Rural Missouri Magazine
Making history personal
High Point students step out of the classroom to search for history in their own backyards

by Jeff Joiner

Adam Distler, a student from High Point, studies a stone found near the James family home site while teacher Terre Chambers,left, and fellow students Merle Thompson and Megan Koerner help search the area. The school and 41 of its students are studying, searching for and mapping the community’s past.

Still soggy after recent rains, the trail through the woods quickly turns muddy as a group of junior high students and their teacher hike through thick brush and brambles.

Occasionally someone calls out that they’ve found an interesting rock or an old tin can that could be a clue to what they’re searching for in the woods near the small town of High Point. But, so far, the evidence is scarce as Terre Chambers trails her students on their quest to find the cemetery of the John James family, who settled in what would later become Moniteau County before the town of High Point was founded in the 1840s.

The kids are hoping to find tombstones or the remnants of a stone wall that once surrounded the James Cemetery, but all they’ve come up with is ticks and chiggers.

Suddenly Chambers stops. “Hey, guys, here’s a clue,” she says.

Chambers stands in the midst of a large mass of iris plants, seemingly out of place in the middle of a forest. “Iris is not a plant native to Missouri so these shouldn’t be here,” she says as the kids look at her confused. “Settlers used to plant these around their houses so this could be the site of the James family home.”

After scrambling over downed trees and kicking back thick briars, one of the students stumbles across what looks like the remains of a stone foundation. Though they haven’t found the cemetery, the students and Chambers are confident they’re on the right path.

Members of the Koerner family, including Paula, a High Point teacher, and her daughters Morgan, Emily and Megan, interview Cletus Koerner for Megan’s eighth-grade family history project at High Point school.

The students are part of a community history research project begun by teachers at High Point R-III School. The project, involving the school’s 41 sixth, seventh and eighth graders, encourages kids to not only get out of the classroom and search for pieces of the town’s past, but also to use the technology to help them create maps pinpointing that history.

Back in the woods, Seth Fulks takes pictures of the scene using a digital camera while Adam Distler pulls out a notebook and an electronic device that looks a little like a large cell phone.

Using the global positioning satellite, or GPS, receiver, Distler pushes a button on the device, which marks the location of the James family home site in degrees latitude and longitude. The location will be downloaded into a computer back at the school and then entered into mapping software to show where it is located in relation to the town, a mile or so to the south.

The High Point history project was developed by science and math teacher Carl Gatlin who wants his students to gain a greater appreciation for where they are in the world.

“You don’t know where to go if you don’t know where you are and where you’ve come from,” Gatlin says. “The objective is to study exploration, migration and settlement of the area. Part of that is personal contact and family history. And part of it is knowledge of world geography and knowing what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

Caleb Lallement, left, and Ariell Taylor learn to use a GPS device to mark the location of landmarks around their school in the central Missouri town.

As part of the project groups of students visited the Moniteau County emergency dispatching center in California to see a hi-tech, computer-based mapping system where dispatchers can call up any address in the county on a map. After the hi-tech demonstration the students went low tech when they visited the Moniteau County Historical Society. There they looked at some of the county’s original plat books and even found the names of family members who owned land there in the 1800s.

Like many of the activities going on at the school, the history project has become a community-wide effort. High Point is a tiny town fiercely proud and supportive of its school. When Gatlin and the school sought money for the technology to make the project possible, the community came through.

The High Point Parent-Teacher Organization bought the school 10 handheld GPS units and computer software. The High Point Community Renewal Association, the High Point version of a chamber of commerce, bought the school a computer and the mapping software for the project and donated community history books to the students.

The project is designed to create a series of maps of the High Point area with significant historic spots marked, along with information and even digital photographs of the location. The kids learn to use the technology while the community ends up with a computer database of its past, says Gatlin.

“It’s just a great thing for kids to know about the history of the community they live in,” says Marlene Snyder, president of the Renewal Association and author of High Point’s 1995 sesquicentennial history book. “There’s a long tradition here of interest in the community’s history that’s been carried on for generations. There are families here that have roots that go very deep.”

High Point teacher Carl Gatlin talks to students Arlend Murphy, left, and Adam Distler while showing them a series of digital photographs taken of the old Baptist cemetery near High Point. The students recorded the location of the cemetery with GPS devices and took pictures to document many of the tombstones.

Snyder says nearly everyone in the town has a connection to the school.
“A school is a focal point of a community. In High Point the school ties the community together and without it you don’t really have a core community,” she says.

The culmination of the project was a series of history reports each student did on either their own family or another in the community. The reports, with displays of maps, photographs and memorabilia, were presented to the community in a program in the gymnasium just before the school year ended.

For many of the kids it was a chance to learn new things about grandparents they may not have ever known. Eighth-grader Megan Koerner discovered her great-great-grandfather came to the United States alone from Saxony, Germany.

“He was a stowaway on a ship,” she says. “When they found him they made him work on the ship to pay for the trip. That’s really interesting and the fact he came all that way by himself.”

Sharlee Lietzke discovered her great-grandmother was a poet and her family even had the word “poet” engraved on her tombstone.

“She wrote poetry and typed them up in books and gave them to every member of her family,” says Lietzke, who has a copy of one of the books.

Adam Distler researched the Medlen family and discovered an interesting fact about the size of the family through succeeding generations.

High Point students studied cartography by making cardboard models of topographic maps showing where they live.

“His great-grandfather (Charles Medlen) had 15 children and if you keep going into present time the families get smaller,” says Distler. “He had eight children and most of them had five children. I have just one brother.

“Life is easier now than back then because we have cars and all the electronic gizmos and gadgets. Their children had to work on their farms, but now you can raise just two kids and they don’t have to work on a farm.”

Probably the most exciting point during the project was the day teachers Gatlin and Chambers went back to the James family home site and found the cemetery. “We knew from descriptions of it where it should have been, but we just couldn’t find it,” says Gatlin.

The two teachers crisscrossed the area and finally stumbled over the old cemetery, only a few feet from where several groups of students had walked.

“Eureka, we found it,” Gatlin is reported to have said.

Even with aerial photographs, modern maps and GPS units, it still took old-fashioned footwork to finally pinpoint the cemetery. High Point student James Carson and his fellow students are learning that today’s world is driven by technology, but it’s still rewarding to get out and get your hands dirty.

“The best part —digging stuff up,” Carson says.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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