The overwhelming majority of Indiana’s remaining schoolhouses were first known as common schools. Funded by the state and administered by the county township in which they stood, the schoolhouses were “common” insofar as the kids of a typical, common, resident -rather the offspring of a bigwig- could attend classes at one. The system -which the state first paid for in 1851- was a major change to the previous arrangement of subscription schools.
I think it’s ironic that these old-fashioned common schools are actually still so common today. I’ve located and photographed more than two hundred of them in East-Central Indiana alone!
I often bumble my way across hand-wringing headlines or alarming articles that freak out about how few of these old schools are left standing in this modern era. In 1991 -an entire thirty-one years ago, if you can believe it- Ball State University professor Hugh Jones intimated that only three brick schoolhouses in all of Delaware County still existed in a state that made them capable of being 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).
Read at face value, it wouldn’t be wrong for a fan of history to blow a gasket since three out of sixty-three old schoolhouses that once stood around these parts is an upsetting statistic.
I get it- I’d be up in arms myself. But even though The Muncie Star obtained an educated opinion, the article’s still just poppycock: A quick look at Griffing, Gordon and Company’s 1887 Delaware County Atlas -a widely-available publication even thirty years ago- shows an abundance of schoolhouses in Delaware County. There was truly a crap-ton of them! Though some had more and some had fewer, a typical township across Delaware, Randolph, and Madison counties was home to around ten common rural schoolhouses. In Delaware County, that meant for 120 schoolhouses. In 2021, I found fifty-three schoolhouses still standing here.
Another article I read that trumpeted the rarity of the region’s old common schools was a piece concerning the restored Ward Township District 5 schoolhouse in nearby Randolph County. It intimated that, at the time of the article’s publication in a 2015 of Muncie’s The Star Press, there were only twelve schoolhouses in Randolph County, and only 550 left nationwide, a statistic that reporter Emma Kate Fittes attributed to an organization called the One-Room Schoolhouse Center.
I found it hard to believe that a nothingburger like Randolph County was home to 2% of the entire nation’s remaining schoolhouses, and that, based on my research, equal nowheres like Blackford, Madison, and Delaware counties made up a whopping 20% of the nation’s inventory. The fact is, the One-Room Schoolhouse Center, whatever it is or was, was flat out wrong.
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 all of those communities. Surprisingly, I actually found sixteen old schoolhouses standing in Hamilton County, along with two more that have been demolished since I last drove by in 2021.
My point is that rural schoolhouses are very common in East Central Indiana. We Americans get a bad rap for destroying historic buildings in the name of progress, but 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. Most of them have been repurposed. Only a few are totally derelict or abandoned.
Rural Americans were a thrifty folk, way beyond my tendency to hit the nearest Arby’s whenever I get a tummy rumble. People like us should thank them for repurposing these buildings- we shouldn’t necessarily thank our ancestors for their foresight since repurposing them seemed to be nearly second nature, but we should praise our progenitors for their austerity. Unfortunately, over time the frugality of converting an old schoolhouse towards a family’s contemporary needs as a home has often become a more difficult prospect than it once was
That being said, I can hardly look you in the eye and say with a straight face that Licking Township’s District 1: Bailey Schoolhouse or that township’s District 3: Corncob Schoolhouse are still standing. They’re crumbling. 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. I trust people who use this resource to make up their own minds about what I present, and that’s that. Soon, there will be nothing left.
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 nearby. I hate to be so judgmental, but newspaper articles like this are frustrating for a researcher. Despite their best judgment, Ms. Rinker and Ms. Hillman were wrong. All it takes is a little bit of research to go beyond what’s reported in the newspaper.
The reason I feature these ruins is simple. Dr. Greg Hinshaw, Randolph County Historian, documented many of that county’s extant schoolhouses in 2005, just sixteen years ago. In revisiting his efforts for this project, I’ve since found six or seven that have succumbed to the bulldozer. As time progresses, my work documenting the remaining schoolhouses will become less and less relevant as more of them bite the dust. For now, though, I intend to give a snapshot in time of what’s here and 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. As I mentioned, I believe I’ve conclusively made it to all the remaining common schools in Madison, Hamilton, Delaware, Jay, 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 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 by a six-to-one ratio. 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.
For any history fan, that’s how it should be.