CATO, Kan. —
Nestled in the hills of northern Crawford County are the remains of a small settlement that can boast many firsts: the county’s first school, the first post office, the first gristmill, the first coal mining operation.
Today, thanks to efforts by a group of 10 preservationists, the public can step back in time in Cato, Kan., to hear the sounds of a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil, a Confederate soldier’s musket, a school bell ringing, and the whinny of a teamster’s horses.
“This is real,” said Debbie Restivo, a fourth-grade teacher from Frontenac who visited the site Friday with her class. “This is the real deal. A chance to open up the pages of history, to really open up the textbook and step out of it.”
Restivo’s students were among 400 students from throughout Crawford County to witness living history at the settlement, portrayed by enthusiasts in period costume from throughout the Four States. They will repeat their performance for the public today as part of an annual Cato fall celebration.
Coffeyville teachers James and Elizabeth Thomas are portraying teachers in the mid-1800s, while Matthew Wells, a history buff from Fort Scott, is portraying a Confederate soldier armed with a rare 1842 Springfield model smooth-bore musket. Troy Kukovich, a Frontenac ornamental iron worker, is portraying a blacksmith, and George Parsons, a resident of Nashville, Mo., and a frequent extra in historical movies, is portraying a teamster.
“I drove my 1915 wagon here yesterday, pulled by my two horses, the same as the first settlers would have done who came to Cato,” Parsons told the students. “Can you imagine putting all of your stuff — all that you own — in that wagon and driving for hundreds of miles or until you found a place to settle?”
U.S. Army Capt. John Rogers did just that in 1854. At that time, Kansas was not yet a state, and the area was known as the Cherokee Neutral Lands — land the U.S. government gave to Native Americans. Spanning some 600,000 square miles, the land included what is now Cherokee and Crawford counties.
Rogers founded Cato and built the first store. A log school was built in 1867, followed by a stone one in 1869. Also that year, George Fowler became postmaster.
The Cato Mill was built in 1868 — the first mill in Kansas south of Fort Scott. It was both a gristmill, for the grinding of grain, and a sawmill.
Rogers was killed by Missouri bushwhackers while home on furlough, leaving behind a wife and children. Other settlers, with last names like Coonrod, Brown, Workman and Smith, tried to keep Cato on the map.
But by 1910, the population had reached its height with 112 residents.
By the time the first car drove into town — a 1913 or 1914 Model T Ford — the town already was in decline.
Many of the settlers’ descendants still live in the area. They include Katharine Spigarelli, coordinator of the living history event and a member of the Cato Historic Preservation Association.
“The Fowlers were my ancestors and the cemetery on the other side of the hill is named after them,” Spigarelli said. “It feels like it is my family place, sort of.”
Spigarelli and her sister, Susie Stelle, have dedicated themselves to preserving Cato and keeping its history alive through the annual fall tours.
“This is our way to raise awareness of what this unique place is all about,” Spigarelli said. “It’s worth saving.”
Their efforts have paid off, she said. The last Cato school closed in 1954, but seven years ago it earned a spot on both the Register of Kansas Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible to receive grants. Its facelift includes a new roof, new windows, new tuckpointing and new paint.
Nearby, the old stagecoach bridge recently was restored by Pittsburg Eagle Scout Joe Otter, who replicated the original dry-stacked keystone method.
“We want people from the area to have a sense of where their history began,” said Pittsburg educator Joe Bournonville, a member of the preservation group who moved to the Cato area 10 years ago. “For students, especially, this is where their school system began. They should all get to see the first school in Crawford County.”
Today’s activities will be open to the public starting with a service in the 1914 Cato Church at 9:30 a.m. In addition to living history demonstrations and music, tour-goers may take a hayride at 1 p.m. to the nearby Coonrod Cemetery and Buckhorn Tavern site.
Souvenirs will be for sale, including prints of the old Cato Bridge that spans Drywood Creek, maps of the area as it existed between 1860 and 1910, chances on a quilt, ham and beans and cornbread, and country store items. Proceeds will benefit the continued restoration and preservation of the Cato school and Cato Christian Church.
Want to go?
Cato Days will feature historical demonstrations, pioneer music, a program in the one-room schoolhouse, ham and beans, and hayrides to area cemeteries and other sites related to Cato's history. On U.S. Highway 69 between Fort Scott and Pittsburg, turn west on 720 Avenue one mile south of the Bourbon County line. Go west for one mile, then north for a half-mile, then left one mile to Cato.