|City/Town: • Lenapah|
|Location Class: • Church • Disappearing Town • School|
|Year Built: • 1889 | Year Abandoned: • N/A|
|Status: • Abandoned|
|Photojournalist: • Emily Cowan • Barry Swanson|
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Deemed the “Cowboy Capital of the World”, Lenapah’s history dates back to the late 1800s. In 1889 the Kansas & Arkansas Valley Railway and depot was constructed through the new townsite. The railway brought helped the townsite gain traction and was given the official name of Lenapah by resident Elizabeth Kinney. The name Lenapah comes from the word Lenápe, an adaptation of the Delaware tribe. Like many other small towns along the railroad, it was an active agricultural town, taking advantage of the easy shipping of the goods. The boom from the railroad helped the town establish its post office, which opened on April 9, 1890.
It wasn’t long before the town became a hideout spot frequented by Crawford Goldsby, more famously known as Cherokee Bill. On November 8, 1894, Cherokee Bill, along with a few other members of the gang, rode into Lenapah. There they continued what had been a long crime spree and robbed the Schufeldt & Son General Store. Ernest Meltonan, who was an innocent passerby heard the commotion and stuck his head in to see what was going on. Bill, wanting to minimize witnesses raised his rifle and shot him in the head. He escaped with $164 and continued on the run for several months before being found guilty of Ernest’s murder in 1895.
Lenapah’s population remained steady at around 340 people throughout the 1930s & 1940s as it was one of the towns theUnion Electric Railway ran through. The Union Electric system connects Lenapah to the nearby town of Nowata and other towns in Southern Kansas. The nearby towns that experienced oil-booms had little effect on Lenapah’s population and the town itself. Like many boomtowns, Lenapah shared the same fate of declining populations and businesses. As of 2002, it had three businesses including a construction firm and a retail trade establishment.
It was deemed the “Cowboy Capital of the World” due to the several World Champion cowboys the town produced throughout the decades. Those include Fred Lowry, a 6-time World Champion Seer Roper throughout 1916-29. Lowry was the first contestant to hold rodeo schools to which he charged no admission. Hard work was required at the school and Fred enjoyed watching them learn the techniques of quick horn catches. and had won the Cheyenne steer roping more times than anyone else ever has. As well as Nowata Slim Richardson who was a World Champion in 1926. Two of Fred Lowry’s students Everett Shaw and Shoat Webster following graduation went on to become World Champions just like their teacher. Everett Shaw was a 5-time champion and Shoat Webster was close behind with four champion titles, both reigned throughout 1946-1962. Lastly, Buck Rutherford, who competed in bareback riding, bull riding, saddle bronc riding and steer wrestling. He won the 1952 and 1954 championships.
St. Paul’s Baptist Church
Built: 1897 Abandoned: 2013
Predating the official establishment of the town by a year, this church started off as the St. Catherines Roman Catholic Church. It was located about 1 ½ blocks west of the train tracks. A group from Independence, Kansas encouraged the Catholic, but nonetheless, Catholicism did not take off and the church was vacant by about 1901 or before. The great former sanctuary was then considered as being the site for the Lenapah School. But the idea never came to fruition for one reason or another. The building remained vacant for several years after waiting for its new life.
Sometime around 1913-1915, the St. Paul Baptists, a mainly African American congregation purchased the building. The sanctuary was then moved to the east side of the railroad tracks to its permanent home where it still sits today. Many improvements and renovations were made to the church being as it had sat vacant for many years which changed its appearance greatly. Owen Fauntleroy (1892-1987) told a story that as a youngster, he rode on the back end of the skid rails as the church was moved across the tracks.
The St. Paul Baptist Church remains an important establishment in Lenapah, though the congregation doesn’t meet behind its doors anymore. The last service was held there in 2013 with many old members reaping the loss of their church. After speaking to many of the locals I heard many of them recount how great Pastor James Nave was and Brother Earl Scarborough. A few years after its abandonment a handful of local kids repainted the dilapidated church to make it look a little better.
Lenapah Elementary School
Built: 1959 Abandoned: 1991
Construction started at the Lenapah Elementary School in 1958 and consists of brick and concrete, presenting itself nicely with a breezeway to the main classroom building. “When I was in the second grade, our class would watch the construction out of our music room window,” recalls Barry Swanson. What remains of it in the cafeteria, a few classrooms, and a concrete basement beneath. The concrete basement was used for several years after its closure as the only storm shelter in Lenapah but soon after electricity was cut-off and no sump-pump it soon filled with water making it an unviable shelter.
Talks started around 1988 of a major consolidation between Lenapah and three other districts, something that had never been experimented within rural Oklahoma. Lenapah, Wann, Delaware, and South Coffeyville assessed the major experiment and how it would affect the students and towns themselves. Superintendent of Lenapah, Lewis Mann Jr., and Wann Superintendent Bob Biggs pushed heavily for the consolidation. “If we left this up to our students they’d go for it in a minute,” said Mann. “We could offer so much more to our students if we worked together,” commented Biggs. Benefits to the new centralized school would be larger class sizes, more resources and better classes allowing for specialized teachers to be brought in. There was hesitation from Delaware and South Coffeyville districts about the merger, raising questions about equal representation within the new five-person appointed school board that would be created.
After the consolidation, there was some worry from the townspeople that Lenapah’s history would dissipate after the loss of their school. Lenapah Historical Society Member Barry Swanson was determined not to let that happen. He has spent nearly three decades gathering class pictures, trophies, yearbooks, newspapers, etc. for the museum there to keep the history alive. The museum is located in the 1938 WPA stone-built gym located next to the Lenapah High School.
Phillip Bierck Lumber Yard
Built: 1903 Abandoned: ~1930s
In the summer months, the brick structure at the center of town is hidden by towering trees, overgrown shrubs, and grass making it virtually impossible to spot unless you’re looking closely. But in the fall/winter season the peeled back greenery makes for a shocking discovery of a perfect shell of the once Lumber Yard building owned by Phillip Bierck. For many years townspeople and elders pondered over what the building was, most can remember it being a bare shell of bricks for all of their lives. It wasn’t until local historian Barry Swanson researched the 1900s era of Lenapah to discover what the building truly was.
In 1903, local carpenter and builder Phillip Bierck set to work on constructing a two-story brick lumber yard. Bierck was obviously a very good craftsman considering the bare bones are still standing to this date, almost as if it ready to be under construction once again. The front portion was used as office space with the back containing the lumber. He also sold windows, nails, sash, lime, and cement an all you could need carpenter shop that took care of your contracting and building as well. He constructed a shed on the property as well that would be used as a saw room to which he added an extension in 1905. Bierck was always known to be manufacturing and crafting woodwork in this shed for wagons, buggies, and businesses out of the easy-to-find hickory in the area and walnut. Numerous dwellings were built by or with materials supplied to them by Phillip Bierck. While it is unknown the exact year when this building was abandoned, a photograph featured in the local paper at the groundbreaking of the Baptist Church in 1949, shows the rock building in the background, looking the same as it does today.
To read more on Lenapah’s History with numerous historic images buy Barry Swanson’s book, Early History of Lenapah Indian Territory, Oklahoma.
Article by AOK Photojournalist Emily Cowan and Barry Swanson.
Fred Lowry, photograph, Date Unknown; (https://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc1594489/: accessed December 17, 2020), The Gateway to Oklahoma History, https://gateway.okhistory.org; crediting Oklahoma Historical Society.
“12 May 1916, 3 – The Topeka Plaindealer at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/381856417/?terms=lenapah%20baptist%20church&match=1.
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“17 Jun 1904, 4 – The Lenapah News at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/606546449/?terms=phillip%20bierck%20lumber%20yard&match=1.
“18 Nov 1892, Page 6 – The Coffeyville Weekly Journal at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/56925108/?terms=schufeldt%2Bstore%2Blenapah.
“23 Jun 1905, 1 – The Lenapah News at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/606547095/?terms=phillip%20bierck%20lumber%20yard&match=1.
“27 Dec 1988, 9 – The Daily Oklahoman at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/452048741/?terms=lenapah%2Bhigh%2Bschool.
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“7 Mar 1895, 2 – The Daily Dunklin Democrat at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/687214153/?terms=lenapah%20robbery&match=1.
“8 Jun 1992, 96 – The Daily Oklahoman at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/454456349/?terms=lenapah%2Bhigh%2Bschool.
“Hard Feelings Follow Merging of Rural Schools.” Oklahoman.com, 20 May 1990, oklahoman.com/article/2318085/hard-feelings-follow-merging-of-rural-schools.
“Lenapah | The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.” Oklahoma Historical Society, www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=LE013.
“Lenepah’s Lowry Dominated Roping in His Day.” Oklahoman.com, 24 Jan. 1988, oklahoman.com/article/2213417/lenepahs-lowry-dominated-roping-in-his-day.