Arkalon School destroyed

Photo by Jim Rice
Photo by Jim Rice

By Earl Watt
Southwest Daily Times - March 27, 2017

 

With the promise of a bustling town on the horizon, the people who made up the prairie town of Arkalon had enough faith in their future that they expanded their school to a two-story building in 1891.

Though the promise of becoming a major city in Southwest Kansas never materialized, the Arkalon School stood through the growth, decline and eventual demise of the village that claimed to be as big as 800 but probably never surpassed a population of 300.

Building after building was either pillaged for its wood or eventually succumbed to the elements, all but the prairie schoolhouse that provided the final reminder of civilization in the long-gone ghost town.

Thursday, after standing against all odds, the Arkalon School finally ended its reign on the plains. A wildfire that engulfed the grasslands near Cimarron River swept the forgotten township, scorching the cemetery and the headstones before making its way to the two-story school and reducing it to its foundation.

“What a shame,” local historian Lidia Hook-Gray said.  “It was the third school. There was a simple one-room school house, then they built a second one and it burned. This was the third one.” 

Like its predecessor, it was destroyed by fire.

Sitting on the outskirts of the small town, the school provided a venue for education while the town benefitted from serving the railroad and building on an agricultural economy including a robust stockyard.

The Rock Island Railroad had an established depot in the town, and beautiful buildings adorned Main Street, including the W. C. Stout Store and the W. A. Custer Store.

But two events would change Arkalon’s future forever. 

In 1892, a county seat battle between Liberal and Springfield bled into Arkalon when it was reported that Liberal residents encouraged Arkalon voters to support Liberal, and in return they would be given free plots in the new county seat.

Liberal won, and several houses were moved from Arkalon to Liberal. Springfield faded and expired when it closed its post office in 1913.

But the biggest tragedy for Arkalon came when the Cimarron River claimed another locomotive in 1913, forcing the Rock Island Railroad to find another route, skipping Arkalon entirely.

By 1920, the city was all but a memory with no residents, jut a few remaining buildings.

They would all decay and fall into ruin, except the Arkalon School.

Eventually it was purchased by Frank and Mabel Stefan, and they converted the building into a home.

The couple resided there until their passing in the mid 1990s.

Jim Rice recently retired from the Seward County Commission, and he remembered the country schools from his childhood.

While he did not attend Arkalon School, he did participate in activities there.

“When I was a kid, my parents went to square dances there,” he said. “There was an adult square dance club, and the kids would go. It wasn’t very big, maybe about three or four squares is all. That was in the 1950s.”

The building provided historians and the curious a final reminder of a prairie town from 125 years ago.

“It was a landmark,” Rice said. “You would look that direction because it was sitting by itself. Now the chimney is 30 feet in the air. It is the only thing down there.”

Hook-Gray said the town boasted a population up to 800, but the truth was it probably never grew to more than 300. The “Seward County History” book posted the population at its height to be 3,000.

“It is a total shame because that was our only ghost town that we knew there was something left,” she said. “Everything is gone. Fargo Springs is nothing. All the other little places, who knows where they were. But we knew where it was because the school was there, now it’s gone. What a shame.”

Only a cemetery remains now, a testament to the pioneering people who called Arkalon their home. And each had a story.

“Tom Ward is buried there,” Hook-Gray said. “He died in 1914 trying to string telegraph wire across a flooded Cimarron. That was their only means of communication. He didn’t make it. He drowned.”

Rice examined the charred ground atop the small country cemetery Friday after the blaze scorched its way across the former township site.

In the blackened scenery were surprising splashes of color.

“The headstones and a couple of trees, that’s all that’s left,” Rice said. “On a couple of graves, the plastic flowers survived. And they stand out. Most are completely melted, but one a couple, it didn’t burn them for some reason.”

While other Seward County ghost towns have left no trace and are farmland today — Springfield, Fargo Springs, Archer, Pleasant Valley and others — Arkalon outlasted them all because of a stubborn schoolhouse that withstood 126 years of sandstorms, hurricane force winds, blizzards, droughts, floods, and tornadoes.

But the 2017 prairie fires were too much for this two-story icon of history.

“It was a tough old building,” Rice said. “But now the city of Arkalon is no longer. It’s just a chimney and a memory.”