Cato Connections

Passion for the past drives Marilyn Coonrod Flagg’s work with Cato Historical Preservation Association

Marilyn Coonrod Flagg didn’t attend school at the one-room schoolhouse at Cato, but she feels a special connection to it regardless.

Flagg grew up on a farm a mile and a half north of Cato, a frontier-era town roughly halfway between Farlington and Arcadia.

At the town’s peak, Cato was home to around 120 residents, 18 businesses, two doctors, and a school. Today, the carefully restored one-room schoolhouse from 1869, its stone walls braced by concrete pillars, stands as a reminder of the way people lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When Flagg and her husband returned to the Fort Scott area after 25 years away in Indianapolis, she knew she wanted to get involved in preserving Cato for future generations.

“We had no children and our family’s back here,” Flagg said. “I knew when we moved back that my only passion was to get involved in Cato and the Historical Preservation Association.”

Since 2011, Flagg has volunteered with the Cato Historical Preservation Association in a number of ways, heading up fundraising and arranging for meals on tour days. She currently serves as treasurer.

John Spurling, a Cato native and historian, started giving tours of Cato in the 1980s. The tours began and ended outside the schoolhouse, but the building was in disrepair following many years of neglect.

After Spurling passed away in 2003, Susie Stelle continued Spurling’s tradition of providing tours of Cato each fall, and helped form the Cato Historical Preservation Association. The group worked to restore the schoolhouse (with much of the funding coming from the Carl M. and Ruth Coonrod Foundation) and succeeded in having it added to the Register of Kansas Historic Places in 2005 and the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
In 2011, the Cato Days festival for area schoolchildren was added and has grown each year. Hundreds of students in the fourth and fifth grades visit each October and learn from volunteers who share information about blacksmithing, weaving, cooking, and, of course, schooling.

“It’s just a great learning experience for the kids, especially since it’s right out there and they can see all of the stuff instead of just reading it out of a book,” Flagg said. “They’ll go home and tell their parents and their grandparents. And if they have siblings, they’ll tell them and they’ll get anxious to go to Cato next year.”

Cato Days also incorporates Cato Christian Church, which was shuttered in the 1980s but now hosts live music during the event, and a cabin which was donated by Flagg’s cousin.
“John Spurling would be amazed if he was here today to see what all we’ve done,” Flagg said.

Cato Days and the Fall Tour for 2021 have already ended, but be sure to follow the Cato Historical Preservation Association on Facebook for information on future events.

Those interested in learning more about Cato can find a wealth of information and pictures from past events on the Cato School website.