In 1819, a breakaway sect of Presbyterians from Tennessee headed west and settled near a group of springs in Cooper County, establishing New Lebanon.
This year, New Lebanon celebrates its bicentennial. A church, a schoolhouse, a cemetery and a country store mark what was the center of a religious movement 200 years ago. Though the town started to dissipate when railroads bypassed it in the mid-20th century, Jeannette Rothgeb Heaton has stuck around to maintain it.
Now, Heaton and the Cooper County Historical Society are pulling out the stops to celebrate New Lebanon reaching the two-century mark, planning a two-day celebration on Sept. 14 and 15, filled with music, art, food, games and, of course, history.
Life took Heaton away from New Lebanon for a while, but she found her way back to the one-church town where most of her family lived: “Rothgeb Country,” she affectionately calls it.
She grew up in Pilot Grove, about 8 miles north of New Lebanon on Highway A, a quiet blacktop that winds through rolling fields, this year planted mostly in corn. She figures she spent more time in New Lebanon than Pilot Grove back then.
“When I was growing up, there was Rothgebs everywhere,” Heaton said.
She’s New Lebanon’s keeper now, the last Rothgeb watching over the church, the one-room schoolhouse and the country store turned museum. Heaton just celebrated her 80th birthday, but she’s more excited about the town’s birthday.
Heaton wants everyone to come down Sept. 14 and 15 to New Lebanon to celebrate 200 years since those Cumberland Presbyterians set down in Cooper County in 1819.
Head south down A Highway from Pilot Grove, and you can’t miss it. Hand-painted banners fixed to lamp posts, like you’d see in downtown Boonville or Columbia, mark the village. If you need more clues, a few hundred feet from a big grain elevator among the rolling cornfields is an old, green, 10-gallon Sinclair gas pump set out front of Abe’s Country Store. If you can see that, you’re in New Lebanon.
The celebration starts at 9 a.m. on Sept. 14 with a ceremony at the church. Over the weekend, there will be a quilt show and raffle, a petting zoo, old craft demonstrations, wagon rides and continuous live music. There will be a food stand and the Cooper County Historical Society will set up a vintage country store with historic books and items for sale at Abe’s Country Store.
On Saturday, Diane Mutti-Burke, an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, will give a talk about the lives of Black, enslaved women. Mutti-Burke has written a book, “Diary of a Slave Holding Missouri Woman,” based on the diary of Pauline Stratton, who is buried at the New Lebanon cemetery. On Sunday, Wayne Lammers will talk about artifacts found at Fort McMahan in the Lamine area.
The celebrations will also feature local artists. Boonville native Marla Stretz, a painter noted for her work in watercolor, acrylic and oils, will have a solo exhibit inside the Cumberland church. Around the grounds of the chruch, life-size metal horse sculptures built by Butch Murphy will be on display.
When she was a girl, Heaton would ride around New Lebanon on a horse that she kept at her grandfather’s farm. She’d hitch at her great-uncle Abe Rothgeb’s store and walk in to find customers chatting in the back. People would ride their horses in from Pleasant Green and Clifton City to shop there, she said.
Heaton left Rothgeb Country when she was young. Her family moved and she went to high school in Montgomery County. Always an animal lover, she went to the University of Missouri to study veterinary science, but gender roles at the time kept her from a career working with animals.
“Back then, they discriminated against women being veterinarians, and now there’s more women veterinarians than men,” she said.
She went on to live in Kansas City, Chicago and Crystal Lake, Illinois. She was married for 16 years to a Federal Aviation Administration engineer whose work brought them to West Berlin for a few months.
When her great-uncle Abe Rothgeb died in 1969, Heaton was working as a real estate agent in Lee’s Summit. Abe’s old store was in rough shape. Stuff was piled up on countertops collecting dust, the metal ceiling was rusting and old salt barrels threatened to corrode the concrete floor.
She couldn’t stand the store run down, so she started making weekend trips from Lee’s Summit to fix it up. She cleaned out the store, cleared out the rust, and even moved Abe’s old International semi, which didn’t have brakes, she said. Asked how she managed to move a truck with no brakes, Heaton laughed, “Go slow.”
The final touch was a coat of red paint on the building’s siding. Afraid the new color would disturb late Uncle Abe, Heaton started by painting a small section on the back of the building. She left it overnight, and went down to the cemetery the next day. Satisfied that Abe hadn’t turned over his grave, Heaton went ahead and finished painting.
“It was hard, but I never regretted it,” Heaton said.
Heaton re-opened the store as “Abe’s Country Store,” mainly selling antiques she bought herself. People kept coming down wanting to see the old church and schoolhouse, so she’d show them around. Eventually, someone told her she should charge for tours, so she did that for a while.
Now officially retired, Heaton is still New Lebanon’s one-woman maintenance crew. She’s saved a lot of money repairing the buildings herself over the years, though she’s had painters and carpenters working on the church this summer to get it ready for the bicentennial. She was the grounds crew too, mowing the grass in town until she recently hired a group of Mennonites to help.
“I was born with a hammer and nails in my hand,” Heaton said, chuckling.
Around 1800, Finis Ewing was a farmer in southern Kentucky. Ewing was swept up in the Second Great Awakening, an evangelical Christian movement that moved across Kentucky and Tennessee in the early 19th century, according to a review of several historical sources in an application to include New Lebanon in the National Register of Historic Places.
Interest in Christianity was growing, outpacing the number of preachers in the region. Ewing was one of several men tabbed to be preachers in the Cumberland area of southwestern Kentucky despite not meeting the strict educational standards of the Presbyterian Church.
Ewing wasn’t a preacher for long before the Kentucky Synod barred him and other preachers who didn’t have the required education and who bristled at the idea of predestination.
In 1812, Ewing and three other barred preachers met at a church in Lebanon, Tennessee to form their own denomination: the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Ewing served as a pastor of the Lebanon Church in Tennessee, but much of his congregation had left by 1819, seeking new land in Cooper County, Missouri. The settlers formed the New Lebanon Society and professed their desire to have a Cumberland church.
“They were really going to go further west, but when they got here they liked the lay of the land, and there were several springs around,” Heaton said. “They really liked it, so a lot of them decided to settle here.”
In 1820, Ewing followed his flock and set up the second post office in the county, which he called “Ewingsville,” but would become New Lebanon. The town was the center of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church west of the Mississippi River. Requests for preachers and missionaries came from as far away as Texas, enough that Ewing started the first Cumberland seminary out of his house.
In 1831, President Andrew Jackson, a childhood friend of Ewing, appointed the preacher to a federal post in Lexington, Missouri. Before he died in 1841, Ewing had established another Cumberland church in Lexington.
New Lebanon continued to grow without Ewing, and by 1860 it had outgrown the log church building it erected in 1820. They put up a new church, built of brick and pine, which still stands as one of the few buildings left in New Lebanon. Another is the one-room schoolhouse, authorized by the newly-formed school board in 1889.
The first class in the New Lebanon school had 39 students. Its numbers declined as railroads bypassed New Lebanon and its population dwindled. In 1947, the district merged with Pilot Grove a few miles north. The church eventually stopped holding services in 1968, and both buildings have been used as community centers and meeting spaces since then.