Hopkins County Connections to the........

New London School Explosion

March 18, 1937

3:17 p.m.

 

"Happy and Gay to school our little darlings went one day. They never returned........"

 


Perched atop one of the richest oil deposits in the United States, the New London School was the pride of the small East Texas region. Located in the midst of the "Oil Patch" that had sprang up following the discovery of the Daisy Joiner #3 Well in Rusk County, Texas, the school property featured seven producing oil wells on the grounds. Touted as the "richest school district in the United States," the New London school was one of the most modern facilities in the world and boasted educational conveniences unheard of in the Depression Era. A privileged group of young people, whose parents had migrated to the region in search of work to rid their families of the grip of the economic woes of the times, were afforded tennis courts, music programs, a marching band, Inter-scholastic League competitions, and other educational niceties.

 


A portion of a mural in the East Texas Oil Museum, that reflects the
rich oil and gas deposits that were discovered in the London, Texas, area
in the 1930's.

 

As Mrs. Wright, a fifth grade teacher had written on her blackboard on March 18, 1937, "Oil and natural gas are east Texas' greatest mineral blessing. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons!" What began as "tent cities" of Turnertown and Sweeneyville and burst the farming communities of Arp, New London, Old London, and similar little hamlets into new towns, the oil deposits provided a place for unemployed men to bring their families and prepare sights, build rigs and tanks, drill wells, and lay pipe. Families starving in farming regions of the state flocked to the area and began a level of financial prosperity only dreamed about a short time earlier.

 



A replica of the blackboard that was in Mrs. Wright's 5th Grade
classroom on March 17, 1937. Joyce Payne was one of Mrs. Wright's
students.

 


The New London School was constructed in 1932, half-way between the small communities of Old London and New London, at a cost of $350,000.00, and was quickly dubbed "The Richest School In America" by architects and townspeople. Each successive year more amenities were added to the facilities in the form of gymnasiums, industrial arts facilities, agricultural buildings, sewing centers, stenography rooms, chemistry departments, and classical music areas. Life at London school was good!

Approximate numbers are only available as to the exact enrollment of the New London School on March 18, 1937, because of the transitory nature of the "oil patch" and the destruction of the school records in the explosion. However, accurate estimates conclude that there were approximately 1200 students registered, with 465 enrolled in the primary grades, another 425 enrolled in the intermediate grades, and 325 in the high school. The high school was similar to those all across Texas and only offered classes through the eleventh grade. Over crowding in the 5th grade had brought about a shifting of that grade to the area designated Intermediate and High School and the first four grades were housed in a separate building on the grounds.

 

 

 

The school day of March 18th began like any other day, with students practicing for the upcoming inter-scholastic league competition and the P.T.A. meeting to plan community functions for the school children. However, at 3:17 p.m., the world of the small community came falling down and focused the attention of the world on New London, Texas. According to investigations, a shop instructor (a Hopkins County Native) flipped the switch on a power tool in the shop and the arc from the tool ignited pocketed gas beneath the school. The worst ever school disaster unfolded before the eyes of parents, teachers, students, and the citizens of East Texas. The massive explosion took the lives of over 350 students and teachers, and destroyed a generation of the East Texas community.

The shop instructor, was twenty-eight year old, Lemmie R. Butler, a graduate of East Texas Teacher's College in Commerce, and he and his wife, were teachers in the school. Butler, had been reared in the Brannom Community of Hopkins County, and his parents, Mr. & Mrs. Edgar Butler, were county residents. Butler perished in the heart of the explosion.

 


Hopkins County native, Lemmie R. Butler, of the Brannom Community,
who flipped the switch on a sander in the school shop and by
all accounts ignited the gas pocket, that caused the school explosion.

 

Heroic efforts on the part of oil field workers, parents, and people from all walks of life helped to remove the injured from the destruction, and the newly built Mother Frances Hospital in neighboring Tyler, Texas, was opened early, to help in the aid of the victims.


Injured were transported via all manners of transportation, to local hospitals and funeral morgues. The landscape was literally covered in debris and the bodies of victims. Frantic parents searched for their children and viewed torn and mangled corpses to try to identify their loved ones. A nightmare had unfolded all across East Texas and continues to plague the survivors of that fateful day.

Another teacher in school had Hopkins County connections. He was 24 year old, single, Coach Louis Waller, a native of the Pickton Community. Louis has been reared in Pickton, where his father was Dr. L. T. Waller, a family physician. Louis attended the Pickton United Methodist Church where he was actively involved during his formative years, according to a longtime friend, Mrs. Venice Turner. Louis Waller perished along with members of his class, on that fateful day, in 1937.

 


Twenty-four year old, Coach Louis Waller, a Pickton native,
was killed in the New London School Explosion , on March 18, 1937.

 

Among those students perishing in the New London School explosion was a little fifth-grade girl by the name of Joyce Genelle Payne. Joyce was the eldest child of William O. and Bessie Teague Payne. Her father was an oil field worker and owner of drilling equipment in the oil industry. Her mother was the former Bessie Teague, who had been reared west of the Reilly Springs Community, on a farm east of the Seymour community in southern Hopkins County. Joyce's grandparents lived on the family farm, that today is located on Fm-1567.

 

Joyce was one of the youngest members of the school explosion tragedy and was in Mrs. Wright's class on that ominous day. She perished in the worst hit area of the school and her body was removed and identified by her grieving parents.

Some elderly members of the Reilly Springs community can remember the funeral service well. "I can remember them bringing that little white coffin in the back of a pickup to the cemetery," one resident recalled.

 


The headstone in the Reilly Springs Cemetery that marks the grave
of Joyce Genelle Payne, a victim of the New London School tragedy.

 

Joyce is buried in the Reilly Springs Cemetery near both the Payne and Teague graves, in the back of the older section of the cemetery. Her tombstone bears the inscription "Happy and gay to school our little darling went one day. She never returned but we thank God she is not dead just away!" Joyce was born on September 30, 1925 and her picture is embedded in the stone that marks her grave.

 

 

 

Graves all across East Texas are a testimony to the great tragedy that took place in the worst school disaster in history and because of this tragedy, legislation was passed to include a malodorant in all natural gas, so that escaping gas can be detected. A cenotaph in the center of New London, Texas, bears the names of the victims that perished in the disaster. It stands as a grave reminder of the many lives that were shattered.

Communities like Reilly Springs, in Hopkins County, mourned the losses and those school children attending school all across Texas, all remember the announcement of the tragedy as they attended classes on March 19, 1937.


The grave of Forrest Coker, outstanding athlete and senior
student at New London High School, bears testimony to a talented
young life that perished in the tragedy. The grave is among
family members in the Greenpond Cemetery in Hopkins County.


Forrest E. Coker, in his cap and gown photograph, but he never was able to
graduate, he died in the hospital from injuries received in the March 18, 1937 explosion. His
sister, Theo, survived the tragedy.

 

Joyce Payne was not the only victim of the tragedy with connections to Hopkins County. A handsome, senior student, named Forrest Coker, perished in the tragedy, as well. Forrest was a very bright and talented young man. He had served the New London Wildcat football team as captain and had already made plans to attend college upon graduation. The son of Dewey and Mattie Lou Coker, Forrest is buried in the Greenpond Cemetery, some five miles east of Reilly Springs.

 

The 1937 graduation exercises of New London School was a very somber affair some two months later. Vacant seats abounded in the senior class and those who had perished were remembered.

 

 

 


A letter jacket in the New London School Museum that was worn
by a member of the "mighty wildcat football team." Forrest Coker was to serve as the
captain of the 1936-37 team, his senior year.

 

 

 

 

 

After the explosion, a long, long silence reigned in New London, Texas. Unlike today, when grief and the healing process often goes on public display in front of television cameras, the bereaved family members buried their dead and wept privately, and then began to bring their lives together.

Texas Governor Allred and the state legislators called for an immediate military investigation into the cause of the massive explosion. Concurrent investigations were conducted by a special committee of the Texas State Legislature and the United States Bureau of Mines, and representatives from all three investigative bodies filed official reports. It was determined that no one was at fault for the explosion.

The cenotaph that serves as a memorial to those teachers and students
that perished in the 1937 tragedy. The memorial is located in front of
the current school site, in downtown New London, Texas.

The following poem was written as a tribute to the mourning of the victims of New London School, in 1937.

For Those Who Mourn In The New London Community

by: Grace Noll Crowell

God pity them! God comfort them! a nation
Is lifting as one voice a prayer to Thee.
For these our neighbors, weeping for their children
You know, Dear Lord, their grief, their agony.
Be with them closer today than their own breathing,
Hold their inert hands, walk by their side.
Surely your heart is breaking with their sorrow,
You, who watched your own Son crucified.
Into their darkness bring some light to cheer them,
Tell them of heavenly fields where children play
Through with the hurt and the strife of life forever.
Tell them their children are happy, Lord, today.
Fill their lonely hours someway, dear Master,
Let them sleep again—bid weeping cease,
Make time with its kind hand reach out and heal them,
Restoring their laughter to them—and their peace.

Sources:

1.Reilly Springs Cemetery Records.
2.Greenpond Cemetery Records.
3.Trip and interview with the personnel at the New London Tea Room and Museum, New London, Texas, April 18, 2001.
4."New London School in Memorium," Lori Olson, Eakin Press.
5."Tea and Tragedy," Gary D. Ford, March 2001, Southern Living Magazine, pg. 20-21.

6. "New London School Annual" 1936-37.
7. www.nlse.org website dedicated to the New London School Explosion.

Editors Note:

The New London School Museum is located across the street from the site of the 1937 explosion. The front of the building is structured much like a 1950's diner, but behind the door in the back of the room, awaits one of the most spellbinding stories of tragedy and carnage in Texas history. The museum is devoted to preserving the history of those students and teachers who perished in the explosion and to accurately portray the events of that fateful March day.

The interesting museum is full of artifacts and makes for a very nice day-trip from Hopkins County into the scenic pineywoods of the East Texas Oil Patch.

The museum can be reached at (903) 895-4602 and is open on weekdays from 9-4. Or, the museum can be contacted via mail at P.O. Box 477, New London, TX 75682.

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