LITTLE BALKANS CHRONICLES — Cato: Little town with a big history, Pt. 2

J.T. Knoll
Peter Smith Store and Residence, Cato, Kansas

This column continues Katharine Stelle Spigarelli’s Cato history. — J.T.K

Swedish immigrants began coming to Kansas in the 1850s to escape famine and starvation. They were looking for the “land of the future” or “framtidslandet” as they called it. Peter Smith came from Sweden to Cato and became partners with John Rogers in the general store. After the war, Smith married the widow of John Rogers and built a new brick store that served also as post office and meeting place for local lodges.

Woolery Coonrod, mentioned above, brought his family in 1855. His covered wagons were loaded with chickens, plows, furniture and food and pulled by oxen to a location a couple of miles to the south and west of Cato. They built a lean-to and settled near a spring, which poured out of the rocks overlooking Drywood Creek. Wagon trains on their way West stopped there to replenish their water supply.

Near the Coonrod homestead was a stagecoach hotel, the “Halfway House” and the Buckhorn Tavern. Gideon P. Cole, born in New Brunswick, and his wife, Elizabeth, ran the Buckhorn Tavern. Elizabeth insisted that they bring with them a piano and although Gideon resisted, he finally gave in and the piano was transported across the plains.

Israel K. Brown, brother of Elizabeth, moved to Cato with his parents, Ezekiel and Cornelia, and brother Chad. I.K., as he was known, served in the 2nd Kansas Artillery. I.K. was friendly to the proposed railroad and incurred the hate of many of his neighbors, who threatened to hang him. I.K. was deeded the first land patent in Crawford County, on January 1, 1870. He built a beautiful stone house and barn constructed of yellow coal bank rock.

William Simpson started the Masonic Lodge in Cato had the Masonic emblem “square and compass” put in one end of his house. The many stone structures on his property were constructed with stone quarried just south of his property.

Robert and Minerva Fowler came from Illinois by way of Texas with their infant son George in 1857. They built a small one-room log cabin on the banks of Bone Creek just east of Cato. As was common with many of the families in Cato, Robert and Minerva’s children played with Native American children. Robert and Minerva were also the target of a raid by Bushwhackers, who came looking for Robert. Minerva hid their money in a fold of her hair and Robert hid under the bed. They found Robert and he professed to be a southern sympathizer and was spared his life. Robert’s brother, George, became postmaster at Cato after the war when the new brick store was built.

Elisha Black, sr. settled in Cato in 1856. He and his wife, Martha, had the first white child born in Crawford County — Elisha Black, Jr., born April 26, 1857 in a log cabin his father had laid and cut himself. When soldiers were sent to burn the settlers off their land, at the instruction of President Buchanan, Elisha saved the cabin by burning back fires.

In 1865, the Reverend Ure Trogdon and his son Samuel died while digging a well on their property just east of Cato. Samuel was down in the well and didn’t respond to his father. Ure went down for him and they both died of gas poisoning. They are buried in the Trogdon Cemetery, which is located east of Cato.

Dr. Charles H. Strong, known mostly as the founder of Girard, came first to Cato in 1865. He was married to Frances Fowler, sister of Robert. Dr. Strong established the first school in Crawford County. It was a subscription (type of private) school and was in a small log cabin with no windows. It was here that Dr. Strong also started the first Sunday School in 1867. Dr. Strong was appointed County Superintendent in 1868 and established 103 school districts in Crawford County. It was reported that no other county in Kansas had a larger number of school districts. He made a lasting impact on public education in Crawford County.

Andrew Jackson Farmer and his wife, Catherine Nance Farmer, built a two story home with rocks dragged from nearby Drywood Creek in 1870. Andrew Farmer was the great-grandfather of John Spurling, one of the original historians of Cato. Spurling, inspired by the many stories he had learned from Johnny “Deacon” Coonrod, a descendant of Woolery Coonrod, began giving tours of Cato in 1965. Spurling researched and documented the history of Cato, and when he died in 2003, Susie Stelle, a descendent of Robert and Minerva Fowler, carried on the tradition of the Cato Tours.

Another resident of Cato who gained much distinction was Nels Smith, younger brother of Peter Smith. Nels came to America in 1864 at age 23, penniless. He borrowed $10 to go to Chicago, where he worked, making $13 a month. He traveled to Nashville and back to Chicago, finally making it to Cato in 1868 where he purchased a claim. At the time of his death in 1916, Nels Smith owned 5,763 acres in Crawford County and was a millionaire. Nels had never learned to read or write, nor did he ever learn English well. He was known throughout the county not only for his wealth, but for the fact that he had once been arrested in Kansas City as a vagrant. Nels was not interested in trying to impress anyone.

Today, Cato rests quietly in northern Crawford County enjoying the peace and beauty of nature and the occasional visitor coming to see what remains of a once bustling little community. Traveling the roads around Cato, you will see the remnants of old stone fences and buildings that were so prevalent in its establishment.

Once a year, in the fall, Cato is filled with schoolchildren and adults who come to learn about life in pioneer days. The Cato Historical Preservation Association strives to keep the memories of Cato’s beginnings alive. You are invited to visit Cato in person or learn more about Cato through the website: catoschool.com or the Facebook page: Cato Historical Preservation Association.

— Katharine Stelle Spigarelli

If you have a remembrance and/or photo to share, send it — along with your name, address and phone number — by email to jtknoll@swbell.net or by land mail to 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. You can phone and text photos to 620-704-1309.