Twenty minutes outside of Boonville off State Highway A, three historic buildings are all that remains of New Lebanon, Missouri. Now an unincorporated township, New Lebanon was founded in 1819 by Finis Ewing and his followers, who established the first Cumberland Presbyterian Church west of the Mississippi there. As well as the “School of the Prophets,” a Presbyterian seminary on the church grounds, the town featured a one-room schoolhouse, a general store and a small cemetery down the hill.
Jeanette Rothgeb Heaton grew up eight miles away in a similarly small town, Pilot Grove. Heaton describes this area of Cooper County as “Rothgeb country:” “My great-grandfather settled here in the early 1850s,” she recalls. “I’m [the] fourth generation to live in New Lebanon.”
Abram Rothgeb, her great-uncle, founded the general store on New Lebanon’s Main Street, which operated from 1898 to 1957. “I kept a horse over at my granddaddy’s farm...I’d ride my horse, tie it up, come in here, and there’d be, usually, men over by the stove, and women by the front, buying thread for making clothes, and groceries in the back.” As she grew, Heaton went away to college, eventually settling near Lee’s Summit to work in real estate.
By the late twentieth century, her family’s store had fallen into disrepair. Jeanette Rothgeb Heaton returned home on the weekends beginning around 1984 to help her aging parents. It was on these trips she began fixing up the historic building. After two years, she was able to reopen the store selling antiques. “The history of New Lebanon, the church and the store, people were coming just to see it,” she explained. She realized there was more opportunity in the town itself than the antiques in the shop.
She devoted her time to learning about her family in the town. She founded the New Lebanon Preservation Society, as well as helping in the formation of the Cooper County Historical Society. “It took me several months, but I was able to learn quite a bit about the businesses and doctors that were here,” she explains. Heaton led tours for several years, and still offers her services at historic festivals such as the recent Bicentennial celebration in September.
“I’m so proud of what we have left here,” she said. Around eight or nine residents remain in the township, but Heaton, now 80, remains the last Rothgeb of New Lebanon. Her preservation work has designated New Lebanon as a Historic Village on the National Register of Historic Places, preserving her family home for generations to come.