Area fourth and fifth grade students stepped back in time Friday to get a lesson at a one-room school house, play games enjoyed by pioneer children and learn about skills such as flint knapping and leather working.

Area fourth and fifth grade students stepped back in time Friday to get a lesson at a one-room school house, play games enjoyed by pioneer children and learn about skills such as flint knapping and leather working.

Nearly 500 youngsters from Pittsburg, Frontenac and Fort Scott participated in the first field day at Cato.

“We started talking about the Kansas Sesquicentennial and how to bring it to life for the kids, especially since Cato had the first school in Crawford County,” said Joe Bournonville, a member of the Cato Historical Preservation Association and longtime Pittsburg educator. “We let the schools know well in advance and they’ve prepped the kids well.”

“In the spring we went out letters to the superintendents of area schools,” said Katharine Spigarelli, also an association member. “Because of the economy, a lot of schools aren’t doing field trips now, but Frontenac, Fort Scott and Pittsburg responded with a yes.”

The event was divided into morning and afternoon sessions.

“We had about 250 children here this morning, and a little less in the afternoon,” Spigarelli said. “We divided them into groups, and then worked on presenters that would be authentic to the time. We feel we did a good job. In the fall we sent out a letter that explained what would be happening today, and then sent e-mails to the teachers telling them things the students should know when they come, such as what a sesquicentennial is.”

The day took a great deal of coordinating and organizing.

“I was a school counselor in Carl Junction, Mo., for 17 years and had to organize events such as career days,” Spigarelli said. “That experience helped with this.”

Mark Dulek gave the welcoming speech when students arrived, then students rotated between eight stations.

“Listen for the school bell to ring,” he said. “That means it’s time for you to move to your next station.”

The first station was the Cato School, with Anna Swank and Elizabeth and Jamie Thompson reenacting the roles of a one-room school teacher and students.

Swank presented her “research paper” which listed some of Cato’s many firsts.

“Cato is older than Kansas,” she told the youngsters. “Kansas is 150 years old, and Cato is 157 years old.”

The community was the first in Crawford County and, in addition to having the first school in the county, also had the first coal mine and grist mill.

Other stations featured pioneer games, flintknapping, making leather goods, Civil War fighting that occurred in the Cato area, blacksmithing and1800s weapons. The final station, outside the school house, featured James Stradley reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, followed by group singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” accompanied by Ralph Carlson on guitar.
Among those present were Jerry Coonrod and Jim Evans, who both attended the Cato School.

“I was in the third grade in 1955, when the school closed,” Evans said. “It was consolidated with Arcadia, and I went straight to Arcadia. I found my first grade class picture in the school today.”

Coonrod went to the first, second and third grade at Cato in the late 1940s.

“Kids today can’t concieve what it was like,” Coonrod said. “We all drank from the same cup and all used the same towel, but we never got sick. The kids always got along and you never saw a fight.”

There was no cafeteria or school lunches back then.

“Whatever was left over from supper was probably what you brought in your lunch bucket,” Coonrod said, “but I never, ever remember being hungry.”

The youngsters probably did learn something from their brief visit to the 19th century.

“I was surprised at the questions the kids asked and the kind of questions,” said David Prickett, Deerfield, Mo., who demonstrated saddle stitching. “They were very curious.”

“I think this was a fabulous experience,” said Debbie Restivo, fourth grade teacher at Frank Layden Elementary School, Frontenac.

Her students confirmed that.

“It was wonderful,” said Anna Hogard.

She added that she had looked at the Cato web site Thursday night to get ready for the trip.

“It was really fun,” said Laken Robinson. “A man showed us how he aimed his gun.”

“Who can tell me something they learned here today?” Restivo asked.

“Indians used to live here,” Mckenzie Demott said.

“I learned that 120 people lived here,” said Jordan Walsingham.

Bournonville said that the Cato Historical Preservation Association will be seeking input from the teachers who brought students to the field day to get their evaluation of the day’s activities.

“We hope we can make this an annual event,” he said.

The Cato fall tour is scheduled today, starting with a music program at 9 a.m. at the Cato Church, followed by a presentation at the school. A wiener roast will be held at noon, and the afternoon will conclude with hay rides to historic Cato area cemeteries. The tour is open without charge to all interested persons.