of the school?
Nearby rural communities supported Ash Grove's campaign for the Normal School. On May 25, 1905, a New Site correspondent mentioned the good railroad passenger service, and the fine, law-abiding and church-going people. He also cited the beauty of the area and the healthful environment as direct benefits to the learner:
Ash Grove is a natural sanitarium on account of its high altitude, its natural drainage and pure water and all surrounded by a landscape that is beautiful, proven by a drive or walk through these rock-ribbed hills, oak-clad slopes, grassy plains and fertile valleys, all which tend to bring the pupil nearer to nature's God, the source of all true knowledge.
"Students are great eaters!" declared Mrs. J. H. Barton in the May 25, 1905 Commonwealth, suggesting that they would create "a greater demand for goods in the stores, and enhanced values in real estate and in a thousand other ways I cannot enumerate here." The women of the community should work to locate the Normal School in Ash Grove because "It means larger and stronger churches; it means an enlarged social life -- lectures, musicales, literary societies, and enlarged opportunities in many directions we do not dream of now." As a state institution it will be visited from time to time by the State Board of Education and members of the legislature as well as by friends of the students. Many of these visitors, she believes, will be so charmed that they will settle down and become permanent residents. She anticipates that the town will soon grow from 2,000 to 5,000 inhabitants.
In the same busy May 25 issue was a letter from a businessman in Warrensburg, home of State Normal Number Two, telling about the benefits of a good Normal School. The students spend a lot of money in town, he said.
We have school 50 weeks in the year and figuring a safe average, the students spend $5 per week each or $250 per year. Figure a low enrollment, 800 students, $200,000 and deduct one fourth or $50,000 for home students. This leaves $150,000 brought to the town by outside students and this is a very low estimate as our enrollment is running from 1,200 to 1,500 per year.
Add to that, he said, the state appropriations for teachers' salaries and the money spent on buildings, and the monetary advantages of the school are clear.
"It is being demonstrated right along, that the trained minds are better able to cope with the problems of the age -- that college educations make men more capable, no matter in what line of work engaged." So wrote Editor Waddle in a front page editorial on June 8, 1905. Inside the paper, he began to get tough. "We can't get the school by merely saying we deserve it. We've got to 'show' the commission.' We've got to raise money, he warned, digging deep and "scratching up the coin." He challenged the community: If we get out and work -- if we give of our time and means and energy --we may secure this good thing, but if we squat in the Serbonian bogs of apathy, or play the role of a lukewarm Laodicean by getting under the trees and fighting flies, some energetic neighboring town will step in and bear the prize away. After which Ash Grove would spend the next two-hundred years booting its own anatomy and being ashamed to look a brindle rice in the face. It is now up to us, gentlemen, to show what metal we are made of. We owe it to ourselves, our children and grandchildren, even unto the tenth generation, to mightily bestir ourselves and do what lieth in us to win. And the time to act is NOW.
In June 22, 1905 the Rev. S. V. Sydenstricker, a Presbyterian minister, wrote eloquently of the great intellectual worth of the Normal School to Ash Grove. "This institution planted in our midst would foster such high and noble ideals of life that our sons and daughters would aspire to a higher sphere of life .... education is a hand maiden to the soul .... to a symmetrically successful life the higher education is essential."
The June 29, 1905 issue of The Commonwealth carried a very long allegorical editorial entitled, "The Ship That Sailed By." By now the editor must have been feeling very frustrated, perhaps from lack of perceived community support, for the allegory is quite pessimistic in tone. It tells of a Company of Men who were waiting for their Ship to come in. As there was no place for the Ship to land, some landing place must be constructed. But despite the entreaties of a Wise Man, (perhaps the editor himself?) the men could not agree among themselves as to how to construct this harbor. Finally the ship came into view, and the men yelled and waved their arms and cheered wildly:
The Captain walked the bridge and swept the land with his glass. He searched vainly for a harbor-- for a landing of any kind. No pilot was sent to meet him .... He closed his glass and spoke to the Helmsman. One turn of the wheel and the Ship changed her course. She furled no sail. She stood bravely out to sea. The Men upon the shore were pleading now. They reached out their hands. They entreated. They implored. They prayed. But the Ship sailed on. It went toward the horizon. It receded. It dwindled to a mere speck, faded away and was gone. There was nothing left but the Great Sea.
The Men on the shore turned upon one another in angry astonishment and said, "Damn!"
But the Wise Man bowed his head and wept.
On the same page, was a poem by "Billy Buttinski" about Ash Grove's
"Opportunity." It contains three verses, but the last will be enough to give the flavor:
Thought I heard a mournful sound --
Wail of them that lost.
Many towns have many claims
And luck to who has most!
Heart of all the southwest,
Temperate, live and clean,
Throned upon her emerald hills
And flanked by prairies green.
Sorry for the losing folks,
But steady boys, keep cool --Someone, sure, has got to miss
Two weeks later the editor made one last plea to the community to spend every effort to raise the necessary bonus for the Normal School. T. J. Killingsworth and Earl Smith, he reported, "have secured subscriptions to the amount of $15,000 with enough in sight to raise the sum to $20,000 or more." Defeat was acknowledged in the July 20 edition: NIT!!
It sailed by
It's gone a-glimmering.
Didn't even speak in passing
Don't believe it ever looked our way The landing-place must have been insufficient
Well, we'd just as well grin as grumble, whistle as whine. Didn't want their blamed old normal anyway. Wouldn't have it. Can make a high school of our own if we want to, without asking a Commission or anyone else. And if they get us mad we'll do it. Then where would their dash-nation old normal be! Everybody would come to Ash Grove and the doors of the state institution would rust upon their hinges until a student couldn't break in with a crowbar and a set of burglar's tools. Now don't bob up and talk about sour grapes.
And in another part of the paper, "We used to write it like this --NORMAL. Now we put it this way --normal."
In his book, Shrine of the Ozarks, Dr. Roy Ellis says that the Commission to select the site of the new Normal School met in Jefferson City on July 26, 1905 and chose Springfield. If this date is correct, it is interesting that the editor's concession was printed on July 20, nearly a week earlier. Perhaps he had advance notice from the Commission that Ash Grove was not among those who would be considered at the later meeting.
Was Ash Grove ever a serious contender for State Normal Number Four? Dr. Ellis says that only six communities -- Webb City, Pierce City, Monett, Aurora, Lebanon, and Marshfield, -- had made definite offers in advance of the Commission meeting. Springfield apparently made its offer at the meeting--$25,000 in cash and any site which the Commission might select. Perhaps Ash Grove never submitted a formal offer, although on July 20, 1905, the editor of The Commonwealth said that Ash Grove's offer was two sites of forty acres each and twenty thousand dollars.
A week after the bitter acknowledgment of defeat, the editor writes graciously that "Since Ash Grove didn't get the Normal school proposition we are glad to see that the institution goes to Springfield. Here's our hand and best wishes to Springfield. May she live long and wax great. Seeing that Ash Grove lost, the school went to the right place."
The final shot fired by The Commonwealth in the Normal wars came in an article in the August 3 issue:
Aurora is growling like a sore-headed, flea-bitten bear because she lost the Normal. Ash Grove lost the school, also, but has not given herself over to whining. Aurora even threatens to contest or appeal the question or do some foolish thing of that sort. No use, gentlemen, you had just as well button your lip and take a reef on your jaw tackle. The commission knew what it was doing when it located the school at Springfield. You may whine and 'beef' and belly-ache till the cows come home and it won't help the case one bit. You are making yourselves ridiculous -- merely this and nothing more.
It is hard to know at this late date just how seriously the editor and the citizens of Ash Grove took their campaign to have the new Normal School located in their community. No doubt they were sincere in their effort, for Ash Grove residents have always been proud of their town, and would have seen the great benefits a Normal School would have brought. But editor Waddle probably saw in the issue an opportunity to spark some civic pride and to rally businessmen and other citizens into a "clean-up, fix-up" campaign. In the July 20, 1905 issue, before he knew the cause was lost, the editor urged the town to work hard to impress the Commission when they visited Ash Grove. "The town must have its Sunday clothes on and be looking its best. There should be no weeds in the streets nor brush piles on vacant lots nor gullies in the sidewalks nor loose dirt and trash scattered about." Later, after he learns that the Commission will not be visiting Ash Grove, he suggests a number of reasons that the town might not get the School. "Perhaps the bonus was not sufficient. Lack of city government, lights, water works, a sewerage system, etc. may have cut some ice." Anyway, he says bitterly, he takes back everything he had said before:
Don't cut any more weeds. Don't burn any brush. Don't mend any sidewalks.
Don't clean up any streets. Don't even mow your yards or sweep your floors. Stop washing your
faces and changing your shirts. What's the use? Let's get just as tough-looking as possible.
Whatever we have done for municipal improvement let us undo as speedily as we can, and return,
like the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire! Is that going to be our plan? We don't
"The Official Organ of the World" and its irrepressible editor had not won this particular campaign, but there were other challenges in view. An electric railroad from near the state line west of Nevada to Springfield, passing through Ash Grove, for example. "Ash Grove cannot and must not let this opportunity pass .... "
1. In his book, Shrine of the Ozarks, (Southwest Missouri State College, 1968) Dr. Roy Ellis lists seven communities in "active" competition -- Webb City, Pierce City, Monett, Aurora, Lebanon, Marshfield, and Springfield. Editor Waddell of The Commonwealth mentions five more as "making a pull" for the school- Greenfield, Neosho, Lockwood, Lamar, and, of course, Ash Grove.
2. Governor Joseph W. Folk appointed a commission of five members from outside the district to decide on the location. -- Ellis
A version of this article appeared in the Quarterly of the White River Valley Historical Society.
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