Fifteen years ago, the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway was given the honor of becoming one of Kansas’s twelve scenic and historic routes. It’s brought photographers, historians and casual travelers to the hazy, blue hills that give it their name and, with the recent restoration of Wilcox School, one of the route’s landmarks invites visitors a peek into Trego County’s past through the eyes of its school children.
The Story of Trego County’s Historic Wilcox School, District #29
The little, one-room prairie schoolhouse was built in 1886 to serve as a center of learning and as a community gathering place for the newly arrived settlers in the area. Native Niobrara limestone rock cut from a quarry on the south side of the Smoky Hill River was used to construct the building and a local stonemason and a team of volunteers pitched in to do the work. The school was named for William Wilcox, the first settler and postmaster of Wilcox township and from 1886 to 1947 between 3-25 students in grades 1-8 shared the classroom each term.
Education in a prairie schoolhouse brought with it many challenges. There was no water source on the property, so pupils brought their water to school in gallon-sized syrup pails. The absence of indoor plumbing also required an outhouse be available for use behind the school.
The building also served as a house of worship from 1890 to the 1940s, with Sunday school and church services led by ministers from WaKeeney and the nearby town of Ransom.
A Center for Community Activism
During World War II, Wilcox School served as one location for the Cotton Mattress Program. This federal program helped turn a surplus of government owned cotton into low-cost mattresses for rural families. There were over 250 applications submitted in Kansas for this program and two adults and 8 hours of work went into the construction of each mattress. Over 12,000 families in 79 Kansas counties joined this national effort, making 18,000 mattresses and 10,000 comforters.
After the school closed its doors for good the building took on a new life as a gathering spot for a local motorcycle club called the Hi-Plains Gravel Grinders. After the club moved on the schoolhouse fell into disrepair and was left as a hollow structure for several decades.
Preserving the Past
New attention was brought to Wilcox Schoolhouse when the Kansas Byway Program added the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway to their roster in August 2003. In May 2006, the one-room schoolhouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, providing Trego County the opportunity to apply for grants from the Kansas Historical Society’s Heritage Trust Fund to go toward restoration of the property. In 2011, funding was awarded to the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway and the WaKeeney Travel & Tourism committee, the organizations leading the effort, and soon plans were underway to save the limestone building.
The Work Begins
The stonework and the roof were the first projects to be tackled. Metzker Restoration of Ness City reset the foundation, replacing damaged stones, repairing the brick chimney, and installing a new roof on the school.
Planning for the windows, door, fascia, and soffit restoration began when a second grant was received in 2015, and earlier this year Schamber Historic Preservation, LLC of Damar, Kansas completed those projects. Five panels have been installed within the windows to tell the stories of Wilcox School, as well as offering information about the abundant and colorful wildflowers that fill the prairie in spring, summer, and fall.
Unveiling Ceremony to Celebrate the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway and Wilcox School
Join us on Sunday, October 21stat 2pm at the Wilcox School, just 15 miles south of WaKeeney on Highway 283 to celebrate the 15thanniversary of the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway and the newly restored, historic Wilcox Schoolhouse.
A short program will be held to dedicate the site and to honor Harm Schneider, whose family generously donated the property to the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway in his memory. We invite you to explore the school and several displays featuring school memorabilia and artifacts from the families who settled the area from the 1880s to 1947. Also of note are items from the Hi-Plains Gravel Grinders Motorcycle Club and information about the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway. Refreshments will be served.
Hope to see you there!