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On a sunset stroll around one of our Ozarks mills, I saw a couple posing for a camera, adoringly looking into each others’ eyes as the snap of the shutter froze the second forever.
I smiled as I walked by. I was happy for them and this moment in their lives — I’d guess they were having engagement photos taken — but also pleased about the connection they now have with this place.
In the future, they can look back and remember the moment they stood near the water — how they felt, what it meant and that the mill was part of their experience.
These moments are important, in my opinion, because they are what keep historical places relevant: It’s not about the tours or the information. It’s about having a life-linking connection with a place, and using that spirit to help find funding.
We can toss around the concept of “historic preservation” all day, but really it comes down to emotion. Hearts, not facts, are what generally motivates us in efforts to preserve the past.
Heart in an old schoolhouse
That thought came into focus in another lens recently while driving in rural Christian County. I stopped at the Monger School, a small wooden building built in 1896 that drew children from the hills near Sparta and Linden until it consolidated with Sparta in the mid-1920s.
More than a decade ago, I did a story about the school while an intern at the Christian County Headliner News in Ozark. I remember it was a warm, sunny summer day in 2009 when I met Jeweldene Bateman and her daughters, Debi Murphy and Donna Rothermel, at the school.
“I went to (the Monger) school until the third grade,” Jeweldene, who was 92, told me back then. “I had to walk about half a mile across a field and down the holler by my little self.”
She spoke of other school-day memories, such as pie suppers, games at recess, and gatherings that created community within the school’s walls.
“We had big programs,” she said. “We had Christmas programs; there were so many people that they couldn’t come in the door.”
At the time of our visit some 13 years ago, the women were leading an effort to restore the school. While her daughters didn’t attend classes there, they still had a connection through their mother’s stories, as well as annual reunions for former students.
Other ties were fraying fast. When we visited, the family believed Jeweldene was the last Monger student left alive.
“I think that all of a sudden it hit me and Donna that we’re the only ones left and it’s going to fall in (unless we did something),” Debi told me back then. “It was being neglected and … I think we started saying we needed to save it.”
Despite the passion of those words, my recent stop at the school makes me believe preservation efforts didn’t happen as planned. Parts of the tin are missing from the roof; the paint is nearly gone, as is the lettering on the sign above the door.
Newspaper records show Jeweldene died two years after our visit, taking her memories with her. I have attempted to reach her daughters, but have yet to establish contact.
When memories die away
These stories are just two of many on opposite ends of a spectrum that reminds me of the question: What makes historic preservation important — and happen?
In my opinion, emotional connection and relevance must be the first factor.
At the Monger School, those feelings were obvious. The crumbling schoolhouse is an older surviving example of one-room education in the Ozarks today. The people with personal connections — perhaps some of the ones who crowded in for Christmas programs and pie suppers — kept it standing for many years.
But they’re gone. While unique, quaint and an undeniable piece of our past, the people for whom its presence pulled at heartstrings are no longer here to care.
Or perhaps they’re closer than ever — like Jeweldene, who is buried in the adjacent cemetery, just feet from “my little schoolhouse” as she called the landmark of her childhood.
Something has to be more important than simply being old or beautiful or “historic” because someone famous walked within its walls. For grassroots preservation, it has to be tied to someone’s soul.
If we want historic preservation happen — if we want parts of our culture to survive — we need to find ways to make these structures relevant in a meaningful way. Could more be transformed into community centers or restaurants? Museums?
Regardless, for structures to survive beyond a generation or two, we need to integrate them into life today for them to survive. That way, they are relevant beyond residual memories — not as an artifact, but as a personal connection.
This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.