Remembering Springfield’s Boy Scout Band, the largest in the world

Share Button

Springfield’s Boy Scout Band on a trip to St. Louis, probably at Union Station, circa 1930. (Courtesy of the History Museum on the Square)

These days, memories of Springfield’s Boy Scout Band are primarily stored in libraries and museums instead of minds. Nearly 70 years have passed since the group disbanded: Today, most of its members simply peer from photos, their stories frozen silently in time.

Ninety-two-year-old Joe George, however, remembers. He was in the third grade when he joined the band 84 years ago.

“(It was) the largest in the world,” says George of the band, which during its heyday numbered more than 400 members. “Everybody just loved it, and anytime we had a parade here in Springfield of any kind, the Boy Scout Band was always in it. And the thing we hated more than anything else was to get behind the horses.”

Despite the passage of time (and dealing with horse droppings now and then), one thing remains clear to George.

“We had a wonderful time with it.”

The band’s beginning

Joe and Walter George, in their Greenwood Laboratory School band uniforms, are shown in the late 1930s. (Courtesy of Joe George)

The year was 1933 when George and his twin brother, Walter, joined the band. They started in the beginners’ group — the first of three levels — which met on Monday evenings on the third floor of the Greene County Courthouse.

“You’ll find out — it’s not a good idea to play the sousaphone,” says George of the large musical instrument, and a fact he knew firsthand.

“One of my friends, who joined the same year as Walter and I did, he played the sousaphone and his dad had to carry it up to the third floor,” George recalls. “I don’t know whether they had an elevator or not, but we were not allowed to use it. So we got lots of exercise.”

The band — dating to 1920 — was already well established when the George brothers began. It wasn’t a new idea: Other cities had similar ensembles, and stories differ on who should be credited with its formation in Springfield. Regardless of who suggested the idea, a meeting was held in October 1920 to discuss plans.

“A number of the business men of the city are promoting the plan and the scouts who attended the meeting last night were enthusiastic over the prospects,” recorded the Springfield Republican on Oct. 19, 1920. “A large number of Boy Scouts signed cards at the meeting last night, saying they would do all that was possible to assist in organizing the band.”

Another meeting, to get parents involved, was scheduled for a week later. Plans progressed quickly: On Nov. 1, the group held its first rehearsal:

“The newly organized Boy Scout band held its first practice Monday night,” recorded the Republican. “Forty-three boys were present with instruments and many others have been unable to secure instruments. It is expected that this band will soon be composed of more than seventy-five pieces. All the boys in the band are members of the Boy Scout organization and their ages range from 11 to 17 years. Prof. R. R. Robertson, supervisor of music in the Springfield schools, is instructor.

By February 1921, the group was ready to show off for parents. A few weeks later, it gave its first public performance, which was a short program during a Rotary Club luncheon at the Colonial Hotel. It was such a resounding success that the club decided to raise money so the band could accompany them to the 17th district’s annual convention in Wichita, Ks., in April.

It’s safe to say that the folks in Kansas liked them, too. “Boy Scouts make big at Rotary meeting,” proclaimed the Republican upon their return. “A picture of the boys appeared in the Wichita papers Friday and the boys proved to be the most popular feature of the convention. Large crowds gathered to hear them at every concert and they were invited to play upon numerous occasions. They were also serenaded and entertained extensively while in Wichita.”

The band’s instant popularity began a explosion of growth. Soon after it began, the second and third-tier bands were added, extending its reach to boys who were younger than the minimum scout age of 12 — and ensuring a pipeline of talent was always ready to supply the well-trained top band.

Its leaders, however, didn’t see the ensemble as strictly for musical education.

“The band is not operated for the sole purpose of making musicians, but rather future citizens,” proclaimed an early band program. “The boys are not even encouraged to select music as their profession, although many of the graduates are now occupying responsible teaching positions. Character development is stressed much more than musicianship.”

R. Ritchie Robertson

R. Ritchie Robertson leads the band in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Springfield! Magazine)

It’s clear that “right place, right time” often play a role in life’s successes, but it’s likely that Springfield’s Boy Scout Band wouldn’t have achieved its resounding success if not for its leader, R. Ritchie Robertson.

“He was a wonderful man. He adored all the boys in the band.” recalls George, noting that the director had special nicknames for the twins. “He called my brother Pete, and he called me Repeat.”

The son of a shoemaker, Robertson was born in Scotland and immigrated to the United States in 1900. “The Star Spangled Scotsman,” as he was nicknamed, eventually found his way to Springfield in 1916 to be the Springfield (now Central) High School music teacher.

“His salary was $1500 a year and his position not considered very important,” printed the Springfield Leader and Press in December 1971. “Sure, he would direct the teaching of singing in the classrooms and maybe in a few glee clubs, but that was about all expected of him.”

Despite those expectations, Robertson felt compelled to act. “He was dismayed to find that the band at Springfield (now Central) High School counted only five members, and that the city was awash in jazz, which was too undisciplined for his taste,” recorded the Springfield News-Leader in May 1999. “Not long after his arrival, the high school band swelled to 80 student musicians, and enrollment in choral and glee clubs soared.”

In addition to raising such numbers, he also grew other organizations from the ground up. According to “Springfield of the Ozarks,” Robertson founded the DeMolay Drum Corps, the Abou Ben Ahem Shrine Band and the Frisco Band before the Boy Scout group was ever in the picture.

Those successes helped form a secure foundation for the Boy Scout Band — and a reputation for Roberston.

“(A) Springfield man, unidentified, was in Chicago and mailed a postcard simply addressed ‘To The Most Noted Man in Springfield, MO.,'” printed Springfield! Magazine in an article about the band. “The local post office promptly delivered the card to Ritchie Robertson.”

A pen-and-ink drawing, in honor of Robertson’s birthday, was given to him by local leaders. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District)

Robertson was so beloved by Springfield’s residents that they gave him a brand new car less than a year after the Boy Scout Band began.

“The fairies that are commonly supposed to confine their activities to the dells of Ireland held a ‘coming out party’ in Springfield yesterday,” reported the Springfield Leader on July 7, 1921. “Their material agents in the party were 100 business men of Springfield who each and every one got together like the Democratic minority in a southern election riot and contributed $5 each toward the purchase of a Ford touring car for Mr. Robertson.”

The idea evolved when Robertson mentioned that he’d like to purchase a second-hand car to take his family on a trip. After a businessman heard the wish, he decided to collect the $593 necessary for a brand new Ford.

“All business men added to the fund,” noted the newspaper. “In the meanwhile, it took some maneuvering to keep Mr. Robertson from investing in the second-hand Lizzie. Instructions were even left with some dealers to under no consideration sell him a car.”

A crescendo of success

Springfield’s Boy Scout Band quickly gained fame. Less than two years after it began, the boys paraded past U.S. President Warren G. Harding at the Rotary International Convention in St. Louis. The parade, however, didn’t go quite according to plan: It started raining — but the rain wasn’t water.

“At one time, while the local band was playing in St. Louis, money was rained down upon them from an office building and the musical notes ceased abruptly as the more tangible ones were eagerly picked up by the band boys,” recorded the Springfield Republican on June 24, 1923.

A later issue of Springfield! Magazine went into greater detail about the event:

“While marching down Washington Boulevard, onlookers in the upper floors of the tall buildings began throwing coins and dollar bills at the band,” recorded the magazine. “The 125 boys, seeing the currency falling at their feet, stopped and scrambled for the money, bringing the parade to a halt. It took about five minutes for Robertson and scout leaders to restore order.

“Then the band returned to parade formation, began another march, only to have the shower of money interrupted the procession once more. One St. Louis newspaper stated that ‘the enraged leader shook his head and ordered ‘Forward March!'” This time successfully.”

That presidential performance is only one example of the band’s accomplishments. Another came in 1924, when they played for legendary composer John Phillip Sousa, who was a friend of Robertson’s. The scouts were even given the honor of meeting Sousa at the train station upon his arrival — one they did not give up despite a four-hour wait in a snow storm.

“A snow storm was nothing in their young lives when they were to escort the most famous band leader in the world from the train station to his hotel, and at 6:30 a large number of boys were on hand,” recorded the Springfield Leader on Feb. 5, 1924. “Sousa’s train was late and did not arrive until 10:30 o’clock and by that time the instruments of several boys had frozen up, and they did not play at the station. Amid a flurry of snow, the band, headed by Prof. Robertson and Scout Executive Allen C. Foster, escorted the famous bandmaster to the Colonial hotel.

“It was the biggest moment of their lives when the boys filed into the lobby of the hotel, unclogged their instruments and played a selection for the famous bandmaster. Following the selection, the boys cheered Sousa, who was introduced to them by Prof. Robertson.”

“When Sousa came to Springfield” (Courtesy of the Springfield New-Leader/Sunday News and Leader)

John Phillip Sousa returned to Springfield in 1928 (other trips occurred in 1894 and 1924) for a concert sponsored by the Boy Scout Band. (Courtesy of the SGCLD)

Perhaps an even bigger moment, however, took its place just a few hours later.

“When John Phillip Sousa was here this spring with his band, the great bandmaster complimented Mr. Robertson on the Boy Scout band,” recorded the Republican in May 1924. “(He) permitted it to play with the Sousa organization at the (Shrine) mosque, a thing which Sousa never before had done.”

That same year, Springfield’s Kiwanis Club voted Robertson as Springfield’s most useful individual asset. “This unusual action came in recognition of the untiring and in most cases unpaid work done by Mr. Robertson in fostering the cause of music here,” wrote a Republican reporter in May 1924. “The vote was unanimous.”

As a result, the club launched a drive to send him to Scotland on vacation so “he can visit his old home near Glasgow, see his old ‘crownies’ and have a complete rest and a good time in general.”

Robertson likely needed the rest. In addition to the band’s rehearsals — taking up three nights each week — the group gave frequent performances.

“Every time Ritchie Robertson had a chance to show us off, he did,” recalls George of the bandleader.

Some of those occasions were local events, such as the dedication of Doling Park as a city property in 1929, and a groundbreaking for Burge Hospital (today’s CoxHealth) in 1924. The band served as the official band of Missouri’s State Fair in Sedalia numerous times. Paramount News and Fox Movietone News filmed the band on parade, which appeared in news stories and theaters across the country. In 1926 — the same year Robertson founded the Central High School Kiltie Drum & Bugle Corp — the Boy Scout Band even recorded an album of six marches.

The Boy Scout Band (right) performed at a ground breaking for Burge Hospital (today’s CoxHealth) in 1924. (Courtesy of CoxHealth)

The recordings were initially done in Springfield, but outside interference proved them imperfect and required a redo — and, considering recording capabilities in the 1920s, required much effort.

“To one who does not understand procedure through which the recorders go, it would appear to be an easy task to make records,” printed the Leader in August 1926. ” … It is interesting to note that the boys spent many weary hours before the records were made perfect. In the first place, every member of the recording band had to be placed in just the right position so that the music could blend harmoniously, and this was just a small part of the work. The band was pleased, and the music began, and then the arrangement had to be done all over the again. Then the band began its record, and all would go well until someone would play off time or off beat. Then another was started, and so on until six of the most perfect records ever turned out by the Brunswick were completed.”

Springfield leaders, however, saw the record as worth the work.

“Aside from the release of the recordings themselves, Springfield will derive considerable publicity, for the Brunswick company will present ads in newspapers throughout the nation read by more than 25,000,000 people in connection with its advertising campaign for the Scout records,” noted the Leader.

Click here to hear the Boy Scout Band play a march. (Courtesy of the SGCLD)

That same year, the band’s members became movie stars. C.G. Conn Band Instrument Company, in collaboration with the Brunswick company, decided to “feature the local Scout band in a motion picture showing the influence of music in making true citizens out of the American boy,” reported the Leader in June 1926.

Those reels were shown locally a few months later to a sold-out Shrine Mosque.

“After the last scout had flickered across the silver sheet, the curtain was raised and the organization just presented in pictoral form was sitting on the state, tactfully seated so that each instrument might attain its best effect and surrounded by sage and lighting effects which tended to produce a scene of unusual beauty,” recorded the Republican in September 1926. “Waves of applause greeted the scouts and then as Director R. Ritchie Robertson raised his magic wand, a deep silence fell over the throng as the first notes of the opening overture, ‘The Fall of Jericho,’ were heard.”

Lester E. Cox connection

The Boy Scout Band arrives to perform in St. Louis; Lester E. Cox and Robertson are pictured at center. (Courtesy of American Commercial Photographers/”Lester E. Cox”)

While Robertson was the face of the Boy Scout Band, another local businessman was instrumental (no pun intended) in its success. That man was Lester E. Cox.

Today the namesake of Springfield-based CoxHealth, Cox wasn’t in health care back then. Instead, he managed the Martin Brothers Piano Company, and undoubtedly saw great opportunities for the band.

“(Cox) sold Boy Scout officials on a plan to establish a Boy Scout Band in Springfield,” wrote biographer John Hulston in “Lester E. Cox.” “Needless to say, the Martin Company marketed loads of musical instruments, fulfilling a Cox prophesy that it was easier to separate parents from their money if they prepared Johnny for a school or town band.”

In addition to selling instruments, Cox was a gifted marketer. His slogan — “Teach a boy to blow a horn and he’ll never blow a safe” was widely used, and he leveraged the band to market Springfield to the world. One way was through the aforementioned phonographic record and film. But during his 19 years as manager of the band, he also saw many “Goodwill Tours” for Springfield that took the boys out of town.

“Springfield will derive considerable favorable advertising June 20 – 26 when the famous Boy Scouts band, recognized by business men as the city’s greatest advertising medium, will make its annual tour,” recorded an unidentified Springfield newspaper article, likely from 1927.

“Elaborate plans for spreading the gospel of Springfield’s natural and industrial advantages have been made by the band committee, of which Lester E. Cox is chairman,” the newspaper continued. “One hundred members of the band will make the trip, and 20,000 handsome folders containing ‘up to the minute’ information about Springfield will be distributed by the boys in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Evanston, Ill., and other cities through which the band will pass.”

Promotional booklets were distributed on the Boy Scout Band’s Goodwill Tours. Shown is the 1927 version’s cover, and information on the band. (Courtesy of the SGCLD)

The trips, launched in 1924, were also taken with support from the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. “These were three to five day trips by the band with Springfield businessmen to towns throughout the Ozarks and the state, traveling in 40 car caravans and stopping at eight or nine towns each day to give concerts and to promote goodwill for Springfield,” recorded Springfield! magazine.

According to the article, the band performed in 160 towns in Missouri, plus more than 250 parades in Springfield and the Midwest, by 1930.

Personal memories

The Boy Scout Band, in an undated photograph, is shown near Branson. (Courtesy of the SGCLD)

Those Goodwill Tours offered boys a chance to travel — but they weren’t the only times the band went on the road. In 1933, the band represented Missouri at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Looking back, band member George also recalls an excursion to Norfolk Dam to perform at its dedication, and a trip to the Missouri State Fair in 1936 when the band stayed in tents. “We had an awful lot of fun on those trips,” says George.

There was also the 1936 trip to the Texas Centennial in Dallas, where the band performed for U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “But they took 40 clarinets, and my brother was number 41 and I was number 45, and we did not get to go,” says George.

A few years later, another cause for major excitement turned into a major disappointment.

“In 1939, we were supposed to go to the World’s Fair in New York City,” recalls George. “And that year they had a polio epidemic and so they cancelled. And of course we were just heartbroken. They didn’t want their kids going up there … and taking that kind of a chance. They didn’t have any cure for it except the iron lung in those days.”

Closer to home, he recalls the first Ozark Empire Free Fair — today’s Ozark Empire Fair — in 1936. “We marched on the opening day,” he says. “We walked up and down the midway, marched up and down.”

George also mentions other local parades, which he says usually started at Commercial Street and Washington Avenue. “We marched to Boonville and down to the square,” he says. “In case you don’t know it, that’s quite a hill going (up) Boonville Hill.”

Leaving a legacy

The late 1930s brought a period of change for the band. Robertson began turning over many of its duties to his son, James Robertson, who was a graduate of Drury College (now University) and a fellow at the Julliard School of Music in New York City. That transition was accelerated in 1938, after the elder Robertson suffered a stroke.

That year, an honorary doctorate was bestowed on him from Westminster College in Fulton. Springfield also took time to honor Robertson on Aug. 27, 1938, when the baseball game at White City Park featured a celebration of his contributions. The Springfield Leader and Press promoted the event in advance, noting that there would be a “pleasant” surprise for Robertson.

That surprise, presented in front of a capacity crowd, turned out to be another car. “The auto, a dark red sedan, was purchased by President A.G. Eckerd of the Springfield Cardinals, from funds donated by the Cardinal club, businessmen, school teachers and friends of the popular director,” reported the Leader and Press the next day.

Although he expressed deep gratitude in accepting the present, Robertson said he never could understand “why people say I have done much for Springfield, for Springfield has done much more for me.”

On Nov. 5, 1939, Robertson passed away. “Perhaps his greatest work was in popularizing music in the community,” said Harry Study, Springfield superintendent, after Robertson’s death. “He was certainly one the greatest men in the entire country in his ability to create community interest in school music, and to carry school music outside the schools into general community life.”

The George brothers proved the truth of such a statement. Although they attended Greenwood throughout their younger years, one simple factor convinced them to transfer to Senior (now Central) High School. “Greenwood didn’t have a good band, so we all went over to Central,” says George of the handful of students who transferred for high school.

Both boys stayed active in music — through things like the high school band, dance band and private lessons, in addition to the Boy Scout Band — until they were graduated from high school in 1942. Through those activities, they saw a great deal of Robertson’s son: In addition to the Boy Scout Band, he took over as music director for Springfield Public Schools.

But times were changing. Ten years after the younger Robertson took over the Boy Scout Band, a simple announcement brought the end of an era.

“Springfield’s Boy Scout band, known as the largest organization of its kind in the world, will be disbanded in November, Joseph M. Acuff, chairman of the Band Committee, said today,” reported the Macon Chronicle-Herald in April 1949.

The decision wasn’t because of low numbers: Around 200 boys were still involved in the band at the time. Instead, officials said that the public school system’s offerings had expanded so much that the program was no longer necessary.

Others, however, pointed to a different reason.

“… For many years, national Boy Scout executives had been dubious of the band, expressing the far that boys joined the scouts as a means to membership in the band rather than for the total scouting experience,” clarified Springfield! magazine. “Ozark Council Scout Executive Allen Foster fought attempts to disband the group until his death in 1947. However, succeeding Ozark Council Executive Mel Tudor was not in sympathy with the band. The news of its dissolution shocked the city.”

Recalling the band

Even though the band ended, its memories didn’t. Reunions were held at various times for members, and it even briefly revived in the 1970s. In 1990, a 30-inch-high bust of Robertson was unveiled at Central High School in tribute to the famed band leader.

As time passed, it’s clear that the band remained a source of pride. The proof: Even decades later, participating was so important that it was included in many obituaries.

Former members were so proud that band membership was mentioned in obituaries.

Each obituary, however, means there’s one less memory. “Less and less people know about it all the time,” says local Boy Scout leader Larry Donze, noting the limited number of members still alive. “It’s down to just a couple.”

Those memories are why Donze helped create an exhibit on the Boy Scout Band that’s currently on display at the at the Dr. Michael J Clarke Museum of Ozarks Scouting. Open since January, the exhibit shows pictures and memorabilia from the band — and helps preserve its story, for which Donze voices his admiration. “I think that the fact that it went so strong for (so long) is pretty amazing,” he says.

Want to learn more?

The Dr. Michael J Clarke Museum of Ozarks Scouting is located inside the Boy Scouts of America Ozark Trails Council (1616 S. Eastgate Ave., Springfield), which may be contacted by phone at (417) 883-1636.

Thanks to the work of historian Don Burns, the Springfield-Greene County Library District also has a considerable collection of information related to the Boy Scout Band. It is available for viewing at The Library Center.


“Band leader honored at ceremony,” Kathy Oechsle, Springfield News-Leader, Oct. 8, 1990

“Boy Scout Band,” Springfield Republican, Nov. 3, 1920

“Boy Scout Band honor guard to world famous bandmaster,” Springfield Leader, Feb. 5, 1924

“Boy Scout Band to appear in motion pictures next week,” Springfield Leader, July 11, 1926

“Boy Scouts make big at Rotary meeting,” Springfield Republican, April 13, 1921

“Brunswick company releases Scout band records,” Springfield Leader, Aug. 26, 1926

“Famed Boy Scout Band to break up,” Macon Chronicle-Herald, April 27, 1949

“Kiwanis Club lauds R. Ritchie Robertson as city’s best asset,” Springfield Republican, May 24, 1924

“Lester E. Cox,” John K. Hulston, 1992

“Music director’s program gave students a sense of belonging,” Mike O’Brien, Springfield News-Leader, May 3, 1999

“Organization of Boy Scout Band nearly completed,” Springfield Republican, Oct. 19, 1920

“R. Ritchie Robertson collection grows at public library,” Lucile Morris Upton, Springfield Leader and Press, Dec. 27, 1971

“Scout band is heard by big crowd,” Springfield Republican, Sept. 4, 1926

“Scouts band is praised,” Springfield Republican, June 24, 1923

“Scout band records to be made this week,” Springfield Leader, June 13, 1926

“Springfield’s amazing Boy Scout Band,” Don Burns, Springfield! Magazine (Volumes I, II, III and IV)

“Springfield of the Ozarks,” Harris and Phyllis Dark, 1981

“When Sousa came to Springfield, Don Burns, Sunday News and Leader, Feb. 6, 1972

“Who says there are no good fairies? Well, you just ask R.R. Robertson!” Springfield Leader, July 7, 1921

Saving the Neosho Colored School, where George Washington Carver had his start

Share Button

The Neosho Colored School, where George Washington Carver attended classes, is currently being restored.

NEOSHO – Before George Washington Carver became the world’s peanut wizard, he was a boy in the Ozarks with a dream. His fantasy, however, wasn’t of widespread fame or fortune. Instead, it was of simply going to school.

It was a wish, in those days, that perhaps seemed as far-fetched as making milk from a peanut. He was a black orphan in the wake of the Civil War, schools were scarce, and few saw the value in educating African Americans.

Those factors, however, didn’t deter Carver. His journey into the international spotlight began with a single step, one that led him to Neosho’s colored school.

Today, the building still educates. It reminds of when the Ozarks was segregated based on skin; it teaches of a time many would like to forget, but must always remember.

Those lessons, however, were almost lost — because the structure was nearly torn down.

The school’s start

The school — also known as the Lincoln School, presumably in honor of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln — had its start in response to government mandate.

“In 1872, following the Civil War, Missouri law stipulated that each town provide schooling for African Americans,” says Kim Mailes, Neosho historian and board member of the Carver Birthplace Association. “This was really built as a residence, (and) the town bought it for an African American school.”

Back in those days, however, the school didn’t only see young faces within its walls.

“They had school all hours of the day and night,” says Mailes. “The African Americans were so hungry for education that 60-year-old men would flock in here with 5-year-old boys to learn how to read.”

One of those students was George Washington Carver, described by the Neosho Times in 1922 as “a dreamer, an inventor, a scientist, who forced his way to an education when opportunities and schools for his race were as scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth.”

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver (Courtesy of the Carver Birthplace Association)

Born near Diamond, Mo., Carver’s earliest days were fraught with instability — and, in the words of the Neosho Times, “read more like fiction than fact.”

“When he was a small boy the man who is today perhaps the most distinguished Negro scientist had the singular experience of being swapped for a horse,” wrote the Baltimore Sun in November 1931. “It happened that a band of frontier marauders paid a visit to the farm one day and stole the boy and his mother. They carried them into the neighboring state of Arkansas and there traded him for the horse, which was valued at $300.”

Carver’s mother was never seen again — but her former master, Moses Carver, sent the horse in trade for the baby. Carver spent his youth with the family, and was supported well by standards in that day and time.

“You can’t really say they treated him as a son, but he was in the family,” says Mailes.

Carver’s curious nature was evident from an early age. He “displayed an uncommon interest in plants and insects and was accustomed to roaming the woods and collecting specimens,” recorded the Baltimore newspaper. “He was eager for education (and) so impressed Mr. Carver that the gentleman allowed him attend a school some miles away.”

That school was the aforementioned Neosho facility, located in the heart of the town’s black neighborhood.

Some say that Carver was brought into Neosho by wagon for school, while others say he walked. Regardless of how he got there, it was wasn’t an easy journey — especially since it doesn’t appear he knew how he’d get home. That question, however, was soon answered by Andy and Mariah Watkins, who lived two doors from the school.

“That morning when Aunt Mariah stepped out of her house she found ‘George sitting on their wood pile with all his belongings in a little red bandana on a stick over his shoulder,'” recorded a 1975 interview in the Ozarks Mountaineer. “She talked with him long enough to find out his situation and then welcomed them into their humble home.”

In those days, the Watkins were famous ones. A former slave, Mariah Watkins served as the town’s midwife and even delivered Thomas Hart Benton, the noted Missouri artist, in 1889.

“She carried a black satchel, and the children of the town always suspected that she was carrying in it a new baby for someone,” printed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in January 1971.

Immaculately dressed, her uniform was distinctive: She wore a white nurse’s cap, dress and apron, complete with lace along the bottom that was crocheted while sitting with mothers and babies.

Mariah Watkins, pictured with some of “her” children.
(Courtesy of the Ozarks Mountaineer)

The Watkins didn’t have children of their own, although Mariah Watkins was said to have borne several before they married — all of who were sold while she was still in slavery. “Maybe this accounts for Mariah’s great love of children, no matter the color or the age,” recorded the Mountaineer. “Mariah called each child she delivered ‘hers.’”

And while Mariah Watkins didn’t deliver Carver, she still left a lasting impression on “her George’s” life.

“Aunt Mariah, respected midwife for most of the white families in town at the time, taught the young Carver homemaking skills,” recorded the Neosho Daily News in March 1964. “He later credited the strengthening of religious faith to her example and teaching.”

Upward from Neosho

Carver didn’t attend the local colored school for all that long. After he exhausted its resources, he eventually made his way to Minneapolis, Ks., where he finished high school. “He then conducted a laundry three years to obtain money to attend college,” recorded the Times in 1922.

In 1884, he moved to Highland, Ks., to begin that college education at Highland University. His aim, however, wasn’t scientific knowlege: Instead, he was granted admission to the Presbyterian institution to become a minister.

But after school officials saw him in person, he wasn’t allowed to attend classes: The color of his skin was something they hadn’t realized from his application.

“As you will understand there is an alarming amount of that old Southern prejudice, viz, old pro slavery element existing here, and it seems to exert quite an influence over said institution,” wrote R. Martin in the Weekly Kansas Chief in December 1885. “Mr. Carver has been treated in the most contemptible manner since he has been here; has been accused of ‘coming here for the sole purpose of breaking up the University; was threatened to have the whole top of his head blown off, if he made the attempt to enter the school; were going to klu-klux him, etc.'”

Carver moved on, becoming the first African American to graduate from Iowa Agriculture College (Iowa State University). He was later recruited by Booker T. Washington, a respected  educator, to the Tuskegee Institute (Tuskegee University). Carver remained attached to the institution for the rest of his career (during which he actually did find a way to make milk from peanuts).

Thanks in part to Mariah Watkins, Carver was a deeply religious man. He was a gentle soul who loved to paint, sew and crochet; one who didn’t work to reap materialistic benefits. Instead, he worked to help mankind regardless of race, proven by a 1943 article in the Daily News:

“Dr. Carver’s discoveries of uses for sweet potatoes and peanuts saved the Southlands when they petered out from too much cotton planting. They added millions to the South’s annual income.

His numberless chemical formulas could have made him a millionaire many times over — but Dr. Carver gave them all away. He donated to the world more than 300 products from peanuts, including cheese, paper, coffee, plastics — even face powder, and he developed 118 products from sweet potatoes — from ink and glue to crystalized ginger.

Such were the wonders of chemistry, worked by one of the most able members of the Negro race.”

Carver also accomplished a great deal toward the advancement of African American perception in that day and age.

“When you are inclined to speak of the ego as an inferior race and demand: ‘What has the negro ever done?’ you might give a thought to George Washington Carver,” printed the Iola Register (and other newspapers across the country) in 1923. “This man belongs to a race which the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan declares to be ‘essentially savage, likely to retrograde rather than to advance in the scale of civilization.'”

Moving on

Neosho still had its colored school when Carver passed away in 1943, but classes weren’t held in the same building he attended. That facility was the first of three colored schools in Neosho, and according to the Daily News, was utilized until 1891 when Neosho voters approved a $1,500 bond issue to build a new brick building. The former school resumed its journey as a private residence, eventually becoming a rental property.

As time passed, folks remembered that the school had been there — but they forgot that it was still there, especially since renovations took it far from its original state.

“This had been built on to, cobbled on to, added on to,” says Mailes. “It was just a mess.”

The school, after several additions. (Courtesy of Kim Mailes)

That “mess” made for an easy decision in 2005, when Arvest Bank donated the property to the CBA. The group decided to tear down the rental house and turn the property into a small park, perhaps with a monument commemorating Carver’s time there.

However, after consulting with the National Park Service, historic architect Al O’Bright was dispatched to give the building a once-over.

According to the Daily News, his trip resulted in “the greatest discovery of his career.” He found that the original school remained, tucked within the expanded walls of the rental house.

Given the gift of that discovery, the CBA formed a new plan of action: Instead of tearing down the school, they would save it.

Fundraising commenced, and plans discussed on whether or not to move it to the George Washington Carver National Monument near Diamond, Mo. The relocation suggestion, however, wasn’t discussed for long. After all, moving the building would destroy the historic context its location provided.

Revealing remodel

Then the fundraising began. After years of work, CBA used $35,000 to partner with HistoriCorps, a national organization that supports historic preservation through volunteer and student labor, to begin work in June 2016.

During the group’s three-week stint in Neosho, its members worked to strip off the siding, remove the three-room addition and haul off non-historic materials and stabilize the structure.

The “unwrapping” yielded historic treasure. According to a 2016 article in the Springfield News-Leader, around 70 percent of the original structure remained, including features such as the original wood weatherboards of the exterior walls under the modern siding, horizontal board wainscoting, plastered walls and ceilings, and early or original flooring.

Volunteers removed additions to the structure. (Courtesy of Kim Mailes)

“What we did this summer is we shored it up physically so it won’t fall down, and just took everything off that isn’t original,” says Mailes. “This is what was here when Carver came.”

Despite those discoveries, much work remains — and so does a hefty price tag, especially considering to-dos such as removing the ceiling, which comes in around $3,000 because of asbestos concerns.

The interior of the school house in February 2017.

According to Mailes, the next two phases are addressing the roof and foundation. “That’s a rubble foundation,” he says, indicating the layers of stones beneath the building. “Back then, they didn’t dig foundations, they just piled rocks up and built something on it.”

Those changes, however, are dependent on funding: Around $300,000 in total is the group’s goal, which would allow the school to be fully remodeled and available for the public to visit. Ideally, the group would also like to purchase and renovate the Watkins’ home into a visitors center.

But the project is about more than simply preserving a building or two.

“I really feel strongly about this project not only for Carver, but because this is one of the few colored schools remaining,” says Mailes. “We’re not only paying tribute to Carver, we’re paying tribute to African Americans.”

Want to learn more?

Mailes maintains a blog about the schoolhouse, which is located at 639 Young St. in Neosho. For more information about the Carver Birthplace Association, connect via its website or on Facebook.


“A Negro Scientist of the Soil,” P.A. Carmichael, Baltimore Sun, Nov. 8, 1931

“Career of famed Negro to an end,” Neosho Daily news, Jan. 6, 1943

“From creek bank to commune,” Robert Sanford, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 13, 1971

“Highland University,” R. Martin, Weekly Kansas Chief, Dec. 3, 1885

“Negro chemist gets milk from peanuts,” Call-Leader, Feb. 26, 1930

“Negro from Newton County recognized as great scientist,” Neosho Times, Dec. 7, 1922

“New heroes step forward for historic 1872 school,” Roy Shaver, Neosho Daily News, July 29, 2016

“Railroad played important role in city’s development during days of Reconstruction,” Mary Cozad, Neosho News, March 15, 1964

“The Negro,” Iola Register, Nov. 5, 1923

“Today’s schools have colorful history,” Neosho Daily News, July 2, 1976

“Two-room Neosho school attended by George Washington Carver will be restored, preserved,” Claudette Riley, Springfield News-Leader, June 22, 2016