Commentary: Old schoolhouses are hardly rare in 2021
The overwhelming majority of East-Central Indiana’s remaining schoolhouses were first known as common schools. Funded by the state and administered by township, the schools were “common” insofar as a typical, common, resident could attend one. This was quite favorable to the previous system of subscription schools that, by necessity, educated only those patrons who could afford to pay the proprietor (Helm, 1881) for a teacher’s salary, building upkeep, and other pertinent expenses.
It’s ironic, then, that these common schools are still so common today. I’ve located and photographed fifty-four in Delaware County, forty-five in Madison County, and fourteen in Blackford County. That’s quite a lot considering that, with rare exception, most of them closed more than a century ago.
Contrary to my findings, it seems like nearly everywhere I turn as I research these places I find hand-wringing headlines or alarming articles that absolutely freak out about how few of these old schools are left. In 1991, Ball State professor Hugh Jones advised that there were only three brick schoolhouses in all of Delaware County that were able to be restored. The article that quoted him in The Muncie Star also advised that in 1878, there were only sixty-three brick schoolhouses in Delaware County (Swickard, 1991). Of course, three remaining structures out of sixty-three that once stood around these parts is an upsetting statistic.
I sort of get it, and the sentiment is partially true even if the numbers that the article presented are misleading without greater context: A quick look at Griffing, Gordon and Co.’s 1887 atlas -a widely-available publication even thirty years ago- shows an abundance of schoolhouses in Delaware County. Though occasionally some had more and some had less, a typical township in any of the three counties I mentioned had around ten common, rural, schoolhouses. Fifty-four one-room schools left in Delaware County alone is impressive until we consider that the place was, at one point, home to a hundred and twenty, all visible in the 1887 atlas and all in operation until 1897, when the county tentatively began consolidating some of its oldest and most rural schools (Kemper, 1908).
I don’t know where or how Professor Jones got his information, but the unavailable context of his findings is necessary to accurately interpret his remarks. On first glance, they sort of remind me of a conversation I witnessed on a local-history Facebook group a few years ago, when a woman asked the group what the tallest building in Muncie was.
Someone quickly responded that it was Ball Memorial Hospital’s North Tower, which rises 151 feet. Another respondent reported that the honor went to Ball State’s Teachers College, a ten-story building measuring 138 feet. The original poster answered back, saying that neither building counted as Muncie’s tallest according to her standards. The reason? They weren’t downtown.
Fresh off designing a scaled LEGO skyline of Muncie, the next commenter -me- advised that our AT&T building, a slipform concrete structure that houses offices and obsolete microwave antennae, was the tallest per her revised criteria. It’s 135 tall and stands right smack-dab in the middle of the city center. Increasingly annoyed, the original poster proclaimed that the structure also didn’t count, since it “wasn’t really a building.” Huh?
I think she wound up settling on Muncie’s 111-foot-tall former Masonic Temple or else the old Hotel Roberts, but the mechanics of the conversation have stayed in my mind over the years as an example of how some people will cut and carve and furrow and dissect available data into as many arbitrary slices as they can so as to come to a definition that suits them. It takes some effort not to succumb to this tendency, as I can, unfortunately, attest since several of the schoolhouses I’ve featured here are nothing but foundations or segments of walls.
I’ll circle back to that sentiment later, but another article I read that trumpeted the rarity of the region’s old common schools was published a few years ago in Muncie’s Star Press. It concerned the restored Ward Township District 5 schoolhouse in nearby Randolph County. It intimated that at the time of its publication in 2015, there were only twelve schoolhouses in Randolph County, and only 550 left nationwide, a statistic she attributed to an organization called the One-Room Schoolhouse Center (Fittes, 2015).
I found it hard to believe that a nowhere like Randolph County, Indiana was home to an entire 2% of the entire country’s remaining schoolhouses and equal nowheres like Blackford, Madison, and Delaware counties made up a whopping 20% of the nation’s inventory. The fact is, that notion is just not so: With the help of Randolph County Historian Dr. Greg Hinshaw, I’ve located thirty-one remaining schoolhouses there.
Of course, part of why there are so many schoolhouses remaining in this part of the country is that it’s so rural. You’d be hard-pressed to find even a handful if you went to Fishers, Carmel, Noblesville, or the swamp of vinyl siding and malodorous pear trees that connects them all. Incidentally, I know of five -all near the eastern side of the county- along with a sixth which has been demolished since I last drove by it.
We Americans get a bad rap for destroying historic buildings in the name of progress. I believe that so many of our old schoolhouses still stand as a testament to the contrary: The staggering preponderance of our extant one-room schools are now homes, while several are barns. Only a few are totally derelict or abandoned- rural Americans were thrifty folk, and amateur historians like me should thank them for repurposing these buildings. Not for their foresight, necessarily, but for their austerity. Unfortunately, over time the frugality of converting an old schoolhouse to a home has, in many instances, translated to indifferent parsimoniousness.
At least they’re still standing! Back in Blackford County, Ruth Hillman interviewed long-time resident Audrey Lucas Rinker for The Muncie Star in 1991. She indicated that the District 4: Carney schoolhouse was the “last building left standing of the 13 country schools in Blackford County’s Licking Township.” I drove past the Carney building -along with two more old one-room schools in Licking Township- on my way to and from getting my first COVID-19 shot back in April. Portions of two more, even, are still visible as ruins.
Now about those ruins, as I circle back: I can hardly look you in the eye and tell you with a straight face that Licking Township’s District 1: Bailey schoolhouse or the township’s District 3: Corncob school are still appreciably standing. I can name fifteen structures I’ve been to throughout my journey so far across East-Central Indiana that probably don’t count as “still there,” given their advanced states of decay. But as an obsessive completionist, I’ve chosen to to err on the side of documenting what’s left and trust any readers who use this resource to make up their own minds.
The reason I feature these ruins is simple and best illustrated by Dr. Hinshaw’s work in Randolph County. Most of his research was done around 2005, just sixteen years ago. I’d have to consult my notes, but in revisiting it for this project I’ve found six or seven schoolhouses in that county that have succumbed to the bulldozer since then. As time progresses, this website will become less and less relevant as more schoolhouses bite the dust. But I intend to give a snapshot in time of what’s here now, pending. Eventually, these numbers will more accurately resemble the figures given in the three articles I cited earlier. Importantly, though, they don’t now.
I believe that our old common schools are treasures, but that’s not to say that as of this moment we’re marooned with a dearth of them. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I believe I’ve conclusively made it to all the remaining common schools in Madison, Delaware, and Blackford counties. If we base the numbers on the standard ten-schools-per-district estimation, 37% of the three counties’ common schoolhouses are still standing in some form or another, and I think that’s impressive. Put it this way: In these three counties, old schoolhouses outnumber McDonald’s restaurants. 7:1 and they outnumber the ubiquitous Subway sandwich shops nearly 6:1. Based on the numbers alone, it’s much harder to find a Big N’ Tasty or an Italian BMT than it is to find a one-room school around these parts.
The difference is that you have to know where to look. If you’re interested, my next post will tell you how to do just that.
Helm, T. B. (1881). Mount Pleasant Township. In History of Delaware County, Indiana: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers (pp. 268–269). book, Kingman Brothers.
Swickard, R. (1991, December 29). Endangered Site. The Muncie Star. p. 16.
Kemper, G. W. H. (1908). Education in Delaware County. In A Twentieth Century History of Delaware County, Indiana, Volume 1 (Vol. 1, p. 252). book, Lewis Publishing Company.
Fittes, E.K. (2015, July 16). One-room schoolhouse gets a second life. The Muncie Star Press. pp. 1A-2A.
Hillman, R. (1991, September 23). Seen and Heard in Our Neighborhood. The Muncie Star. p. 6.