Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ragtown has all gone away

It's a little disconcerting to drive the old Mormon Trail shortcut from Chariton out to Ragtown these days. Just south of Connie Smith's, Dean Boozell's farmhouse and the trees that once surrounded it have been taken down, leaving the barn and other farm buildings standing naked by the road.

Farther on, the little house where Robert and Erville (Threlkeld) Pettinger raised their family still stands, but the Glenn Johnstons' big white foursquare beyond the curve was moved away years ago.  

A gymnasium-sized machine shed has been built recently beside Ragtown Cemetery, on the next curve, changing the little graveyard's character if not forever then at least until this pole shed on steroids rusts away, too.

Alta (Johnston) Threlkeld's little house, just beyond, persevered for many years but it is gone too, now, leaving a raggedy lot and dying trees behind. I believe there was a fire there some years ago.

After turning south at the T, it's still possible to find the old Ragtown School driveway and a lone tree that for some reason has been spared, but other than that, Ragtown has all gone away.

Junia (May) Van Nice completed the little painting here about 1960, showing Ragtown School as it once was. Ragtown had been consolidated by then into the Russell Community School District, now consolidated itself into Chariton. The building had been sold to Walter Relph and moved away and the one-acre lot had reverted to the farm from which it had been set aside originally, then owned by Chet Shirer.

Junia's brother and sister-in-law, Lloyd and Bessie May, eventually gave the painting to the Lucas County Historical Society and there's a story within a story here. The little white mule was "Old Kate." Hitched to a cart, she hauled Orville Werts and other children to school back in the early days.

Here's how the same site looked just after noon on Friday. The school bus I used to ride turned left up at the corner there. We rode west and turned into the Pettinger driveway, picked up their three kids, then turned around and headed into Russell. Who was driving? Was it Merwyn Thompson or Donald Collins? I can't remember.


One of the oddities about Ragtown is that there never exactly was a Ragtown. It was never platted and its components were scattered loosely along an east-west stretch of the old trail about a half mile southeast of the school.

The trail dates from 1847 or so when some Mormon pioneers upon arrival at what became Greenville to the southeast took off straight across the prairie to reach Chariton Point by a shorter route rather than following the main trail, which curved northwesterly and passed through what now is Russell. 

This branch joined the main trail in the neighborhood of Salem Cemetery, where one of those Mormon pioneers reportedly was the first to be buried. Unlike many Lucas County roads, surveyed straight, stretches of this old trail retain their curves.

As the Mormons traveled on toward Utah, permanent settlers flowed in behind them --- including Amos Ragsdale, from Indiana, who used cash and military land warrants to purchase (at $1.25 per acre) large tracts of land in this neighborhood. He sold many of his claims to later pioneers and eventually moved on to Harvey County, Kansas, where he died on Aug. 11, 1880, but left his name behind: Ragsdale modified into Ragtown.

By the time Ragsdale arrived, the Mormon Trail shortcut had become the principal route into Chariton from the southeast and a village of sorts grew up along it. There was a stage coach route, so the log St. John Tavern was built to accommodate travelers. When Ragtown faded, Samuel B. St. John moved into Chariton and opened a hotel here. The tavern apparently was located on what originally was the A.S. Beals farm, occupied during my time by Lloyd and Bessie May, then Dale and Mary Lou Johnson. 

The little community, scattered loosely along a half-mile stretch, included a blacksmith shop, a store and a few cabins. The grist mill, saw mill and town well reportedly were located on what became the Ed Relph farm, just to the west of the old Beals/May place.

Unfortunately for Ragtown, the state road was laid out some distance to the north, aiming to connect Albia and Chariton directly, so traffic diminished through the little community and it faded away, leaving an area  known as the Ragtown neighborhood, but no town.

Russell had not been dreamed of when Ragtown flourished briefly. When it was platted to the northeast during 1866 along the new line of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad, all attention shifted there. 

And the Ragtown neighborhood never had fixed bounds. It expanded and contracted over the years, based primarily upon who the Ragtown correspondent contacted to collect news for his or her "Ragtown News" column in the Russell and Chariton newspapers.


Another oddity of Ragtown is that its school district was named officially until consolidation Bethel No. 3 --- although few called it anything other than Ragtown except perhaps during those very early years.

Map base taken from the 1912 landowner atlas of Lucas County.

The district takes its name from Bethel Baptist Church, organized very early in Ragtown's history. There never was a church building --- but this pioneer congregation started meeting in the neighborhood school as soon as it was built and its name became attached to the school district. Ragtown Cemetery also was called Bethel sometimes, creating a little confusion because there's another Bethel Cemetery in Cedar Township several miles northeast.

Methodists prevailed in the neighborhood, however, and their congregation flourished at Salem.

The Bethel Baptist congregation at Ragtown then became the foundational group for First Baptist Church in Chariton and somewhat later, after Russell was founded, Baptists in the Ragtown neighborhood became prime movers in the establishment of First Baptist Church there.

The Ragtown School some of us remember was built in 1861 and continued to serve until consolidation. After Walter Relph bought it, it was moved south to a hilltop overlooking the Chariton River, paired with the Myers family church, Mt. Carmel, moved in from the southwest --- and both were used as farm buildings.

These buildings stood there side by side for many years, but now both have been taken down (Mt. Carmel actually fell down) and nothing remains.

1 comment:

Charles M. Wright said...

Frank -

I e-mailed Isabelle Van Nice Winship of Warden, Washington about your blog this afternoon and have already received a reply. Earlier this week I made mention of Isabelle while commending on your story about the Chariton Academy and Professor C. F. Goltry. Isabelle will be 98 years old on December 7th and still lives independently on an acreage where she tends a garden, raises flowers and prizes her apples and apricots. She's as sharp today was when she was named valedictorian of the Russell High School class of 1933. Junia (May) Van Nice, a graduate of the R.H.S. class of 1898, who painted the picture that appears in today's blog, was Isabelle's mother.

Isabelle was pleased to read your story about Ragtown and again see her mother's painting and wrote that she has called your blog to the attention of her daughter Mary as well as other family members living in the Pacific Northwest. I often wonder where in this vast nation, and indeed the world, all of your readers live.