Commentary: Schoolhousery 101

Madison County’s Lafayette Township District 11 school at Linwood. Photo taken August 9, 2021. From the author’s collection.

Last week we talked about how there are more remaining one-room schoolhouses in East Central Indiana, by far, than there are McDonald’s and Subway restaurants combined. By the numbers alone, it’s easier to find an old schoolhouse than it is to find a Filet-O-Fish or a Five Dollar Footlong, and locating them is pretty painless if you begin by checking for them every two miles: That’s my first pointer towards becoming a schoolhouse sleuth.  

I’m often asked about how I’ve found all of the schoolhouses I’ve been to. Today, we’ll talk about some of that, starting with some straightforward visual identifiers that may seem obvious to those who have already done significant research on their own. We all must start somewhere, though, and we’ll progress to more advanced techniques next week.

When Indiana’s townships were first districted for common schools in the 1850s, students were responsible for providing their own transportation. Necessarily, this meant that schoolhouses had to be close enough for students of all ages to walk to and from, so townships generally located their schools two miles apart. Exceptions to the rule were made if there was an extant community that was outside of the grid, if a certain area was significantly underpopulated, or if the township itself took a weird shape. Deviations from the two-mile rule also occurred if a new district had to be established later due to an influx of recent residents, or if a small school consolidated into a larger one. Still, the two-mile rule is a pretty solid guideline to follow for a beginner, so long as you’re starting from a schoolhouse you’ve already identified. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

The Oak Grove/Wingate school. Photo taken April 14, 2021. From the author’s collection.

The common mental image of an old schoolhouse as a small, brick building with a tiny belfry often resembles that of a country church. The two have differing characteristics, though, and knowing them can help you separate the wheat from the chaff. The picture you just saw is of the Niles Township District 3 schoolhouse, known as Wingate or Oak Grove, in Delaware County. It looks like a church! Especially if you compare it to the image you’re about to see, which is of the Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church, also in Niles Township. 

The Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church in Delaware County. Photo courtesy of my friend Zac Bow.

From outward appearances they’re very similar. Both are brick, single story, with a date block above the door and a small, wooden belfry. The first indication that the church is not a school, though, is that there’s a cemetery next to it, technically a graveyard in this case. Though not unheard of, a schoolhouse won’t likely feature one. The second thing you might notice if you’ve got a good eye is that the church is larger than the school. According to the Delaware County Assessor, Mt. Zion measures 40 x 45 feet, while the Oak Grove/Wingate schoolhouse checks in at a paltry 28 x 34. It wasn’t infrequent for an old schoolhouse to serve more than fifty students at a time, but rural churches were for both children and adults and needed extra capacity. All said, old schoolhouses tend to be smaller than old churches, and very few of them feature cemeteries.

Another tip? The wooden belfries and cupolas of schoolhouses have generally not stood the test of time. Though the Oak Grove/Wingate schoolhouse is an exception, very few of the schoolhouses you’re likely to encounter will feature them. Let’s move on.

The Licking Township District 7: Hughes schoolhouse. Photo taken May 4, 2021. From the author’s collection.

Many old schools have been converted to homes and now feature myriad additions of all stripes that can frequently obscure their original design. If you’re unsure about a building you think might be a schoolhouse, look for its core structure.

Schoolhouses tended to come in three general flavors: The first is a simple rectangle, most often one-to-three bays wide by three or four bays deep. The Licking Township District 7: Hughes schoolhouse in Blackford County pictured above is a great example of a one of these structures, with a central entry bay -flanked by two windows- that extends three window bays deep.

The Walnut Corner schoolhouse in Jay County. Photo taken November 26, 2021. From the author’s collection.

Later, schoolhouses tended to take the shape of a capital T, with a projecting entryway flanked by two cloakrooms that led into the classroom itself. Jay County’s Greene Township District 2 schoolhouse, called Walnut Corner, is a good example of this style, though its entrance and cloakroom windows have been replaced over the years by barn doors. 

Jay County’s Knox Township District 6 school, known as Oak Grove. Photo taken July 27, 2021. From the author’s collection.

The third style is up for grabs; sort of freestyle, and these can be hard to identify without going to the building in person. The Knox Township District 6 school in Jay County, known as Oak Grove, is an example of this mode. It certainly looks like a church until you find another one and realize, yep, it’s two miles away.

The District 3 schoolhouse, Shepherd/Lincoln. Photo taken April 10, 2021. From the author’s collection.

The above photo is of the Mount Pleasant Township District 3: Lincoln schoolhouse in Delaware County. The original schoolhouse is to the right: observe the different color of brick it exhibits in contrast to its addition. Also, note how it follows the first of my three schoolhouse tropes, the 3-bay rectangle: Window, door, window. Finally, take a second look at the windows: They’ve been shortened. See how the bricks above them don’t match? 

The Elm Grove school. Photo taken August 9, 2021. From the author’s collection.

Compared to old houses, old schoolhouses had tall ceilings. When it came time to convert them to homes, many were made into two-story dwellings and the top of their windows were bricked in. This procedure usually left lasting scars: Here’s the Lafayette Township District 8 school in Madison County, commonly known as Elm Grove. If you look closely,  you can see the remnants of its tall windows above those that are currently visible. 

The Perry Township District 9 school. Photo taken April 24, 2021. From the author’s collection.

Sometimes you might run across an old schoolhouse where the brick is hidden by siding. Look where the windows end: If they’re very low in comparison to the roofline and the home follows the same general layout as the ones I’ve described, it’s probably a schoolhouse. This is Perry Township’s District 9 schoolhouse, Center, in Delaware County. I’m sure we’d see brick infill if we stripped the siding off. 

So far, we’ve talked about the two-mile rule, the general absence of proximate cemeteries, the size, the likelihood of additions and importance of looking for the “core structure”, date blocks, ceilings, and window height. If an old building seems to check off all of those boxes and you’re still unsure about its provenance, here are two more tests to perform that may help:

The Sharon school. Photo taken September 24, 2021. From the author’s collection.

First, look for a long, thin, sidewalk leading up the the front door of the building. You can’t see it in this photo of the Delaware Township District 5: Sharon schoolhouse in Delaware County, but it’s there on Google Street View. The extant structure looks nothing like a schoolhouse today, but its roofline was altered after the building passed into private ownership. The old sidewalk isn’t a definite characteristic of a schoolhouse, but if all the other attributes line up, it can definitely help your assessment.

The site of the two-story District 9: Ervin schoolhouse. Photo taken December 31, 2021. From the author’s collection.

Second, look at the trees that surround the building in question. You needn’t be an arborist (in fact, I got past my freshman-year leaf collection by means of a hole-punch), but it’s easy to tell if they’re old. Easier still is finding old trees that stand around a blank plot of ground where something must have once existed. The site of the Licking Township District 9: Ervin school in Blackford County is a perfect example. See how the ring the edge of a blank plot of grass?

Internalizing the two-mile rule, a lack of adjacent cemeteries, a small size, probable additions, visible date blocks, low or bricked-in windows, long sidewalks, and old trees should get you very close to identifying an old schoolhouse, along with an understanding of their general composition and layout. Next week we’ll discuss some advanced, internet-based research paths that will help check your work or inform its basis.

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