I have a real affinity for one-room township schoolhouses that stems from a day trip I took with my mom and grandma when I was twelve or so. Back around 2002, grandma -a retired teacher and volunteer with the local historical society- adapted some old county plat maps into a curriculum unit for fourth-graders studying state history. One summer Saturday, my mom -a teacher herself- accompanied her on a trip around the county to take photos of some of the remaining schoolhouses featured in grandma’s booklet with a new Sony FD Mavica camera that shot 640×480 jpegs onto floppy disks. I tagged along for some reason and was fascinated by the structures. I just had to learn more. Twelve years later I completed the project by overlaying present-day Google satellite images with an 1887 plat map. I located and shot photos of forty-six schoolhouses in Delaware County and since then, I’ve even found a few more that I missed.
A couple of Wednesdays ago I woke to a text from a friend saying that the old Bethel schoolhouse was being prepared for demolition. It was a timely dispatch for a couple of reasons: First, I’ve been in full schoolhouse fever since I haven’t been to any courthouses lately. So much so, in fact, that I wound up taking a deep dive in researching what turned out to be the 1902 Woodbury Township District #3 schoolhouse in rural Cumberland County, Illinois that Jim Grey encountered on a 2007 trip down old alignments of the National Road.
The second reason that Aidan’s text was so timely was that the upcoming Saturday marked ten years since my dad died. Now, my love of old schoolhouses can be traced to the trip my mom, grandma, and I took way back when. But my love of history in general is largely due to my dad’s influence. Heck, my parents named me after one two of his favorite historical obsessions, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
The 1925 house I first came home from the hospital to was in the Frances Slocum/Beacon Heights neighborhood of Fort Wayne (a city very much swollen with historic pride). But even every modern place Dad called home after my parents’ divorce was steeped in history and filled not just with antiques, but with stories about those antiques – stories that represented knowledge about how old things worked and how people lived a long time ago. Trips to dad’s every other weekend were often spent combing through far-flung flea markets and swap meets for old brass fire extinguishers, vintage firearms, oddball animal traps, double-belled euphoniums, and other weird trinkets.
The town of Bethel is sort of like that, a strange collection of old artifacts. The only remaining settlement in Delaware County’s Harrison Township, Bethel originally sprung up around a post office named Stout, which closed in 19011. Aside from a cluster of homes and a concrete block church built in 1950, the only remnant of Bethel’s time as a town is its former Odd Fellows hall, once home to that fraternal organization as well as a general store and Isaac Stout’s post office. The abandoned Bethel Home Place for Boys, a sort of juvie, sits about a mile east of town, while the schoolhouse stands a mile north. Beyond that, there’s not much else to be seen. A 1937 transportation map of Delaware County listed tiny towns like New Burlington (64 residents), Smithfield (63 people), Progress (32) and Medford (28) but neglected to even mention Bethel. Or Stout, for that matter2.
The schoolhouse being torn down is Bethel’s second, built in 1898 at the southeastern corner of Langdon Road and County Road 500-N after the Buncum schoolhouse four miles east closed and consolidated into it. As long as it operated, two teachers taught students in grades 1-4 and 5-8 at Bethel, while most other rural township schools only had one instructor. What’s unique about Bethel’s setup is that the school was actually accredited to teach students of the ninth grade. It’s not clear whether they actually did, since there’s nary a mention of a high school teacher there in old countywide school directories.
At any rate, Bethel was by far the area’s largest school until 1924, when officials built a modern, consolidated school building halfway between the Bethel and Buncum buildings to take students in from across the entire township. After sitting abandoned for several years, the Bethel school’s tower and top floor were lopped off to convert it to a home. A former student purchased the house in 1937, living there with a son until her death forty years later. The property changed hands several times after the son’s death in 2008, deteriorating further into a state of abandonment with every transaction. I’d imagine that the current owner is tired of the liability the old building presents- I’m sure it’s been broken into more than a handful of times, and, heck- If I were younger and stupider I probably would’ve peeked around inside too. Fortunately for me, the yawning crater a Bobcat knocked in the school’s wall early Wednesday made its guts pretty easy to see from the road. Of course, that’s unfortunate for the building. But as much as I’d hope to, I guess you can’t save them all- especially when a structure has been allowed to disintegrate for as long as this school has.
If 2008 marked a turning point for the Bethel schoolhouse, it also marked one for my relationship with my dad since I turned eighteen that November. Although I lionized the man as a kid and we became co-conspirators during my teenage years planning backyard trebuchets and shooting pellet guns in his basement, our relationship became strained as I grew into adulthood. I wanted nothing more than to connect with him as a grownup, but every step forward seemed marred with the retrogression to keep the status quo. Nevertheless, I was sure our relationship could be saved, though I wasn’t sure I had the right tools to salvage it on my own.
I’ve often implausibly wished to rebuild the Bethel school to its previous grandeur, brick by brick, and I can’t look at that old photo of its stoic belfry without feeling real sorrow at knowing how its story ended more than a century later. A hundred years is a long time, though, and it helps to know that its story as a school ended much earlier after only twenty-six years of service. It also helps to know that even with its loss, Delaware County still retains nearly fifty old township schoolhouses. Unfortunately, some will soon face the same fate as the Bethel school.
One that already has is the Nixon school, Union Township District 6. Never a large establishment (even lacking the cupola3 and stone inscription block4 common to many of its brethren), it closed in 1902 to consolidate with the District 7 Pike Creek school, which once stood a few miles to the south on The Shideler Free Pike. A 1980 account in the newspaper described the building as totally abandoned with missing windows, but the building was mostly complete -albeit without a roof- in 2002 when we passed it on our family trip, as it was when the Google car passed it in August, 2009. Today, it’s down to two partial walls. A lot can change in a decade.
I moved to Fort Wayne for college in August, 2009, and I saw my dad a lot. After I returned to Muncie the following year, I’d frequently go two-and-a-half hours up to his house in Goshen just to eat enchiladas and chimichangas with him at the El Mague on County Road 17. I spent a lot of time with him and we had fun, all while I did what I could to advance our relations towards the ideal I hoped for.
One day, it happened: the co-conspirator alliance, an acknowledgement of my status as a peer, an advanced version of what I’d cherished as a teen, came back into play. But instead of something innocent, this time the arrangement came after I stumbled across a personal matter he’d engaged himself in, a situation involving deception and betrayal. I’d wanted an adult relationship, and boy did I ever find myself thrust into one. Over time, it became painfully apparent that the web of lies I’d gotten entangled in was even more complex than I’d known- that, despite my role near its epicenter, I was one of the people being misled. I confused and hurt, but too bewildered to make any sense of it in the moment. I wanted to, some day, confront him.
I never had a chance to. In five years of actively driving past the Bethel school, it’s always been obvious that the building’s condition was getting worse and not better. I wish I’d had the same foresight when it came to Dad’s health. A trip to our family property in March to bail my girlfriend and me out of a blizzard aggravated what Dad thought was asthma. He went to the hospital with fluid in his lungs and was diagnosed with kidney failure. Dad did a poor job of taking care of himself so health crises were not all that unheard of, though, and while my sister and I visited him in the hospital, eventually he stabilized enough to be sent home, albeit with thrice-weekly dialysis appointments.
April third was a Sunday, and though I’d planned to make the drive up for a Mexican dinner, an opportunity for some overtime at work changed my plans. Instead of eating Chimichangas with me, Dad spent a typical evening at home with my stepmom watching Turner Classic Movies with their dogs. At 8:35, my stepmom went into the kitchen to get a can of Diet Pepsi. When she came back, Dad was gone. I found out later that night.
I was crushed; wracked with guilt since I’d chosen to work that day. There was nothing to indicate to me that his death was imminent; there wasn’t any text from a friend or some dramatic injury like the gaping hole in the wall at the Bethel school. I just wish that I had been there, or that I’d had a chance to confront or talk with him, that we could eat one more burrito together, or that, more than anything, I could have one more shot to know the man on even-footing. I comprehensively spent my twenties walloping myself over thinking that way, feeling like I hadn’t done enough.
These are the remains of the old Jaybird School, Harrison Township District #9. It was built in 1875, and time has not been kind to it since it closed down in 1923. As a fan of history, I have to admit that I prefer these ruins to the languishing structure at Bethel, which is still standing as of this writing. To me, a few rows of bricks and stone serve as more of an abstract reminder of a building’s past, absent of the anguished wistfulness I feel when going past a decaying-but-relatively-whole structure that silently begs me -me of all people, typically absent of resources- to save it. It’s hard to contextualize the single wall of the Jaybird school, but I can contentedly appreciate it anyway. There’s nothing left to be “saved” of the structure, but there’s just enough left there to be preserved.
A decade after my dad died, I think that’s how I feel. I couldn’t save him. And as much as I ached to, ten years of objectivity and knowing how my final attempt flamed out has presented the notion that maybe there wasn’t much left to be saved. But there’s still a lot to be preserved: Memories. Personality traits. Inherited gifts. Lessons learned. Experiences picked up along the way like curios from a swap meet. And certainly there’s my love of history.
Here is the Buncum school I mentioned earlier, four miles west of Bethel and just up the road from Jaybird. As you can see, the building is a house, converted in 1922 by Emmel Fink, a former Buncum student. Though the ceiling has been lowered from twelve to eight feet5, the windows have been shortened, and the building’s single classroom has been adapted into a layout necessary for use as a home, the house is unmistakably an old school, actively -and adaptively- in reuse. Here too there’s nothing to be saved, since it already has been.
I took that photo on Saturday, again on a drive with my mom and grandma nearly twenty years after the first one that made me fall in love with the schoolhouses of Delaware County. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the old schools we passed that day are now private residences, kept-up, curated, and, well, lived-in by new generations of owners and stewards since mom, grandma, and I were doing the same ourselves by spending time with one another documenting history, regaling each other with facts and tidbits as three generations of history buffs.
It has been a bipolar past few days. I miss my dad like crazy, and I think I always will. But though I’ll always pause to reflect at the memories a collapsing brick wall that was once part of a vibrant structure brings to mind, I’ll also celebrate the schoolhouses that still stand in reuse. After all, it’s easier to imagine all the stories a building could tell when there are actual walls and a roof to hold them.
1 “Delaware County”. Jim Forte Postal History. Web. Retrieved 3/31/21.
2 Spurgeon, Bill. “Transportation map shows how things have changed” The Star Press [Muncie]. December 14, 2000. Print.
3 Greene, Dick. “Seen and Heard in Our Neighborhood” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. December 9, 1965. Print.
4 Greene, Dick. “Seen and Heard in Our Neighborhood” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. January 16, 1980. Print.
5 Johnson, Betty. “Shrieves ‘taught’ an old schoolhouse to be pretty” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie]. January 24, 1976. 2. Print.