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The Remarkable Young Woman from Turkey Creek

by Gail Martin


aroundthe turn of the century there emerged from the obscurity of a one room school in Butler county a young woman named Nellie Cronk. Miss Cronk became a dedicated teacher of our countyís youth, whom she taught for forty five years, the second longest teaching record of any member of the El Dorado Retired Teachers Association.

     She was one of the earliest members of the Trinity United Methodist Church and a long time Sunday School teacher. She was a prolific poet and was instrumental in organizing a local writing group called The Prairie Quill, becoming a charter member with Sophia Molk, Charlotte Offen, Josephine Mc Intire and other noted Butler County writers in 1935. Then at the age of 89 she realized her dream of having a book of her poems published.

     In the summer of 1889 six year old Nellie Purle Cronk made the long journey to Kansas with her family from Brodhead, Wisconsin. Her father, George Washington Cronk, chartered a train to bring his large family of ten children with Nellie, being the youngest, to El Dorado. Traveling by train allowed them to bring all their possessions with them. The Wilson, R.H. Rugg and Corey families came at the same time. The last two men were land developers who were encouraging farmers from the Wisconsin area to immigrate to Butler County during the late 1880ís.

     In the fall of 1889 the Cronk family moved to the Dickerson farm in the Turkey Creek School district and Nellie started first grade. Eight years later Nellie received her eighth grade diploma. Then Nellie, only sixteen at the time, began her teaching career. Teaching the first school term on the new century at a one room school in Rosalia Township, three miles east of the Economy School.

     During the next year Nellie was needed at home because of her Mother's illness. In April 1901 Nellieís mother, Nancy, became the first member of the Cronk family to be buried in the near-by Economy Cemetery. Nellie was forced to put aside her teaching dreams as many tasks of the home fell on her young shoulders besides caring for her elderly, grieving father.

     Still the desire to be a teacher like her older sister, Belle, was always Nellie's goal. When Brumback Academy was founded by Mrs. Nora (Brown) Brumback in 1903 on the second floor of the El Dorado City Building, Nellie Cronk registered for a few courses. That was the same year Jesse Perry Stratford attended Brumback and their long standing friendship began.

     In the fall of that year Miss Cronk was hired to teach at White Station School District # 12 for the princely sum of thirty-five dollars a month. This was just the beginning of this remarkable Turkey Creek womanís long teaching career.

     In 1904 Miss Cronk was teaching in district #15 or Silverton near Towanda with a five dollar raise. Each new job she acquired was with a pay raise, even when she stayed in the same school district more than a year, she received a raise A clear indication of the value placed on her dedication to her students. Miss Cronkís vision of the perfect teacher required a higher education, led Miss Cronk to enter Pittsburg State Teachers College. She attended summers there as a high school student while teaching through the rest of the year. Upon completing basic high school credits she took many correspondence courses through the years until she finally earned her Bachelors degree in 1932 thirty-two years after her first year of teaching.

     In 1905 Miss Cronk was offered forty-five dollars a month to teach at the Welcome school district #139, a mile from Hopkin's Switch near Potwin in Butler County. At this time Miss Crook was still living with her father southeast of El Dorado where she had grown up. This remarkable 21 year old young woman would arrive at the Missouri Pacific railroad station on North Main in El Dorado by six o'clock Monday mornings to catch a freight train to Hopkin's Switch. After arriving at the switch, Miss Crook had to walk another mile to school. Sometimes she would be late.

     This considerate woman made arrangements with one of her older students, Verne Kessler, to build the school fire for five cents a day in the winter season. The return trip on Friday evenings was similar and often hazardous in the winter time. Miss Crook was rehired by this school board for two more years, receiving substantial raises each year. She probably roomed with the Kesslers or other school families during the school week. This was the way it was among the isolated county schools.

     The next three years, 1908 through 1910, Nellie Crook taught at the De Graft School a good two miles from the little settlement of De Graff ten miles north of El Dorado. By this time she was earning sixty dollars a month, twice the wages she had made in 1900. Then in 1912 Miss Cronk didn't teach because of family problems again. Nellie's father passed away on May 4th and the family business had to be taken care of. Nellie again made the decisions.

     Upper Cole Creek hired her for a two year period in 1914 and 1915. During this time she lived first with the Heymann family and later stayed in the Tuttle home. This caused this intrepid teacher to walk two miles each way to and from school every day, rain or shine. To be able to spend Christmas vacation with her own family, Miss Cronk walked two miles across pastures to flag down the Santa Fe train coming from Florence, for the trip into El Dorado. Miss Cronk was a perfect example of "Where there's a will there is a way."

     After two years at Upper Cole Creek Miss Cronk took on the teaching job at Blue Mound School district #21 west of De Graff, for the same wages for another couple of years. During the start of WWI Miss Cronk was hired by the city of El Dorado school board to teach at Jefferson Elementary on West Third Street.

     This was the year the Spanish Flu arrived around the first of October. It soon became an epidemic and city and county officials closed all meeting places. This included schools, theaters and even churches. The newspapers told of more misery to the stricken town, when a winter storm dumped nine inches of heavy snow on the area on Christmas Day.

     Miss Cronk's longest service of teaching in one school began 1920. She began a job that lasted for 27 years at the Washington Elementary on South Washington street. Miss Anna Louise Borger had the pleasure of attending first grade with Miss Cronk as her teacher. The principal was Charles W. Thomas the father of Miss Cronk's best friend, Mrs. Winifred Nida, kindergarten teacher at Washington for many years.

     Now that Miss Cronk was teaching in town, she found a nice place to room and board at 718 South Denver just two blocks from the school and she lived here until 1926. Her niece, Alice Griffith stayed with her for four years while attending high school. They both went home to the country on weekends. Shortly after her niece graduated Nellie moved to the Lena Marcum home at 706 South Denver. Marcum was also a school teacher. Then Nellie's brother-in-law, Samuel Griffith, passed away and her sister Belle moved into town in 1946. The Griffith home at 620 West Pine Avenue became Nellie's home too.

Washington School; please click to see full-size version     Teaching in the city schools were very different than the one-room country schools. Miss Cronk taught only one grade instead of all eight. Sometimes when the enrollment was big enough there were two classes of the same grade. This was the way it was when Don Grove was in the fifth grade in 1947. Don has a class picture that was taken on the south side of the schoolhouse by Sloan's Studio of El Dorado. Donís teacher, Miss Nellie P. Cronk stands proudly in the center of the back row with Don standing just in front of her.

     When Alice Unger saw the picture she exclaimed, "Aunt Nellie is wearing the suit Momma made for her and she has that sunflower pin she loved so much." Mr. Groves told me, "Miss Cronk was a good and dedicated teacher. She was very stern and permitted no horseplay from anyone; particularly from the boys."

     Don also remembers taking money to school for a farewell gift for his teacher. At the end of the school year in 1948 Miss Cronk retired from teaching her beloved students. She would be 65 on her birthday in November.

     Nellie's other love was writing poetry and she joined a new writing group, Prairie Quill, on June 26, 1935. Some of her poems were published in the club's booklet titled "Quillians" printed by the El Dorado Times.

     In 1969 Jesse Perry Stratford wrote a glowing tribute to Miss Cronk in her newspaper, the Butler County Free Lance. Mrs. Stratford spoke warmly about Miss Cronk's decisive personality, her outstanding memory and her own canny way of getting her ideas across to her students. Stratford mentioned Miss Cronk's 'photogenic mind' that enabled her to view a certain scene and store it in her mind. Then later the scene was transformed into words of a poem. Mrs. Stratford wrote, "it was a gift, like composing music."

     Many of her poems were put in booklet form in 1970 and printed by the Spring Printing Company of El Dorado. Nellie's long time friend, Winifred Nida, did the cover design using a sunflower. The booklet's title "0 The Heart of the Country is Kansas, in the Land of the Sunflower and Wheat," reflects her style of writing and love of nature. In reading the poems you are instantly wafted back in time, walking with Nellie in the fall and winter through Butler County prairies fulfilling her dreams.

from "Winter in the Flint Hills"
In the land of the "blue stem" in Kansas,
The harvest is all gathered in.
Some grain is away to the market
While some is at rest in the bin.

     Many years ago Nellie and her sister, Belle became members of the Emanuel Sunday School Class that met in members homes in their neighborhood. Around 1917 the group was holding church on East Locust near the Walnut River where they baptized in the river. Then they built a church in the 100 block of North Star where finally Southwestern Bell Telephone bought them out. The church name changed to Trinity United Methodist and they built a new church in a quiet residential area of Eunice Street. Nellie's big moment came in November 1973 when the church had a great celebration for her on her 90th birthday and she shared her poetry booklet with her church friends.

     Though Nellie Purle Cronk quietly passed away February 10, 1978, she lives on in the minds of hundreds of students who were fortunate to have her as a teacher.


RESOURCES

Butler County Historical Society Library:

El Dorado City Directories

Butler County tombstone records

Butler County newspapers files

El Dorado Times 10 February 1978

El Dorado Times 25 June 1985

Butler Co. Free Lance 27 November 1969

Butler Co. Free Lance 14 December 1939

Miss Cronk's obit

Prairie Quill 50's years

Mrs. Stratford' s Tribute

Myra Lockwood Brown notes

Nellie Cronk's Poetry Booklet Spring Printing Co. July 1970

Washington Elementary fifth grade class picture of 1947

Butler County School Records at the Butler County Courthouse.

ORAL INTERVIEWS

Marie Clark 530 N. Topeka, El Dorado, Kansas

Don Grove 415 S. Poplar, El Dorado, Kansas

Addie (Cronk) Mc Millan 615 Houser, El Dorado, Kansas

Alice (Griffith) Unger 1650 w. 12th, El Dorado, Kansas

Anna Louise Borger Butler County Museum, El Dorado. Ks


[Copyright, 1998, Gail L. Martin]

Credits

About the Author
     Gail Martin is a 76-year-old retired Kansas housewife and mother of six. She has written all her life "but just for myself." Gail was 4-H leader for 30 years in Butler County and led the club in publishing a club newsletter. She won first place as newswriter for the Mother's Art EHU club for three years. In the last twenty years Gail has been published in the Tower Family Book, family histories in the Greenwood and Wilson County history books as well as Kanhistique, The Golden Years and Schooner magazines.
     The author researched and entered Butler County's Historical Essay contest several years and says she just loves to research and write. For example, in 1995, she wrote a fiftieth-anniversary story about the history of The Little Ranger, a doodlebug that ran from Emporia through El Dorado to Winfield and back.
     Gail was appointed Kansas Authors Club archivist several years ago and still holds that position, as well as Kansas Authors Club district five historian.

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