The old Oak Grove School northeast of Parsons was awarded $38,400 in potential reimbursement in a round of funding for historic preservation projects across the state.
Gov. Laura Kelly Tuesday announced that the Historic Sites Board of Review awarded $1,168,492 for 15 projects as part of the 2021 round of Heritage Trust Fund grants.
HTF grants reimburse expenses for projects that preserve or restore qualifying historic properties. The funded projects represent a diverse collection of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places and/or the Register of Historic Kansas Places. All awards are contingent upon available funding.
“I’m pleased that so many preservation projects will receive grant funding this year, which will ensure historic properties across the state can get the upkeep and treatment they need,” Kelly said in a prepared statement. “Kansas has a unique and rich history, and with these awards, we can continue to celebrate and learn about that history for generations to come.”
The Oak Grove School, built in 1877, is one of only a few original one-room schoolhouses still standing on its original site.
“We are super excited about the grant award. It’s a real blessing not just for our restoration effort — but for the school children of Parsons and its neighboring communities,” Oak Grove School Historical Society treasurer and spokesperson Roger Pruitt said Wednesday. “This should be recognized not just as a grant to the Oak Grove School Historical Society, but as a grant that supports the greater Parsons community. And what a special honor it is for this restoration grant to be awarded in the year of Parsons sesquicentennial celebration.
“We are getting closer and closer to making the Oak Grove one-room school experience for area school children a reality. At some point I am hoping that we will be able to make a larger leap forward in getting the community excited about it. Part of getting there is having a product to show people that is evidence of how far we’ve come and how sincere and realistic our goal is to making this all possible.”
The application had to be submitted by Nov. 1 and had to be accompanied by letters of support from the community.
“This has really been a community effort. Just the fact that we got a grant from the state of Kansas, a lot of that has to do with the support local citizens have given in writing letters of support for that application. Neighbors of the school, the county commissioners of Neosho County, the museums in and around Parsons, St. Paul and Erie, all wrote letters of support, and all those have been helpful,” Pruitt said. “Those letters of support, without doubt, were very key in us receiving the HTF grant.”
A Historic Trust Fund grant last year provided for a considerable amount of restoration work. External wall tuck-pointing and cleaning was done. Inside, a suspended ceiling put in around the 1940s for rural electrification was removed. The Oak Grove society then restored the original 1877 ceiling. The walls were re-plastered and repainted. Chalkboards that were falling away from the walls were rehung. Canned lighting in the upper ceiling was installed, so there is now lighting inside and outside the building. The historical society then refinished the flooring to the extent the budget would allow.
“The flooring was in such bad shape, we just ran out of budget money to complete it. We removed all the old classroom flooring, all the substructure, because it was infested with termites. We treated the entire building for termites, then we rebuilt the substructure for the floor and dug a lot of dirt out that was under it, and then after we completed the substructure, we put down the plywood substrate that will be the foundation for the hardwood flooring we will eventually put back down on it. We didn’t have the budget money for the hardwood tongue and groove,” Pruitt said. “Once we removed the main classroom flooring, we were able to get underneath the stage flooring and we were able to clean out under there and reinforce the substructure without having to remove the stage flooring, so we were able to preserve the original stage flooring.
“As we finished up the interior restoration work last year, we encountered more extensive restoration issues than what was originally foreseen, so we ran short of enough budget money to complete everything that needed to be done to properly restore and preserve the building — and prepare it to be a safe habitat for children’s activities. So as our first Historic Trust Fund grant ran out of money and time at the close of 2020, we submitted an application for a follow-up grant in hopes of getting a second award to help us complete the necessary restoration work.”
Specifically, what is included in the scope of that grant is to finish the hardwood flooring inside the school. Second is to address a moisture problem, wherein moisture is penetrating the outside wall and coming in under the school, and then rising up in the stonework. This will require the dirt around the outside perimeter to be removed, a moisture barrier to be installed and a foundation drain to be installed, consisting of perforated pipe and gravel, to drain runoff water and moisture away from the building.
“That helps keep the walls dry and the flooring subsurface dry and preserve the interior of the school. Also, in the scope of work on this second grant, we would repaint the exterior trim and replace rotted wood on the exterior trim and re-shingle the front porch roof,” Pruitt said.
The Oak Grove School Historical Society must raise the money to complete the work before it can receive the reimbursement grant, which covers up to 80% of the $48,000 of total project work, or $38,400.
“So, the catch is that we have to pay all the cost upfront, and then the HTF will reimburse us afterwards. Thus, we still have a need to raise sufficient donations to pay for the work upfront. We will, however, do the work in phases (not all at once), so we will need about $15,000 to get started. We are currently working on getting the necessary funding to do that,” Pruitt said. “We have applied for as much grant assistance as we can. We applied for a Parsons Area Community Foundation grant. … They make those decisions sometime between now and April. If we are fortunate enough to get a grant, that would be direct funding that would help us. We applied for some funding to help with the flooring, but not all of it. We applied for a $1,000 grant from the Country School Association of America. Those grant decisions will be made by June. We’ve also applied for a grant for a historical marker, but it has nothing to do with the work that needs to be done to preserve the school. We applied for that from the William G. Pomery Association.”
Pruitt said they only have 24 months to raise the needed funds and complete the work, but they are very hopeful a majority of it can be done this year. They were able to raise some funds during the last Giving Tuesday event in Parsons in December. That money went into the Oak Grove School Endowed Fund through the Parsons Area Community Foundation.
“If people would like to donate and add to that fund, we could certainly use additional funds,” Pruitt said. “It is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization, so all donations are tax exempt.”
Checks can be mailed to the Parsons Area Community Foundation, P.O. Box 894, Parsons, KS 67357, or donors can give electronically online at parsonsareacf.org through the donate tab.
“All funds, completely, are being used for the restoration of the school. There is zero overhead. There are no charges for travel or lodging or any other expenses by any of the people working voluntarily on the school. Every dollar is being used to benefit the restoration of the school,” Pruitt said. “We are very anxious to have everything ready by the fall of 2022 to have school children be able to begin to have field trip experiences to Oak Grove.”
In order to get the school ready for students, Pruitt said there are a few more required additions to the property that must be made that are not covered by HTF funding.
“The Historical Society will only grant us funds to restore and preserve the building itself, but to really make the grounds something that can accommodate school children we have project goals to build a covered picnic pavilion south of the school, to build some outdoor bathrooms, to do some landscaping on the south side of the building where we have trees to make it a picnic ground, and we also need to build a handicap access into the school,” Pruitt said. “That’s on our list of things to do that are not covered by this restoration. Anyone that donates to our fund in the Parsons Area Community Foundation, those funds can be used for these things.”
Very general present estimates are that the costs of those will come in at more than $50,000, but they are hoping to meet their timeline goal to reach children with this experience.
“It’s been a while because of the virus since we last had discussions with the Greenbush organization, but in past conversations they have been very supportive in helping us coordinate with the schools and getting the word out about field trips to Oak Grove. We will meet at some point, volunteers who would like to help elementary school teachers bring their classes out to the school. So it is an opportunity for volunteers, whether they be retired or be college-age students, or whatever, it’s an opportunity to get involved if people are interested,” Pruitt said. “This is something that is done in Topeka on the campus of the Historical Society at a schoolhouse they have there. They have given us their curriculum, their syllabus of materials, so we have that to go from and we know that it works, so we just want to make this something to be available to the children of the general Parsons area in Southeast Kansas.”