Article #26- Hope
Article #27- Mill Pond
Article #28- John O'Fallon
Article #29- Sage Chapel
Article #30- The black school
Published Jan. 14, 2004
Published Jan. 28, 2004
Published Feb. 11, 2004
Published Feb. 18, 2004
Published Feb. 25, 2004


Article #26- Hope

I'm sure you've noticed that from time to time, my publisher gives me some leeway and just lets me write whatever is on my mind. Sometimes you have to look long and hard to find any connection to what's going on in O'Fallon but, knowing that I won't abuse this privilege, he cuts me some slack. This is one of those times.

Not too long ago, something happened that was a big disappointment for me; a situation that I found myself regarding as hopeless. That's not a word I use very easily so it kind of startled me to think that the word "hopeless" even entered my mind. Then, something funny started happening. For Christmas, my son gave me a basketful of aromatherapy stuff-you know, lotions and body sprays and stuff-of a scent called "Hope." Then, two days later, I received the latest issue of a magazine I subscribe to. It only comes four times a year so I tend to forget about it until it shows up in the mail. It's a magazine devoted to telling stories about people all over the country who are doing things to create positive change in their communities. It's called "Hope."

Now, I don't know about you, but when I start getting messages like that from whomever it is you believe sends us messages, I try to pay attention. Sometimes it takes me a while to "get it," but this time the relevance came pretty quickly. It is, after all, New Year's Eve as I'm writing this; a time not just for parties but also a time for reflection on the past year and a time for looking forward to the next.

I don't know where you stand on this whole New Year Resolution thing. For a long time I gave them up as an act of futility-nothing more than good intentions that usually go south after just a few weeks. But I'm looking at them a little differently right now. I'm realizing that the very act of making resolutions for the New Year is an indication of our willingness to continue to hope. It's understanding that the most basic and yet most powerful prayer of all is simply, "God, please help me be a better person."

New Year Resolutions are a sign of our willingness to change and it's hope that moves us to continue to make them at all. It's ironic, I think, that while it is human nature to resist change, it is also human nature to desire it. And so we do a kind of dance with change throughout our lives, seeking it when we reach some level of dissatisfaction that fires up our resolve and then fighting it when the hurdles become even stronger than the dissatisfaction that fired us up in the first place.

It doesn't matter what it is we want to change, hope is always at the root of our resolve. Hope allows us to believe that, this year, our fortunes can change, our relationships will deepen, our health will continue (or improve); in short, our efforts will be rewarded. It doesn't really matter what kind of change it is you're seeking. What does matter, is understanding that it's not really the change itself we want as much as it is how we will feel about ourselves when we make the change, when we accomplish whatever it is we are resolving to accomplish. And so, it might be useful to remember that, while our resolutions are initially fueled by hope, keeping our eye on the ultimate prize-the good feeling that comes from knowing we have done our best-is what will keep us going when our resolve starts to dwindle.

It's hope that makes us try, one more time every day, to squeeze the very best out of ourselves; to serve, to volunteer, to reach for whatever we believe is worth reaching for.

Robert Browning, the English poet, once said, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp - or what's a Heaven for?"

 

Article #27- Mill Pond

If you turn left onto West Elm St. from Main and drive back behind the buildings that face Main Street, you'll find no evidence whatsoever of what was once O'Fallon's major source of entertainment on cold winter days, the Old Mill Pond. A fishing hole in the summer and skating rink in the winter, Raleigh Jessup tells me the Mill Pond got its name because it was used to run the grist mill that was located over by the elevator.

The Mill Pond was gone by the time I came along but I remember my mother talking about my dad going skating with Bill Steiner. I remembered it because, like most kids, I had a hard time imagining my parents being associated with anything that resembled recreation and fun. Mom took my sisters, Janet and Mary, and sat in someone's car (we didn't have one of our own yet) while the fellows skated and I imagine they stepped out of the car from time to time in order to go stand near the bonfire. I'm told Dad bought a pair of ice skates for Janet and attempted to teach her the fine art of gliding down a frozen street. I can only assume that project didn't go very well.

But apparently, ice skates weren't always required for ice skating. Jerry Hamley remembered good times with wife, Mary Sue, and friends, Kate and Milo Terry. "We didn't have skates, but we'd go out there and scoot around on the ice."

It's hard to get someone to talk about skating on the Mill Pond without also mentioning the bonfires that blazed nearby. As Bill Steiner said, "The kids had the run of the pond during the day but evenings and weekends, everyone came out. They always built a big bonfire so you could go to warm up and someone always managed to show up with marshmallows and wieners. The Pond was a gathering place for the whole city; though you've got to remember we only had a few hundred people in town back then."


Skating on the Mill Pond in the 30's.  Photo courtesy of Raleigh Jessup.

Besides recreation, and on top of its role turning the grist mill, the Mill Pond performed a very practical service for the community as well. At some point toward the close of winter, they'd cut the ice from the pond and store it in the icehouse behind Lee Fierling's Meat Market at the corner of Main and Elm. Storage bins were lined with straw to insulate the blocks of ice and when summer came, they would still be there waiting to be delivered to houses around town. According to Raleigh, they eventually installed pipes and ran ammoniated water to manufacture ice and he remembers helping Bill Orf and Ivan Phillips tear those pipes out when they bought the meat market from Lee Fierling and turned it into an IGA.

According to Bill Steiner, the old fire station sat perched on stilts over the pond. Then in 1938 or '39, the city drilled its first well (835 feet deep as well as Bill recalls) and the old fire station was replaced with a brick building; half of which housed city hall, the other half for the fire department.


The Old Mill Pond in the early 40's. Photo courtesy of Charlie Fierling.

At some point, the Griesenauer family purchased the land where the Mill Pond sat and built O'Fallon Garage, the white block building that stands on West Elm even now. Whether the pond had already been drained by that time or not remains a mystery. Driving back through there, I like to imagine the folks I grew up around having a good time laughing, challenging each other's skills on the ice, holding their sweetheart's hand under the winter moonlight. I like to think I can feel a gentle slope to the land where the Mill Pond used to be, and on a cold, wintry day like today, a bonfire sounds really good.

 

Article #28- John O'Fallon

I know I've mentioned before how much I enjoy hearing people say they're enjoying these articles. I am particularly delighted when someone I haven't seen in thirty or forty years approaches me and then goes on to tell me another story that, inevitably, shows up in a future article. You can imagine my surprise then when an e-mail arrived, just a few days before our city officials left for Ireland, from a man named Robert O'Fallon. He lives in England and is related to our own John O'Fallon only "if one were to go back to the middle-ages in mists of long back centuries." It seems he found the articles (which Lewis posts on our real estate website) while doing some genealogical research. Yes, it is a small world!

Brief biographies of John O'Fallon have been written in many places but the history Robert sent me on the O'Fallon's goes back to A.D.702, a bit further than I'd expected when he offered it to me. Having a bit 'o the Irish in my own veins, I was willing to plug through this story of the O'Fallon's-"a bloodthirsty lot" as Robert calls them. In fact, it reads a great deal like any other European history in that it is, for the most part, an accounting of various wars and uprisings, struggles for power and land, ad infinitum.

I learned several things in the course of my reading. First off, the prefix "Mac or Mc" means "son of" while the simple "O" means "grandson of. " Secondly, the last elected chief of a clan would be entitled to the title "The O'Fallon" or whatever clan he was part of. Not very useful information but interesting reading if you've nothing else to do on a cold night in January.

I think I may have discovered where the Irish brogue came from. You'll figure it out for yourself if you try to read the Gaelic language; words that contain an inordinate number of vowels causing your tongue to flip back over itself trying to get them all in! For instance, the O'Fallon's were connected to Clan Uadach, which were, in turn, part of a group known collectively as the Siol Muireadhaigh. This formidable name is pronounced roughly "sheel mur-ray" and translates as the "seed of Muireadhach" (say Murdoch) named for Muireadhach Mulleathan, a king of Connaught who died in A.D. 702. See what I mean?

The O'Fallon's were not a clan in and of themselves. They were actually a sept (something else I learned) which is a family that links to a clan either by marriage or for the purpose of seeking protection from a larger or more powerful neighboring clan. Just to get the wider picture, the O'Fallon's (originally O'Fallamhain) served as chiefs of Clan Udach in County Roscommon, which in Ancient Ireland, was part of an area known as Ui Maine (Hy Many), dominated by the Connaughts. According to my new friend, Robert, "The O'Fallon Chiefs would have been at the height of their power just before the Norman Invasion. The bounds of their territory have not been recorded. Their own tradition says that they were the rulers of the greater part of the barony of Athlone, (in County Roscommon) that they had a castle at Athlone and were among the founders of the Benedictine Prior of Saint Peter in Athlone."

To bring this to more recent history, John O'Fallon's lineage hails from Ballina, Parish of Taghboy. He is the son of James O'Fallon and grandson of Malackey who died in 1820. The family has a rich history full of merchants and physicians. John's father, James, was born in 1749 and "qualified" as a physician, emigrating to America just prior to the Revolutionary War, serving as a surgeon in Washington's army. He died in 1792 just two years after John was born at Mulberry Grove near Louisville, Kentucky. John studied law under Robert Todd n Lexington and in 1810 joined a force of mounted volunteers to take part in a war against the Indians. He later became an Indian agent and a contractor to the army. St. Louis became his home and he was elected to the first State Legislature of Missouri. He was very successful and was a lavish patron of schools, hospitals and numerous other charities. His ties to our town stem from his promotion of the railroads, primarily the North Missouri Railroad which later became the Wabash Railroad.

One is struck, in reading this history, that the O'Fallon's ancient preoccupation with war and uprising should, in a more civilized age, be turned just as fervently to commerce, medicine and the law. If you believe at all that a person or place takes on the qualities of its namesake, if you are the kind of person who gets goosebumps at the sound of our National Anthem, then you, too will take pride in the O'Fallon's motto, "Boldly and Faithfully."

 

Article#29- Sage Chapel

Several months ago now, I got a note from Judge Earl Drennan asking me if I knew anything about the Sage Chapel Cemetery.  I didn't know anything about it, except that it was situated next to the VFW Hall on Veteran's Memorial Parkway.  To be perfectly honest, I'd never even noticed the sign "Sage Chapel Cemetery" and had never heard of the Sage Chapel.  Since I'm one of those strange people who like to walk through cemeteries in historic cities, Lewis and I decided to take a look for ourselves.

 What I saw on the headstones were the names of many of the black folks who lived along Sonderen Street when I was a child.  Among them were Simon and Cora White, Elizabeth (everyone knew her as Grandma) Hayden, Slick Thomas and his mother.  Edward Dierker who was a Blackfoot Indian, is the only non-colored person buried there, according to his granddaughter, Arlene White.

 It's been quite a task, tracking down the story behind Sage Chapel and the cemetery that took its name.  I talked to Mary Stephenson whose family lived in St. Paul and then moved to O'Fallon so the children could go to Franklin High School in St. Charles.  Mary went to the little white church that sat next to the creek on Sonderen, the Wish Well Baptist Church.  Most of her family, though, went to the Methodist Church that was next to the black school at the corner of Sonderen and Elm.  That's the church she remembers as Sage Chapel.

 I got a slightly different story, though, when I talked to Tommy White, Simon White's son who, by the way, will turn eighty-nine this Valentine's Day.  Though the Sage Chapel he heard tell of was before even his time, it was his understanding that Sage Chapel was originally located midway on Sonderen, approximately where Pitman meets Sonderen. 

 All of this took place even before Sonderen Street was given its name.  The Sonderen family owned a strip of farmland that stretched from Old Highway 40 all the way up to St. Joseph St., north of the railroad tracks.  Frank Amptmann's grandparents, Gerhardt and Elizabeth Sonderen, built the original Wildwood Saloon that is now Ethyl's.  According to Arlene White, the church was named Sage Chapel after the sage fields that grew wild on the middle portion of the Sonderen property.  Black folks used to gather in those sage fields to worship and later on, pooled their resources to build the church.  Some people understood that the land had long ago been given to the black community for a cemetery; some thought that the black families also pooled their resources to buy the land.   Exactly how the land for the cemetery was transferred and where Sage Chapel was may have to remain a mystery. 

 It should tell us something, I think, that so few records and photographs remain to tell the story of O'Fallon's black community.  Before Sonderen Street got its name, Mary Stephenson tells me that this street, where most of the black folks lived, was referred to as simply "The Hill."  Arlene White told me that, in 1922, a deed for one of the properties was filed with an address that had a racial pejorative before the word "Hill."  If we're all going to be honest enough to admit that that's what Sonderen Street was sometimes called, let me also say that I never heard any animosity associated with the name, probably because the folks who lived there were all respected and well-liked.  You couldn't have asked for better people than Simon and Cora White who raised eight children and made sure all of them had an education.  Never was there a kinder, gentler and more respected man in O'Fallon than Billie Hayden.  And let's not forget Louie Dierker, who was crippled since childhood.  The story, as Arlene relayed it to me, was that he wanted to go along with the men when they rode out to the fields to work.  So he jumped on the wagon and as it bounced across the field, he fell off, hit a tree and broke his back.  With no medical care, the bones in his back fused as they were broken and for the rest of his life he walked with a cane, his body bent at an almost perfect ninety-degree angle.  Despite that, I doubt he ever missed a day of work.

 Anyone who in any way attempts to record history must at some point face the dilemma before me as I write.  If this is part of O'Fallon's history, and it is, it needs to be told and not glossed over just to make it more palatable.  Yes, there was segregation, particularly where the churches and schools were concerned.  Still, as Mary Stephenson said, "Most folks treated you all right-not all."

 So, to the people who now take their rest in Sage Chapel, I'd like to say a few things.  To Simon White:  I saw you often as I walked to school and thought to myself what a wonderful grandfather you must be.  To Elizabeth Hayden:  I will never forget your son's smile and friendly wave as he drove by our house.  To "Slick" Thomas:  Mary Stephenson told me you were an incredible artist.  I'm sorry I never knew that.

 

Article#30- The black school

At the corner of Sonderen and Elm Streets, there is a small building that now houses the O'Fallon Recreational Association.  At one time, though, the building was the schoolhouse for the children of O'Fallon's African American community.  If it ever had a name, I can't find anyone who remembers what it was.  It was just "the black school."  The only consolation I can come up with for the fact that there was ever a need for a "black school" is that it is, at least, history and not part of the present.   

I talked to Tommy White, son of Simon and Cora White, and asked him to tell me what he remembers about going to a segregated school.  Tommy was born in 1915 in St. Paul.  He was very young (but old enough to remember) when his parents moved to O'Fallon so the children could go to school. Tommy was one of eleven children, though only eight survived infancy.  He remembers his teacher, Miss Brown, and remembers well how much personal attention the students received from her.  With no more than fifteen or twenty students at a time, apparently no one slipped by Miss Brown's watchful eye.

Listening to him, I wondered how the children felt about being segregated; how many fragile psyches might have been hurt by the message that's inherent in the act of segregation.  If it ran through their minds we might never know, but according to Tommy, they didn't think much of it back then.  "That's just the way it was," he told me, and I don't know who was more surprised at the acceptance in his voice-he or I.  "We played with the white kids," he said.  "We'd go to each other's houses and sometimes even stay all night." 

After graduating from eighth grade, Tommy went to live with an older brother in St. Louis so he could go to high school at Sumner High.  Then, "times got hard and I moved back home."  For the next two years, Tommy used his father's Model T Ford to drive himself and two other kids from O'Fallon and three from Wentzville back and forth to Franklin School in St. Charles. 

Mary Stephenson, whose family later moved to O'Fallon so the children could go to Franklin School, went to a different, but also segregated, school as a child.  She lived with her grandparents, Mishey and Arthur Edwards, and her mother, Dorothy Patrick, all of whom worked on the Dyer Farm in St. Paul.  Their house had one room set aside for grade school.  Another family, the Hayden's, lived near the Cuivre River between Josephville and St. Paul in an area Mary referred to as Happy Valley.  As Mary told me, "One year we'd go to school in my house; the next year we'd go to school in their house over by the Cuivre River."  They called it the Star of the Prairie School, a name that sounds to me like it was designed to make its children feel like the treasured jewels they were.  Mary can recite each of her teacher's names as though it were yesterday:  Madge Woods, Claudia France, Pearlie Hubbard and Flossie Holiday. 

Mary wasn't quite as indifferent to the idea of segregation as Tommy White had been a few years before.  "There was a pretty little school between St. Paul and Chain of the Rocks, on the corner, but that was for white children.  We couldn't go there."   Mary is a soft-spoken lady in the true sense of the word and holds no bitterness for any injustices of the past.  Still, I thought I heard a little lilt in her voice when she recalled the little white schoolhouse that had been off limits to her as a child.

Just when the black school was closed isn't clear.  Bob Lindemann attended the public school at the corner of West Pitman and Church Street and remembers that when they tore down the one-room schoolhouse and replaced it with a two-story brick building during the 1948-49 school year, they held classes in the black school until the new building was completed. 

Yes, O'Fallon had a thriving African American community back when Sonderen Street was just a dirt road, complete with churches, schools, front-porch stories and a cemetery.  All that's left now is the cemetery whose name raises as many questions as it answers, and the little schoolhouse that I hope had a name.