How to identify an old schoolhouse when you’re out driving around

As of this writing, I’ve been to 232 old schoolhouses across East Central Indiana. I’m sure there are more in the counties I’ve only dipped a toe into, but by the numbers it’s easier to find an old schoolhouse than it is to find a Filet-O-Fish or a Five Dollar Footlong as long as you know where to look. I tend to research most of the schools I come across in advance, but today I wanted to discuss the methods I’d use to identify old schoolhouses if I found myself driving around aimlessly. I’m not an expert, but these tips have worked pretty well for me so far:

Thing 1: The two mile rule

Here’s a quick segment of a map I created of some Jefferson Township schoolhouses in Adams County. These three schoolhouses, all demolished now, were spaced an even two miles apart from one another.

The two mile rule is the basis for this entire post. When Indiana’s townships were first districted for common schools in the 1850s, students were responsible for providing their own transportation. Necessarily, that arrangement meant that schoolhouses had to be close enough for kids of all ages to walk to and from, so townships generally located their schools two miles apart. Exceptions to the rule were occasionally made, but the two-mile rule remains a pretty solid guideline to follow, just as long as you’re starting from a schoolhouse you’ve already identified. Just go two miles in any direction! You’ll either find an extant schoolhouse, or you’ll probably find the spot where one once stood.

From here on out, we’ll assume that the two mile rule has led you to a building that you suspect to be an old schoolhouse. The rest of these pointers will help you identify it as one, even if its been significantly altered.

Thing 2: Know the difference between an old school and an old church

The Niles Township District 3 schoolhouse.

The common mental image of an old schoolhouse as a small, brick building with a tiny belfry often resembles what I think of, at least, as a rural, country church. The two types of structures have divergent characteristics, though, and knowing them can help you separate the wheat from the chaff if you’re on the hunt for an old school. The picture you just saw is of Delaware County’s Niles Township District 3 schoolhouse, known as Wingate or Oak Grove. 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.

Both buildings are brick and consist of a single story,. They both have a date block above the door, along with a small, wooden belfry. The first indication that the church is not a school, though, is that there’s a graveyard behind it. Though not unheard of, a schoolhouse probably won’t 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 Church measures 40 x 45 feet, while the 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 built for both children and adults and needed extra capacity. All said, old schoolhouses tend to be smaller than old churches, and very, very few of them feature graveyards. 

Another thing that differentiates this church from a schoolhouse is that its location doesn’t satisfy the two-mile rule: the ruins of Union Township’s District 6 schoolhouse sit a mile to the east, while Union Township’s District 4 school, called Center, stands a mile to the west of the Mt. Zion property.

A final tip? The wooden belfries and cupolas of abandoned schoolhouses generally didn’t stand the test of time since they weren’t critical for adaptive reuse as corn cribs or homes. Though the Oak Grove/Wingate schoolhouse is an exception since it’s still owned by Niles Township, very few of the schoolhouses you’re likely to encounter will feature one.

Thing 3: Identify the core structure

Many old schools have been converted to homes. Since the small, single-room layout of a schoolhouse doesn’t adapt itself well to a house, many of them feature additions of all stripes that often obscure their original design. If you’re unsure about a building you think might be a schoolhouse, look for what I call its core structure.

The White Hall schoolhouse in Madison County’s Van Buren Township. Photo taken August 14, 2021.

Schoolhouses tended to come in three general flavors: The first is a simple rectangle, most often one-to-three bays (the spaces between architectural elements) wide by three or four bays deep. The Van Buren Township District 2 schoolhouse in Madison County pictured above is a great example of one: It’s one bay wide by three bays deep but sometimes, schoolhouses of this mode featured windows on either side of the entrance.

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

Schoolhouses that were built in the 1890s 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.

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

The third common schoolhouse layout is actually up for grabs. It’s sort of freestyle, fitting no simple definition, and schoolhouses that fall under this category can be tricky to identify without any background information.The Knox Township District 6 school in Jay County, known as Oak Grove, is an example of the freestyle mode. It certainly looks like a church until you find another schoolhouse and realize that, yep, it’s two miles away. While none of these tips will identify an old building as a schoolhouse on their own, using them in tandem with the rest of my pointers will get you 90% of the way there.

Things 4 and 5: Watch for mismatched brick and keep an eye on the windows

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

The home above was once Delaware County’s Mount Pleasant Township District 3: Lincoln schoolhouse. The original structure is to the right of the image. Observe the different color of brick it exhibits in contrast to the addition to the left. Also, note how the core structure follows the first of my three schoolhouse tropes, the three-bay rectangle: Window, door, window. Finally, take a second look at those windows: They’ve been filled-in and shortened. See how the bricks above them don’t match the rest of the building? If all of your previous checks across Things 1-3 line up, mismatched brick around the windows and any additions to the core structure can be a dead giveaway towards catching an old schoolhouse right in its tracks.

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

Here’s the other thing: compared to old homes, old schoolhouses had tall ceilings. When it came time to convert them to homes, many were either turned into two-story dwellings that necessitated shorter windows, or were remodeled in such a fashion that eventually required new windows that came in cheaper, standardized sizes. Either 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 in the brick that sits above its current, shorter, windows.

Photo taken August 19, 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 Stony Creek Township’s District 8 schoolhouse, known as Huntzinger, in Madison County. I’m sure we’d see some brick infill that extends higher than its contemporary windows if we convinced the owner to strip all of that siding off!

The Wayne Township District 1 schoolhouse in Hamilton County is an example an owner shortening the entire building rather than just its windows. This home started as a T-shaped schoolhouse with tall windows. The front window, towards the left, was once its entryway: you can see where the wider doors were bricked in to create what’s visible now.

Thing 6: Look at your surroundings

If you’re in front of a place that seems to check off all of the previously-mentioned boxes, then congratulations- you’ve found an old building! If you’re still unsure about whether its an old schoolhouse, though, 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 or, in its absence, a large setback from the road. You can’t see a sidewalk 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 like the Wayne Township District 1 schoolhouse we just talked about, the roofline was lowered after the building passed into private ownership. The old sidewalk isn’t a definite characteristic of a schoolhouse, but the distance it sits back from the road sure is. If all the other attributes line up, noting the presence of one of those features can definitely help you determine if the building you’re looking at is an old schoolhouse.

Finally, look at the trees that surround the building in question. You needn’t be an arborist, but it’s easy to tell if they’re old since old trees tend to be big and gnarled. Easier still is finding old trees that stand around a blank plot of ground, since it’s simple to reconcile the vacant land amongst the trees as the site of a sdchoolhouse. The land that Perry Township’s Center School in Delaware County is a perfect example. See how the trees ring the edge of a blank plot of grass?

Case Study

Now that we’ve covered those tips and tricks, here’s a house that sits approximately two miles south of what I know to be the Sugar Creek Township District 8 schoolhouse in Hancock County. The two-mile rule was probably interrupted here by the presence of the Brookville State Road, now US-52, which angled through the township and disrupted the grid. That being the case, let’s check off the characteristics I listed to try and determine whether it’s an old schoolhouse or not. You can click or tap any of the three photos I’ve provided for a larger version.

  • The two mile rule has been satisfied.
  • The house doesn’t sit next to a graveyard, it’s not huge, and it doesn’t have a cupola. I’m pretty sure it’s not a church.
  • The satellite view of the home shows that it’s been added onto substantially, but the core structure -the gabled portion to the south- conforms to the format of a rectangular schoolhouse.
  • The first-story windows terminate much lower than the roofline, indicating that they may have once been much taller. What’s more is that the second-story window on the broad side of the house looks like it’s been awkwardly jammed under the roofline, implying that the core structure of the house didn’t always feature a second story.
  • There’s no old sidewalk, but the house sits back far enough from the road that there could have been one at some point in time.
  • The home sits in a grove of several old trees.

For me, the window heights and awkward configuration of the second-story window just scream that it was once a schoolhouse. I’d be 90% satisfied of its status as one by applying the characteristics we’ve talked about today. If I stumbled across this place in the wild, I’d take a photo of the building with my iPhone in order to geotag it in the camera app, then do more research once I got home.

Conclusion

Here it is on the 1887 Griffing, Gordon & Co. plat map atlas of Hancock County. Scan courtesy of Historic Map Works.

Thankfully, I did my research in advance, and the house actually was Sugar Creek Township’s old District 8 schoolhouse. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the internet-based resources I used to make that determination. Those tools -some advanced, and some not- will help check your work, or perhaps inform the basis of some new trips. I’m looking forward to it!

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