a wall in the New London Museum, a blackboard bears a seemingly innocent
lesson to be studied by a classroom's children on March 18, 1937.
"Oil and natural gas are East Texas' greatest mineral blessings. Without
them this would not be here and some of us would not be here, learning
minutes of dismissal time, the classroom collapsed with the rest of
school in a natural gas explosion that killed more than 300 children,
teachers and other school personnel.
The lesson for the day was still written on the blackboard when workers
reached the classroom. As he tried to find his son, a worker erased
Poignant stories such as this are found throughout the Museum, the
loving creation of people like Mollie Ward, who witnessed the New
London explosion, and the families of others who either died or also
survived the explosion.
On another wall is a small red penknife that belonged to Perry Lee
Cox, who had played hooky with sister Bobbie Kate on March 18. Their
father caught them and sent them to school. When the school exploded,
Bobbie Kate narrowly missed being in the building, but the blast blew
Perry Lee out of the building.
His parents searched everywhere and around 8 p.m. that night, they
heard that a young boy carrying a small knife painted red with fingernail
polish had been taken to a doctor at Arp. The family found Perry Lee
around 9 p.m., but he died ninety minutes later.
Mr. Cox never forgave himself for sending Perry Lee to school. He
died of a broken heart in 1971.
Overton businessman Bud Price, the brother of music teacher Mattie
Queen Price, rushed to New London when he learned of the explosion.
Unable to find his sister's car, he assumed she was safely at home.
That morning, Mattie Queen had told Bud she would come home early
that day with something important to tell him. As he walked her to
her car, he noticed a pair of wooden shoes on the front seat.
Assuming Mattie Queen was unharmed, Bud joined the rescue effort.
As he walked by a car covered with dust and debis he looked inside
and saw the wooden shoes. Mattie Queen was also inside, crushed by
a large slab of concrete. Bud never learned what she planned to tell
Even though the New
London school explosion occurred nearly seven decades ago, not
all of the victims like Perry Lee Cox and Mattie Queen Price have
The disaster claimed the lives of more than 300 individuals, but the
New London Museum -- which has devoted much of its research to the
disaster -- is still finding burial sites as far away as Illinois
The reason lies with the hundreds of transient oilfield workers who
migrated to East Texas during the Great Depression to work in the
oil and gas fields surrounding New
When the explosion occurred at 3:05 in the afternoon, many of the
transient workers rushed to the school, found the bodies of their
children, gently placed them in their automobiles, and returned to
their hometowns without notifying anyone.
Today, Museum officials have identified 319 victims and continue to
search for additional graves. Their efforts have taken them all over
Texas and into six other states.
And on the walls of their museum, they're still collecting personal
stories from that heartbreaking day in 1937.
March 13-19, 2005 Column
Published with permission
(Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman
is a past president of the Association and the author of more than
30 books about East Texas.)