PRESERVING THE PAST: The Legacy of Alpha Owens

In the latest Preserving The Past column, Lynne Gentry introduces the acclaimed Alpha Owens, who grew up in Rockwell City and Lake City in the late 19th Century. [Photo courtesy of the Internet Archive]
Lynne Gentry
Special to The Graphic-Advocate

Tucked in the files at the Calhoun County Museum is a remarkable collection of memories associated with early Calhoun County. An orange, three-clip school folder contains a collection of purple mimeographed pages. 

Readers of a certain age can probably summon the alcohol smell of freshly copied worksheets at school. In fact, I’m sure you held those worksheets to your nose every time the teacher passed you a slightly damp copy!

This orange booklet is titled “My Early Life in Calhoun County.” The book itself is divided into three sections: Pioneer Life on the Farm, Farm Nature and Grandma Stories. The author, Alpha Owens, published the stories in 1965 with the help of two early museum volunteers, Attie Souder and Judy Webb. 

In 1965, Alpha Owens was 88 years old. Her story is as interesting as the stories she tells. The following is from the “About the Author” section of the booklet.


“Alpha Loretta Owens was the first child born in Rockwell City on August 19, 1887 to James and Nancy Owens, an early pioneer family. The name Alpha was chosen because it was the first letter in the Greek alphabet.

Her father, James, was a carpenter who came to Rockwell City with his wife, Nancy, from the Lake City area in 1877, when the first buildings were being planned and under construction. He built the first newspaper office and also worked on the first courthouse in Rockwell City.

Mr. Owens was also the first merchant in Rockwell City. In 1877, when the first Post Office was established, his wife was offered the position as postmaster, but declined the honor.

While living in Rockwell City, two sons, Herbert and Fred, were born. In 1881, the family moved to Lake City where James was a merchant until 1887. The family moved to a farm between Lake City and Lohrville where they resided until l892. 

The Owens children, like others of their day, attended country school, walking several miles to receive their education. When Alpha and her two brothers were ready for high school, they moved back to Lake City. Alpha graduated in 1895.

Alpha taught country school for two terms. In 1897, the family left Lake City and moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in order for the young Owens to further their education at the University of Kansas. Alpha and her brothers received their degrees from the university.

Alpha’s brother Herbert has won many honors in his field of civil engineering. He received a citation for his outstanding contributions to the scientific survey and mapping of the Kansas City area. 

Fred taught many years at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He was head of the Mathematics Department of Pennsylvania State University from 1925 until 1949.

Miss Owens taught seven years at Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas. She worked at the John Crerar Library in Chicago for 13 years. 

In 1929, she became the first woman to graduate from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, obtaining her doctorate in foreign languages. For 18 years, she was professor of Spanish at Morris Harvey College in Charleston, West Virginia. She retired in 1951 and returned to Lawrence, Kansas, where she still lives. 

It is her sincere wish that these stories give the children of Calhoun County a better understanding of what life was like in the early days.”


It delights me to be able to help make Alpha’s wish come true. Over the next several columns, I’ll be sharing the stories of Alpha Owens. 

My sincere wish is that her stories trigger your stories. The museum wants and needs your recollections of life in Calhoun Country from the 1940s through the present. 

The museum’s goal is to reflect the history of the county through the eyes of people who lived it.  Please write down your memories and share them with the museum.


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