Real People. Stihl People.

Rural Missouri Magazine

The Keeper of
New Lebanon

Memories of tiny village live on thanks to Jeanette Rothgeb Heaton

by Bob McEowen

Jeanette Rothgeb Heaton stands in front of Abe’s Country Store, her great-uncle’s mercantile. The store is the highlight of tours she conducts in the New Lebanon Historic District.

Grab a pop from the old Coca-Cola case and look around Abe’s Country Store in New Lebanon. The original shelves are stocked with much of the same merchandise there in 1959 when Abram Rothgeb last rang a sale — Shinola shoe polish, Jack Sprat brand canned goods and 25 cent bottles of St. Joseph’s Diarrhoea, Colic and Cholera Mixture (42 percent alcohol).

A roll of brown wrapping paper advertising Abe’s store hangs at the ready next to an old cash register. A yellowed card by a wooden crank telephone still lists the four-digit exchanges for his customers.

Abe ran this store, now a museum, until his death at age 94. Today, his great-niece Jeanette Rothgeb Heaton shares Abe’s memory with tourists who find their way down Cooper County Highway A, a seldom-traveled blacktop that leads to little else but New Lebanon.

The Co-Mo Electric Cooperative member opens the store, as well as a historic church and a one-room schoolhouse, for tour groups and hosts an annual fall festival.

Now 63, Jeanette grew up in Pilot Grove, eight miles away. Her grandparents and most of her relatives lived in New Lebanon, though, and her family visited often.

“In the summer time they sat out on the porch and in the winter around the stove back there. They did quite a bit of business here,” she says recalling visits to the store.

Jeanette headed off to college, got married and divorced. She worked in real estate before launching her own escrow service in Lee’s Summit. By that time Uncle Abe was long gone and her father had taken over the place, storing machinery from his sawmill in the old store. When Jeanette needed to get away she’d come home to New Lebanon.

Included among the displays inside Abe's Store is a collection of merchandise on hand when the store closed in 1959. This "Diarrhoea, Colic and Cholera" remedy contains 42 percent alcohol.

“When I’d come down to visit Dad I’d usually crawl in through a window or get in however I could and rummage through,” she says. “I’d walk around and reminisce how it used to be.”

Her father developed cancer and Jeanette returned home more often to care for him. In 1984 she started fixing up the old store on weekends as a respite from her harried life. The next year she closed her business and moved to New Lebanon and began working on the project full time.

“It was really a mess. The outside was completely rusted. I wore out two drills with steel brushes getting the rust off,” she says. “My father and one uncle were still living. They would help me move some ladders or do some heavy lifting. But I did all the painting, scraping and clearing the grounds.
“It took me six days to paint this ceiling. I thought my neck would never recover.”

Although Jeanette came home to be with family she and her mother soon found themselves alone. Her father died in 1988 and her uncle a couple of years later. “I never dreamed when I came here that they’d be gone that soon,” she says.

Jeanette sold antiques out of the old store for six years. When customers visited they often asked to see the church and school across the road. Along with other history buffs from the area Jeanette helped form the Cooper County Historical Society and served as that organization’s first president.
“We had our first meeting over here in the church and we didn’t know whether anybody would come,” Jeanette says. “That first night we had 50 charter members. Now we probably have 170.”

New Lebanon — home to 11 people, including Jeanette and her 89-year-old mother — was formed in 1819 by Finis Ewing, a Presbyterian minister who broke from his denomination in a dispute over the ordination of clergy, specifically, that of himself and three others. Ewing organized the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, a denomination that continues today, and founded the Lebanon congregation in Kentucky before moving to Missouri.

New Lebanon’s historic church and school are located along a seldom-traveled road in Cooper County.

Originally called Ewingville, New Lebanon was the site of the first Cumberland Presbyterian church west of the Mississippi River and the home of The School of the Prophets, a seminary that spawned at least a dozen new churches in the early 1800s.

The original log church is gone but its replacement, built in 1860 from bricks formed in New Lebanon, remains. The austere building last hosted an active congregation in 1968.

In 1975 local residents restored the church and secured its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. An annual homecoming brings past members back to the old sanctuary but otherwise it remains empty and silent except for Jeanette’s tours and meetings of the local history group.

A few years ago Jeanette closed her store and now opens it only for groups who pay $3 a head to tour the church, the New Lebanon School and Abe’s Store, all of which are listed on the National Register as the New Lebanon Historic District. Larger groups can even arrange for $5 box lunches, tied up in bows and served by members of the New Lebanon Preservation Society.

Dressed in 19th-century costume, Jeanette leads the groups inside the church and explains the reason for the two entry doors and the divider down the center of the pews — one side for men, the other for women — and recalls the history of the town. She then takes them next door to New Lebanon’s nearly original one-room schoolhouse where “they have fun trying to get in and out of the desks,” Jeanette says.

“When they finish there they come over to the store and browse around. A lot of times the tour people have trouble getting them out of here.”

New Lebanon's 11 residents cast votes in the village's old one-room schoolhouse. The school building is included on tours Jeanette conducts in New Lebanon.

Frankly, there is not much activity in New Lebanon these days. Jeanette is yet to book a tour this spring. But when things do happen there, you can bet she’ll be at the center of it.
While she’s quick to point out she gets plenty of help from friends and volunteers, she admits that much of the work falls on her.

“I’m not one to delegate very well,” Jeanette says. “I’m one that will just go ahead and do it myself because I don’t want to bother anybody too much. They get on me all the time for that.”

Besides, she says, “I’m one of the only ones who likes to climb ladders and that sort of thing.”

Just how long that would continue came in question last year when Jeanette suffered the first of two heart attacks while ripping up the old porch to Abe’s Store. Rather than go to the doctor right away she took some aspirin and sat down. When she went for a scheduled appointment two days later the doctors confirmed the attack. Her second attack happened while she was in the hospital.

Jeanette spent much of last year recovering. Now she’s back at work, mowing grass, helping her mother tend her gardens and preparing New Lebanon for visitors once again. “I’ve slowed down some but I’m feeling more like myself again,” she says.

And that is exactly what worries her doctors.

“My regular doctor told me to stay off the ladders and the last time I saw my cardiologist he asked, ‘Have you been tearing down any porches lately?’” Jeanette says. “I said, ‘I’m going to change doctors. You two know too much about me.’”

Tours of New Lebanon are available to groups of 10 or more. The annual fall festival is scheduled for September 13. For information call Jeanette Rothgeb Heaton at (660) 366-4482 or e-mail the New Lebanon Preservation Society at nlps@socket.net.

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