Commentary: Schoolhousery 201

If you’re here to identify old schoolhouses, welcome! I hope you studied what we talked about last week, which were some simple techniques towards identifying East Central Indiana’s old schools. If you’d like a refresher, here you go. In a nutshell, we focused on what I call the two mile rule,, a lack of adjacent cemeteries, a relatively-small size, probable additions, visible date blocks, low or bricked-in windows, long sidewalks, and old trees.

While none of those attributes on their own are enough to identify an old schoolhouse, using them in conjunction with one another, along with what we’re going to talk about today will get you most of the way there. Let’s get started!

The internet has truly democratized the research of local history and it can be a phenomenal tool to access information that was once confined to musty archives or unwelcome libraries. Because there are so many resources available online, it might be easiest to illustrate my own research process through the lens of a couple of case studies over the next few weeks.

Case Study:

Photo taken December 5, 2021. From the author’s collection.

Here’s what remains of Madison County’s Pipe Creek Township: District 8 schoolhouse, commonly known as King’s. Admittedly, there’s not much to be seen of it, but trust me- I’m obsessive, which is what compelled me to take a deep dive.

The Indiana State Library is the third hit on Google for “Madison County Indiana plat map”. Screenshot from Google.

All of my schoolhouse research starts with Google Maps and an old plat map. A plat map is a map that shows an area’s landowners and how their land has been subdivided. I find the school’s location on the map and try to reconcile that spot with modern satellite imagery from Google. The website is a great place to find old plat maps that will help you find schoolhouses, churches, and other cultural features. If they don’t have what you’re looking for, check the Indiana State Library, which sometimes has additional relevant maps. Typically, if I google “Madison County Indiana plat map” The Indiana State Library will be the third or fourth hit. Clicking on the link lists all of the maps in their collection, many of which are available to view for free online. 

A search of Historic Map Works reveals this for Madison County. Screenshot from Historic Map Works.

In the case of Madison County, I knew of about ten schoolhouses offhand but consulted with the Madison County Historian, Steve Jackson, who helped me catch some I’d missed after I went out on an initial trip. The District 8 school was not one he’d advised was still standing, but Google Maps made me raise an eyebrow once I’d begun my own research and located it from old plat maps. I was familiar enough with Madison County to do some preliminary research, but I found the back-and-forth task of comparing present-day Google Maps with old plat maps very tedious when it came to finding my place in areas that I wasn’t extremely familiar with. It’s helpful to initiate the help of a willing local expert, if one’s available, and soon I became familiar enough with the entire county to do my own research.

The District 8 schoolhouse was/is at the corner of County Roads 900-N and 350-W just northeast of Frankton. Google Maps displays a clump of trees with an address superimposed over it. Per our previous lesson, the clump of trees is a dead-giveaway that at least this was once a site of some old building- Old structures have old trees, right? Oftentimes, it’s that simple, and the address hovering over the site made my conclusion even more easy: There once was a building here that Google indexed.

Screenshot from Google Earth Pro. Photography courtesy the U.S. Geological Survey.

Google Earth Pro is a useful, free tool to see what was in a place over the past fifteen or twenty years before the archival imagery gets too muddled. Several times, it’s confirmed for me that an old schoolhouse has recently met its match. The U.S. Geological Survey, whose imagery is included in Google Earth Pro, took this picture of the District 8 schoolhouse on April 10, 1998.

Randolph County Historian Dr. Greg Hinshaw completed a survey of the extant schools in that county around 2004. He kindly provided me his work, and in reviewing it I was able to use Google Earth’s history function to determine that five or six old schools that were present during his research are now no longer standing.

From Google Earth Pro, the old King schoolhouse appears to follow the t-shaped layout common to those built in the 1890s, with a central entrance projection framed by two cloakrooms that feeds into a larger classroom. There also appears to have been made some addition to its southern wall, visible in the image as a small, white, rectangle.

Screenshot from Google Earth Pro. Photography courtesy the U.S. Geological Survey.

This next image was taken in Stepmber of 2003, but it’s too blurry to determine whether the building was standing or if it had been reduced to a foundation, which is what it looks like to me.

Screenshot from Google Earth Pro. Photography courtesy IndianaMap Framework Data.

By 2005, though, the schoolhouse had clearly been demolished or had fallen in on itself.

Screenshot from Google Earth Pro. Photography courtesy USDA Farm Service Agency.

An image taken on September 23, 2014 hints at the old school still at its original site, albeit collapsed like the previous photo. Straight lines in nature are never natural, and some are clearly visible within the brush that’s beginning to grow, as well as a north-facing gable, the triangular element that’s clearly evident.

The most recent imagery taken in my version of Google Earth Pro is from September 25, 2019. From the air, it shows nothing but a clump of trees. That’s what I encountered last April when I took a picture, but I went back a few weeks ago and found more. The collapsed roof is there, amidst the brush, and I imagine that much more of the schoolhouse is still extant underneath the vegetation. This is what’s left of Madison County’s Pipe Creek Township District 8: King’s school. I would never have found it had it not been for old plat maps and Google Earth.

I’ve found other similar schoolhouse ruins this way as well. Blackford County’s Licking Township District 3 schoolhouse, known as Corn Cob, was one of them. The foundations of other buildings, like Licking Township’s District 1: Bailey school or Blackford County’s Jackson Township District 11 school at Millgrove can easily be found with Google Earth or the satellite view on web-based Google Maps.

Next week we’ll discuss a second case study that uses a different slate of resources. By then, you’ll truly be an expert!


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