Volume 8, Number 1, Fall 1982


The School of the Ozarks: Beginnings

by Cathy Cooper


This will be an institution that the citizens of Forsyth and Taney County can, in the future, point to with pride and one that its values cannot be estimated in dollars and cents, but only in its education and upbuilding of the character of our children.

At the turn of the century, James Forsythe, pastor of the Forsyth Presbyterian Church, Taney County, Missouri, knew there was limited education in the Ozarks. One day, while hunting, he met with a boy named Benjy Cummings. Benjy was hunting squirrels for his family which included six sisters and brothers. Forsythe asked Benjy if he went to school. "Not anymore, but I passed the fourth grade!" said Benjy. Benjy then said, "I’d sure like more learnin’ but pa says theres no money to send me up to Springfield." Forsythe then asked Benjy if he would like to go to a school where he could work his way through and could live at the school as well. Benjy said he would be proud to do so. Forsythe wrote a letter to the Synod of Missouri the Presbyterian Church of the United States, at St. Louis. He was petitioning the Synod for help to build a school in the Ozarks. In Forsyth he generated community support.

In 1903 Forsythe’s proposal received a response. A group of church men visited Forsyth and reported an active interest in the proposal. Then in September of the same year his efforts paid off. The Taney County Teachers Association adopted and sent to the church officials a resolution verifying the need for the school and endorsed Forsyth as a favorable location for it.

The representatives of the Synod made the final decision to build the school at Forsyth. To build, there had to be donations of many kinds. Individuals and organizations across the state collected about $3,000. They also pledged ten acres of land upon which to build the school. Churchmen, nation-wide, raised $20,000 to construct a building on a promontory overlooking Swan creek. The Forsyth Masonic Lodge took active part in supporting the school proposal and vouched for local support in obtaining the necessary land.

In 1905 Reverend H.Y. Beatie, an evangelist, sent by the Synod to Forsyth, deposited some money in the Taney County Bank and paid for 120 acres of land next to the forty acres pledged by the community. Then plans were drawn for a 75 by 50-foot building, which included a basement and two large attics.

Louis and William Huggins, managers of large canning factories near St. Joseph, Missouri, pledged funds for equipping the building when it was completed. The appreciative community of Forsyth named the school site, Mount Huggins.

Late in 1906 the cornerstones for the new "School of the Ozarks," were laid. There was a large parade, a procession and a few ceremonies. Afterwards there was a large feast prepared by the citizens of the community. Later on that day the Trustees of the school laid the cornerstones inscribed. "A.D. 1906," and the Presbyterian Church and the Masonic Lodge laid the other cornerstones. The building was named, Mitchell Hall, in honor of K.M. Mitchell of St. Joseph, who was one of the principal benefactors of the school and a member of the Board of Trustees. The day ended with speeches by both Beatie and Forsythe.

September 12, 1907, the Republican advertised, "Grand Dedication and opening of The School of the Ozarks. Planned is a Fish Fry and Basket Dinner. Teachers and students should all be present. 6,000 to 7,000 people are expected." The birthday of The School of the Ozarks became known as "A Red Letter Day" in the history of the Ozark region. The School of the Ozarks became known as "the cheapest reliable school in the land."

September 19, 1907, the Republican published the program of the school’s opening: Nine until noon was the enrollment period for pupils from grades one through eleven; noon until 2 p.m. the Fish Fry and Basket dinner was held; and from 2 p.m. until 3:30 p.m. was the presentation of the literary program by the principal.

School opened on September 24, 1907. At the beginning of the opening ceremonies, the American flag was presented by Mrs. John N. Booth of St. Louis Next, there were many singers and quite a few speakers including principal, W.T. Utterback’s statements concerning The School.

There were many rules of discipline set by the Board of Trustees. The Board stated that, "The discipline will be that of a Christian home, adapted to the special conditions of a modern school, and will be designed to promote the development of cultivated Christian men and women, fitted to act their part in the domestic, social and business life of our country."

The major goal of the School of the Ozarks was to provide an education for economically disadvantaged students; here they could work their way through school . The boys would cut wood to heat the school and provide food. The girls would cook the food, clean the rooms, and do the laundry. They worked hard, studied hard, and associated with the Presbyterian Church. Besides working hard and studying hard, the boys and girls participated in sports and extracurricular activities.

The January 1, 1908, edition of the Republican reported, "To teachers interested in The School of the Ozarks, our second term opens January 4, 1908, at which we can accommodate teachers in a review of all subjects for eighteen weeks. The work will prepare you for Teacher’s Examinations, as the applicant may desire to try. It will be ten dollars per month for room and board and three dollars per month for a day student." They offered this because most teachers then did not have an education past the eighth grade.

During the first year of school, classes were not offered past the eighth grade. For awhile, Forsyth Public School and The School of the Ozarks worked together educating their pupils, but there was a ruling by the state which prevented public

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monies to be used for private means. During the second year, they began teaching through the tenth grade.

The October 1, 1908, Republican created an additional column, the ‘School of the Ozarks Owl.’ This item was published weekly. The article always began with The School Cheer.

Boom-a-lack-a, boom-a-lack-a
Bow, wow, wow
Chick-a-lack-a, chick-a-lack-a
Chow, chow, chow
Who are we? Who are we?
School of the Ozarks
YES-SIREE.

The School of the Ozarks had hard times but optimism prevailed. On January 12, 1915, a little past midnight, screams in the girls dormitory awakened the sleeping teachers nearby. The boys, at the other end of the building, awakened to the shouts of "Fire, The School is on fire!" The half-dazed boys put on their clothes and ran outside. The far end of the building was on fire. Some of the older boys went into the building to salvage whatever they could. Blankets, mattresses, pillows, and other items were thrown out of the windows on to the ground. The fire spread quickly so the boys had to get out of the building. No one was lost in the fire. The embarrassed girls wore only their night gowns robed with blankets. There was nothing to do to save their school.

People could see the blazing building for miles around. The kids and teachers stood in astonishment; some were in shock. Their work, pride, hopes, and dreams were in smoke. After the fire, the principal of Forsyth Public School offered the use of his facility to The School of the Ozarks students. They accepted, and four students graduated. In all, five pupils graduated from Mitchell Hall. After that term ended, they built another school further up White River at Point Lookout, Missouri. The following poem aptly reflects the sentiments of the original student body.

On mount Huggins in Southern Missouri,
Overlooking the woodlands and hills,
Stands our college, a stronghold of learnin,
The pride of our hearts, homes, and hills,

For broadening the minds of our maidens,
For deep’ning the thought of our youth.
Giving courage and skill for the labor,
That follows on duty and truth.

True and brave be the hearts of her children,
And noble their aims and their end.
And may realized hopes and ambitions,
Cheer and gladden their toil in freeland.
God grant that her sons and her daughters,
Be the daughters and sons of our God.
To shine forth, and like beacons uplifting,
Spread the light of His gospel abroad.

Then, Hurrah! for The School of the Ozarks,
Whose motto has been from the start,
Engraved on the hearts of her students,
Cultivation of head, hand, and heart.

The far-reaching view from her summit,
Foreshadows her outlook of years,
Oh, The School of the Ozarks forever!
We’ll give her our heartiest cheers.

The re-located School of the Ozarks has the same motto as the old one. Its goal is to help underprivileged young adults to get an education. Its crest symbolizes the philosophy of "academics, vocational, cultural, patriotic, and spiritual’ growth by the students in this unique institution in the Ozarks.

Editors Note: Cathy Cooper’s essay was the third place winner in the 1st WRVHS History Writing Contest. She was a student in Mrs. Kristen Morrow’s Local History Class at Forsyth High School.

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