For some of the visitors of Saturday’s annual Cato Days, the festival was a chance to learn about the origins of Crawford County and the people who settled it. For others, it was a chance to visit the town in which they were raised and take a trip down Memory Lane.

For some of the visitors of Saturday’s annual Cato Days, the festival was a chance to learn about the origins of Crawford County and the people who settled it. For others, it was a chance to visit the town in which they were raised and take a trip down Memory Lane.

Founded in 1854 in what were then Cherokee Neutral Lands, the town of Cato is considered to be the first town in southeast Kansas, according to an article published in Southeast Kansas Magazine. It once had a post office, a general store, a shoe shop, a harness shop, the county’s first grist and saw mill, a tavern and inn, and the county’s first coal-mining operation. The town was a stop on the overland stage route in the 1880s, and the road is still visible today.

Over the years the town has slowly disappeared, and all that remains of it are a stone one-room schoolhouse, a church and a stone bridge on the stage route — area Boy Scouts are currently rebuilding it. Several decades ago John Spurling, an area farmer/stockman, began leading tours of the town and local cemeteries, said Susie Stelle, chairperson of the Cato Historical Preservation Society and sixth generation descendent of Cato residents. Stelle said she began going on tours with Spurling in 1985, and then every year after that.

“People started to think I was his girlfriend,” Stelle laughed.

This year’s festival was the biggest so far. On Friday, area residents and living history re-enactors welcomed nearly 500 students from Pittsburg, Frontenac and Fort Scott to the festival. The students moved among multiple stations and learned what school was like more than 100 years ago, how to make arrowheads out of flint, how to work with leather, how a blacksmith fires tools, what weapons were used in the Civil War and some of the games children of the era played.

“This is one of the nicest festivals we’ve had,” said Keith Coonrod, whose father, Richard Coonrod, 76, is the oldest Cato resident and one of the last to go to school there before it was consolidated into Arma. “Each year it gets a little better and more organized.

Saturday’s event drew visitors from as far away as Wichita, Arkansas, Texas and Georgia. Michael Thompson and his wife, Beth, left Thursday from Alma, Georgia to attend the festival. Their son, James, his wife, Elizabeth, and her sister, Anna Swank, re-enact what life was like for teachers and students during the height of the one-room school era.

“This is very unique,” Thompson said. “You don’t see anything like this in Georgia. The closest thing we have to it is communities will celebrate a farm commodity. We have a blueberry festival. Others will have peanut festivals.”

James, Elizabeth and Anna are all teachers. They got into re-enacting after Anna researched one-room school houses for a high school paper and found out about the historical society’s gatherings.

“We just like the history,” Elizabeth said.

James agreed.

“It’s fun seeing how things have changed over 150 years; how the teachers acted, how the students acted,” James said. “I’ll just say there were some advantages and disadvantages.”

Visitors learned about Cato history early Saturday morning, and were treated to various demonstrations by re-enactors, including a shoot-out between Missouri border roughians and Kansas lawmen. They also listened to the schoolhouse presentation and roasted hot-dogs and marshmallows over a fire. The main attraction was a scenic hay ride to two local cemeteries; the Large Cemetery and the Trogdon Cemetery.

“They represent all the early families of southeast Kansas,” Stelle said.

The Trogdon Cemetery was named for the Reverend Ure Trogdon and his son, Samuel, who were both killed on the same day in 1865.

“They were digging a well, and Samuel didn’t come up,” said Joe Bournonville, a member of the CHPS board. “Ure went down and he was also killed. They had hit a pocket of gas, and it killed them.”

The Large Cemetery was name for the school that used to sit on the property. It has a special meeting to Keith Coonrod.
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“The school used to sit right there on the crown of the hill,” said Coonrod, whose family moved to Cato in either 1855 or 1857. “My dad’s lot is right where the merry-go-round used to be. He always said he’s going to be buried right where he used to play.”