Celebrating the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway at the Newly Restored Wilcox School

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Traveling Along the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway

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It’s a well known fact that Trego County holds many scenic wonders that draw visitors to our county. The Kansas Byways Program has taken notice of this fact, identifying a 60-mile route through Trego as one of their eleven scenic drives. There are hidden treasures to find throughout the county but these are some of our favorite stops along the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway.

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Emanuel Lutheran Church

Begin your trip on Highway 147 at the I-70 Ogallah Exit #135 and head south to the Emanuel Lutheran Church. Swedish immigrants using native limestone constructed this historic church in 1902 and after 100 years it still stands as a beautiful example of pioneering ingenuity. Limestone were a very reliable local product for the early settlers
and were used for buildings and fence posts throughout the county.

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Cedar Bluff State Park

Witnessing the seasonal changes seen in nature is one of Fall’s greatest gifts and in our county Cedar Bluff State Park & Reservoir is the best place to see it. The Smoky Hill River empties into the reservoir, filling up nearby canyons made from towering 100-foot limestone bluffs. The park is divided into two areas, the 300-acre Bluffton Area on the north shore and the 500-acre Page Creek Area on the south. Visit Threshing Machine Canyon and look for the carvings pioneers made as they traveled west on the Butterfield Overland Despatch.

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Butterfield Overland Despatch Marker
Just south of the turn into the Bluffton Area on Hwy. 147 you’ll find a limestone post marking the path of the Smoky Hill Trail. Early pioneers traveling through Kansas to the Colorado gold mines used these markers to keep from getting lost on the vast prairie. For $175 a traveler could by a ticket on the Butterfield Overland Despatch stage coach and shave 100-miles off a trip from Atchison, Kansas to Denver, Colorado. The markers you can visit today were installed by Howard C. Raynesford in the mid 1960’s.

Smoky Hill River

The Smoky Hill River begins in the High Plains region of Colorado and flows 575-mile east until connecting with the Kansas River in Junction City, Kansas. It was a well-established hunting area for the Plains Indians when European explorers first added it to their maps in 1732 and it became a lifeline for people traveling west to seek their fortunes in the late twentieth century. Today, the Smoky Hill River still provides many hunting and wildlife viewing  opportunities.

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Wilcox School-District #29

Wilcox School, one of the last remaining rural schoolhouses in Trego County, is located on Hwy. 283 south of WaKeeney. It’s native limestone was quarried along the Smoky Hill River in 1886 and the building remained active for sixty years as a school and community center. At one time it was a motorcycle clubhouse, then fell into disrepair. Local volunteers are now in the process of repairing and weatherizing the building, completing stone and roof repairs in 2012.Smoky Valley Scenic Byway

Smoky Valley Scenic Byway Kiosk

For a breath of fresh air, park your car alongside the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway kiosk. You’ll find useful information and some interesting historical facts about the area and enjoy the powerful winds that create the tornados this area sometimes experience.

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Zion Lutheran Church

Nine-miles south of WaKeeney a white steeple towers over the small Zion Lutheran Church. In 1905  newly arrived Volga-German immigrants organized the original congregation and fifteen years later built the church building. Today, the congregation continues to be very active, with the descendants of those original families still filling the pews.

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WaKeeney
From the church it’s only a short drive to Trego’s county seat, WaKeeney. Our quaint country town is a great example of small town America, with beautiful parks, friendly businesses, and many fun festivals throughout the year. Visit the Trego County Courthouse on Main Street; an American Queen Anne style building that was featured in several scenes in the 1973 film “Paper Moon.”

Whether in a car, on a motorcycle, or a bike, traveling on the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway will take you on a journey filled with fun, beauty, and a peek into the lives of the people who have chosen to make Trego County their home.