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

Over the past couple of days, we’ve talked about how I identify old schoolhouses both online and in the field. On Saturday, we chatted about some tips and tricks I’ve picked up that help me confirm a building’s status in cases when it’s not immediately apparent. Yesterday, we talked about how the use of free assets like historic plat maps, modern satellite imagery on Google, Beacon databases, and a good old-fashioned web search can help even more. Today, we’ll discuss how I used a mix of resources to identify Jackson Township’s District 4 schoolhouse in Blackford County- a building I was certain had been demolished.

Jackson Township’s District 4: Barr schoolhouse, in Blackford County. Photo taken November 27, 2022.

I didn’t have much to go on when I started researching the schoolhouses of Blackford County- I knew of three offhand, but that was it! Thankfully, as I was scrolling through Facebook one day I serendipitously bumbled across a photo of an old map that looks to have come from the type of self-published county history normally available for sale at a local historical society.

Here’s the map I found on Facebook. I don’t know who to credit its creation to.

The map wasn’t very detailed, but it gave me enough information to determine that the schoolhouses I’d been past were the Jennings, Hughes, and Carney schools in Licking Township. In another browser tab, I fired up Historic Map Works, one of my favorite online sources of old plat maps. There, I found W.W. Hixon’s plat book of Blackford County, which was published in the 1920s. My goal was to reconcile the imprecise locations on the schoolhouse map with more accurate sites from the plat book, along with finding each school’s district number to put a name to a face, in a way.

Here’s a screenshot of the 1920s W.W. Hixon plat book. Note that the school shown near the center of the image isn’t labeled with a district number.

Of course, my primary goal was to find all of Blackford County’s remaining schoolhouses. Generally speaking, townships were deep in the throes of consolidating their one-room schoolhouses into larger buildings by the 1920s, so I worried that the Hixon plat book may have been published too late to show all of the schools listed on the map from Facebook. Thankfully, the Indiana State Library had an earlier Hixon map, published in 1905, that I could use to compare it with.

Here’s the same general area from the 1920s plat book as seen in the 1905 map. Note that the schoolhouse in the middle of the image originally stood on the southwestern corner of the intersection opposite of where it was listed later.

That second map proved more helpful, as the 1920s plat book showed where the schoolhouses stood but didn’t label them with district numbers. Knowing the common names of the schoolhouses from the Facebook map was a good start towards researching them later, but district numbers are pretty important too, especially when I’m trying to compare the old maps with modern satellite imagery.

The site of the old Jackson Township District 4, in 2022.

It was pretty clear that the majority of Blackford County’s schoolhouses, including Jackson Township’s District 4, were no longer standing. Above is the intersection where it once sat, though, as seen in satellite imagery from Google Maps.

Google Maps is great, but its imagery is representative of a specific point in time. In this case, the satellite photo was taken in 2022. That’s good, but it doesn’t help me much if, say, the schoolhouse had collapsed or been torn down in the recent past- several have been! Thankfully, there are free, online resources to let us take a deeper dive: The first is Google Earth Pro, a desktop app with a history feature that compiles each of Google’s satellite images into a timeline.

The site of the old Jackson Township District 4, in 1994 and 2014.

Here’s a comparison of photos I found on Google Earth Pro from 1994, at left, and 2014, at right. There’s no sign of a schoolhouse anywhere. I wondered if I’d misidentified the intersection, so I pulled up the Blackford County assessor’s public access portal in Beacon to have a closer look.

Beacon -along with other similar databases like ArcGIS- is the online equivalent of the old plat maps I’d been using thus far. It’s maintained by county governments for the purpose of property valuation and tax assessment. When I zoomed into the intersection where the District 4 school once stood, I found that its half-acre plot -demarcated by the blue outline- was still owned by Jackson Township a hundred years after the schoolhouse sat there! Knowing that I’d identified the correct location for the schoolhouse, I marked it as “demolished” in my notes and moved on, repeating this process for the rest of the schools listed on the Facebook map and the old plat maps. Eventually I found the remains of thirteen schoolhouses across Blackford County, which I compiled into a Google Map that I’ve embedded below.

After I took photos of all the schoolhouses I found, I started researching them. Although years of historical school directories for Delaware and Hamilton counties are maintained online through Ball State University’s Digital Media Repository and IUPUI’s Hamilton County History database, rural counties like Blackford aren’t fortunate enough to have theirs anywhere online. Because of that, I used for the majority of my research.

If you haven’t used before, you’d better start now- it’s truly a game-changer! The site has indexed, as of last count, more than 800 million pages taken from 25,000 newspaper titles published across the United States and parts beyond. Unfortunately, the website isn’t free to use beyond a two-week trial: my Publisher Extra account runs about twenty dollars a month, but I’m happy to fork it over given how much I use the damn thing.

A screenshot of my search.

Knowing that there’s no newspaper in Blackford County but that the Muncie papers probably covered the area, I searched for the common names of each extant schoolhouse with a location filter of Delaware County, Indiana. I was able to gather a lot of information about Blackford County’s schools that way! Eventually, I went back and searched for all of the schoolhouses by common name to check my work and see if could find any information indicating that I’d missed any. When it came time to dig around for information about the Jackson Township District 4 schoolhouse, I scrolled through result after result about class reunions until I came across something that really surprised me.

Hartford City (1942, September 4). The Muncie Evening Press. p. 2.

My search for “Barr schoolhouse” brought up a paragraph from 1942 that said a man named James Mannix had purchased the abandoned schoolhouse and moved it one half-mile north of its original location. Jackpot!

I had to rely on satellite imagery to see if the relocated schoolhouse was still standing anywhere since Google didn’t bother to run their Street View cars through that particular section of Blackford County. Before I opened Google Earth Pro back up, the thought occurred to me that maybe a member of the Mannix family still owned the old schoolhouse. Assessors’ databases are perfect resource for such lines of inquiry, so back to Beacon I went.

Using Beacon’s satellite map, I checked out property after property north of the intersection that the school once sat at. It didn’t take long to come by this one, which sits about three-quarters of a mile north of the old schoolhouse site. From the air, the home certainly seemed to fit the common layout of the T-shaped schoolhouses that were so commonly built in the 1890s. I clicked on the property, then clicked through to view the parcel report.

The report provided a sketch of the house which showed that its core structure -the part labeled ‘A’ above- matched the shape and size of a T-shaped one-room schoolhouse, just as I’d thought from the aerial view. The slam dunk was where the parcel report indicated that a person with the last name of Mannix had transferred the property to its current owners a number of years ago.

Photo taken November 27, 2022. Yes, I went out for re-takes.

I had my schoolhouse! Here’s a view of it facing northwest. It’s been expanded and the rear of the home faces the road today, but you can just barely see the vertical portion of the “T” that once housed the school’s entrance and cloakroom extending towards the trees to the left of the house. The home sits about three hundred feet back from the roadway, so this was about the best photo of it I could manage.

Here’s another photo of the old schoolhouse, this time facing southwest. Photo taken November 27, 2022.

To wrap up, let’s go back to where we started: There’s no way I would have ever identified this schoolhouse if I were just driving around using the tips and tricks I provided on Saturday. The two mile rule’s irrelevant since the building itself was moved, and establishing the core structure from the road would’ve been impossible since the front of the home was the rear of the schoolhouse.

Historic plat maps available online helped figure out where the school once sat, but as you can see in the images above, there’s nothing left at either side of the intersection. It was only by searching through and using Blackford County’s Beacon portal that made it possible to pinpoint the District 4: Barr schoolhouse’s location while I sat at home and ate a sandwich.

I’ve only had to dig this deep to identify a one-room schoolhouse a handful of times. More often than not, Saturday’s tips will get me where I need to go, while Sunday’s suggestions frequently help me check my work if I’m unsure of an old building’s provenance. A big part of correctly identifying an old schoolhouse is simply knowing where to look, though, whether you’re out traveling across the county or if you’re taking a virtual trip from home. Both methods work in most cases, but sometimes -such as in the case of Blackford County’s Barr schoolhouse- it’s necessary to call in the big guns.

Hoo boy. After all that schoolhousery, I think it’s time to talk about something else for a change!

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