How to identify an old schoolhouse while you’re sitting at home: Part 1

Yesterday, I provided some tips that can help identify an old schoolhouse while driving around out in the wild. At the end of the post, we looked at an old home in Hancock County that I suspected was a one-room schoolhouse. Based on applying my suggestions, I was 90% certain that it was! Read the whole thing again here, but for me, the building’s awkward window heights made a compelling case towards its provenance as an old school. 90% isn’t good enough for me, though, so today we’ll talk about how I used resources that are readily available online to definitively make the call.

Here’s the house in question. The photo was taken on November 20, 2022.

The internet has truly democratized the research of local history. It can be a phenomenal tool to access information that was once confined to musty archives or to the purview of unwelcoming librarians. When I begin to research the schoolhouses of a particular area, I almost always start with old plat maps. A plat map is nothing more than a diagram that shows how tracts of land are divided into lots. Every rural schoolhouse stood on its own lot, usually an acre or two that a farmer deeded to the township trustee, and old plat maps show them.

The Indiana State Library makes a lot of old plat maps available online, as does Historic Map Works, a website that scans and sells reprints of historic atlases but allows you to browse their collection for free. I try to start with at least two old maps. For this specific mystery, we’ll use a portion of the 1887 Griffing, Gordon & Co. Hancock County Atlas at Historic Map Works, along with the Scarborough Company’s 1908 map of Hancock County, available through the Indiana State Library

The top link is what we want.

The easiest way to find a relevant atlas on Historic Map Works is to go to their website and search for what you want in the top right corner. I used the term “Hancock County Indiana” in this case. To browse the Indiana State Library’s collection of maps, it’s easiest, for me, to Google the phrase “Hancock County Indiana plat map library.” A link to the library’s catalog usually pops up in the top five results. In this case, it was listed first. I add the word “library” to the end to filter out modern plat maps, which are still used by realtors and the county assessor and are irrelevant for now, though they might come in handy later.

Now that we’re armed with two plat maps, I’ll open Google Maps in a third browser tab. There, I search for the specific township that the suspected schoolhouse stands in. I do this because Google highlights the township’s boundaries, which makes the modern imagery easier to reconcile with what’s shown in the old plat maps that are often presented in a township-by-township basis.

In our case, the house that we think was a schoolhouse sits on the north side of Stinemyer Road midway between County Road 800-W and County Road 800-E in the southwestern corner of Sugar Creek Township. The screenshot above shows it in context- right where I put the little gray marker. Next comes the hard part- lining up the old plat maps with modern-day satellite imagery. Filtering Google Maps to Sugar Creek Township helped me narrow the location down, since I’m not overly familiar with this part of Hancock County.

The suspected schoolhouse site, as shown in an 1887 plat map of Sugar Creek Township.

Here’s the same view as seen from the 1887 Griffing, Gordon & Co. plat map. I don’t mean to give a masterclass in reading this type of map but as I mentioned, schoolhouses all sat on their own plot of land that someone deeded to the township. The thick lines of a plat map designate roads, while the thinner lines designate each separate plot. Though a quick glance at the 1887 map above might appear to indicate that the box above the “h” in “School” represents the schoolhouse, it actually stood in its own little plot, which the map shows as the box just above the “8” in “School No. 8.”

The 1908 Hancock County atlas we grabbed from the Indiana State Library isn’t a plat map, so it doesn’t designate individual plots. It does, however, show the schoolhouse as standing in about the same spot as it did in the 1887 plat map, a spot very close to where the house we’re looking at sits on contemporary satellite imagery.

It seems like we’ve got everything wrapped up, but I want to check my work before I’m comfortable making that call. We can do so, usually, through those modern plat maps that county assessors make available online that I mentioned earlier. Hancock County’s contemporary plat maps are visible online through Beacon, a web-based Geographical Information Systems application published by Schneider Geospatial. Thirty-nine other counties in Indiana use Beacon, but others utilize ArcGIS, a comparable program developed by Esri. Both programs function similarly, but today we’ll focus on Beacon.

Here’s the homepage of Beacon.

After going to Beacon, we’ll scroll to select Hancock County and click “View Map,” which takes us to a screen that looks like Google Maps. Most of the functionality is the same, so we can navigate to the location we’re curious about. You can also search for the property address, if you’re so inclined, or look up the name of the property owner.

A screenshot of Hancock County’s Beacon GIS viewer showing the house in question.

County GIS mapping systems like Beacon or ArcGIS can provide a wealth of information. Here, we’ve found the location of the house in question. The red and blue lines demarcate plots of land, just like on the old plat maps. In this case, the house we think is the old schoolhouse sits in the eastern blue box near the middle of the screen. The box is the same size and location of the schoolhouse’s plot on the 1887 map- Beacon lets us make sure that the modern property boundaries line up with those that existed more than a hundred and thirty years ago.

If we click on the plot, a box pops up that reveals the property owners, the size of the property (1.21 acres, typical of what was deeded for a schoolhouse), and some other information that’s not relevant to our search. To find out more, we’ll click the link that says “View Parcel Report.”

Image courtesy of the Hancock County Assessor’s office.

Some counties, like Hancock, include pictures of the buildings that stand on a particular property in their parcel reports. It’s a feature I’ve used many times to plan my trips in advance and ensure that buildings I intend to drive past and take photos of are, indeed, schoolhouses! Since we already know what the house looks like, though, we can scroll down the parcel report to find other information that might be pertinent.

Image courtesy of the Hancock County Assessor’s office.

First off, we’ll look at the section of the parcel report labeled “Improvements.” If the county’s on top of things, this section of the report will list the exact year that the buildings on the property in question were built. That’s useful since, if we’ve proven that a schoolhouse stood on this exact plot of land in 1887, a “Year Built” from, say, 1885 would confirm this house as the old schoolhouse pretty decisively. Unfortunately, counties tend to whiff on dates when it comes to old buildings- assessor’s databases tend to default to the year 1900. It doesn’t much matter if an old house was built in 1892, 1875, or 1900 when it comes to the property’s assessed value, it turns out. Indeed, 1900 is the date that Beacon provides for this house, so our venture towards the Improvements tab wasn’t very helpful in that regard.

Image courtesy of the Hancock County Assessor’s office.

Despite the age discrepancy, scrolling to the very bottom of the page reveals a property sketch that shows what I call the core structure of the home. Aerial photos from Google Maps and Beacon indicate that this home was added on to a lot over the years, and the core structure -as shown in the sketch above- is the 768 square foot rectangle near the bottom that’s surrounded by a wooden porch on three sides. That portion of the house measures 24×32 feet, which is a size that’s typical of an old schoolhouse.

Images courtesy Gina Rininger, F.C. Tucker Company.

At this juncture, I’m about 95% sure that the home I took pictures of was Sugar Creek Township’s District 8 schoolhouse. This whole time, I’ve used specialized tools that have made a compelling case for that conclusion, while simultaneously avoiding the generic and unhelpful results that a Google search tends to bring. Sometimes, though, if you’re stuck at 95%, a simplistic and banal Google search might just be the thing to bail you out. I wound up plugging the home’s address into the search bar here and found that the property had recently come up for sale. Here’s what I discovered via that search, thanks to Zillow. Note the part that said “Sellers have completed lots of work on this 1900 Schoolhouse to become YOUR Next Home!” Bingo!

Here’s another view of the home I think was once an old school. Again, the photo was taken on November 20, 2022.

The home’s status as an old school would be a really weird thing for a realtor to lie about, but I took it as the final clue I needed to confirm that this house, at 7426 West Stineymer Road in New Palestine, is the former Sugar Creek Township District 8 schoolhouse. Beyond the characteristics we talked about yesterday, identifying this place as an old school involved the use of old plat maps, Hancock County’s GIS services in Beacon, and a random Zillow listing found through a Google search to come to that conclusion. I follow a variation of this process every time I think I find an old schoolhouse! Most often, they pass the quick tests that I demonstrated yesterday. Sometimes, though, I have to take a deep dive like we did today.

Finding Jackson Township’s District 4 schoolhouse in Blackford County took a deep dive as well, albeit one that used a divergent group of resources. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “How to identify an old schoolhouse while you’re sitting at home: Part 1

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