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MEMORIES IN FOCUS:   Food for thought from the early 1900s

MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

Students and school employees gather for an annual junior-senior banquet, a forerunner of modern proms, in 1903 in the hallway of the second floor of Marion’s historic hill school building.

More than a century ago, nearly half of school-age children never enrolled in school.

Still, with its landmark 1873 stone school, now on the National Register of Historic Places, Marion was known for placing a premium on education.

In the decades up to 1910, no more than 1 in 10 teenagers attended high school, but Marion High School set records with 14 graduates in 1894, 1898, and 1904.

Athletics had not yet become a major concern in schools. Town teams and church and business leagues dominated sports.

Instead, education was considered a great equalizer. Although some life skills were taught, instruction was intentionally kept the same for all students — those bound for college and those planning to enter the work force immediately.

Classes focused largely on classic liberal arts.

Among the annual events still practiced was a junior-senior banquet, the forerunner of school proms.

In the accompanying photo, participating members of the eight-student Class of ’03 and the record-tying 14-student Class of ’04 dined with school employees on the second floor of the stone school.

Among those present were, from left at the front table, seniors Wilder Day and Mabel Brumbaugh, junior Walter Bown, and senior Elsie Clark.

At the second table, from left, were junior Omer Marner, teacher Martha Grosser, senior Horace Warning, and junior Virgie Donaldson, whose name does not appear on the ’04 graduation list but who entered the local work force nonetheless.

At the third table, from left, were juniors Mariam Bates and Alvin Wight, the wife of soon-to-depart superintendent W.B. Hall, and junior Imogen Dean.

Sitting next to a piano was school janitor C.A. McBurney. Other students were less obviously visible in the back.

Commencement was a bit different than it is today.

For the Class of ’04 — “as fine a lot of young folks as one could wish to see or know,” the Marion Record reported at the time — each graduate except Wilton Vaughn, who was ill, gave an oration at the event, which charged admission of 10 cents (the equivalent of $2.82 today).

Topics were not necessarily what you might imagine. The children of a local Methodist minister, Agenor Faroat spoke about “Human Progress” and Emory Faroat spoke about “Capital and Labor.”

Dora Holder, from a prominent African American family, spoke about “Opportunity: The Highway to Success,” 50 years before the celebrated Brown vs. Board of Education decision banned segregation of schools in Topeka and nationwide.

Eight years before Kansas became the eighth state to extend voting rights to women, Ruth King spoke on “The Opportunities of the American Girl.”

Other topics ranged from Walter Bown’s “The Progress of Our County,” to Miriam Bates’s “Bubbles,” with intriguing topics like Jessie Knowles’s “Leaks in Mental Reservoirs” thrown in.

The photo was contributed to Marion Historical Museum by relatives of Omer Marner, whose topic was “The Louisiana Purchase.”

As a toddler, Marner, son of physician Gideon P. Marner (1856-1945), moved to “the thriving town of Marion,” as the Clay Center Times put it, in 1892 from Morganville in Clay County.

In 1898, he became what the Marion Headlight described as “the proudest boy in Marion” when he received a thoroughbred Jersey cow from his father as a Christmas present.

A year later, he was part of a “Brownie Menagerie” for the town’s Fourth of July parade.

Brownies were stereotypically exaggerated but harmonious animal and human adventurers from a series of illustrated children’s books published between 1887 and 1913.

In the parade, Omer portrayed the Negro Brownie. Other children portrayed the cowboy, Indian, Irishman, Chinaman, Swede, and Dutchman along with monkey and frog Brownies.

As a high school student, Omer helped out in a Marion feed store. The summer before graduation, he worked as a migrant harvester in Rush County, earning $2 a day (the equivalent of $57 today).

In 1907, Omer became active in Republican politics, winning the modern equivalent of a precinct committeeman’s position before taking a month off to go to Saskatchewan to make improvements on his father’s land claim there.

In 1908, he moved first to Oklahoma and then to California to work alongside several other Marion men in oil fields. By 1912, he was managing a lumberyard in McFarland, California, near Bakersfield.

That year, Record editor E.W. Hoch visited him and recounted him as offering high praise for prohibition laws in Kansas.

“Kansas young men are in demand everywhere,” Hoch quoted him as saying, “because they do not have the saloon habit like the average young fellow from saloon states.”

During World War I, Marner served as a sergeant first class with an Army ordinance depot company while his father served as a physician.

Born in 1884, Omer Marner died in 1957 and was buried in Los Angles National Cemetery. Other members of his family are buried in Marion Cemetery.

Last modified March 15, 2019

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