Boonville’s Reformatory for Boys: 1941-1957

Hey y’all. This took a lot longer than I thought it would, but I’m really pleased with the result. Here’s part II of the Missouri Training School for Boys saga. Part I can be found here, and I’ve also started a Patreon Page for KatyTales. Thanks to Erica and Erin for proofreading. Also thanks to Boyfriend who was very nice and only made fun of me and my research, like, one time.

The early 1940s passed the Boonville reformatory quietly, if not peacefully, although three superintendents had come and gone within six years. With each new administration came new promises of change and reform, but rumors about Boonville still persisted.

Then it was 1947, and John C. Tindall, forty-one, signed on to become the superintendent at Boonville’s notorious state reformatory. He was idealistic, progressive and energetic, and had thirteen years of administrative experience with the United States Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri.

tindall

Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 28, 1948.

Tindall wasn’t naïve. He knew the previous superintendent, Leroy Munyon, a political appointee by Governor Phil Donnelly, had been asked to resign by the state board of training schools for misconduct. He knew the reformatory was grossly underfunded and there were near-constant escapes. He had heard rumors about the Boonville’s conditions through his work in Springfield, but assumed they were exaggerations.

“They told me stories which seemed unbelievable,” Tindall said via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Even though I discounted a lot of it, I was shocked.”

At first, Tindall wanted nothing to do with the institution. But after a call from training school director Louis J. Sharp and pleading visits from board members, he accepted the role of Boonville reformatory superintendent without visiting the premises.

He arrived in Boonville on October 1, 1947, and was initially puzzled by the beautiful landscape. The hills were still bright green from summer and the trees around the institution were changing colors in the fall sunshine. There was no fence — the buildings looked more like a university than a reformatory.

“No college campus I had ever seen looked more pleasant or peaceful,” he said. “But when I got closer, I could see that the buildings, big, old and ugly, looked more like old apple bins than a home for human beings.”

As Tindall pushed open the door of one dorm and stepped inside, his jaw dropped. It seemed like the horror stories he’d heard down in Springfield had not been exaggerations after all—there was something radically wrong with the reformatory.

“Such filth and squalor as existed in the cottages is hard to conceive,” he said. “If it were not for the groups of dejected, miserable boys standing in corners you would have said the place had not been used in years.”

The reformatory was beyond disgusting. Dust rose from every corner, and the rickety beds were filled with lice and bedbugs. Torn up newspapers and magazines were scattered everywhere. The toilets were broken, and their contents leaked onto the floor and seeped into the rock walls.

The dorms were segregated by race in accordance to Jim Crow laws at the time, and the black cottages were, if possible, even more dismal. In one dorm, a long iron pipe was secured in the basement where drops of water dripped slowly onto the floor. This was where the inmates were meant to bathe.

postdispatch

Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 9, 1947. Tindall’s description of the dorms are even worse.

Worst was the smell of the Reformatory—it was nearly unbearable. Tindall described it as the “odor of habitual filth:” a combination of old sweat and dirty bodies.

It was clear his work was cut out for him, but something needed to be done, so Tindall decided to stay in Boonville. He moved his young family to the superintendent’s house on Morgan Street and set to work, keeping a journal to record his experiences.

As he began his tenure at Boonville, he learned other disturbing facts about the reformatory. The boys had only one set of clothes, and sometimes worked without coats in the winter. There weren’t any towels, so forty of them used one rag to dry themselves. There were no toothbrushes or toothpaste, and the food was often crawling with cockroaches.

Sanitation issues aside, Tindall was most worried about the violence. Because of staff shortages, guards used older inmates to keep the younger ones in line. They were known as lieutenants, or “Dukes,” while the younger kids were known as “Sanks” – short for sanctified. At best, the Dukes were thugs who were friendly with the guards and often allowed special privileges like roaming the grounds at night, drinking whiskey or taking Benzedrine. At worst, they were tyrants who beat the hell out of smaller kids and forced them into a kind of indentured servitude.

ilostmyfight

Tindall’s journals were turned into a first-person story (complete with Archie-esque illustrations) in Everyday Magazine, a special section in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. This is from the February 8, 1948 edition.

Other problems were with the staff themselves. Higher-ranking officials were often political appointees and had no experience; other employees were underpaid and brutal. There was a constant shortage of guards, and the ones that stayed were described by Tindall as positively sadistic.

He attempted to fire the nastiest employees, but sometimes couldn’t prove anything: the guards wore gloves to prevent skinning their knuckles, and constantly lied. He would find that inmates with a misdemeanor had been lashed 100 times instead of the 5 reported, or that the funds intended to give the boys more than one set of clothes were instead spent on a new fishing pond. In one instance, he gave a puppy to each company to raise as a pet, but the guards forbade the boys from feeding it, content to watch the dog slowly starve to death.

Tindall began to install some reforms as superintendent: for starters, he fed the inmates better food, using the produce and animals the inmates grew instead of selling it. He gradually began removing privileges instead of allowing corporal punishment. He hired more teachers that would help the boys learn a trade, and was planning to add high school classes. He started rudimentary psychiatric treatment for the boys, estimating that at least 20 of them needed to be transferred to a mental facility. He fixed the plumbing system and forced employees to clean out the filthy, stinking dormitories.

He thought conditions were improving. Maybe they were.

And then, in January 1948 a fifteen-year-old prisoner named Rolland Barton was murdered by two other inmates.

murders

Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 20, 1948

The training school was already a political powder keg. The state board of training schools, a six-person, unpaid committee, despised Governor Donnelly for appointing his own minister, Leroy Munyon, as superintendent at Boonville without their approval in 1946. Donnelly himself was furious they had fired Munyon a year later for refusing to eliminate corporal punishment. He used the murder of Barton to ask for the resignation of all board members and director Louis J. Sharp, citing their incompetence.

In retaliation, Tindall released his personal journal and began talking publically about his experiences. The St Louis Post Dispatch formally released excerpts of his diary on January 29, 1948.

Tindall’s journal was well-kept and descriptive, sometimes examining the conditions he found and sometimes detailing his experiences with staff and inmates.

“C complained of being beaten by M. C examined. He had been kicked in the groin, must get rid of Mr. M.”

 “A boy ran from G Company. He had been beaten by two other boys, they were putting pressure on him. Moved him to another company.”

 “How do they expect me to keep them in when there is no way to keep them in at all?”

His final entry in the journal was this: The wolves are still after me. The Boonville bureaucrats are demanding my scalp. They expected miracles to happen and me to straighten out in three months a stinking political mess that has existed 50 years. They consider the boys criminals and that kindness is the wrong kind of treatment. They think they should be starved and beaten without mercy.”

Public Outcry

After Tindall released his diaries to the press, citizens of Boonville had a meeting in the courthouse, demanding a resolution. More than 200 boys had escaped that year alone, leading to some members of the community to sit outside their houses with shotguns, waiting for escapees. Any sympathy they had for youthful offenders was long gone – Boonville was caught in the middle of a political scandal beyond their control, and many felt powerless against the state-run school.

The meeting was orderly, but emotions were running high, especially when George Overstreet, chief engineer at the Training School, asked that the citizens of Boonville, “kept their noses out.”

“He’s out of order!” shouted an unidentified man in the back of the courtroom. “These boys are a menace to the community, and it’s up to us to call attention to the trouble. It’s time for us to take action!”

“There was never any attempt by the citizens to dictate policy by the school,” added Winters Martin, local attorney. “We just want the boys kept in so they won’t be a menace to the community.”

Many were dissatisfied with Tindall’s progressive attitudes, including G. Warren Winn, who was the reformatory physician. He didn’t like that Tindall treated the inmates as “little gentleman,” and was especially concerned about the influx of runaways.

“It has been proposed that older boys be removed but that won’t solve it. I have seen a boy at school stabbed in the heart by a 12-year-old. I have seen two guards with skulls fractured. One of our citizens was kidnapped and taken 200 miles towards the state line of Arkansas, but was spared because the boy liked his daughter. If we can’t get enough officers, what do we do? A wall?”

“The school should have an electrically charged fence. That’s the way they did in those concentration camps,” C.S. Duncan, a former state senator, suggested. “Of course you don’t have to leave it on all the time.”

meeting

Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 30, 1948.

To be fair, not everybody felt this way. The Boonville League of Women Voters thought Tindall was doing a good job with the amount of funding he had received and urged the state for more money; Mike Angelo, director of the Chamber of Commerce, had called Tindall personally to assure him the businesses of Boonville supported his administration. In a rare interview, most reformatory inmates picked at random said Tindall had done his best and improved their own morale.

Editorials were published in both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Star and Times, often critical of both Donnelly and the state board of training schools. Many of these writers believed Tindall was truly helping Boonville’s troubled institution.

However, there was one uniting factor nearly everybody wanted the reformatory moved. Most wanted it closer to Jefferson City, where there was Algoa and the state penitentiary. The Boonville “school” had outlived its usefulness, and no reform measures – no matter how well-intentioned – could erase fifty years of terrible administration.

The State Response

Governor Donnelly had heard enough. The newspapers had been constantly running Tindall’s incriminating diaries, and the ousted members of the state board of training schools were vocal about their anger with his administration.

On January 31, highway patrol cars carrying the governor and armed officers drove to the reformatory. Donnelly fired Tindall in person, who left peacefully. The highway patrol removed seventy-one of the “most violent” inmates, and transferred them immediately to the state penitentiary in Jefferson City. Then, they fired most of the remaining staff at Boonville and took over the premises.

Donnelly named a state trooper, W.S. Barton, as acting superintendent while they found a suitable replacement, and the highway patrol was instated as temporary guards until they could find better staff. From the state’s perspective, it was now under control from a too-lenient administration; Tindall himself worried that armed guards would excite the inmates and cause them to act tougher than they really were.

Tindall also reported hearing about two escapees caught by state police were forced to remain “on the line,” where they were told to stand on a specific area and not move. They were not allowed to sleep or have food or water, and remained there from Sunday until Tuesday.

Barton denied the occurrence.

tindallfired

Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 1, 1948.

Meanwhile, it was chaos in Jefferson City. Donnelly’s political opponents charged that he had grossly overstepped his bounds when adding the State Highway Patrol; Donnelly replied that as the governor he had the right to call in whatever means he saw fit.

Members of the now-fired board said that Donnelly was a classic example of political mishandling and backroom deals. Donnelly pointed fingers right back – if the state board knew how bad Boonville had become, why hadn’t they done anything about it?

In the long run, fault didn’t matter. The reformatory had finally made its way to the public eye, and there was such outcry the Missouri government was forced to take action, conducting a special senate investigation about the conditions at Boonville. Politicians on both sides of the aisle pledged immediate reform and radical change, but there were some who were not so optimistic.

“I predict under whatever new administration the governor puts in at Boonville, the iron curtain will descend,” said former board member Thomas Neil. “The people will get no information on actual conditions there, but they will be told by the Governor and his appointees…”

Reforms are Passed

The conditions at Boonville and the subsequent investigations led to a few reforms within the system.

Eventually, the state senate passed a bill to give the state board of training schools more power over each individual schools – this would have included the Negro Girl’s School in Tipton and the Industrial Home for (White) Girls in Chillicothe. The bill provided indeterminate sentences for offenders, and permitted that children under the age of twelve who committed crimes be under the guardianship of the State Division of Welfare. It also gave more money to the badly underfunded schools.

After his firing, John Tindall moved back to Springfield, where he eventually died at age 90 in 1997. He had only lasted four months as Boonville superintendent and was relieved to move back to his hometown, but expressed regret that he hadn’t managed to stay longer at the reformatory. He truly thought that Boonville had been “headed in the right direction” under his administration.

“I guess it was too big a job for one man,” he said. “I lost. But there’s one thing I accomplished. I’ve aroused the people of the whole state to the conditions there. The people will never again let it become the stinking, corrupt, political mess it has been for so many years.”

The reformatory was able to build new dorms, and in 1951 Governor Forest Smith said “much progress and improvement” had been made to Boonville. It seemed as though the institution was finally shedding its notorious past.

new

Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 3, 1952.

Or maybe not.

In the late 1950s, a young social worker named Dave Barrett (who eventually became the Premier of British Columbia) toured the Boonville reformatory while earning his master’s degree in social work at St. Louis University. He never forgot what he saw there.

“The prisoners, who were all kids, were crammed together with no privacy and inadequate toilet facilities,” he said, forty years later. “There were no services to prepare the kids for the day when they left the institution. The staff seemed to be doing their jobs, but with little sensitivity. It was just a dumping ground.”

In spite of all of the political drama and promised once-and-for-all reforms in the 1940s, it seemed like the reformatory had begun to sink back to its old ways—at least after the press lost interest.

There were still sanitation issues.  There was still a version of the “Duke and Sank” system. There were still escapes, and Boonville citizens remained afraid of the inmates.

It seemed as though the reformatory was there to stay.

Well, there you have it – Part II. Crazy, right? Good thing it’s all true, and you can view sources for yourself here. I’ll be working on Part III soon, which will be from the 1950s to the closure of the reformatory in the 1980s. If you have experience with the institution during this period (especially if you lived there or worked there), shoot me an email at my NEW and OFFICIAL katytalesblog@gmail.com.

Boonville’s Reformatory for Boys: 1889-1940

This is the beginning of a three-part series about the Boonville Boys’ Reformatory – also known as the Missouri State Training School for Boys. It’s been my pet project, so thanks to anyone who has listened to me blabber on and on about juvenile delinquents for months.

Also – this has quite a bit of disturbing content and is not a happy story.

A hellhole. A viper’s nest. A study in sadism.

These were all used to describe the Missouri Reformatory for Boys, located in Boonville for nearly one hundred years. Although it started with good intentions, it quickly became one of the most feared institutions in the state, and was often used to threaten misbehaving children: “If you don’t behave, they’ll send you up the river to Boonville!”

The Missouri Reformatory for Boys opened its doors on January 15, 1889. It was considered an experiment by progressive minds of the day – child savers wanted “wayward youths” to grow up in a rural environment, thinking that hard work, clean air and green grass would transform troubled young people into model citizens.

The Reformatory was welcomed by Boonville at first.  The town donated 168 acres on the east of town to obtain the institution, and the first board of managers included several Boonville citizens. An 1891 editorial from the Boonville Star noted that the citizens of Boonville were proud of the reformatory and Superintendent Colonel Drake. They hoped “many blotted, stained lives may go out from under his care, bright, noble, and good men.”

The institution originally had few inmates and was operated by a family plan. The boys slept in small houses called “cottages,” and the first officer of each cottage – called a “brother” was the head of the household, with his wife acting as the “mother” of the department. Employees of the prison were ranked in military formation: the superintendent was a colonel, high executives were majors and heads of industries were captains.

The Reformatory was self-sufficient, or at least claimed to be: industries were added throughout the years, including a rock quarry, cobbler shop, printing plant, paint and carpenter shops, laundry, ice plant, waterworks, electric generating and distributing system, a cannery, plumbing, a blacksmith shop, a dairy, and even a greenhouse. The boys sold their products to the locals and learned the value of hard work – and, ideally, a trade that would help them once they were released. Baseball and football teams were organized, and there was even a magazine written and published by the inmates named Our Boys.

farm school

This picture was taken at the Philanthropic Society Farm School, which was in England. However, this is similar to the Boonville Reform School in terms of dress and labor.

But something terrible was happening at Boonville. Something evil. This great experiment in the 1800s resulted in an institution that was widely reported as one of the worst reform schools in America until its closure in 1983.

So what happened?

Reports about the Missouri Reform School are barely mentioned in the first few years of the twentieth century. Mostly, it was considered a success because the juveniles and young men were not locked up in the State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. But by 1911, an investigation was underway: the conditions at the Reformatory weren’t just bad, they were described by the St. Louis Municipal Commission as “almost intolerable.”

One visitor had this to say about the Reformatory:

“On the surface everything was lovely and apparently the management was all that could be desired. The youths were marched into the dining hall for dinner and grace was said before meal. Then all joined in a song of thanks. It sounded well but any observer could see from the smirks and winks passing from inmate to inmate that it was the ranked hypocrisy on the part of those who participated.”

There was already serious overcrowding at Boonville, but the 1915 state legislature made conditions even worse by opening the institution to first-time male offenders under the age of thirty. This error was not fixed until 1927. The youngest inmate reported during that time period was only seven years old. Boonville was still considered a reformatory by name, but really, it was just another penitentiary.

The boys came from all over Missouri, although primarily around St. Louis and Kansas City. At this time, the majority were white – a 1924 population report notes that about a third of the population were African-American. Crimes ranged from shooting an abusive parent to stealing two dollars to hijacking cars. Some were sentenced because they were “incorrigible” or “delinquent,” while others were simply there because there was nowhere else for them to live. Some of the boys were mentally challenged. The institution tried to keep the ages separated, but they were constantly short-staffed – the 1924 report says there were a staff of 58 men and women to handle 616 inmates – and it was nearly impossible to keep the inmates under control.

Ironically, Kemper Military School – the “West Point of the West” – was only a mile away. It is not unreasonable to suggest that a young person who was caught “jumping on cars,” like the unfortunate Walter Ray of Sedalia, Missouri, would be enrolled in a renowned military school if his parents had money. Instead, he was sent to the Boonville Reformatory, whose conditions resembled a hellhole.

The boys ate and slept barrack-style, with a hundred or more in a cottage designed to hold about thirty inmates. There was an elementary school, but no high school or middle school, and the boys often missed classes anyway to perform dangerous, laborious tasks that helped the institution stay under budget and avoid hiring outside labor.

Alcohol and drug abuse was common by both employees and inmates: according to the 1924 report, homemade wine was made using the Reformatory vineyards; “dope,” or opioids, were somehow smuggled in and used by boys and men of all ages. The prison atmosphere was reinforced by the dress code: the inmates’ heads were shaved, they wore prison uniforms, and Vs were cut in the heels of their shoes to help identify prison escapees, which were frequent. The guards used numbers instead of names to further dehumanize the inmates in their care.

One researcher reported that Boonville’s younger boys lived in decaying buildings that leaked in the rain and were “serious fire-traps.” Inmates often refused to eat because their food was crawling with flies and roaches – often dead ones if bug spray was used just before the meal. There were constant infestations of bedbugs.  A visiting Minnesota prison warden found “something radically wrong” at Boonville because the boys “carry themselves with the air of the oppressed and the hopeless”

“I cannot help but feel that these children are given little encouragement and that they hold little hope for the future. The morale is very poor. This is undoubtedly a result of overcrowding, poor food, unsanitary conditions, fear of physical punishment, and an inadequate system of recreation. It is not my policy to coddle criminals, but in this instance we have many children who are not responsible for their condition and who should be treated as children and not as dangerous criminals. The state of Missouri has sadly neglected its delinquent youngsters and under the present system there is no hope for their improvement.”

Locals who lived around the Reformatory had a strange relationship with the institution. The boys grew flowers, raised cattle, baked bread and gardened, selling these products to the community. They were also allowed out on “parole,” which meant they were apprenticed to a farmer in the area in order to learn a trade. But community members also feared the boys, who could turn violent: the 1930 superintendent of Boonville schools was kidnapped and killed by a Reformatory escapee; a taxi driver was forced to drive several boys to the Missouri state line, and was only released alive because one boy had a crush on his daughter. If an inmate escaped, three sharp whistles were broadcasted to alert Boonville residents. They often went out hunting for the boys: there was a $10 reward for each prisoner, dead or alive.

Corporal punishment was forbidden, but it was constantly used – and sometimes resulted in major injuries. Seventeen-year-old Cecil Lafferty was beaten to death by two guards for complaining of an illness while he worked in the garden; his body was discovered by a doctor who had seen his body on a table packed with ice and reported to the state. The guards were suspended but never charged – and they were only punished because the doctor had filed a complaint.

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Cecil Lafferty’s grave

Everyone knew the Reformatory was a miserable place, so the administration at the institution was eager for good press.  E.J. Melton’s History of Cooper County, published in 1937, celebrates the “remarkably low” escape numbers under Superintendent Harve Gray’s administration and highlights the Reformatory – now renamed the Missouri Training School for Boys – as an “institution of regeneration and hope.” The article praises the “work in the open air and sunshine….associated with nature, the principles of reformation start for many youths from broken homes” (104).

“The remainder for a campus that is landscaped into an object of beauty, with green sweeping lawns shaded by giants of the forest,” says Melton.

This was, of course, a lie.

One year later, the Osborne Association, a national corrections organization, published a four-volume report on conditions in the nation’s industrial schools for delinquent and dependent juveniles. The group found Boonville “among the worst” institutions it inspected in the United States. Although articles about abuse and public outrage were reported in the newspapers for nearly thirty years, nothing had changed.

And nothing really would change, until the close of the training school in the 1980s. But how it got there, and the scandals that resulted, are another story…

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Hey, the first section’s finished! It only took me three weeks. For a complete list of sources, click Sources Used. If you have a question or concern, feel free to comment below. If you don’t feel like waiting around for Facebook to notify you about the next post on KatyTales, you can subscribe to the website. If you want to see something happy after reading about child abuse, watch this video.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nimrod Rector House

Big thanks to Jim Hackman and Mitch Hackman for letting me trample around the Rector House property and ask them questions. And thanks to Caleb James for the story idea!

One of the oldest homes in Boonville is getting an extreme makeover.

The Nimrod Rector house, named by owner Jim Hackman, has withstood floods, a civil war – and is now getting updated for the 21st century.  Located on High Street and close to the river, it was built in 1829 and has received numerous renovations throughout its almost 200-year-old life. Hackman has now taken on the task of restoring the property and preserving the past.

‘It’s seen its fair share of Boonville history,” says Hackman.

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Front of the Rector house with Mitch and Jim Hackman

The house has close ties to the origins of Boonville: Charles Lucas and Asa Morgan were the first owners of the land where the Rector House now stands. Both are considered some of the “Founding Fathers” of Cooper County – in fact, they filed the paperwork to create the town of Boonville on August 1, 1817. They also offered to donate 50 acres of land to the state if Boonville was named the county seat. The state later accepted. (History of Cooper County by E.J. Melton, pg 37)

Although Asa Morgan would go on to influence the town of Boonville in later years (ever heard of Morgan Street?), Lucas was not so lucky. Three days after filing the legal documents to create Boonville, Lucas challenged famed politician Thomas Hart Benton’s right to vote. Benton brushed off the attack, replying, “I do not propose to answer charges made by any puppy who may happen to run across my path.”

Hot-headed Lucas challenged Benton to a duel on August 12, 1817. They met on a Mississippi sandbar known as “Bloody Island,” and shot at each other with pistols. Both injured, they agreed to a rematch on September 27, where Benton would strike Lucas in the arm and chest.

“Colonel, you have murdered me, and I never can forgive you,” said Lucas, 24. He later died of his wounds.

Asa Morgan was now the sole owner of the property. The land was then passed to Nimrod Rector, who built a log cabin in 1829. Later, renovations would be done around 1848, where a larger house would be built around the original wood, raising the structure to accommodate a large stone basement. The house would be occupied by residents up until the mid-1900s.

Jim Hackman bought the property in 2009, which included the now-named Rector House and a small area where another house once stood. He knew immediately that the house was something special – and when he bought the land,  he was able to receive the original abstract, which contains legal documentation of owners, property (including slaves) and recordings of the renovations during the 1800s.

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“Second” floor of the property. Notice the way the wood was placed – it’s slanted!

Much of the original “bones” of the Rector house are still intact, with old wood beams and handcrafted stones visible all over the property.  One brick found outside reads “St Louis,” so some materials were probably shipped west via Missouri river. In addition, the house was almost certainly built by slaves.

st louis brick

Bricks made in St. Louis

Hackman has enjoyed uncovering the past through his work on the Rector House. At one time or another, the house included a kitchen, bathroom, basement, closets and living room, complete with a fireplace. In addition, former residents of the building have left behind interesting artifacts, including vintage artwork, old glass bottles and a wash tub.

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Remnants of wallpaper found in the home

Hackman plans to renovate the old house into a modern bed and breakfast. He envisions a multi-bedroom house – perfect for groups of bikers riding the Katy Trail, or even performers from the Isle of Capri Casino, which is located right across the street. He has also planted trees from his tree farm across the property, and hopes to use the small clearing next to the house as an event space. However, Hackman intends to keep as much of the original structure and build as he can.

“I think tourists will really be interested in this property,” says Hackman. “It’s definitely unique.”

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Got a question? Have an idea for a blog post? Want to challenge me to a duel on Bloody Island? Feel free to comment or email me at katytalesblog@gmail.com

Growing Up Litwiller

Note: This started out as an interview with my dad, Steve, before it accidentally turned into a David Sedaris-esque article. Whoops. We will be back to regularly scheduled programming next week. In the meantime, here’s an essay about growing up in Boonville. 

“You’re a Litwiller? What instrument do you play?”

I often heard this question when I was growing up in Boonville. It was always said with a knowing wink from the asker, as though they already knew the answer. It never failed to piss me off, although the question was not entirely uncalled for. Dad was the band director in Boonville for over thirty years; where I went through the public school system, Mom was the librarian. It was like I was living in the modern version of the Music Man.

Boonville only has about eight thousand residents, and it felt like every single person knew who we were. It didn’t help that we all look so similar; I distinctly remember walking into a local bank my senior year of high school and the cashier pulling up my account without even checking my ID – “You just look like a Litwiller, honey, I know exactly who you are,” is something that is charming, creepy, and a phrase that I heard frequently.

I couldn’t escape my Litwiller-ness at school, but I didn’t try to avoid it either. In the third grade I gave a lecture to my entire elementary music class about the importance of a fermata, which surprisingly didn’t win me any friends. Later, in high school, I played clarinet in band, sang in choir, took piano lessons, and avoided sports like my life depended on it. By senior year I had picked up the ukulele and “released” an album that included non-politically correct gems like “Yeah, Well, I Hope You Get AIDS,” a song that will surely impede me from getting elected should I ever decide to run for office.

When I graduated and went to college to major in public communication, I would always mention my family in an attempt to sound interesting. Some people talk about their drunken escapades; I was bragging about the “family band” jam sessions we sometimes attempted, although inevitably I would play a wrong note and be so embarrassed I’d refuse to keep playing.

“Oh, you all play instruments?” someone at college would say, when I would share about my life back home. “That must be so fun!”

“It has its moments,” I’d admit, but privately I knew I was overselling the “cute family band” storyline. We are all talented – this is true. My mother is an accomplished violinist; my brother can play almost any instrument and play it well. Everyone can sing on pitch. But it wasn’t like we were the Partridge Family. Nobody was going on tour, or had been to Juilliard. Dad was a member of several bands,
including a German polka band called “The Sauerkraut Serenaders” and “Roadkill”, a clarinet quintet, but that was about it.

I started feeling more self-conscious and ashamed when I began playing open mics with friends.  I was beginning to realize that we were not the only musical family that ever walked the planet. We could all play, sure, but we weren’t the best. I could play piano with both hands, but since quitting lessons I was starting to forget time signatures and how to keep a good beat. Was I a fraud? I wasn’t sure.

….

In late April of 2015, a week after I celebrated my twenty-first birthday, my grandfather, Chris, passed away in the house he shared with my grandmother in Boonville. We all knew it was coming. He had been sick from complications derived from a bout with polio in the ‘40s, and every day that year had been a struggle for both him and the rest of our family. My brother called to tell me he was dying while I was at a friend’s apartment in college. Then, because I couldn’t get home that night and wasn’t sure what else to do, I smoked two blunts on the porch and got gloriously high for the first time in my life.

I remember hazily thinking about my grandfather and how much he had given our family. As a kid, he had worked hard to give his younger siblings instruments and music lessons; as an adult, he had gone into debt to buy my dad his first horn. He loved hearing us play, and especially enjoyed the holidays, where clarinets, pianos, guitars, ukuleles, violins, hammer dulcimers (and on…and on…and on…) would all play slightly off-key versions of Christmas jingles. Grandpa had made sure his loved ones could play music, and it affected my dad so much he wanted to make a career out of it, subsequently met my mom in college orchestra, and created his own family of little neurotic musicians.

Now, generations later, we are still defined by our musical ability in Boonville. After
retirement, Dad still works with bands across Missouri and is a prominent figure in the world of band directors. Mom still plays violin; my brother is now a music teacher in Venezuela. We still play at Christmas gatherings, and we are all looking forward to the day when my nephews and cousins are able to join in. We aren’t Grammy winning artists or featured guests on the Today show, but it doesn’t matter. Us Litwillers are passionate about our lives in music, and we don’t have to be the best to make each other happy. And even though I sometimes hit sour notes on the piano or sing in the wrong key, nobody notices but myself.*

*Just kidding. Everybody in the family notices, and lets me know immediately if I play an E instead of an E Flat.


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Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave a message below and I’ll be sure to read it. See you next week.









Featured Business: Turning Pointe Dance Studio

Imagine this: an entire company of young dancers are onstage, taking their final bows as the audience applauds. Then the curtain comes down, and the players look at each other with joy. They have realized that they have just accomplished magic – performing a full-length ballet in the historical Thespian Hall.

Year after year, Boonville’s Turning Pointe Dance Studio strives to create that exciting moment. The studio offers classes in ballet, tap, jazz, pointe and hip-hop for dancers ages three and up, and prides itself on building confidence and having fun for all ages.

“Dance is for anyone willing to rise to the challenge,” says Joanie Coble, owner and dance instructor at Turning Pointe.

Coble trained with teachers such as Robert Davis, Christopher Flynn and jazz master Gus Giordano, and was a soloist for four years with the CMU Orchesis Dance Company. Upon graduating from Central Michigan University, she moved to Kansas City, where she would meet and marry a Boonville native. When she came to a turning point(e) in her personal life, she decided that Boonville was the place to stay, raise her kids and start her life’s dream – opening her own dance studio.

joanie

Coble with a few of her youngest students, affectionately nicknamed “The Peewees.”

“Opening the studio was one of the scariest things I had ever done,” Coble says. “But it changed my life in a beautiful way.”

After choreographing for the Boonville Community Theater’s production of Oklahoma, she was impressed by the enthusiasm and local talent. With help from her parents, she rented a space by the courthouse, created flyers and (in her own words) set out to stalk the community.

“I was kind of creepy,” admits Coble. “If I saw a kid dancing around in public, I handed their parent a business card.”

In the summer of 1995, she opened her studio to 20 dancers. By fall, she had expanded to 45. Today, more than 100 dancers attend Turning Pointe’s weekly classes and participate in an end-of-year recital, which features dances in tap, jazz and lyrical, as well as a full-length ballet. The enthusiasm seems to grow each year – and often affects members of the community. This year, Boonville crossing guards even dressed up to match the featured ballet, The Wizard of Oz. 

 

crossing guards

Crossing guards dressed up for “The Wizard of Oz.”

There is enthusiasm because we have fun,” Coble says.  “The parents, community and dancers are a powerful magic here.”

Coble is far from Dance Mom’s Abby Lee Miller. The Turning Pointe studio makes sure to emphasize inclusiveness and build self-confidence. She loves that her dancers are happy to come to class, have fun and make life-long friendships, and enjoys the passion that each individual dancer brings to the studio.

“I have seen dancers take flight and dance far beyond their natural ability because they just felt it so hard,” says Coble.

She has enjoyed working with the community for 22 years – and is looking forward to at least 22 more. The studio will move to a new location on Main Street this summer and is adding new classes such as acro-dance. However, Coble is careful to remember the magical experiences and attitudes that inspired the studio in the first place.

“Arrive with a smile, leave with a smile,” says Coble “Everyone is welcome at the Turning Pointe!”

 

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Curtain Call for Peter Pan (2010). Can you spot the author?

To visit Turning Pointe’s website, click here. To visit their Facebook page, click here.

If you are a Boonville business and are interested in being interviewed for the Featured Business series, feel free to email me at katytalesblog@gmail.com or tweet at me at @hlitwill!

Cruel & Unusual: The Cooper County Jail

“We tell a lot of stories about the jail…some of them are even true.” – Melissa Strawhun, Friends of Historic Boonville

The Cooper County jail, located at 614 E. Morgan Street, looks innocent enough. On one side, it is home to the offices of the Friends of Historic Boonville, where tourists can grab a map of Cooper County or buy a Big Muddy t-shirt. On the other side, though, emerges a darker side of the town’s history – and more than a few legends.

The jail was built in 1842 and held prisoners until 1978, making it the longest running jail in the state of Missouri. Although Cooper County originally held prisoners for all kinds of crimes,  by the 1970s most lawbreakers were sent to other local jails. Instead, those who spent the night in Boonville were typically booked for minor infractions, such as speeding, and the jail was eventually closed down for cruel and unusual punishment.

The two-story building once contained a large room called “the bullpen,” where slaves were held before auction, and a cell used specifically for women and children to keep them separate from other prisoners. Upstairs, the jail boasts a solitary confinement cell and four cramped rooms smaller than a modern closet.

It is hard to imagine anyone living in these cells and staying sane, and the preserved graffiti showcases the despair many prisoners must have faced. Names, dates and curses are etched into the walls, but a single phrase carved into a cell door  –  “This is HELL in here” – reminds visitors that the former prisoners of the Cooper County jail were human too.

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Terrifying

The Last Man to Hang in Missouri

At only 17 years old, Lawrence Mabry was accused of robbing and killing a resident in Pettis County. Although he has been portrayed as a young tough who deserved it – most notably in the 1983 folk song “Last Man to Hang in Missouri” by the late Bob Dyer – Mabry’s story was more complicated, and contributed to the ending of hanging as a corporal punishment by the state of Missouri.

Mabry was mentally handicapped. He could not read or write, and could barely form the letters of his own name. In Death Sentences in Missouri, 1803-2005, author Harriet Frazier shares a short anecdote: “He hoped to read the Bible while in jail awaiting his hanging; doing so was far too difficult a task for him. He said immediately before his death, ‘God is at my right elbow,’ and he surely intended to say, “God is at my right hand” (130).

The family of Mabry relentlessly campaigned to get their son’s sentence commuted, but were unable to convince a judge or jury otherwise. After spending two years in the solitary confinement cell, Mabry was hung by the neck on January 31, 1930. He was hanged in the sheriff’s barn, behind the jail, and few attended his execution. His punishment was hotly debated by the town, and the unease surrounding his death has seeped into the legends surrounding the “last man to hang.”

According to the Friends of Historic Boonville, “Mabry’s body hurtled through a sawed-out hold in the loft floor at 9:17 a.m. Simultaneously, the sheriff’s dog, Chief, in his pen near the barn-garage place of execution, began howling and continued howling for the next five minutes.”

Today, tourists can visit the “Hanging Barn” and see for themselves where Mabry took his last breaths. “Last Man to Hang in Missouri” is also occasionally played in town. Below is a recording from “The Wandering Fool,” covered by John Schneller.

Frank James

The most famous “guest” of the Cooper County jail was outlaw Frank James, brother of Jesse, who once spent a night at the Boonville jail in the 1880s.

Frank_James

Frank James (picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

According to the Friends of Historic Boonville’s website, the official story is this: James was brought to the Cooper County Jail by Sheriff John Rogers on April 24, 1884, to answer a warrant for his arrest for a train robbery. Sympathetic citizens of Boonville raised his bond in a matter of hours, and the case was later dismissed for lack of evidence.

However, according to historical archivist Kathleen Conway, there’s more to the story:

The story about Frank James piqued my interest when we received the original bond signed by local residents that allowed James out of jail. In checking the date of the bond—it is after Frank James was pardoned by the Governor of the State of Missouri. But for some reason Cooper County decided to pursue him for robbery. Technically Frank James was no longer an outlaw when the county arrested him—so he wasn’t quite as notorious as we usually say in the tours. In the county records in the archives you see him called to trial and then a couple of continuances were granted. Eventually the case was dropped. Guess Cooper County was just too stubborn to let the case drop, even after the State had pardoned him!

Ghost Stories

Of course, no good jail is without its spooks. Interns and workers at the jail have seen shadows and heard noises. Items have disappeared and then have mysteriously returned; lights have gone out at odd times. However, these occurrences were always met with a disbelieving laugh – until October 24, 2015, when the Friends hosted paranormal investigators:

“The one really interesting thing that came out of the paranormal investigation we did occurred in the 3rd cell in the farthest hallway (where the 4 small cells are located). There was a lot of “paranormal activity,” such as flashlights been turned on and off when we asked if anyone was in there. Now, normally I would be questioning all of that… but last Monday, before the paranormal investigation, the Sheriff’s department brought in their new dog, Grimm, to take pictures of him inside the jail. That dog was totally freaked out by that same cell and wouldn’t go in…he sat by the door in the hallway and was waving his paw in front of his face like he was swatting something away……..” – Melissa Strawhun

cell4

The fourth (and haunted?) cell

The Cooper County jail is located at 614 E. Morgan Street and is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m – 3 p.m. For more information, click here.

Do you have an interesting story or memory about the jail? Feel free to contact me at katytalesblog@gmail.com or leave a message below!