By Diane Euston
Schools look very different today than they did even 20 years ago. The computer has replaced many textbooks, and technology has replaced the old Dewey Decimal System at libraries. Teachers such as myself, a teacher at Grandview High School, were able to pivot during a pandemic and teach completely online.
But what did schools look like in our area’s earliest days? They didn’t have the luxury of on-site libraries, mass-produced textbooks and school nine months of the year. In the earliest days, there weren’t even public schools. In South Kansas City, two districts – Hickman Mills and Grandview – have a fascinating past that links into the overall history of school districts in Jackson County. From their infancy and to their consolidation, this area grew exponentially as the population increased.
The Earliest Schools in the Area
As early as the Land Ordinance of 1785, the 16th section of every township reserved a section of land to be used for school purposes; however, this didn’t necessarily mean a school was built there.
The problem was always location. In Washington Township, where both Hickman Mills and Grandview School Districts are today, these hardy pioneers, “undaunted by hardships and danger,” came predominantly from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Their main goal was to find fertile land on the rolling hills (free from trees at the time) to cultivate.
“Most of the early settlers lived several miles apart and free and public schools were at first impossible,” early South Kansas City historian Harvey H. Kemper wrote. “The people coming from the east did not know, nor were they interested in, free schools. They thought one had to pay for what he received.”
The earliest system of “private primary schools” for education was brought with them. As families settled on large farms and populations increased, subscription schools and small private schools emerged. The first of this sort of school was formed on the farm of John Flannery in 1840 in the northeast portion of the township. Tuition was ten cents per day, and women would weave cloth in order to pay for their children’s tuition.
Rev. Jefferson H. Johnson arrived in Jackson County with his wife, Eliza and two children from Mississippi. He settled on land in the northeast portion of Washington Township and established a church and what would be hailed the “first high school in Jackson County.” Built near current-day 87th St. and Raytown Rd., Johnson erected a large school building with log outbuildings for students who would need to board away from home. He called it Highland Academy.
Established in 1845, Johnson advertised Highland Academy on circulars across the country to garner interest. It worked. Students came from as far as Michigan and Mississippi to attend the school.
Stephen C. Ragan (1823-1908), son of Kansas City founder Jacob Ragan, arrived from Kentucky to Jackson County in 1837 where they settled on land at current-day Armour and Gillham. His father sent Stephen to Highland Academy. He later wrote of his experience, “The plan of the school admitted no pupils except those ready to enter higher mathematics and the languages, Latin and Greek.”
The first graduation of students included Stephen Ragan. When Rev. Johnson died in 1850, Ragan was hired to teach there. The school later closed. The buildings were destroyed by “Kansas neighbors” during the Civil War.
The Structure of Early Rural Schools
Usually in a one-room log cabin or frame building, subscription schools were located on donated land and operated three to four months in the winter when work on the farms slowed. A second spring session of two to three months was attended by small boys and the girls.
The schools used Noah Webster’s “speller” to teach letters until the classes “graduated” to the Webster’s dictionary. Spelling bees were held on Friday afternoons. “Two champion spellers would be chosen as leaders” and select their teammates. “These contests were animated and drew in many neighbors and patrons as spectators,” Stephen Ragan later recalled.
Goodrich’s Readers were used also in these pioneer schools. While reading, students had specific requirements. Ragan wrote, “Each pupil was required to hold erect posture, with chest thrust forward, so as to give as large a space as possible, for inhaling atmosphere into the lungs.”
Penmanship “was poorly taught” because the ink and paper available was not of high quality. Country teachers did teach primary arithmetic prior to moving to “higher mathematical branches.”
The Foundation of Hickman Mills’ Neighborhood Schools
When Highland Academy closed, Ragan became a teacher at the newly created Union Point School at current-day Bannister Rd. just east of Raytown Rd. In 1855, Alex Chiles and William Muir created the Union Point townsite, and for years, “the old frame schoolhouse was the oldest surviving school in the system.” Although the town didn’t emerge on the site, an old blacksmith shop and the school stood for years.
The old frame schoolhouse was attended by generations of pioneer families, and the rules were much different than they are today. Harvey Kemper wrote, “Some of the old timers have related how the older boys, on arriving at [Union Point School] in the morning, would place their shotguns in the corner and hunt on their way home from school.”
Hart Grove School, later renamed Holmes Park due to its location to the now-defunct town, was originally built about 1859 just northwest of Hillcrest Rd. and Bannister Rd. on the Santa Fe Trail. The school survived a few years after the Civil War when it eventually burned. In the early 1870s, a new one-room frame schoolhouse was built.
In 1873, the Rockford School was formed at current-day Raytown Rd. near Longview Rd. The name “Rockford” came from “the rocky ford crossing over Little Blue River just east of the school.” In 1916, a brick building replaced the original structure which stood until the flooding of Longview Lake.
As more people settled post-Civil War in the area, more schools were formed. Hedges School at the southeast corner of Hillcrest Rd. and Longview Rd. was built in 1866 on the farm of George S. Hedges on land donated by him. Jones School, also known as Coon Hollow was built about 1870.
The Foundation of Grandview School District’s Neighborhood Schools
In April 1848, John and Mary Shelton deeded two acres of land to three trustees “a neighborhood school and house of worship free to all denominations of Christians.” A log school house was built a half mile north of High Grove Rd. west of 71 highway.
Another neighborhood school emerged in the area’s largest town, New Santa Fe at current-day Santa Fe Trail just east of State Line Rd. Founded in 1852 to cater to travelers west on the Santa Fe Trail, the town grew to about 500 people in 1860.
In about 1870, George B. Longan (1848-1911) arrived in New Santa Fe to take charge of the school; he later became a beloved assistant superintendent of Kansas City Schools. His wife, Emma, taught piano in the town to children. Sue Hargis Christopher wrote, “It has been often said by her pupils that her ‘technique’ was perfect and that a ‘ruler’ was used by her as a gentle reminder that the position of the hand on the keyboard was not as it should be.”
As the traffic of the Santa Fe died out to the railroads, so did the town of New Santa Fe. In 1873, a half-acre of land was deeded by Edward McPherson to the “Board of Education” of the township for the creation of a new school further south of the defunct town. The one-room frame schoolhouse, painted white, was erected at current-day 128th and Wornall Rd. It was shut down in 1912 when Martin City, founded in 1887 on the railroad, built their own two-story brick schoolhouse at 133rd and Holmes Rd.
Further southeast of New Santa Fe, High Grove School at the current-day northwest corner of High Grove Rd. and Raytown Rd. was formed in 1852.
Other country schools emerged within the area. Mastin School, named after the donator of the land, Reubin Mastin (1837-1908) who owned the 1,440-acre Mastin Hall Stock Farm. Maple Ridge School was formed on the south side of 150 highway east of Petersen Rd. Early teacher Nellie Greene, part of the namesake of Butcher-Greene Elementary School, taught there.
Green Valley School, just south of 150 highway and near Prospect Ave., served the southernmost portion of Washington Township and was said to be one of the “most attractive rural school buildings” due to their “sanitary conditions.”
In 1872, the Board of Education for the township purchased one acre of land from Gregg M. Holloway. When Grandview was founded in 1889, this school was just on the southern border of the town on the south side of High Grove Rd. (then Feland Rd.) between 4th and 5th.
Consolidation for More Opportunities
The growth of the rural schools came from the 1865 Missouri Constitution. The plan called for “a large network of public schools” which increased the number of public schools from 48,000 in 1867 to 75,000 in 1870. The constitution also called for the creation of separate schools for Black children.
As the access of public schools grew, so did the want of high schools. The problem was that these small rural districts didn’t have the money or the numbers to warrant the cost of a high school. For example, in 1898, the Green Valley School on 150 highway near Prospect “was flourishing” when it started with 38 students. By February, the number was reduced to 14. “Perhaps by the end of the school year there will be a dozen pets left,” the Belton Star-Herald wrote.
These small numbers couldn’t support any more than the sole school in their district. School consolidation was thus pushed by the state, because combining schools gave children more opportunities and allowed for the financing of a high school.
What we know now as Hickman Mills School District began a form of consolidation in the 1890s when the Jones and Hedges Schools merged into one district. In 1901, the state of Missouri enacted a law that two or more commons schools could consolidate into one, and, “by the vote of the people, elect directors and vote bonds to provide a high school building.”
In 1902, Hickman Mills made history when voters decided to consolidate Union Point, Holmes Park and other rural schools into one district. Due to Hickman Mills being the first district in the state to consolidate, the district is known as “Hickman Mills Consolidated District No. 1.” The $3,250 bond was used to build the area’s–and the state’s–first high school, named Ruskin after John Ruskin, professor of Oxford College in England. It opened in October 1902 and educated 25 students.
In Ruskin High School’s early history, the school was attended by more than just students in the district. Because it was the only high school in the area, children from neighboring communities, including Grandview and Martin City, would pay to send their children to Ruskin High School.
In 1913, Ruskin High School established an “experimental farm” on eight acres near the school. 15 boys from the school grew Red River potatoes, alfalfa, oats, corn, watermelons and pumpkins.
In 1914, High Grove, Mastin and Maple Ridge Schools voted to consolidate into one district named “Grandview Consolidated District No.4.” Teachers at the time had a salary of a whopping $50 per month paid during the school year. Consolidation allowed for a three-year high school to be formed in a rented frame building at the northwest corner of 8th and Rhodes Ave. which still stands. The first graduating class consisted of nine students.
In February 1917, a $15,000 bond to create a new high school in Grandview was voted on. “All the children in the consolidated district are to have an equal chance to obtain an education under the present plan,” the Kansas City Star wrote. “The one-room schools which have long ceased to fill the needs of modern education will be abandoned, and a school equal to a city will be provided.”
A previous vote had failed, but in this bond issue, every child in the district would have access to free transportation so that they could attend the new high school. The bond passed, and a month later, Green Valley School was annexed to the new district.
In 1922, a brick building at 10th and High Grove (now part of Conn-West Elementary) was completed and combined the grade school and high schools of the town of Grandview into one building.
Martin City continued independently out of their two-story building at 133rd and Holmes with its two-story fire escape that consisted of a slide out of a side window. Burr McGee attended Martin City from 1946-1951, and he fondly remembers the old rural school. “The slide out of Mrs. McKinney’s classroom was great,” Burr said. “It was to be used in case of a fire. But, we got to go out to recess sometimes on the slide.”
Martin City was the last district to join Grandview C-4 in 1951.
Schools of the Future
The growth of both Hickman Mills and Grandview School Districts started with one-room school houses with paid tuition and one teacher for all primary grades. As time went on, these old log and frame buildings were replaced with brick structures that we can still see in some places today. The old Rockford School, once the oldest operating school in Hickman Mills, shut down in 1980. The brick building, erected in 1916, stands today.
Both districts saw tremendous growth post-World War II coupled with the opening of Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base. The growth of the suburbs south of Kansas City led to the opening of several new schools in both districts in the 1950s.
The story of these South Kansas City districts is a story that began with tenacious pioneers who once plowed the lands we live on. They came to the area for cheap lands and new prospects, and slowly but surely, they erected small schools to ensure the next generation had more opportunities than they did.
In many ways, these fearless pioneers have much in common with the school districts which remain today to carry on the work started by them. The wish is that the leaders of tomorrow are given every opportunity to grow and learn – even if it looks a little different than a one-room schoolhouse on a rural dirt road.
Note: There are very few photos which exist of these old, rural schoolhouses. If you have any photos of the schools mentioned in this article, please contact the writer!
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.com