Boats, Books and Badges: St. Martin’s Academy Offers a Unique Education for Young Men

At Kansas all-boys school, students are formed in academics, drawing on the liberal arts tradition; in traditions of Catholic prayer and liturgy; in sports and comradery; and virtue.

St. Martin’s Academy offers a well-rounded education, rooted in prayer and brotherhood.
St. Martin’s Academy offers a well-rounded education, rooted in prayer and brotherhood. (photo: Courtesy of St. Martin’s Academy; canoe photo: Julian Kwasniewski)

Coming around the bend, sunlight filtering through the trees across the windshield, a large wooden farmhouse house comes into view: a first glimpse of St. Martin’s Academy in Fort Scott, Kansas.

Atop a grassy hill, a figure rummages beneath a tall pine tree that stands in front of the house. He straightens himself. “Daniel Kerr.” 

A strong handshake. It’s the school’s headmaster.

“You must be Julian. Good to meet you. I’m just planting some roses. It’s our workday Wednesday today, so we’re just getting these in.” 

He finishes positioning a few plants and then suddenly stops to listen to birdsong — he identifies the species by ear, trying to catch a glimpse of it in the woods. “The first of the season.”

Before long, I’m watching Chris Carter, an old classmate, back a pickup truck and trailer into the school’s woodlot, and I’ve shaken hands with half a dozen of the high school’s students. On the agenda: milling wood today, cutting whole logs into planks using a small sawmill. 

All over the school property — which is also a farm — the young men and their mentors are at work, nailing, polishing, carrying, digging.

Carter’s students, mixed upper and lower classmen, haul the logs and lock them in place on the bed of the sawmill, adjusting the height of the saw. One pulls the engine’s cord, and it rumbles to life; he double-checks the water-coolant knob. From a tank atop the sawmill, water drips onto the saw blade to keep it cool while cutting through logs. Sawdust floats in the sunlight. A minute later, two teens are pulling a freshly milled log from the mill.

Adam Taylor, assistant headmaster, on a guided tour around the property, explains the school’s mission while walking through the rich, green grass of the cow pasture: “We’re neither an Ivy League prep school nor a delinquent boy’s reformation center.” 

A boarding school, St. Martin’s 70 students come from a wide background of families. They have come here to be formed in academics, drawing on the liberal arts tradition; in traditions of Catholic prayer and liturgy; in sports and comradery; and virtue. 

The vision at St. Martin’s is summed up in four goals: to awaken wonder, heal the imagination, increase attentiveness, and restore authentic masculinity. Taylor explains that this occurs through encouraging and sometimes requiring students to expand their horizons. 

In the classroom, academics include Latin, theology, music, humanities, mathematics and natural history. Outside of the classroom, as is especially evident on “workday Wednesday,” the staff fosters engagement with crafts. This builds dexterity, manual skills, self-confidence, a taste for adventure and a spirit of self-sacrifice — after all, they have to rise very early to milk the cows whose delicious, thick whole milk they’ll be drinking throughout the day below the wide rafters of the common hall.

The farmhouse contains the chapel, kitchen and mess hall and downstairs library (replete with photographs of Tolkien and Belloc), plus a faculty lounge. Nearby, five bunkhouses stand on the hill, several of which the first St. Martin’s students helped their professors build. Taylor explains that the ongoing building and expansion of the school forms a large part of the manual trades the boys get a taste of.

“We’re not trying to make them professional tradesmen,” he says, but explains that it’s important to give them a taste of these different activities — what it will allow them to do is go on to choosing a college and various career paths with a wider life experience, wider skill set and sense for basic natural realities. 

St. Martin’s Academy 2
Studying to sawmills: The students spend time in and outside of the classroom in Fort Smith, Kansas.(Photo: Courtesy of St. Martin’s Academy; farmhouse and sawmill photos: Julian Kwasniewski)

The 70-strong student body fits the size of the property well, and Taylor says, despite a waiting list, enrollment is capped at 70 to preserve the personal atmosphere.

The origins of the school go back to students of John Senior, a professor at the University of Kansas in the 1970s whose thought has influenced numerous revivals of the liberal arts in conjunction with a passion for manual, athletic and artistic flourishing.

The liberal arts-inspired curriculum includes ancient authors like Homer, Shakespeare and Dante and more modern authors such as Winston Churchill (on World War II), George Orwell's Animal Farm and recent papal encyclicals. 

Music forms an essential part of the curriculum. Besides learning to sing Gregorian chant for their liturgies, the boys regularly pick up the guitars and mandolins that hang from the common-room walls. The school’s website explains that making live music “teaches the students that music is not simply something for passive consumption. Folk music opens one up to a living, oral tradition.” 

In the lumber yard is Joseph Moleski, a senior and the fifth of 11 children; though he’s never studied Latin before, “he’s one of our best," Carter says as he works with a log. Carter teaches music and immersion Latin, where the primary mode of learning is speaking Latin rather than memorizing grammar and focusing on translation. 

Besides taking care of the farm and upkeep of the buildings, workdays allow the young scholars to work on their various badges. Loosely inspired by scouting badges, the academy’s students work hard to gain accomplishments known by names such as “Naturalist,” “Provisioner” and “Navigator.” 

The current buzz of the sawmill is helping boys earn “Navigator” badges: Two-men teams build their own canoes from scratch and successfully canoe down a 30-mile stretch of river near the school. 

A handful of boys from the workshop stop by to see if the planks the sawmill is producing are going to be the right size for their canoes; the current method of building is to make a wooden boat frame and then cover it with waterproof canvas. The design involves compromise between stability in the water, durability so that stray sticks or stones along the river shore won’t puncture the fabric, and overall weight of the canoe. 

One of the challenges of the route involves portage, where the crews will have to carry the canoe around a dam and then put it back in the water. The route usually takes about a day and a half, and Taylor and other staff accompany the students in more durable backup boats, since not all the canoes are guaranteed to make it.

Athletics are taken very seriously here too, and, following the English boarding-school tradition, the focus is rugby. Their team, the Kingfishers, are fiercely competitive and recently won the state high-school rugby championship. 

St. Martin’s Academy never admits boys without making sure they and their parents visit the school first. Some love it, and others realize it’s a bit too serious for them. 

Says Kerr, “You have to see it to believe it.”