GHOST SCHOOL IN A GHOST TOWN

 

The front entrance still looks as spruce as it must have done in 1928.

Lela in Texas always struggled against the odds. Known to some people who travel Route 66 as the home of E Mike Allred’s Regal Reptile Ranch (see the Never Quite Lost post, Snakes on a Plain), it lost out all around to its more glamorous neighbour, Shamrock.

Lela was established in 1902 as a stop on the Chicago, Rock Island & Gulf Railway, when it was originally called Story. It then gained a newspaper – the Wheeler County Texan – and a small school. Then, the ultimate mark of a settlement came along; a post office. Folklore has it that the young postmaster, a young Texan by the name of Bedford Forrest Bowers, changed the town’s name to Lela in honour of his sister-in-law.. However, there’s a few holes in that story. The town was already called Lela when Bedford was appointed postmaster on 9th June 1903. He was 25 years old at the time and there is no record of him having a wife. He did have two older brothers, but David was married to Maud and Isaac to Anna Pearl, neither of which lead themselves to a contraction of Lela.

Whatever the origin of the name, there was a school in Lela (although the dedicated school wasn’t built until 1907), and the first teacher was the splendidly named Fannie (or Frances) Womble. Miss Womble was barely 20 years old when she assumed that position and was soon married to Lucian Purcell, a relative of John Purcell, one of the school’s trustees. Sadly, the marriage would be cut short. In 1903, Fannie suffered a miscarriage, but two years later she gave birth to a son, Farrel. Complications set in and just ten days after the birth, on 16th February 1905, Fannie died. It was a week after her twenty-third birthday. Little Farrel struggled on, but on 9th May 1905 he too succumbed.

Lela would suffer another loss the following year when Bedford Bowers died, aged just twenty-eight. But already the town was beginning to lose out to nearby Shamrock. Although the discovery of natural gas would bring short-lived renewed prosperity to Lela, gradually both trade and residents began to move to Shamrock. But it was while Lela was undergoing this brief boom that its school burned down. At the time, the town was large and prosperous enough to warrant the building of a fine brick school which would accommodate all grades. However, by the 1930s, it was catering only to the younger children, as the high school students decamped to – yes – Shamrock.

One of the gas stations which sprang up to serve Route 66. It limped on in its last years as JD’s Service Station before falling into disrepair.

Route 66 would bring another infusion of life into Lela, as two gas stations were opened. But it didn’t last. By 1947, there were only 50 people left in Lela; the school and the church staggered on but the remaining businesses gradually closed. Even the newspaper moved down to Shamrock.  In 1976, Shamrock took its final victory over its neighbour as the post office was transferred there from Lela. Fifteen years later, the school was closed and has stood shuttered ever since. There is no chance of it opening again; Lela has no businesses, no shops and little in the way of population. Today it stands empty, echoing to the sound of children’s shouts on a long ago wind.

Incidentally, Fannie’s widower, Lucian Purcell, did eventually marry again and had eight children with his second wife, Annie (he would given his eldest son the middle name of Bowers, presumably in memory of the late young postmaster). They made their home in Shamrock.

Although it has a historical marker, Lela High School is not yet on the National Register of Historic Places.

20 thoughts on “GHOST SCHOOL IN A GHOST TOWN

    • It’s a very good question, but unfortunately the records on Lela are lacking. However, when the gas and oil ‘boom’ was at its height in Wheeler County, some 15,555 people lived within its borders, while in 1930 the population of Shamrock was 3780 (incidentally the highest it would ever be and would consistently decline – last year Shamrock’s population was 1989 people). However, taking into account the boom and the fact that a substantial school was built, it’s still likely that the population of Lela was never more than the mid to high hundreds at its peak.

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  1. I never get tired of reading history, especially things and places that are no more. I live in Baxter Springs, Kansas, 2 blocks west of our short little part of the Mother Road in Kansas.

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  2. I grew up in Lela and went to school there thru the eight grade. My dad always told me Lela was named after the first woman who got off of the first train. Her name was “Lela”.

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  3. My mom and her siblings went to school in Lela. Her eldest sister moved to New Jersey and when asked by her friends many years later, while they were all discussing what university they each went to. She, being the mischievous aunt that she was, told them all proudly she graduated from Lela. Wheather they assumed it was a university or she said Lela University I don’t remember but they, the sisters, all got a big laugh from it. They even fixed her a certificate from Lela University for one of the family reunions. She’s go on to be with the Lord now, but I can still hear her infectious laugh, when they “presented” it to her.

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  4. I started school there in 1951 and graduated from 8th grade in 1959. There were 11 of us at that time. We went to Ocala Florida on our 8th grade trip in a school bus. Back then each class saved up their money each year from bake sales or other fund raising ways. I remember pulling cotton to make 15 dollars to take on the trip. Some great memories of that school and LELA, TEXAS.

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  5. My first school first grade 1956. My favorite memory was our first grade Christmas party and program. Before the year ended we moved to Shamrock. I cried and begged my daddy to go back to my”real school”. My best friend was Gary Haynes. He & I sang a song at the Christmas program. Up on the house top. Good memory. I can even remember thinking the school and the church was so big.

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  6. My parents lived in Lela when I was born in 1954, and my Dad farmed what I have heard called the Benson place about a mile north of 66. Later on, my folks also leased the half section that ran along the north side of Rt 66. My sister, Barb, or Gwen as most knew her in school and my brother Coy both went to school in Lela, but I started and finished in Shamrock. As young as I was, I do remember the days before I-40 went through. The gas station that sat right on the highway and just off the corner of the land my Dad farmed.

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