The First 50 Years – Wellington & Wellington Schools

(1931 WHS Yearbook)

An old timer told me he arrived here in 1871, lured by the glowing accounts of the fertility and beauty of southern Kansas. Consequently said he, “I loaded my scanty belongings into the covered wagon, whistled to my dog and was off to the “promised land”.

For several weeks I held a southwesterly course and finally landed in Wichita. It was a flourishing place, but the spirit of adventure tempted me to go further. In a couple of days I came to a little place, which looked like a large buffalo wallow with a little shanty in the middle. As I got closer I could read the sign that was out on the front, “Shearman Groceries, Boots and Shoes”. A man met me at the door and in answer to my query said the name of the settlement was “Wellington.

It was chilly (early in the Spring), so i got down off my perch and went into the store with him to warm up a bit. The goods were piled promiscuously, resembling the stores that are “rushed up” in the “grown over night” oil towns. There probably was not more than a wagon load of goods in the whole store. Shearman seemed to have more time than customers that day, and as I hadn’t seen anyone since I left Wichita. We fell into a friendly conversation and he told me the entire history of Wellington, which was rather short at that time.

I found out the earliest habitation was a stockade ranch built by John Degolio on the Chisholm Trail in the summer of 1869. This was the meeting place of the Indians and the Whites to trade fire-water for furs and other wares.

Meridian was a place named for a temporary county seat. However, this was merely a newspaper town, which would have been located a mile east and two south of here. When the commissioners went down to do some business, they were greeted by prairie dogs, coyotes and rattlesnakes, so they came back to Wellington to transact all future business here. Later on, there was a hot contest over the location of the county seat. Oxford and Belle Plaine were aspirants, but Wellington won.

There was a fellow named Tex Davis, an English admirer of the Iron Duke, who suggested Wellington as a name for the new town, and everyone was pleased. The county gets its name, of course, from Sumner, the Senator from Massachusetts, who got hit over the head with a cane for saying some slanderous things about the pro-slavery leaders in Kansas.

The location seemed to have good natural resources and the people seemed obliging so I staked a claim and prepared to stay here for 5 years at least. Those 5 years have stretched out considerably, for here I am and its 1931.

Quite a number of prairie schooners were coming through on the Chisholm Trail. Every now and then, one would stop and find out what a fine bunch we were, and we would have a new neighbor. Along about April we began to get the mail from Wichita by a hack and mail line. The office was over in the log drug store, where Cat N’ Lantern is now.

I must not forget to tell you about the first celebration we ever had in Wellington. Everyone was feeling fine over the progress we were making, and it was July so we planned a big time for the Fourth. The ladies, I believe there were thirteen in number, prepared a dinner of roast buffalo and all the delicacies of the season. We had a real feast in the true sense of the word. We then set ourselves down to listen to the Declaration of Independence, and some other speeches, I can’t recall who gave them, or what they were about. Our orchestra consisted of a violin and a melodeon. We didn’t have a high school band to play for us as we have now. We ate the leftovers for supper and then the day’s festivities closed with a “social hop” at the Bates Hotel.

One day when I went over to Cottonwood Ford (Oxford), on a little business. I noticed quite a crowd around a dugout. Of course I went over to see what was causing the excitement and it was Reverend Perkins giving a sermon, the first one in the county. Later on, a sky pilot came to Wellington occasionally to show us the straight and narrow path. The preacher was in a saloon when there was no other place. The crowds were not large, but they were appreciative, and in a very short time we were all going to Sunday school.

The first school in Wellington, as I remember it, was a private one taught by Mrs. Cooly. It was held in a two-room frame building which was also used for a courtroom, church, Sunday school, and a general meeting place. The term was for 3 months. We of course saw the need for a larger building and one exclusively for school so we built one over on what is now 8th and B. However, there were no streets at that time. I remember seeing the children frequently carry water from Dr. P.A. Wood’s house because there was no well at the school. It gave them a little exercise and got a lot of fun out of it. We had our first Christmas program and tree in this school house, everyone who had presents brought them for the tree. In a year or two, there were just simply too many children for one room so the little tots were placed in an empty building in the business district and Miss Campbell taught the primary department. Tom Mason was elected county superintendent. He was the man who started the county’s school machinery. He made long trips on horseback to organize school districts in different parts of the county, it was on one of those trips he nearly froze to death.

By 1873, most of the land had been taken as claims so that the county population was 4,568. This migration to the promised land and the change of property necessitated an established court. There were twelve cases on the docket for the first session, presided over by Judge Campbell. That year, on the Fourth of July, we dedicated the new courthouse with a dance, the largest crowd ever gathered in Wellington at that time.
“You’ve heard that saying, misfortunes never come singly? Well, I’ll tell you that little sentence has a great significance to the folks who lived here in 1874″.

It rained once in May and by the end of June it was so dry the corn and all other crops began to wither and die. There was not another drop all summer, but in August one day, there came from the northwest what appeared to be a cloud. Well, no rain before nor since was ever seen like it, for it rained grasshoppers. Most of them went over, but enough came down to completely cover the ground, and in places they drifted from two to four inches deep. The withering crops didn’t satisfy them in the least, they ate leaves, twigs and everything chewable.

There was much want and suffering but something else even more terrorizing than anything before. There were rumors the Indians were making trouble at Fort Reno in Oklahoma. In the latter part of July, I heard three freighters had been killed – buried alive. That same evening I heard J.W. Miles, the Indian Agent, arrived in Caldwell, with his family, driving his horses as fast as they could run. He said the stories were true and the Indians were going to raid Caldwell. A few old soldiers got together to protect the town. It was hard to be awakened at night by a gun shot and the cry, “the Indians are coming, flee for your lives!” The scurrying settlers from everywhere, flocked like prairie chickens to the banks of the Slate Creek, a half mile outside of Wellington. I went to Caldwell in the morning to see what was happening. The few people that didn’t leave were prepared for an attack by building a fort of dry goods boxes filled with dirt. Well, the Indians never came closer to Caldwell than 60 miles but that was plenty close enough. We had a lot of trouble with horse thieves and desperados too. We made quick work of them when we caught them. Goodness knows, it was hard enough to get along without having our horses stolen.

The atmosphere cleared up a little and things went along as well as could be expected for pioneers. We sent some prize wheat to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and it took the first prize.
The old fellow chuckled when he told me about the street cars in Wellington. They were drawn by horses of course. If it was muddy or one was tired, it was quite the thing, but if one was in a hurry to get there, perhaps he had better walk and save time.

The town grew steadily and several new buildings were put up. The jail was one, but the most important were a Methodist Church and a two story brick school house on the Third Ward grounds. It was in the second story of this school building that the high school started. High School was a small affair then, but it kept up with other things. In 1885, the first class, numbering five, were graduated. In five years the High School was moved to the First Ward building and it remained there until it took “wings” one evening in 1892. In the afternoon of that particular day I noticed clouds in the southwest and as evening approached, the storm came closer. I thought to myself, “we’re due for a bad storm” but I didn’t dream it was a tornado and would destroy a third or more of our town. The storm demolished the school at First Ward, many houses and stores, and damaged a number of buildings including our 2nd court house which was new. The noise of the crashing structures was terrible but the screaming of people in search of relatives and friends in the debris was worse, and it kept up all night and into the next morning. There were eleven killed and many injured. It took months to straighten things up, clear away wrecked buildings or rebuild them.

By a special act of the legislature, we built the stone school at Third Ward and the brick one was torn down. There was a lot of argument over whether it should be two or three stories. The decision for the third story proved in a short time to be a wise one.

After this was built, I was traveling through Topeka and met Mr. Hackney, a member of the state legislature. He was working to get a county high school in Wellington and he was successful. The school was changed from a city to a county organization in 1897. The Fourth Ward building which had been the high school was leased for 25 years and the auditorium at the THIRD WARD was used for the purpose of commencement exercises and other school programs. I can remember well the morning of enrollment at the new “county” high school. There were a lot of young folks there from other towns. in total over 200. Four teachers were hired about that time but so many more students than expected had enrolled so a 5th teacher was added. The County HS was divided into “4” classes. Prepatory, Junior, Middle, and Senior.

The City HS idea became more popular over time and the little towns in the county got high schools of their own and no longer liked the idea of supporting the County HS in Wellington. So in 1920, the high school in Wellington was changed back to a city organization. The old building finally was too dilapidated and too small so we had our new building (8th and A), with its style and modern equipment. We “old timers” who can see the development, look upon it and its students with pride and satisfaction.

Author: Steve Sturgis

Steve graduated from Wellington High School in 1974 and then Wichita State University (with honors) in 1979 with a B.S. Degree in Administration of Justice; his minor was in Sociology. Steve has held several positions ranging from Juvenile Court Service Officer, to District Manager in Circulation at the Wichita Eagle, Q.A. Planner at Boeing, Caregiver, Psychiatric Technician, Limo Driver, Ranch Hand, Photographer, Webmaster and Website Developer and a die hard Crusader Fan since the early 1960's. Contact the ole boy at or on Facebook or at any Crusader event year-round.