Opening Doors: Foster School

Editor’s note: This is the first of a monthly column about the exhibits at the Kansas Oil Museum. The column will run the last Saturday of each month.

Nestled under the trees on the 10 acres of the Kansas Oil Museum is the Foster School House; organized March 14, 1885. Walking through the doorway into this historic building, I was inspired by a little known historical fact related to one-room schools and its correlation to the future of museums.

The Foster School House is the only historic building on the property where the entrance door opens out. It actually is a very awkward door. You have to step up onto the landing to unlock the door and then step off the landing to open the door before entering. My curious mind wondered why you would build the doorway in this manner. This curiosity brought to mind the history of another one-room school located in Babbs Switch, Okla.

Babbs Switch no longer exists, but was located 7 miles south of Hobart, Okla., where the General Tommy Franks Leadership Institute and Museum is located. As former director of that organization, I learned much about the local history in the area. Today, Babbs Switch is home to a rest stop with picnic table and historical marker. However, the story of the Babbs Switch School fundamentally impacted all of our lives and the Foster School House.

On Dec. 24, 1924, over two hundred people attended a Christmas Eve party in the Babbs Switch School. A Christmas tree decorated with lighted candles stood at the front of the room, and presents were placed on the tree for the children. A teenage student dressed as Santa Claus was removing presents from the tree when flames from one of the candles ignited paper decorations, tinsel and dry needles. The fire spread quickly. People rushed to the building's only door, which opened inward. It was soon jammed with people desperate to escape. The windows were blocked by secure metal screens meant to prevent vandals from breaking into the school. Thirty six people died in the fire. The dead and injured were transported by car to Hobart.

The Babbs Switch fire became national news. It launched a campaign to improve school safety. In response to the fire, the State of Oklahoma passed the Fawks Bill, which improved fire safety requirements for schools. The law required all schools to have a minimum of two doors opening outward. School safety across the nation became a major concern including in Kansas.

 © 2015 Warren Martin. All Rights Reserved.

© 2015 Warren Martin. All Rights Reserved.

In the earliest photos of the Foster School House (before 1924), it is clear the doorway opens inward. This is not surprising as almost all buildings were built in this way. However, in pictures dated to 1926 we see the entire doorway including the window above the door has been turned around to open outward. This created an awkward entrance to the school house, but a much a safer exit.

I did a non-scientific study of dozens of people in the area. I simply asked, “What is a door for?” The almost universal answer, “It is there so you can get into a room.” A couple people stated that a door was to keep people from getting in, but not a single person said a door was so you can get out of a room. We have a tendency to focus on getting people in rather than getting out. This proved tragic at Babbs Switch. It can also prove to be a social tragedy for museums.

Museums are wonderful institutions of learning, but have an almost exclusive focus on how to get people in the front door. Don’t get me wrong. We want and need people to walk through the front door. However, the future of museums depends on how to get out of the door and into communities and educational institutions.

The vision of the Kansas Oil Museum is to develop our collections, facilities and programming to be a vital educational asset in our region. This is not going to happen if it is dependent on getting everyone to enter through the front door. It is dependent on the development and adaptation of educational programs that meet people where they are and make an investment in their lives — an educational investment built on the foundation of history.

Museums are at a vital crossroads. To remain relevant and engaged in the story of our communities, museums are going to have to adapt. If our doors only open inward, the consequences for the future will be dire.

The Kansas Oil Museum is dedicated to turning the door around and engaging communities. We are currently working with community partners, schools and businesses to adapt programming to meet the needs of the community. We invite you to join us in this effort. It is vital for the future of our nation to invest in educational programming built on the solid foundation of history.

© 2015 Warren Martin. All Rights Reserved.