Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

November 7, 2011

Lost and found

The Lost City School bell has found a new home in front of the community building.

TAHLEQUAH — Many years ago, when residents of the Lost City area heard the school bell ring at odd hours, they did not ask for whom the bell tolled.

Instead, they counted the sounds. The bell rang to mark deaths in the community. When people knew that, for example, a local octogenarian was in bad health, they would learn of his passing when they heard the bell more than 80 times.

Today, people driving through Lost City would scarcely know it once contained between 300 and 325 residents, a store and a thriving country school. A chain-link fence surrounds the school, which closed in May 2008. Passersby can see part of the old stone school building from Lost City Road, behind newer additions. Houses sit on acreages around the area, and two or three country churches serve the population.

Next to the abandoned school sits the Lost City Community Center. Residents organized to keep the former Head Start building as a nexus for community activities after the school closed. Recently the building’s front yard became home to a familiar piece of Lost City history — the old school bell.

Sharon Gifford, who served as school board president at the time of the school closing, now is president of the Lost City Community Organization.

“When the school closed Hulbert got the school building. I talked to the superintendent and asked him if we could have the bell. He said OK,” Gifford said.

Cherokee County Commissioner Bobby Botts agreed to remove the bell, which was set in concrete, and store it. When the community group was ready to have it installed in its new site, Botts and his crews did so. Recently, a dedication ceremony was held for the bell.

Most Lost City residents have long ties to the community and school. They speak of a spirit that existed there over the past century, one they want to see survive. Even those who have moved away have fond memories, they say.

“I was born here, and I’m about the fifth or sixth generation to live on this farm,” said Fonda Fisher.

The family came to the area in 1909, just after statehood. During the dedication, she spoke of receiving a call in 2008 from a former Lost City resident, who then lived in Death Valley. Knowing he was nearing the end of his life, he hungered for the places he loved during his childhood.

“He was dying and he requested a picture of the bell and of 14-Mile Creek,” Fisher said. She took them and sent them to him.

Fisher started attending school at Lost City at age 4, although she wasn’t yet officially school age. The tiny girl would go to the school door and beg teacher Jesse Crawford to let her in. Crawford would comply, and Fisher sat in on the classes.

The two-room school had first through third grades in the “little room,” fourth through eighth grades in the “big room.” Fisher has loving memories of Crawford and the other teachers, Mae Young and Barney Mitchell. She said they inspired her to become a teacher. She began her career as an intern teacher at Lost City, and retired from there a few years before its closing, spending the intervening 38 years teaching at Liberty, Peggs and Hulbert.

During her first year, she taught all eight grades in one room.

“Kids were interested in learning, respectful. They became a member of your family and you became a member of theirs,” she said. “Lost City School in earlier years was known as one of the premier schools in the county school system.

“The thing that I remember was that the teachers played with us. They made up games. They also took us places we’d never have gone to visit,” she said.

Mitchell took them on excursions to Clear Creak, played “kick the can” with the students, and organized wiener roasts.

The faculty also brought food for the students in those days before government school lunches. Fisher remembers Mitchell standing at an old stove in the front of the building, stirring a pot of beans. Sometimes Mitchell would bring chicken and dumplings his mother made, which the students considered a real treat.

“He brought milk to school, and he pasteurized it by boiling it on the stove up front. If he burned it, we had cocoa,” Fisher said.

The students brought in water and took turns drinking it, using a shared dipper.

For their eighth-grade trip, her class rode to Siloam Springs in the back of Mitchell’s pickup. They had lunch and played in the park. For many, it was their first trip outside Oklahoma.

“For we country kids who had never had anything, it was a magical time,” Fisher said. “We were all in the same poor shape and we all shared everything we had. It was a time when everybody loved everybody, and they lived in harmony with each other.”

Among her classmates were the late Hastings Shade, Cherokee traditionalist and former deputy principal chief. Fisher remembers the art work he used to do for the school.

Fisher also remembers the first Thanksgiving dinner at the school, when she was in eighth grade.

“Mr. Mitchell put us in charge not only of cleaning the turkey, but of killing it,” she said, recalling that the task took the sympathetic students quite a while because they felt sorry for the bird. “Then we picked the old turkey and we roasted it the next day. Most of us had chicken, but some had never had turkey before.”

While Alene Eddings has been in Lost City only 35 years, she taught there for 25 years. She still has vivid memories of her years there.

“It was a wonderful, small community school, a close-knit group. We really enjoyed each other’s company. We had great community support, and we had a great Parent-Teacher Organization, who tried to support us in every way,” she said.

Eddings is glad the Lost City Community Organization is keeping the spirit thriving.

“It [the bell] just kind of ties the old with the new, keeping our tradition going and the memories alive,” she said. “I didn’t remember when it played such an important part in our community, but it’s neat to have it there now.”

Gifford said the bell is an important symbol for Lost City. Like Fisher, she belongs to a family with strong Lost City ties.

“My husband was born and raised here. We live on the home place. He went to school there, his brother and sister, and his mom and dad worked at the school. My son went to the school in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade,” she said.

Today, the center has groups that regularly meet there, such as a monthly scrapbooking club. It’s regularly rented out for parties, reunions, anniversaries and other occasions. It’s next to the cemetery, and provides a place to host luncheons for family members attending funerals. This Friday night there will be bingo, and a gospel sing on Nov. 19.

“In order to keep the community together, I wanted to have a community organization where we could all have a bond,” Gifford said. “I think it’s just part of the feeling of home. Everybody’s so home here. It’s family-oriented. People feel comfortable here.”

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