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The Woodson Institute dream fell short, but memories still strong

ric_post_card-webBy Linda Emley

When I look at this picture, it’s hard to believe this majestic building was in Richmond. I can’t imagine what it would be like to drive down East Main Street and see it standing there. Today when we talk about Woodson School, most of us are thinking of the Woodson grade school that was recently torn down. The building on this postcard was the original “Woodson.”

In 1889, the Plattsburg Methodist Church district met in Excelsior Springs and decided it needed a Methodist high school in the district. Lathrop, Richmond and Lawson were some of the top choices. On Aug. 28, 1890, The Richmond Conservator headline read, “Richmond Gets It.”

The high school was awarded to Richmond because it offered the best inducements. Thomas D. Woodson had pledged five acres of land and the church district thought the people of Richmond could give it the best local patronage.

Woodson Institute was a preparatory school that offered classes for grades 1 through 12. Woodson and Centenary Academy for Girls in Palmyra were styled after the Central Academy that was a preparatory school located on the campus at Central College in Fayette.

Woodson offered classes like Latin, calculus, zoology, biology, music, art, literary societies and sports. Most of these subjects were not offered in the public schools. Richmond public schools started offering music in 1914 and football started in 1906.

Woodson had a football team. There are few early details about the football field, but it looked like the field behind Woodson when the original building was built in 1893.

The Aug. 24, 1893 Richmond Conservator ran an ad for Woodson Institute. “First term begins Sept. 5, 1893.

“The building is completed and is convenient and elegant throughout. Accommodations for about 50 young ladies in the Boarding Department. The entire building is lighted by electricity and heated by the Smead system. A faculty of nine experienced teachers. Advantages in Music and Art are unexcelled. For information or announcement of work, address, B.G. Shacklford, Pres.”

The Plattsburg Methodist Church District ran the school, but it was counting on children from other denominations to attend and help with the expenses.

There was a chapel in the school and all students were expected to attend services each morning. The students were also required to keep a copy of the Bible in their desk.

The children of Woodson held a masquerade party Nov. 18, 1893. They came dressed as a Laplander, a South Sea Islander, a jolly German, a polite Frenchman, a witty Irishman and the small children were dressed as flowers.

At 9, the students had a formal dinner and the menu cards were written in French. The menu was turnip salad, water, biscuit or cracker, water, persimmons served on cabbage leaves, more water, popcorn and then more water.

After eating, they assembled in the chapel on the second floor and “whiled away an hour or two in the jolly, romping games of happy childhood.”

By April 1894, the school was in debt and a big excursion was planned to boost attendance. A special train ran from Gower to Richmond via Plattsburg, Lathrop and Lawson. The train ride was free and lunch was served at the school. The school even promised to have you back home in time for supper.

On June 14, 1894, the paper read, “Woodson Institute will not be sold for debt and school will again open in September.” On June 29, Woodson held its board of curators meeting and the public was invited. There was music and the organizers wanted it to be a celebration. They even promised that no collection would be taken. I think the people of Richmond were getting a little tired of donating their hard earned money.

I am not sure how the school pulled it off, but the July 5, 1894, newspaper announced a reception open to the public to celebrate the lifting of Woodson’s debt. They rejoiced because they were seeing the school placed beyond the reach of the sheriff.

In 1906, a Woodson Institute ad boasted that 25 percent of their graduates were successful teachers. A number of people in Richmond had family members who went to the Institute. Many of them went on to become teachers and taught the children of Richmond and in Ray Country’s one-room schools. After enjoying the refined life at Woodson, these simple schools must have been a big change for our “Woodson girls.” They had to be very dedicated to teach in these schools.

1915 was an important year for Woodson. After 22 years as a private school, it was just not working out. Despite the fact that they had some out-of-state students, the school was not supporting itself. The church withdrew its support, but the people of Richmond did not want to give up their preparatory school .

As the school year closed June 3, 1915,Woodson couldn’t be sure if it would be opening again in the fall. In July of 1915, the Commercial Club was formed to try and save Woodson Institute. By August, the fight was over and Woodson was sold to the Richmond public school system.

Aug. 19, 1915, the paper read, “Richmond Education Institute has been acquired by Public School System. The people of this city who were instrumental in getting it located here, always took pride in it and hoped to see it someday rise to the position of a great college or university.” It was a sad day for many people in Richmond.

Some modifications were made to Woodson and it reopened Sept. 2, 1915, as Richmond’s East Ward grade school. From 1915 to 1928 this building was part of the public school system. When it was replaced with a new building in 1928, the new building was named Woodson School in honor the building that had been located here.

One of the most famous people who went to Woodson Institute was Forest Smith, governor of Missouri from 1949 to 1953. He is buried in Richmond at Sunny Slope Cemetery.

Few items are left from the days of Woodson Institute. The bell that hung in the building was saved, but one night it mysteriously disappeared and was never recovered. The Woodson Institute square grand piano now sits in the lobby of the Ray County Museum. It doesn’t work, but it sure looks “grand” sitting there.

There are a few diplomas and a class ring or two still around. I have six different postcards of Woodson and there are a few other pictures. There are also some Woodson Institute souvenir items that were sold by local merchants. One is a silver spoon with a picture of the building and the others are a few pieces of German-made souvenir china.

The end of this building came in the summer of 1928 and it was without fanfare. The citizens of Richmond voted March 16, 1928, to tear it down and replace it with a new, modern building. The building was still in very good condition since it was only 35 years old.

Voters also approved tearing down the wooden Lincoln School and replacing it with a new brick building. This building is still standing on North Main Street.

It was interesting to see who won the bid to tear down Woodson Institute and build the new schools.  This was in the Richmond Missourian, May 3, 1928: “J.E.DUNN WILL ERECT SCHOOLS . Bidding against 14 other contractors, J.E. Dunn of Kansas City was awarded the general contract of the erection of the new East Ward and the new Lincoln school buildings. Mr. Dunn’s bid was $46,000, the lowest by almost $3,000. The contract calls for the razing of East Ward and the complete erection of both building in 110 working days.”

We all have heard of J.E. Dunn. John Ernest Dunn founded the company in 1924, so we were one of his first clients. They now have offices nationwide with revenues of $2.3 billion. Some of their local buildings are Kemper Arena, Truman Medical Center and Corporate Woods. I sent J.E. Dunn a picture of Lincoln School and a copy of the May 3, 1928, newspaper article with all the contract information. I thought it might be fun for them to know that one of “Ernie” Dunn’s early buildings is still around.

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