OLD SCHOOL OF THE DAY
Victor School House
Old Prairie Town at Ward-Meade Historic Site and Botanical Garden
124 NW Fillmore St.
Topeka, KS 66606
Old Prairie Town at Ward-Meade Historic Site is a 5.5-acre open-air museum, park, and historic site located in Topeka, Kansas. Old Prairie Town is a county entity, operated by the Shawnee County, Kansas Parks and Recreation Department with a Recreation Program Supervisor and additional staff plus volunteers. The site was originally the homestead of the Anthony A. Ward family, who settled there in the 1850s and who were among the earliest settlers of the area that later became Topeka. The Ward-Meade house is considered the first mansion built in Topeka. Construction began in 1870, the same year as the first wing of the Statehouse. Anthony Ward was a wheelwright who held the sand rights on the Kansas River near his house. He sold sand to the builders of Topeka and made wheels for wagons that carried settlers to California. The Wards also taught and worked with the Native Americans who lived in the area. On April 16, 1874, John Mackey Meade, a civil engineer, came to Shawnee County from Virginia to survey the route of the Santa Fe Railroad. He married Jenny Ward, a daughter of Anthony, and they inherited the Ward House when her parents died. The Meades raised seven children in the house, which was owned by members of the family until it was purchased by the City of Topeka in 1960.
The Ward-Meade house and surrounding five acres were sold to the City of Topeka in the 1960s as a garden center. Shawnee County acquired the site when the City of Topeka and Shawnee County Parks and Recreation Departments consolidated in January 2011; the County continues to maintain part of the grounds as a botanical garden. In 1976, after being placed on the National Historic Register, the house became a Bicentennial project of the Junior League of Topeka. Restoration of the exterior and three main rooms of the first floor of the house were financed by private, state and federal funds. The work was completed and the house was opened to the public for seasonal tours as part of Topeka’s Bicentennial celebration. A volunteer board of directors, Historic Topeka Inc., was established to oversee the project. In 1984, a plan was developed by a group of volunteers affiliated with the Park to establish a prairie town at the site. The plan was approved by the Parks and Recreation Department and the City Commission a year later. The Board was actively involved in fundraising for the park until 1985.
The Botanical Garden at Old Prairie Town complex includes the 2 1⁄2-acre Ward-Meade Park Botanical Gardens. The gardens were designed by the Topeka Garden Clubs and are now under the care of a full-time horticulture staff of Parks and Recreation. There are also the restored 1874 Ward-Meade Mansion, which is on the National Register of Historic Places; the replica of the Ward’s cabin; and the developing turn-of-the-century town square called “Prairie Crossings Town Square.” The latter includes the Pauline Depot; the Santa Fe Depot and Caboose; the Lingo Livery Stable (which houses an Oregon Trail exhibit) and the newly built Lingo Tack Shop; the original Charles M. Sheldon study; the 1880 Everest Church; the Mulvane General Store, with the bank teller’s cage from Georgia Neese Gray’s bank (this serves as the gift shop and visitors center; the Potwin Drugstore, with a working soda fountain and physician’s and dental offices on the second floor (ice cream and soda fountain treats are served in the drugstore); and the 1891 Victor Schoolhouse from Rossville.
The Victor Schoolhouse at Old Prairie Town turned 125 years old in 2016. Many joined to celebrate the anniversary including former students, relatives of former schoolteachers, and even fourth and fifth-grade students from Rossville Elementary. The event began with Rossville students singing “Home on the Range” and “Happy Birthday” along with reciting a poem dedicated to the schoolhouse. The school was originally part of Victor Common School District No. 101. It was built for $490 and ran classes from 1891 until 1954. The school was donated to Mid-America Fairground Association in 1957 and became part of Old Prairie Town in Topeka in 1981. Doug Martinek, a former student and volunteer of the Friends of Ward-Meade Historic Site, was present to celebrate and reminisce with former classmates. Martinek now gives tours of the schoolhouse to area students where they can scribe on slates, and learn what it was like to be a student in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He said, “What I think is amazing is that the school is almost like we left it in 1954.” If people are looking for a unique experience for a class or youth group, they can come and spend an hour in the authentic one-room schoolhouse learning about Kansas country school legacy, ciphering on slates, participating in a spelling bee, and playing old-time games.