This is the only known picture of both the new 1923 high school and the old Central School. The picture is looking north.
It’s called a crayon portrait but is neither just a drawing nor done with crayon, as we know the word. Neither is it just a photograph.
According to a State Historical Society of Missouri Newsletter, the process required to produce a crayon portrait started by enlarging a photograph onto drawing paper with a weak photographic emulsion producing a faint image. The artist then drew over the picture with charcoal or pastels, trying to duplicate the photograph while making it look hand drawn. The quality of the picture was entirely dependent on the artist’s skill. Tinting or gilding was sometimes added to enhance the effect. From a few feet away, it is often taken for a photograph but viewed up close, it can be seen to be a drawing.
This portrait, found in an attic, is about 16″ x 20″ with a single pine board back. The picture is of Eli Gibson, born in 1866, and raised north of Aurora. He died on January 28, 1901 at age 35 in a mining accident.
Since the portrait is unsigned, who did it or where it was done unknown. Crayon portrait artists were known to have practiced at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 so presumably they were at other similar functions. They also set up shop for short periods of time in established businesses with the owners hoping the novelty would generate interest. How many have survived?
Most of the information about Aurora’s early schools comes from a document Lydia (Ly’-da) McNatt wrote in 1933 in which she very strongly indicates, but doesn’t actually say, that Central School was built in 1890. Another possible construction date comes from a 1923 Aurora Advertiser report of a meeting about building a new high school, in which Mrs. Sinclair (possibly Mrs. Percy Sinclair, formerly an Emmons) said that she attended Central School when it was new 40 years earlier, which would date it to 1883. This date seems less likely since increased enrollment would have provided the impetus to build the additional school and that came about with the discovery of lead in 1885. The mined lead undoubtedly provided the funds to build it.
The most conclusive date may come from a 1948 Aurora Advertiser which states that Central School was built in 1894 by contractors Peter Grammer and C. C. Porter with bricks by Ed Hooks and stone cut by William Killey.
Reading Lydia’s account shows school officials scrambling to keep up with the exploding population caused by the 1885 lead discovery. She wrote that shortly after (the lead discovery), “Sam Loy taught one term with three hundred enrolled” in the first little 24′ x 36′ frame school on southwest corner of Elliott Ave. and Church St. If the 1890 date is correct for the building of Central, that was just five years after lead was found.
Central School was built to house the two grades comprising Aurora’s first high school and grades three to eight, one grade to a room. It had four rooms up and four down, two sets of staircases and an assembly room created by opening folding doors in two of the upstairs rooms. The school had been built with a fireplace in each room but after those proved unsatisfactory, coal stoves were installed.
The first high school class to graduate from Central was in 1890. The first class to graduate from it as a four year high school was in 1897. From 1908 through 1910, a first grade class was added to Central in addition to those at Franklin and Lowell with the first grade enrollment totaling over 100. The 1923 Aurora Advertiser notes 230 high school. Within a few years after 1911, all elementary classes were moved to Franklin and Lowell schools, leaving only high school classes at Central.
The 1923 Aurora Advertiser notes 230 high school students which averages 67 students per grade. Normal in towns of increasing populations, the senior class had fewer students at 44 than each of the three lower high school grades. If all four high school grades were in Central, there were 33 people squashed in each of the eight rooms in the building. However, the newspaper account said that the new high school building “will take care of one upper grade from now crowded Franklin” so maybe the ninth grade was there. Numbering 74, there were almost twice as many 8th grade students entering high school in 1923 as there were seniors leaving it.
With no gym at Central, both the six player girls team and five player boys team played home basketball games at the Armory which was also the Princess Theater. Built in 1906 on the south side of Olive just west of the first alley west of Madison on the site of the National Hotel. Each team had one to two substitutes. On May 23, the 1923 graduation was held there also with the seniors having voted to not wear caps and gowns.
The seniors of 1923 were the last to graduate from Central School and some of their names are still known in Aurora: Charles Martz (co-founder of TASOPE), Herschel Chumbley, Myrene Wheat, Johnny Burney (co-founder of Mid-West Map Printing), Hazel (long time Lowell Elementary school teacher) and Hugh Gardner (twins), Dorothy Sinclair, M. T. Davis (son of the President of the 1904 World’s Fair), Wayne Hughes (student council president and owner of Hughes Drug Store) Marjorie Townsend (founder of Aurora’s first kindergarten at the library) and Ancil Welch.
Those graduates knew or knew of Allen McNatt who was born just one month after Lawrence County was organized in 1845. They may have known Major R. S. Wilks who died in 1923 at age 92 but was proud to have voted for Lincoln in his first presidential bid. They knew the people who attended the opening of the Aurora Fishing Club on Flat Creek, 1/4 mile up from James River. They saw the headlines, fresh off the press, of President Harding dying. The 1923 graduates connect us to the past.
Upon entering the front north door of the beautiful red brick City Hall, two sets of stairs rose to the left and the right, following the path of the (stairstep) windows seen in the photograph. The city offices are believed to have been on the second floor. The south side entrance opened into the Fire Department. With the team of horses standing facing the door, their harness was overhead and ready to be dropped onto them when the fire bell rang. The old City Hall burned on March 29, 1913.
Because of the many elk horns found there, the table land upon which Aurora is situated was originally called the Elk Horn Prairie.
The Delaware Indians left the area for Oklahoma around 1830. Although people of European descent were coming up and settling by the larger rivers in the 1820s, they didn’t reach the Aurora area until 1834 when James D. Hillhouse, E. B. Hillhouse, A. A. Young, James Barrow and James Gibson settled on land along Honey Creek. Other early families were McNatt, Liles and Rinker.
The first house in what has become the town of Aurora was built by Joseph Rinker about 1840 and sat in the area enclosed by Church, Porter, Highland and Hudson streets, currently occupied by the St. John’s/Aurora Community Hospital . Rinker was the son of a captain on General George Washington’s staff who participated in the surrender ceremonies at Yorktown. Joseph’s son George was the Lawrence County clerk when the Civil war began.
John C. McNatt closed his store on Elm Branch when it was looted during the Civil War. After the conflict he moved it south to the junction of the Bolivar road with the Springfield and Cassville road. This is now the intersection of Tindall and Elliott streets in Aurora.
On May 9, 1870, Stephen G. Elliott and his wife Anna acknowledged before J. W. Rinker, the plat of a new town to be called Aurora on 40 acres of a farm he had bought from John C. McNatt. Half of the lots in the new town were the price to Frisco railroad for having a depot in Aurora when the railroad came through in 1872. Although small deposits of lead had been found as early as 1858, the well being dug at Thomas D. Liles farm in November 1885 was the event that changed Aurora for the next 100 years. The powder charge brought up large chunks of pure galena ore and a mining town was born.
Aurora was incorporated the following year and grew steadily until peaking in 1908 when it is believed to have reached 10,000 people.
The most comprehensive Aurora history written is the Aurora Centennial book (1870-1970.)
WELCOME to the Aurora Missouri Historical Society website which is in the process of construction. Our meetings are held at the old Missouri-Pacific Depot at 2:00 pm on the second Sunday of every month.
For information, please contact Mary Strickrodt at email@example.com.
Copies of the original blueprints are on display in the old depot in the Aurora, Missouri Historical Society Museum which is in the east room, formerly the baggage room. Although the blueprints are dated 1906, the exact construction date is unknown. Missouri Pacific Railroad started operations on January 21, 1906.