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Big John School

Big John School District No. 39

Location Class:
Built: 1912 | Abandoned: ~1966
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: Patrick Emerson

The Big John School also known as Lower Big John School (there was also an Upper Big John) is one of the greatest examples I have ever seen of existing small schoolhouses in the Midwest. Located in the heart of the Kaw Reservation the first annual school meeting was in 1875, the school board consisted of S. Whittier, Robert Rotchford, and Robert Drake. The meeting focused on obtaining funds for a schoolhouse given that there was no taxes to be put towards such a thing. The citizens voted on 1 percent for building funds and 1 percent for teacher salary rather than voting on a bond.

In 1876 another meeting was held to decide the site for a school and to decide on the construction for a school building. Matilda Nixon was the first teacher of the district, the school would commence for 9 months. This building was in use for the next 35 years with approximately just as many teachers. They outgrew this building and a new brick structure was voted on, the one that currently still stands and is pictured.

Construction on the new rural school commenced in the fall of 1912 and was to have 6 rooms and be complete by early the following year. There were 17,000 bricks left over from the construction that would be sold off after. 5,000 hard bricks at $12 per thousand and 12,000 soft bricks at $7.50 per thousand as well as 15 bundles of asbestos shingles left over. Seems they estimated a much larger building than what was built. Estelle Doyle was the first teacher in the new building teaching for $62 a month.

Like most rural schools they would also double as event spaces, especially during closing exercises at the end of the year. The first-year closing exercises brought about 150 family members and friends of students for a huge dinner and program. After dinner, the children and men went to the baseball field to play ball while the women cleaned up the tables. After full stomachs and fun games, a program with a few songs was played to end the event. In 1921 the Baraca Class of the Christian Church entertained the Bethany Class. Four cars transported the classes to Big John School. A fire was built and hotdogs roasted to celebrate the gathering.

Nothing in today’s world compares to the small rural education that was received in these schools up until the 1950’s and ’60’s when most closed for good. Lower Big John School was for many years the largest school in the county that made great citizens of the world. It was known for its literary fame where the best debaters in the county would come. Also used as a polling location for nearby Four Mile, Garfield and Valley townships.

There were 21 teachers in this building from 1912-1945. Some of the teachers listed in local newspapers include Miss Ethel Kendle 1913, Miss Campsey Bell First Term 1921, Augusta (Graves) Lamb Second Term 1921, Miss Buelah Bowman 1923-1925, Miss Zella Olson 1925, Miss Nettie McConnell 1926, Velva Burnett Blanton 1945, Ethel Mae Lyttle 1946.

Lower Big John District No. 39  was located in a less than fortunate place right next to Little John Creek. Many times the school had to be closed during periods of lots of rain when the creek would overflow. One such storm damaged the chimney and tore off part of the roof.

In the summer of 1953 a special election was held at the Big John Schoolhouse to vote on whether or not to annex the district with the Dunlap Grade School District 40. This came after an 18 to vote against reopening the school for the next term came. The vote to annex almost unanimous with 37 to 1 passed to annex into Dunlap and the school disorganized. The final sitting board members were Vance Weaver, James Viar and Ellis Keys. Next in the process was for Dunlap to vote on accepting the territory.

The building continued to be used every once in awhile for community and school events from other nearby institutions such as Upper Big John. But its security was not 24/7 leaving it vulnerable to vandals. In late May 1961 vandals had shot the lock off the entrance to the building. Nothing was taken but the property vandalised and had to be cleaned up and resecured.

In February 1965 patrons held a special meeting to vote on a proposal to dispose of the Big John School, it passed. The school was considered surplus and not needed anymore. The Board of Dunlap Grade School District No. 40 who were the owners had announced they would hold an auction to sell the former school building. Detailed in the announcement was that the purchaser was to be responsible for removing the building from the site and leaving the land in condition for farming. Bids would go through Harold Prochaska by April 20th. Since then the school has remained mostly vacant, hidden by foliage and used for storage. The two pianos from its past life still remain inside, hoping one day to play another tune.



























Big John School District No. 39
Emily Cowan

Emily is a three-time published author of "Abandoned Oklahoma: Vanishing History of the Sooner State" - "Abandoned Topeka: Psychiatric Capital of the World" and "Abandoned Kansas: Healthcare in the Heartland. With over two hundred published articles on our websites. Exploring since 2018 every aspect of this has become a passion for her. From educating, fighting to preserve, writing, and learning about history there is nothing she would rather do.

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Emily Cowan

Emily is a three-time published author of "Abandoned Oklahoma: Vanishing History of the Sooner State" - "Abandoned Topeka: Psychiatric Capital of the World" and "Abandoned Kansas: Healthcare in the Heartland. With over two hundred published articles on our websites. Exploring since 2018 every aspect of this has become a passion for her. From educating, fighting to preserve, writing, and learning about history there is nothing she would rather do.

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