I was, of course, horrified when my dad touched on the story of the New London school explosion, but at the time, I had not experienced the loss of a child myself. By the time my dear friend, James Wyatt, took me to visit the Sipe Springs Cemetery, I understood all too well the pain that comes with losing a child.
As we stood in that cemetery, staring into the eyes of two little children, long gone from this earth, I realized that there is something much worse than losing a child…losing all of your children. The following story (told by Lewis Barton of Knickerbocker, Texas) and those little faces have haunted me every single day since.
Mary Barton was born in 1900, the eldest of the six children born to Sam and Annie (Rye) Barton. Three brothers, Sam, George, and Ted, with two sisters, Bet and Ruth, grew-up on a 160-acre farm in the Sipe Springs Community. Ruth died in 1911 at the age of four. Mary was twenty-one when her mother, Annie (Rye) Barton died.
In the early 1920s, Mary Barton married Ideus Marion “Bill” Mote, and they moved to Rusk County in East Texas. Bill worked for West Texas Oil and Royalty. The couple had three children: Marion Wayne, born in 1922, an infant daughter, born and died in 1924, and Patty Anna, born in 1925.
Patty Anna and Marion Wayne were killed March 18, 1937, in the New London, Texas School explosion in Rusk County. Two hundred and ninety-eight students and about twenty-two teachers or visitors were killed from this explosion, which occurred as the result of a natural gas leak.
In 1937, natural gas was not odorized; however, very soon after this tragic explosion, state and national laws were passed that required natural gas to be odorized if sold to municipal and public buildings.
Located on an East Texas oil field and considered the richest in the nation, the New London school had an enrollment of 500 students and forty teachers. One hundred and thirty students survived without major injury.
Bill and Mary had this inscription on their children’s tombstone: “Happy and gay to school they went one day. But thank God they are not dead. Just away.”
Soon, Bill’s health failed, and Mary became his caregiver. In spite of Mary’s care, Bill Mote, who was born in 1888, died in 1939. He made a great salary working for the oil company, but he never recovered from the loss of his children. The pictures on the gravestone were made in Dallas and were never to fade or weather.
Mary, determined to overcome grief and make a living on her own, worked several jobs. On her trips to Sipe Springs, she stayed with her sister and brother-in-law, Bet and Ed Millwee. Bet and Ed had five children: Kenneth Paul (1924), Joe (1926), Helen (1928), Jack (1930), and Bonnie (1935). They became Mary’s family.
Helen, who lived in Scottsdale Arizona, remembered Mary working in California during World War II. Helen said that she could make more money in California than she could make in the Fort Worth Dallas area.
After the war, Mary married Albert R. Harper, and they moved to the Dallas area. Albert, born in 1899, died in 1975. Mary worked as a waitress and Maitre d’ in the Park-Plaza Hotel restaurant, downtown Dallas. Mary never missed the Sipe Springs Homecomings, which began in 1949.
Since she didn’t own a car or drive one, Mary always rode the bus from Dallas to visit her family in Sipe Springs. It was her nephew Jack’s responsibility to meet Mary at the bus station in Eastland, Cisco, or Comanche. When she visited home, her nephew, Lewis, remembered that she always had a purse full of coins from her tips received from waiting tables.
In 1980, Mary moved from Dallas to Rising Star and died in 1982 at the age of eight-two. Mary’s children and husbands are buried in the Sipe Springs Cemetery.