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Leading Locally: Sarcoxie Community Foundation

Once a connection hub for flowers and fruit, the oldest town in Jasper County maintains unique sense of identity through history — such as Chief Sarcoxie Days, held annually to honor its namesake — and in creating new bonds of community

Leading Locally

Oldest town in Jasper County works to build community, resources and future

Change has been a constant in Sarcoxie, a community at the southeastern corner of Jasper County, since its inception in 1831.

In those early years, it was called Centerville, and was later known for its strawberry and peony production, industries in which the community was said to be a leader across the country. It was also unique for the belief that the town would always be tornado-free, a decree made by its namesake, Chief Sarcoxie of the Delaware tribe.

“Supposedly he held his finger up to the wind and said, ‘There will be no tornadoes here,’” says lifelong resident Dr. Debra Royce.

That story has remained such a part of the community that, in 1969, when Royce says winds “drove straw through telephone poles and took dog houses and moved them across the town,” it still wasn’t called a tornado.

“It was a tornado, but they wouldn’t call it that in deference to Chief Sarcoxie,” says Royce.

Black-and-white photographs show crowds in town in days when Sarcoxie was a “big” city of several hundred people that drew local rural families to trade.

“They show all the horses and buggies and the carts and the real old cars that came into town on Saturday night,” says Judy Patrick. “All the parking places were full and people were walking around. But way back then — coming to Sarcoxie was a big deal, and you didn’t go anywhere else. You just stayed right in your community. Now people drive to Tulsa to eat dinner — it’s no big deal.”

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Sarcoxie is the oldest community in Jasper County, and its downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Folks still gather some Saturday nights: The senior center hosts monthly fried-chicken dinners, for which folks flock to the square. Most days, however, life has quieted in Sarcoxie since when its downtown — today listed on the National Register of Historic Places— came to be.

Yet there is work being done to support the community, and one example is the Sarcoxie Community Foundation, which has distributed more than $781,388 since its inception in 2011.

“Times change things. One of our goals is to try to help the city as much as we can, and it’s not a one-person show,” says Patrick, who serves as a board member of the SCF. “It’s got to be a group of people trying to work together to make things better.”

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A memorial to U.S. military veterans is one project the Sarcoxie Community Foundation has helped support.

The SCF has served local needs ranging from the town’s outreach center to its new military veterans memorial, the aforementioned senior center and the town’s Nativity scene, looking out from high on a hill. It’s part of the community betterment efforts to spruce up the town, including strategies such as removing dilapidated houses.

It serves as a conduit of information when grants are available. An example came in 2022, when the Sarcoxie R-II School District was granted nearly $5,000 from the Coover Charitable Foundation to purchase exercise equipment for its teachers and staff.

The school district has also been a beneficiary of the SCF numerous times to support local students’ work. A scholarship fund exists to try to recruit former students back as teachers. Support is seen through classroom needs — and outdoors at the athletic complex, where the SCF helped raise $500,000 to complete the last payment for its construction several years ago.

“We can only give back to nonprofits, but they can donate it back to other projects,” says board president Gary Turner. “I think that’s a real plus for the community to have us available here for those types of projects.”

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The Sarcoxie R-II School District received nearly $5,000 from the Coover Charitable Foundation in 2022 to purchase workout equipment for its teachers and staff.

As with many rural communities, time has changed life in Sarcoxie. Long gone are the fruit-heady days, as well as key factory jobs of the latter 20th-century. Today, major employers include the school, nursing home and a few other manufacturing entities.

There are some empty storefronts, and a need for resources in the community with 75% of its students receiving free and reduced school lunches, an indicator of poverty.

Yet things are looking up.

Spirit is found in places like the Sarcoxie Red Front, a combination coffee shop, library and license office, which opened in early 2023 to create a gathering space. It’s also evident annually at Chief Sarcoxie Days, which honor Chief Sarcoxie, and where the SCF distributes its annual grants.

And for the first census in a long time, board members say, Sarcoxie’s population increased in 2020 — and like the grants, efforts are underway to help people get plugged in and connected.

“Getting there is not easy,” says board member Johnny Hankins of working to benefit the town through the foundation. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to try various things to make life more pleasant in Sarcoxie.”

Looking forward: Greater community awareness

Awareness and understanding are two goals of the SCF: To help share that the foundation exists, and also, what it can offer the community. 

“I bet if you walked around the town and you said tell me about the Sarcoxie Community Foundation, they’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’” says Royce, who also serves as a board member. “They just know they got a check; they’re not sure where that came from.”

The SCF began a Halloween-themed 5K run/walk in 2022 to raise funds while increasing awareness, which is planned again for this year. The board is also considering a community Thanksgiving dinner in 2023.

“(More awareness) is our biggest goal,” says Royce.

In their own words

Why do you serve?

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“I just think that it’s good to have the foundation available for the community and for individual people and different projects.”

Gary Turner, SCF board president

Sarcoxie cf portraits debra royce

“For me, it’s just that it’s an outlet to be able to funnel projects through when the need arises.”

Dr. Debra Royce, SCF board member

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“For the betterment of the community and the citizens, you know, trying to make life better, make the surroundings better.”

Johnny Hankins, SCF board member

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“If we think of something that we want to do, we can’t go out and do it ourselves. But we want to be able to help individuals, organizations or churches achieve whatever it is that they need. It’s kind of nice to be a tool to help with that.”

Judy Patrick, SCF board member

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"The Community Foundation of the Ozarks and the Sarcoxie Community Foundation offer great opportunities for our local 501c(3)s, and to assist them with their projects."

—Cindy Myers, SCF board member

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"Membership in the Community Foundation of the Ozarks has provided provided projects and opportunities for citizens, students and teachers to achieve success. Supporting community outreach has encouraged our citizens to work together."

—Gay Lynne Dawson, SCF board member

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