Opinion

After finding their old school for sale on eBay, a Kansas community goes to work saving its stories

May 17, 2021 3:33 am

The Frankfort School’s class of 1913, in a photograph taken in 1910. (Courtesy of Butch Ewing, Derby, Kansas)

I’m sorry to say, Kansas, that I’d never heard of the Frankfort Boys.

I now know these are 32 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from the small Marshall County town of Frankfort who were killed in World War II.

“This small rural town has the highest number of casualties compared to any town of similar size,” then-U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts said in 2006, reading their names into the Congressional Record.

In March 2012, then-Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill designating a 10-mile stretch of K-99 through Marshall County as the Frankfort Boys World War II Memorial Highway. The veteran who had petitioned the state to recognize his fallen brothers was Frank Benteman, whose sacrifices had earned him a Purple Heart and a Cross of Lorraine. He was 94 when he died last December.

If the people still living in Frankfort are successful, there will someday be a courtyard in honor of these hometown boys at the flagpole in front of the place where they went to grade school.

Built in 1902-03 in the Renaissance style of architecture familiar on the prairie, Frankfort Grade School was the educational home for nearly a century of Marshall County kids. And now, it’s a literal as well as symbolic example of what small towns around Kansas do to preserve their legacies.

“A lot of us have a very strong emotional connection to the building — it’s iconic for our community,” says Gayla Randel, who grew up in Frankfort and graduated from the school, as did her husband and their youngest child.

Frankfort’s official population is around 750, but Randel counts another 200 from the surrounding countryside as part of the community.

The school closed in 1997, then it went up for sale. A local family bought it and turned it into a bed and breakfast for hunters. That did well for a while, Randel says, and then a couple from Florida bought it but health concerns prevented them from doing anything with it.

A postcard depicts the Frankfort Grade School in Marshall County, Kansas. (Submitted)

 

“Somewhere around 2013, an alumni from the school district found this old grade school which was privately owned, and the owner had put the property up on eBay,” Randel says.

“So several of us started visiting, and we put a call out to the community,” she says. “We said, ‘We don’t want to lose this building.’ ”

The owner was asking $24,000, but by then the building was so dilapidated it wasn’t really worth much. So the owner essentially gave it to the nonprofit started by about 20 people in Frankfort who began the arduous task of raising money and slowly repairing the damage.

They had no idea what they would use it for and still don’t.

“But it was too much of an icon to let it fall in,” Randel says.

Early support came from Marci Penner with the Kansas Sampler Foundation, who raised funds to help fix the front porch so they’d have a visible sign of progress. Preservation grants from the Kansas Historical Society have helped, too. Last week, Frankfort School was among 15 projects around the state receiving a new round of those grants.

The Frankfort School as it appears on the Frankfort Development Trust’s website. (Frankfort Development Trust)

Raising money for this kind of project is hard in a small community, Randel says, because there aren’t the kind of matching grants available in larger towns with higher sales taxes or fully staffed economic development offices.

“We don’t have any of that here,” she says. “Our fundraisers are breakfasts, dinners on Sundays, match day once a year.”

But people have been generous. Even people who don’t live there anymore will send $10 or $20, saying they wish they could send more. And Randel estimates volunteers have contributed thousands of hours by now.

Randel remembers how it was a rite of passage when you finally got old enough to attend classes on the second floor. She can still hear the echo of footsteps on the wooden stairways.

“What I really enjoyed was having my own children go there,” she says. “I do remember going to kindergarten and how cool that was.”

Both of her children went to kindergarten in same room she did.

“In a small community, a school really creates a lot of emotion,” Randel says. “That’s where you first start to have relationships outside of your family.”

They’re still a long way from opening the place to the public, even for people to just roam around and hear the real echoes. There’s still too much to repair. Right now, they’re raising money to replace the windows. That’ll cost $365,000. They’d welcome help from anyone.

“My dad told me — he passed away this last year due to covid — and he always told me: There are people in the world who see their role is to be a steward and to pass things off to the next generation in the same shape or better than when you got there,” she says. “Then there are others who see things as  a method of making money — they’re not necessarily looking at a legacy.”

The people of Frankfort look at their stately old grade school as a legacy.

“When children’s children come back,” Randel says, “they’ll still have the building and the stories will still be told.”

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.

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