Jay County’s White Oak schoolhouse from the air

Most everyone who’s met me knows about my fascination with old one-room schoolhouses and my erratic compulsion to find all of them that still exist across all of East Central Indiana. As it stands, I’m pretty sure that I’ve been to all of the old schoolhouses in Delaware, Madison, Blackford, and Randolph counties. Hamilton County isn’t far behind.

An old clipping I’ve not been able to determine the provenance of that mentions Jay County’s Jackson Township District 2 schoolhouse. 

Until recently, I thought I’d been to every extant schoolhouse in Jay County, too. That is, until I came across a scan of a newspaper clipping from the early 1960s, I’d imagine, in the Facebook group Remembering Portland, Indiana. It was a picture of an old school in a forest somewhere with a caption that read “ THE MISSSING Loblolly Marsh schoolhouse does exist…” 

The person behind the post commented “Loblolly Marsh schoolhouse – County Road 99 between County Roads 16 and 20 in Jackson Twp.”

My eyes formed into dual corkscrews of mania as they often do when the borders of my expertise crumble! I fired up Google Maps for Jackson Township and immediately got the tar beaten out of me by the Jay County Highway Department, which had changed the local road numbering system in the sixty-odd years between when the article was written and when I found out about it.

Jackson Township is a big place, according to Google. Today, we’re concerned about the place just to the west of what’s labeled as the Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve. In fact, our target is obscured by that text.

Thankfully, a frenetic search of Portland’s Facebook group eventually led me to the rest of the article, which had weirdly been posted in two parts. Here’s the relevant portion, and thanks in advance to the uncredited author:

“The schoolhouse-in-the-swamp was located a scant 48 hours after my article appeared, thanks to the guidance of Jay County conservation officer Bob Heath. There’s a very good reason why you can’t come upon the school as you drive along: it is located near a road which was abandoned about a decade ago. You can see it by car, with the aid of binoculars, from County Road 99 between County Roads 16 and 20 in Jackson Township.” 

So that’s where OP got her information! The article continues: 

“If you want to see the school for yourself, here’s how to get there from Portland: go north on US 27, then west on Ind. 18. Continue about four miles until you come to County Road 101, where you turn right (north) for less than a mile until you come to a ’T.’ This is County Road 20. Turn right (east) here.”

“After you have driven only a hundred yards or so, the road will come to an abrupt halt, but you will be able to see where the continuation of the road once existed. If it’s a dry day, you can follow this continuation in your car. Otherwise, do it on foot.”

“You will want to follow the continuation which veers quickly off to the left (north). You will shortly see that it is a very clearly defined dirt road through woods and swamp. The schoolhouse is several hundred yards down the road on your right.” 

Here’s the general area of the schoolhouse. It is the gray, pill-shaped blob just east of the square pond near the top right corner of the image. The dirt road the article talked about kept going and abutted the east end of the lake, visible via the tree line.

With that information, I was able to find the schoolhouse in pretty short order using Google Maps and an 1887 plat map of Jackson Township published by Griffing, Gordon & Company. The old road the newspaper article described didn’t really follow what’s apparent in modern satellite imagery as a dirt driveway to the building, which was listed on the map as the District 2 schoolhouse. It sort of accompanied a curving tree line northeast of the structure, before it dove down just east of the schoolhouse, then turned at a right angle and headed straight to what’s now known as North County Road 400-West. Today, a square pond seems to cover up a segment of the road’s original path.

Jackson Township’s District 2 school, called White Oak, was built in 1899. A brick structure, the one-room school was one of ten “common” schools in Jackson Township along with those that went by the colloquial names of Karney, West Liberty, Glenwood, Kitt, Sugar Grove, Oakland, West Grove, and Boyd, along with some others.

It was winter when I learned this- the perfect time to track down a building that appeared to be situated seventy-five feet inside a swampy forest. I messaged the woman whose post enlightened me about the old schoolhouse, and I confirmed the name of the property’s owner, which I’d found in the Jay County assessor’s database. Unfortunately, although the schoolhouse site was apparently accessible to the public when the newspaper article was first published, changing times have led that to no longer be the case. Overcome by a significant case of trespasser’s trepidation that only become apparent in my early thirties, I gave up on nabbing a photo of the schoolhouse. 

A few months later, the intrigue surrounding an abandoned tunnel in the old factory where I worked led me to acquire a drone to fly down it instead of following the official channels to obtain a confined space permit. Though that mission was aborted, the drone -a DJI Mavic Mini SE- would be perfect for scoping out this abandoned schoolhouse in the middle of a forest in the middle of a swamp! I finally did that a few months ago.

The District 2 schoolhouse, facing west from above. It’s been added on to but the basic shape is still visible.

My mom’s interested in all my history projects, but she was charged with babysitting my niece -who is not a baby and doesn’t need sat on- that day. Mom’s usually good for a lot of great feedback and fantastic commentary, along with gas and lunch, so I invited all of that, along with my niece, along: Chloe is preternaturally smart at the age of six, and she’d been along on a previous trip with us to look at artesian wells. Despite an hour in the car to the swamp and an hour back, she was a good spirit- very interested, and very precocious. As long as she gets the support she needs, she is going to do great things.

The drive to nowhere took an hour. The most direct site from which to fly the drone to the schoolhouse was the end of West County Road 800-North in Jay County, which turns into a guy’s driveway just after North County Road 375-West tees into it. The problem with that spot is that most of the drone’s flightpath would be above a large, angular pond and some tree coverage. Looking to avoid that -along with the possibility that a shotgun-wielding local might not take kindly to a drone flying over his land and provide it with a rapid unscheduled disassembly- I decided to take us to the corner of West County Road 850-North and North County Road 400-West, about half of a mile as the crow flies from the schoolhouse. With no cars in sight on the gravel road we parked on, I set the drone down, let it obtain a GPS signal to set its autopilot return-to-home distance to 100 meters so it would avoid any lanky trees. Liftoff!

Another photo showing the schoolhouse’s basic orientation, the T-shape should be familiar to anyone who knows schoolhouses, and the date block is visible just below the peak of the gable.

I manually piloted the drone to 70 meters up and flew it in the general direction of the schoolhouse. I lost my bearings and swiveled it around, searching for something that aligned with my understanding of the area via my Google Maps studies. Finally, I located the squarish pond just beyond a tree line and sent the drone towards it. A quick break in the woods just beyond the pond signaled the location of the schoolhouse. Unfortunately, satellite imagery from Google and Beacon (the county assessor’s database) were correct: there wasn’t enough room for me to land or hover around the schoolhouse.

Here’s my first flightpath. The dead-straight line represents the drone autopiloting itself home. 

Part of my plan had always been to hover in front of the tree coverage around ten feet above the ground in order to get a decent picture of the schoolhouse head-on. That wasn’t going to happen, though, since the building stood about sixty feet into the trees. My efforts were also curtailed when the drone lost signal just above the pond, half a mile away from me, leading the camera to go black. Ope.

The schoolhouse was pretty far from the car -and my controller- which is visible as a speck just to the right of the random tree towards the top-left corner of this grab from the footage.

I’ll admit it! I panicked. I’d flown the drone before with interference and piloted it back to me but I’d never just flat-out lost signal. An icon popped up on the controller that strongly suggested a push of the thumb that’d allow it to find its own way home, which was another feature I’d never used. I clicked it, and gingerly held the icon. 

I didn’t see it since I was so far away, but the telemetry readout on my phone told me that the drone gradually rose to 100 meters- my predetermined return-to-home altitude, that enabled it to regain signal and fly back. I watched it. Though it was going to automatically land within three feet of where it’d taken off, that three-foot margin was right on top of my mom’s car, so after the drone was in sight, I took control and piloted it back to the road. Just after I picked it up off of the gravel, a rural mail contractor’s Jeep whizzed by. 

I averted several crises that day!

Here’s the schoolhouse from the air, with its eastern side at the top of the image. 

I got a couple of good photos from the first flight, but none were really that great. I felt defeated. Overall, the flight was nine minutes long and spanned just over a mile, there and back. The maximum altitude the drone achieved was 101 meters (331 feet). I spent just over a minute waiting for it to regain signal once the screen went black. 

My second flight, from a more benign distance, was a little more fanciful. 

Despite my metal range extenders, I figured that a flight with less tree coverage might lead the signal to be better. Mom, Chloe, and I moved down the road towards where we’d come from. I installed a new battery and launched the drone for another try.

That flight was much less dramatic- I flew for twelve minutes, at a maximum height of 78 meters (255 feet) and found the schoolhouse a lot quicker. I swiveled the camera on its gimbal to take more overhead shots, then retreated back over the square pond for more. Maneuvering the drone down through the trees caused me to lose signal again, though, in six separate instances that totaled about thirty-five seconds. Autopilot was triggered and I was ready to bring it home empty-handed, but the thought occurred to me to manually fly it back up and circle the building. I thought that some decent angles of it might emerge, and I was right! All of the photos I’ve posted are from the second flight, and the drone reached a total furthest distance of 861 meters from its controller. That’s more than half a mile, with two rows of trees and all sorts of hazards to account for. 

As best as I could tell from my phone thanks to the limited shade, my flight was successful! I hauled ass out of there -although my battery was still at 70%- feeling no need to test the flight gods. Landing at the foot of our car, the mission was a success, though as I reviewed the photos, I realized I could have come down another thirty feet or so and not touched the treetops for some even better shots. The straight-on shot from above the pond will still elude me until I take off from another point, though. 

The brick windows -barely visible- and general layout confirm that Jackson Township’s District 2 schoolhouse, known as White Oak or Loblolly Marsh, still stands. 

To my knowledge, these flawed photos still represent the only ones taken of this structure by an actual person in a long time. In 1899, a central building at Poling was constructed that took that community’s name, and a high school was established there in 1906. It’s probable that the White Oak/Loblolly schoolhouse closed that year, though I don’t know for certain. In 1961, high-schoolers at Poling were sent to Portland, and in 1972, Poling -by then an elementary- was shuttered and eventually demolished. A marker about two-and-a-half miles southwest of the District 2 school sits in honor of the former structure. 

Next time I drone the old White Oak/Loblolly school I’ll make a couple of changes. First, I’ll launch it from County Road 800-North for less interference. Secondly, I’ll make sure I do it when there’s less tree coverage and foliage. Third, I’ll just man up and drive back up there to get some shots from the ground! In the interim, though, these photos are a great start to the final Jay County schoolhouse in my collection, and a good resource for however many people who have never even seen a lick of this building, let alone known it ever existed. 

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