CATO — In 1869, people probably couldn’t imagine what school would be like 150 years in the future, filled with electronics and long hallways. 

The Cato Historical Preservation Association is working to keep the past in the present and future by preserving one of the oldest buildings in Crawford County — the Cato School. 

This year, the building has turned 150 years old. It was built from stone and is “quite pretty” said Katharine Spigarelli, member of the Cato Historical Preservation Association.

However, the building hasn’t always stood as “beautiful” as it is today. After the last class was taught in the 1950s, the structure was used as a community center. Not too long after, the meetings stopped and over time the building was overcome with vines and needed many repairs. 

Eager to preserve the school and the surrounding area, the Cato Historical Preservation Association was created, Spigarelli said. Many of the restoration efforts were funded by local donors and grants through the Community Foundation of Southeast Kansas. In fact, one of the donor's family were one of the first original settlers in the area, Spigarelli said. 

Cato is also on the National Register of Historic Places which makes it eligible for grants from the government. Since the association began the school has been completely restored, new roof, interior walls, tuck pointing —  all of which had to be done to historical standards as requested by the National Register of Historic Places. 

According to Spigarelli, the Kansas Historical Society has helped with making sure everything is as accurate as can be.

Along with the school a new cabin was constructed north of the Cato School, which is similar to a cabin in Cato which is no longer standing. The cabin was donated by the Coonrod family in 2018. 

Sharing history 

To help teach people about the history of Cato the association hosts tours for area school children and for the community. 

According to a release from the Cato Historical Preservation Association, Susie Stelle, president of the association, said she started helping John Spurling organize the annual Cato fall tour as far back as 1985. For several years prior, Spurling had given informal tours of the town, which is located Northwest of Arcadia.

It’s that time of year to tour Cato again. One of the tours are scheduled for the public on Oct. 12. and it is funded by the Community Foundation of Southeast Kansas.

Visitors will be taken back to the mid-1800s through music, history and re-enactments.  

According to the release, activities will begin at 9 a.m. with registration in the Cato Christian Church and will continue throughout the day.  Ralph Carlson, a member of the Old Fuss and Feathers musical group and Cato member from Fort Scott, will perform at 9:30 a.m. in the Cato Church.

Presentations by Anna Portwood Swank and her sister, Elizabeth Portwood Thompson and husband, Jaime Thompson, will take place in the restored 1869 rock school.

Various souvenirs and homemade baked goods will be available at the “Cato Store,” headed up by Stelle. According to the release, proceeds from the tour will benefit the continued restoration and preservation of the Cato School and Cato Christian Church, as well as a newly-constructed cabin donated by the Coonrod family.  

At noon, ham and beans cooked by Bob “Buck” Rowland of Arma, will be served along with cornbread. There will be an open fire for attendees who wish to cook their own hot dogs. Drinks will also be provided, all for a nominal fee, the release said. 

After lunch, at approximately 12:30 p.m., a quilt donated by Sue James of Galveston, Texas, will be given away as part of a drawing.  James’ husband, Dale James, attended all eight grades at the one-room Cato School, the release said. 

At 1 p.m., Cato member Joe Bournonville will offer hayrides to area cemeteries and other sites related to Cato’s history.

On Oct. 11, over 600 children from area schools will have a field trip to Cato. The trip is organized by Spigarelli. Schools attending from Bourbon and Crawford Counties will be Uniontown, Fort Scott, Girard, Arma, Frontenac and Pittsburg. New from this year will also be students from Liberal, Missouri.

“It gives kids and people an opportunity to see a little bit about what the roots of Crawford County are and how it all got started,” Spigarelli said. 

A tour guide will direct groups of kids to various stations to observe living history exhibits such as blacksmithing, wagons, and farming, schoolhouse games, area history, Civil War weaponry and Native American culture.

If people would like to learn more or be part of the CHPA they can visit the website catoschool.com or visit the association’s Facebook page at Cato Historical Preservation Association.