A Birthday Tradition: Driving around with my mom

I grew up in a blended family of seven that, at times, was also home to exchange students from Germany and Brazil. My stepdad was the operations manager for a forge that stamped out jet engine parts while my mom was -and still is- a high school English teacher. The environment was hectic! Between all of the kids, hours spent grading and writing grant proposals, time at professional development conferences, and weeks spent traveling abroad, it was a challenge for my mom to make time for us! I still remember contacting her in advance to set up appointments to chat with her when I was in high school, although I admit that those discussions were not high on my list of priorities as a teen.

Here’s the old Mechanicsburg schoolhouse and Masonic Lodge in Henry County.

These days, I love hanging out with my mom, and if there’s one thing you should know about her, it’s that she shares a lot of my interests- I came by them honestly! The second thing you should know about my mom is that she’s probably the most professional and put-together person I’ve ever met. She adds a lot of credence to my low-budget efforts when she comes along on one of my projects!

The past three or four years have seen an unlikely birthday tradition blossom: Mom came with me to help spur on my schoolhouse, courthouse, and occasional artesian well projects. It started in 2017, when I was a non-traditional student back in college. I was broke.

I had next to nothing to my name, but I really wanted to finish my courthouse project up, since I was missing a few that stood down in southwestern Indiana. I asked Mom if, for my birthday present that year, she’d be interested in filling up my tank so I could hit up a couple of counties on the way to Evansville and back. I didn’t expect her to chauffeur me in her car, take me to seven courthouses, and furnish me with a notebook to jot my thoughts down along the way, but she did!

Mom came with me to take photos of the old Vanderburgh County, Indiana courthouse on our inaugural trip.

That’s the Barb Miller way, and the notebook was a nice touch. Since then, I’ve become a responsible adult but our trips have continued: Mom came with me to about twenty of Ohio’s courthouses and a handful of southeastern Michigan’s with me on separate trips in 2018 and 2019. We went to six courthouses in the Prairie State on our way to Muncie, Illinois in 2020. Last year, our birthday trips focused on schoolhouses: Mom came with me to the majority of Hamilton County’s, along with about half of those in Randolph and Jay. I turned thirty-two a couple of weeks ago, so today, we’re heading south to Henry County. I think about twenty-five one- and two-room schoolhouses still stand there.

I’ve been to four of them already, and I’ve driven by several more before I began to document and research them hardcore. To get ready for it, I created a Google Map, prepared an itinerary, checked my notes, and even sent out an appeal for help and local expertise on a Henry County history Facebook group I belong to- you know, the usual stuff. Responses have been sparse and unhelpful as of this writing, but that’s about par for the course when crowdsourcing information. We’re leaving at 8:30, and hopefully some applicable nugget will come through en route.

Henry County’s old Honey Creek schoolhouse is now a home.

I’ve spent about four years seriously researching and documenting the schoolhouses of East Central Indiana. On the surface, it’s weird that I haven’t taken a deep dive into Henry County since its just one county south of my home in Delaware, but research has proven difficult. Most of my sources are old plat maps- documents that were occasionally published to identify who lived where and how much land they owned. Many of those maps are available online, and just about all of them show the locations of old schoolhouses, which often sat on a quarter-acre some farmer deeded to the township. I reconcile those old plat maps with modern-day satellite imagery from Google to find my schoolhouses, but the rub is that only one out of the five or six maps I’ve found for Henry County have the school district numbers listed, and the scan of that map is too low-resolution to read those numbers accurately. I can find the schoolhouses, but researching them becomes tricky without knowing what district they served. There are some ways around it that I incorporated into my research for Hamilton County, but none are tried-and-true.

Generally speaking, schoolhouse districting followed a serpentine pattern from the northeast corner of the township, snaking downwards. But new districts were created as population demographics changed, so I can’t rely on a pattern to be 100% accurate. I know we’re not living in the age of microfilm anymore thanks to scanned and searchable PDFs, but still- I’m impatient and focused on other nearby counties whose maps were more complete.

This schoolhouse sits just south of Middletown in Henry County.

I found another map that looked great in terms of outward appearances in the thumbnail online, but enlarging it showed that it had been taped together with wide strips of adhesive before it was scanned- tape that obscured a lot of information that would have helped me get my bearings for reference. I’ve spent a lot of time driving aimlessly around Henry County, but not enough for to be an expert without the aid that an old map provides.

I’m sure I’ll eventually get to the bottom of this, but for now this trip will be a great first lengthy step into the county. Mom and I are already planning on having lunch at the Gas Grill Family Restaurant north of Knightstown, where I will treat myself to a phenomenal BLT. We’ve been there before and the food -down-home style enjoyed by truckers- is mighty fine, boy.

Delaying a serious trip to document the old schoolhouses of Henry County has already cost me. About a year ago I got a tip from a Facebook friend who drives around the countryside taking photos of old farms, abandoned homesteads, idyllic country scenes, and suchlike. She told that while taking photos of a barn somewhere in the area, she struck up conversation with its owner. He advised her that the building was originally a wooden schoolhouse that’d been moved to the property and expanded. She told me that I better get out there to get a picture of it fast, since the owner intimated that its days were numbered.

That was a year ago or more, but I’m sure that you know how this story ends: Google Maps has new imagery, seen above, and it looks like the old schoolhouse and barn has been torn down. 

The site of the old Mendon Schoolhouse in Fall Creek Township, Madison County.

Here’s a photo of the old Mendon schoolhouse in Fall Creek Township, Madison County. As you can see, I was days late. The grading was fresh, and the lintel stood propped up on the ground. The community of Mendon was a village, never laid out, and located three miles south of Huntsville. The school I missed out on was built in 1895 according to the inscription on the lintel. It closed in 1907 when the township entered an agreement to consolidate all but two of its rural schoolhouses into the school at Pendleton.

The site of the old Pike Township District 7 schoolhouse in Jay County.

Here’s a photo of the site of the Pike Township District 7 schoolhouse in Jay County. The grading was still fresh when I got there, but there was no schoolhouse as you can see. I’m not certain at this point, but I don’t think Pike ever had a township-wide school. I think its students went to I.P. Gray High School in neighboring Jefferson Township starting with the 1912-13 school year, so this school was probably shuttered at some point before then.

I’m excited for today’s trip, though I’m sure it will leave me with more questions than answers, along with more schoolhouses I missed. Nevertheless, Mom and I will document the old buildings I’ve found so far! I’ve waited too long to explore the schoolhouses of Henry County. The moral of the story? Get out there and take photos while you can! Especially when you have someone simpatico to come along with. Mom and I have done for five years now, and I’m really looking forward to it.

One thought on “A Birthday Tradition: Driving around with my mom

  1. What a great tradition to have started. I never developed that kind of thing with either of my parents and now wish that I had. Parents are like old schoolhouses that way – they won’t be there indefinitely.


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