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Kaw Mission: Construction

Kaw Mission State Historic Site, Council GroveThe Kaw Mission was the brainchild of Reverend Thomas Johnson, superintendent of the Methodist missions in Kansas and headmaster of Shawnee Methodist Mission near the Missouri border. Reverend Johnson sent Allan T. Ward, construction foreman for the building of the Shawnee Mission, to Council Grove to build a mission and school on the Kanza (or Kaw) Reservation. Ward and a construction crew of 25 workmen traveled from Shawnee Mission to Council Grove to build the Kaw Mission in early September 1850.

Ward intended to locate the mission near the center of the reservation for easy access to the Kaw villages, but he chose to build to the west of center in order to be near the Neosho River. This location would give the workers the water they needed for construction. Ward also realized that locating the hand-dug well near the river where the water table was highest would make their work much easier and quicker. Even in this location the workers had to dig down 27 feet to reach good water.

The construction of the mission was quite a job to tackle. The dimensions of the main building are 36 feet by 51 feet. The outer walls are solid stone, 22 inches thick from the ground to the rooflines. Four stone chimneys service the eight fireplaces, one in each of the eight rooms and two 18-inch thick stone walls flanking the downstairs hallway serve as load bearing walls supporting the upstairs.

The stones were probably quarried from the east side of Belfry Hill. They were then hauled to the Kaw Mission site on flatbed wagons and installed by the stone masons. One of the largest stones measures fifteen inches by fourteen inches by forty-four inches and weighs an estimated 924 pounds.

The mortar for the stone joints was a mixture of lime, sand, and water made onsite by baking limestone shavings (left from cutting the stone) in round lime kilns built on Belfry Hill. The men would have placed alternating layers of limestone and wood inside the bellies of the kilns. When the wood was burned inside the kilns the limestone became soft and easy to pulverize into lime. The sand and gravel in the Neosho streambed would have been mined and screened to produce the mason’s sand, which was mixed with the lime and Neosho River water to produce the mortar.

After only three months of work, Ward wrote a letter to his brother dated December 21, 1850, stating the stonemasons had completed their work and they would be returning to the Shawnee Mission, leaving behind about a dozen carpenters to complete the construction of building. They fought their way through a bitter snowstorm while making the 125-mile journey east on the Santa Fe Trail toward the mission.

Three months later, in a letter dated February 23, 1851, Ward announced that the construction of Kaw Mission was complete after only six months of work. The carpenters had trimmed the interior of the stone building with native walnut. Floor boards, ceiling molding, baseboards, door and window trim, and the stairways were all constructed of walnut. Today only two pieces of this original woodwork survive and both are displayed at the Kaw Mission: a 4”x4”x3” cube of walnut and the original newel post cap.

The Kaw Mission building has functioned in many ways through the years. The Kansas Historical Society purchased the building in 1951 from Carl Huffaker, the 10th child of Thomas Huffaker, who came to the mission 100 years earlier to become the first Kaw Mission teacher. The Kaw Mission State Historic Site is now open to the public as a museum.

Entry: Kaw Mission: Construction

Author: Teresa Jenkins

Date Created: January 2012

Date Modified: September 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.