Understanding the events of the past is important because our history defines us as people and serves as a measure of progress, according to a second-generation researcher and recorder of Pratt County history and the granddaughter of some of the county’s earliest settlers.

Understanding the events of the past is important because our history defines us as people and serves as a measure of progress, according to a second-generation researcher and recorder of Pratt County history and the granddaughter of some of the county’s earliest settlers.

Before Pratt County was even organized, and just a year after the little town of Iuka was established on the prairie, Dr. John R. Gray, wife Elizabeth and five-year-old son Robert left Iowa in search of adventure — to see what a real frontier looked like, according to the tale recorded in “Pioneer Saints and Sinners,” by J. Rufus Gray, the son of Dr. John and Elizabeth Gray, and father of Dorotha Giannangelo.

In 1878 they found about 50 people living at Iuka, which they selected because Dr. Gray’s brother was already there. They staked a claim and built a soddy in the middle of what is now the Pratt Regional Air Field, and set up practice in the town.

Gray had the distinction of having graduated from a medical school; many doctors at the time had learned their profession under the supervision of another doctor. Elizabeth Gray served an apprenticeship with a pharmacist and earned her pharmacy license in Kansas.

“Grandma loved being a pioneer,” Giannangelo said. “It was a hard life but she had always lived a hard life. Everything was an adventure for her.”

Sara Elizabeth Marguerite Beucler grew up on a farm in New Boston, Iowa. Her father, a French immigrant, established what was known as a Swiss Village, a farm with its own blacksmith shop, sugar mill, dairy and pottery works. He died as a result of an accident, the Civil War claimed the three sons as Union soldiers, and 12-year-old Elizabeth was left to run the farm for her ailing mother and two sisters.

The Grays lived in Iuka for seven years, during which the town lost its bid for the county seat in what has been termed the “county seat wars.” They moved to Pratt and he continued to practice medicine and she set up shop in the Center Drug Store on South Main. Their second son, John Rufus, was born in Pratt. Twelve years later, the Grays returned to Iowa, but returned in 1905. Dr. Gray died in 1907.

Giannangelo knew her grandfather only through family stories, but has many memories of her grandmother, whom she described as an independent woman, an ardent prohibitionist, a suffragette and a patriot. She believed that if women could vote, their influence would solve some major evils of society: the neglected or abandoned family, child labor and even war . . . “what mother would vote to send her son to war?”

An interest in history was always present in the family.

“After Christmas dinner Grandma, Uncle Bob and Father would reminisce,” Giannangelo recalled. “It was always interesting.”

A longtime science teacher at Pratt High School, J. Rufus Gray started writing “Pioneer Saints and Sinners” when Dorotha and older sister Margaret were in high school. “It became kind of a family project,” Giannangelo noted.

As a boy living in the new town of Pratt, he heard stories of pioneers and later heard different versions.

“I was curious as to who was telling the correct story and what the correct story was,” he told Alar Mawdsley, who wrote the foreward to Gray’s first book. “I began going to the sources — to the men and women who were involved in the stories or who were witnesses. At this time I began taking notes.”

The book was published by the Pratt Rotary Club in 1968.

Gray gave his daughter some useful advice.

“He told me, quote someone if you want to but back it up with research,” Giannangelo said. “I have followed that.”

Her story begins in Pratt, where she has lived most of her life, except for the time when she attended the University of Iowa and two years of teaching, during which she became convinced she was not cut out to be confined in a structured classroom.

She returned to Pratt, worked as a secretary at the Pratt Army Airfield during World War II and in 1947 married Dr. Emil Giannangelo. The sixth of eight children of an Italian immigrant family in Pennsylvania, he first came to Kansas on a football scholarship to Bethany College. After four years in dental school in Kansas City, he came to Pratt to take over the dental practice of Dr. Walter Baker.

She was her husband’s dental assistant for two years and assisted him in Christian volunteer dental service for one month in each of 25 years in Central and South America and other countries. She also helped organize the Pratt County Mental Health Association that brought the Horizons clinic to Pratt, escorted nearly 10,000 Kansas high school students to Washington, D.C., and New York, volunteered as stage decorator and wardrobe mistress for the Miss Kansas Pageant, and volunteered for 20 years at the Pratt County Historical Society Museum.

They were the parents of Maria, who died at age 42 in an automobile accident.

Giannangelo’s first writing project was “Ten Cent Tablet and a Penny Pencil,” which she began with the sole intention of providing an accurate listing of all Pratt High School graduates.

“I kept finding more (information) and it was fun,” she said. The book grew to include all the teachers, superintendents, janitors, school nurses and cooks, as well as board members. It also includes the story of “where did that frog come from — I’ve had sports editors from all over the country call me,” Giannangelo said.

 She also wrote “Rural Schools of Pratt County Kansas,” “Lemon Park and the Pratt Municipal Parks” and “Pratt Army Air Field: World War II, 1943-45.”

Her favorite is “Did You Know: Stories of Pratt County Kansas.”

Unpublished projects include “Prairie Portrait,” a thick binder of all the stories of Pratt pioneers that have been written, “History of Main Street,” detailing the ownership of every building —from 2008 to 2009 there were 22 changes, she noted — and a collection of “What Happened in Pratt County 100 Years Ago,” which she has edited from the Pratt Union newspaper and which are printed monthly in the Tribune.

During her research over the years, she came across an article from the 1887 Pratt County Press that begins, “Many persons coming west have been agreeably surprised at the intelligence and culture of our people…”

“Sometimes people have a low opinion of the pioneers, thinking them ignorant and uncultured,” she said. “They had to be educated people or they would not have survived.”