Schoolhouse

Inside the Historic Oak Grove Schoolhouse, hanging above the stage is a portrait of Rutherford B. Hays, provided by the Rutherford B. Hays Presidential Library for the upcoming open house at the school from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 15. At 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. that day, Cary Pruitt will portray Hays and recreate a portion of the speech he gave when he visited Parsons on Sept. 24, 1879, referencing the importance of schools.

Many of those living in Parsons in the last 150 years since its founding have had tremendous impacts within the city and in areas all around it, even if their names didn’t make the history books.

One name, George Osgood, marks a stone on the front of the Historic Oak Grove Schoolhouse, a national historic site just 4 miles north and 5 1/2 miles east of Parsons.

Looking back through newspaper archives, members of the Oak Grove Heritage Society began to find the part this mason played in the building of Parsons, and from articles they pieced together a picture of his history, including his building of Oak Grove.

Marking the completion of a portion of the schoolhouse restoration, and in cooperation with the Parsons 150th celebration, the school will hold an open house from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 15, with several special events scheduled.

Osgood was in Parsons at the very beginning of the city. He arrived with his parents in 1871 and remained until about 1890, when he moved to Bellingham, Washington.

“Osgood was just one craftsman amongst many that played a part in the original building of Parsons, but what we have found is that his role was very closely tied to many of Parsons’ original founding fathers,” said Oak Grove Heritage Society member Roger Pruitt. “He had a very close business relationship with Angell Matthewson. Because of that, we found that he built the Matthewson block, which was a brick structure just to the west of the St. James Hotel, the first brick hotel in Parsons. The Matthewson block was located between the St. James and the Katy Depot. Across the street was the Osage Coal & Mining building that was built by Osgood in 1879 for the Katy Railroad.

“We’ve also documented George Osgood built the foundation for the Katy shops where they did all the construction and maintenance of the steam engines. He also built the vent stack for the Katy shops, which was 80 feet tall,” Pruitt said.

Information they found led them to also believe he was involved in the building of the First National Bank building on the corner of Broadway and Central, which later became known as the pool hall.

“We know he built a number of other buildings; we just don’t have them all succinctly identified yet,” Pruitt said. “We know he had a contract with Angell Mathewson and his business partner Merrick Noyes in January 1880 to provide 400,000 bricks for helping build these buildings. They found from the period of 1879 to about 1881 was a particular boon time in Parsons, and the number of brick and stone structures built up and down Broadway and on Main Street then was phenomenal.”

They found his farm was just east of Labette Creek in North Township. It is this farm that surrounded Oakwood Cemetery. Just to the west it is the property that came to be known today as Marvel Park. 

“Osgood sold a portion of his farm to the Parsons Town Company in 1881 as a fairground. That is what comprises Marvel Park today,” Pruitt said.

Visiting a nearby site to the park a couple of years ago, which Pruitt and his brother Cary had determined was where Osgood operated his business from on his farm, they discovered some of the original vitrified brick Osgood was manufacturing for construction of Parsons’ buildings. It is there he also quarried stone.

“We also know there is a stone quarry 3 miles north of Oak Grove. Evidences of that stone quarry are still in place. … That location was a primary source of all the stone that was used to build the St. Francis Catholic Church in St. Paul,” Pruitt said.

The church was built over a period of time, from the early 1870s to 1885. The priests ran into budget issues, started the work and ran out of money, and picked up again two or three times.

“We know that quarry existed from the early 1870s all the way up to the early 1900s, and it was a well-known quarry in the area. It just so happens, during the same period of time the St. Francis Church was finished, the owner of that quarry was George Osgood. So the people who built Oak Grove, the farmers that lived out there, they built that structure out there because they wanted to replace the old log cabin structure that was always flooding and deteriorating,” Pruitt said.

“It’s very interesting Osgood’s name is on the front plaque. In the restoration of the school it is very apparent, your major stonework, your cornerstones, your lentils for the windows, these are large stones that have very distinct quarry marks. These stones came out of a quarry somewhere, and it’s very possible they came out of the quarry 3 miles north of Oak Grove.

“The remainder of the stonework at Oak Grove, there is a lot of stone that is smaller in size … the shape is irregular. We believe that came from the local farmers, quarrying the stone themselves out of a stream bed about 100 yards east of the school. It is very evident as the school was built, it was built as a team effort and that George Osgood was probably the stonemason who provided the expertise and the major stonework, but he probably had a team of volunteers, local farmers, who helped him. So this was a community effort.”

Besides all of these ties, visitors to the school can learn about how it was discovered the school is situated on the Osage Trail. The maps of the trail are available in Topeka at the Kansas Historical Society.

“So when you stand in front of the Oak Grove School today, you are standing on that original trail, where probably hundreds, if not thousands, of wagons traveled in their journey westward to settle in southeastern Kansas,” Pruitt said. “We know from the documentation that’s in the Laura Ingalls’ annotated autobiography that there is a very good chance that the Ingalls family is included as one of those who traveled that trail.”

The trail was traveled by the military traveling from Fort Scott to Fort Gibson during the Civil War and by stagecoaches delivering mail after the war.               

The Osage Indians continued to visit the area even after they left. One of the early people involved in the school who had a connection with the Indians was Oswald Thomas “O.T.” Hull. He came to that area when he was about 3 years old. His parents migrated there in about 1868 and recalled the Indians visiting his family’s barn to trade for food. There are people like Ronnie Curtis, who lives a half-mile east of the school, who still remember Hull and the stories he would tell as they would sit fishing on the river bank. Those stories have been shared with the Pruitt family.

Hull attended Oak Grove all of his school years, from the time it was a log cabin to after the new stone structure was built. He lived just a mile east of the school on the Neosho River. He lived there all his life until he reached his mid-90s. Hull’s children went to the same schoolhouse, and Hull served on the Oak Grove School board.

According to documents, in about 1911, Hull proposed the school needed to have a bell. He offered to buy a bell to place on top of the school if the rest of the school board would in turn provide the funds to build a porch on the front of the school. Visitors at Oak Grove today can step up on the same porch built 110 years ago. The bell is in the Parsons Historical Museum on display. It will eventually go back to Oak Grove once it is ready to be put it back in place in the restoration process.

What was incredible, Pruitt said, is when they were restoring the school last fall they took down the old chalkboards that were on the wall because they were falling away from the walls and they wanted to re-secure them after the walls were re-plastered.

“As we took them down, we found behind these chalkboards, earlier chalkboards, and on one of those we found a signature from O.T. Hull dated Aug. 18, 1913. He would have been serving on the school board at that time,” Pruitt said. “We were fascinated … because it told us when these new chalkboards had been erected and put in place. What was interesting was the very day that we took down those chalkboards was the same day, Aug. 18, that O.T. Hull had signed that board, so we were pretty excited about that and we left that chalkboard in place. It’s now covered with glass so that people who come visit the school will be able to see his original signature and learn more about his story.”

Amongst the many other items that will be on display will be arrowheads, spear points and other artifacts found in the area over the years that are evidence of the Osage.

“And we will have other artifacts that we uncovered as we did restoration work on the school,” Pruitt said. 

The original school desks from Oak Grove are returning home. Those desks were removed from the school in the 1980s when the school was in such poor shape. In an effort to preserve them, some of them were placed with the Osage Mission Museum in St. Paul and another eight of them were loaned to the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka. 

“Now that we have the school in acceptable shape, both organizations have graciously agreed to return the desks in their possession to Oak Grove,” Pruitt said. “I will be going up to Topeka on May 12-13 with Jim Baker to pick up the eight desks in Topeka. One of those desks bears our dad’s initials, CHP Jr. We will also be working with the museum in St. Paul on acceptable timing for relocating the desks in their possession to Oak Grove. One of those desks bears the initials of Jim Baker.

“We have done all this because we hope people will appreciate they have a structure near Parsons that is representative of their early history.”

To celebrate the completion of a portion of the restoration, the Oak Grove Heritage Society, in cooperation with the Parsons 150th celebration, has scheduled an open house from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 15.

Throughout the course of the day, visitors will also have a chance to look at the renovations to the national historic site and learn about the history of Oak Grove and some of Parsons history.

“We plan to have an opening flag ceremony about 9:15 a.m. We have an 1877 flag we’re going to put up on the flagpole,” Pruitt said. 

“We also have a roadside historical marker that is supposed to be delivered before May 15 that was funded by a grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation out of New York. Assuming it arrives in time, we will erect the marker and dedicate it probably around noon on that day.

At some time that day, there also will be a ceremony recognizing the veterans who are buried in Oak Grove Cemetery.

“One of those veterans was a young man who went to school at Oak Grove and at the age of 19 he joined the military and served in the Spanish American War in the Philippines. He died at the age of 20 from exposure from having served in the Philippines. He died in a hospital at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah. His body was shipped back and buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery. His birth name was Gustav Grommet. His father was a school board member at Oak Grove, and all his siblings attended Oak Grove. Gustav’s grave is one of the largest gravestones in Oak Grove. … His birthdate was May 15, 1876. So we’ll have a little ceremony honor the veterans and highlight the fact that this is 145 years to the day that Gustav was born right there in that area and eventually went to school there at Oak Grove.”

At 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., international award-winning actor Cary Pruitt will be portraying President Rutherford B. Hayes on stage at the school, recreating a portion of the speech that Hayes delivered in Parsons on Sept. 24, 1879.

“We’ve been in touch with the Rutherford B. Hays Presidential Library and they provided us with a copy of the speech Rutherford B. Hays delivered, and that was on Sept. 24, 1879,” Pruitt said. “There were thousands of people that went to Parsons to hear that. When Hays arrived and delivered that speech, he had come from Missouri. In his speech he mentioned that in Missouri he made one stop and the people took him on a tour of a pin factory. But then he said, ‘You good people here, you took me on a tour. What did you take me on a tour of? You took me on a tour of a school.’ Then Hays spoke on how impressed he was with that and the importance of schools to children and the community.

“Rutherford B. Hays was sworn in as president when Oak Grove was built, in 1877, which is the connection,” Pruitt said. “So that is why we thought it would be fun just to recreate that. 

They plan to take COVID-19 precautions by limiting the number of people inside the school at any one time, requesting the wearing of face masks inside the school and providing hand sanitizer at the door. 

“People should bring mosquito repellent and sunblock because it could be hot out there,” Pruitt said. “We’ll have some iced bottle water to keep people hydrated. … Hopefully the temperatures won’t be too hot.”

Anyone wanting to learn more about the Oak Grove Schoolhouse can visit oakgroveschoolhouse.org/.

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