“Although things are a bit crude, the people are real neighborly.”
– Catherine Gardiner, 1891
A FORCE OF CULTURE
Catherine Gardiner was a force to be reckoned with.
Uprooted from her comfortable and familiar life in Iowa, Catherine followed her husband, albeit rather unwillingly, to a home in the Piney Woods. While her husband helped build the economy of Laurel through the Eastman Gardiner Lumber Company, Catherine worked to build the culture.
The timber industry and its relatively stable jobs caused a small population boom in Laurel, and in the absence of a formal city planner, Catherine stood in the gap. The City Beautiful movement – an architectural and aesthetic revival that advocated for the beautification of cities to promote social order and civic virtue – had taken root in several large, metropolitan cities, and found a staunch supporter in Catherine Gardiner. Refusing to accept that Laurel was too small for such grand plans, Catherine worked in earnest over several years to lay the foundation for a town that, in Laurel society minds, could become the next state capital.
She began by planning the residential area adjacent to the burgeoning business district, basing her street layout (and the property values that went along with them) on her experiences up North. From First to Seventh Avenues, she ascribed meaning to each tract of land, creating generous lanes lined with young oak trees. The lumber barons — the high society of the time — lived on Fifth Avenue in an echo of the wealth and splendor of New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Their employees lived on parallel streets; managers lived on Fourth Avenue, and foremen lived on Third Avenue. First and Second Avenues were home to mill workers. On the opposite side of the “high” street, Sixth and Seventh Avenues were reserved for wealthy merchants. Nearly every lot was filled by 1920, ensuring that the architectural integrity of Laurel’s now-historic residential district was protected.
Into this hierarchy, Catherine worked to infuse culture. She commissioned a series of parks, gave generously to social clubs looking to promote education and well-being, and promoted various traveling theater groups and lecture series. Her family spearheaded an educational overhaul, bringing in R.H. Watkins, a Tennessee native and fierce proponent of progressive education. Their influence and his vision resulted in extreme academic achievement among Laurel’s white high school students, leading a dean of the University of Chicago (Watkins’ alma mater) to state that any graduate of Laurel’s high school would be accepted into the university without an entrance exam. Catherine’s hand could be seen in almost every progressive cultural endeavor in Laurel in the early twentieth century. However, her two greatest contributions stemmed from her heart — one as a result of a family tragedy, and one as an impassioned response to societal injustice.
THE LAUREN ROGERS MUSEUM OF ART
Lauren Eastman Rogers, Catherine’s great-nephew, was poised to be the heir to the family fortunes and legacy. Engaged and planning a family, Lauren Rogers was on the cusp of a promising future in Laurel. As a wedding gift, his family was building him and his bride-to-be an elaborate home on Fifth Avenue. However, at the age of twenty-three, Lauren developed acute appendicitis and passed away before the home, or the town’s ambitions for him, had a chance at completion.
The family went into mourning for two long years, leaving the house vacant and half-finished.
Finally, in the face of their pain and dashed hopes, the family rallied and decided to give their heir’s home back to the city in the form of a museum. The building was completed, and the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art was born. Catherine, a longtime admirer of Native American art, donated her extensive collection of woven baskets as the first exhibit. The rest of the family followed suit, donating their art collections, and additional pieces have been added over the years. The museum now boasts works by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, and a myriad of other influential artists of the last two centuries.
OAK PARK VOCATIONAL SCHOOL
The museum seemed to reinvigorate Catherine, and she jumped back into social life, and her cultural pursuits, with a vengeance. By this time, Laurel’s black middle class was thriving. The higher wages offered to African American workers by Eastman Gardiner had opened the door to more opportunity for Laurel’s African American community. This came during a time when black workers in other parts of the country, and especially Mississippi, were earning a fraction of Eastman Gardiner’s pay. Within the progressive bubble of Laurel, this rapidly growing middle class was working to offer educational opportunities to black students by raising money for the school the community had created.
Catherine’s involvement came later, after she read a New York Sun article that stated that African American schools received only a quarter of the funding of white schools. Determined not to let this injustice continue in Laurel under her watch, she went to the leaders of the black community and pledged ten thousand dollars toward the building of a new school and the employment of top-tier educators, asking that the community match her contribution. The community response was overwhelming, and the process was set in motion. Private donors offered the land, a bond issue was passed, and these, combined with the funds donated by Catherine and the black community, served to erect a new educational complex for African American students.
Oak Park Vocational School opened in 1928. Jim Crow was still in full effect, and in order to keep Laurel’s progressive roots intact and stay out of the racially tense public eye, the school officially operated as a vocational center. However, Oak Park continually attracted talented educators from across the country with competitive wages and academic rigor, and the school grew. Graduates of Oak Park Vocational School include Ralph Boston, an Olympic medalist; Leontyne Price, a world-renowned opera star; and author Cleveland “Troller” Payne, who still lives in Laurel. The school operates today as an elementary school in the Laurel City School District.
PAST AND PRESENT
Travel through Laurel’s Historic District, and you’ll see Catherine Gardiner’s vision. The stately oaks lining the streets; the homes that seem pulled straight from an architectural style textbook; R.H. Watkins (now Laurel High School), the Lauren Rogers Museum, Oak Park School, and all they each represent — all were touched by Catherine, determined to grow our little city through any means available. There’s an old proverb that says, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” Catherine would have disagreed. It was her husband’s decision to move to Mississippi, but once here, she worked beside, not behind, him to make our City Beautiful a wonderful place to call home.
If only she could see it now.