While wandering the back roads of Allen County several months ago in search of the few truss bridges left, I ran into another historic object on Winchester Road – the Bethel Schoolhouse. It is small, dilapidated, and neglected. Weeds surrounded the abandoned building and wood stuck out of the roof like a hovering entity used the roof for target practice.
I later learned that the wood rising from the roof was the bell tower of the school. It had collapsed downward into the school leaving the stranded beams aiming perilously skyward.
I took some pictures and went on my way.
Then a month or so ago, I received my semi-annual member magazine from the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society. The entire magazine was about the old one-room schoolhouses that once populated Allen County. How coincidental! The article was written by Deborah Eidson who did extensive research on the schools that once existed. She located 62 school buildings: 53 were brick and 9 were wood frame construction.
Ms. Eidson’s article provides a well-researched history of the early development of Allen County district schools. The Indiana General Assembly passed an act in 1824 to encourage the development of public schools. The “subscription” method of funding was established wherein parents of students paid a yearly fee of about $1.25 a pupil. This method of funding lasted until the late 1840s and 1850s.
In 1852 Indiana passed the “School Law” which established schools that were entirely free and under the management of the state. The philosophy of this new law was that the state should use its property to educate Hoosier students and it should be done free of charge. In 1865, the assembly passed an act that allowed the rural school districts and municipalities to tax for educational purposes.
The numbering system for the schools started in the northeast corner of the township with district 1 and continued west with location of schools every two miles. The diagram to the left is of a township, and the diagram to the right is of individual districts within a township.
Trustees chose locations of schools to be as close as possible to the students with most of the schools being named after the landowner who sold or donated the land to the township.
Today, many of the one room schools have been saved from destruction. But in that saving comes a price – the alteration of the structure itself into an alternate use structure. Of the 9 wood structures, 5 have been restored as residences, 2 are used as storage, 1 is a workshop, and 1 is a business.
Of the 53 brick structures, 37 have been converted to residences, 1 has been restored, 4 are now businesses, 1 is a school, and 10 sit vacant and abandoned, awaiting the fate of the wrecking ball. From the time I passed by the abandoned Bethel Schoolhouse and the day I received the magazine, one more historical brick schoolhouse was lost – the old school on Aboite Center Road near Dickey Road.
As I read the article, I hoped that I would find out something about the old schoolhouse I had passed. And, much to my joy, the Bethel Schoolhouse was included in the article with a notation that the schoolhouse was purchased as a portion of surrounding land.
I again drove out a couple of weeks ago to see if I could find the old charmer. It was still standing, sitting alone and forlorn just a few feet from the roadway. And as I took a closer look, I realized, to my dismay, just how much neglect it had suffered. I felt a sadness that these as well as other historical gems are allowed to slowly fade away and eventually disappear from our landscape.
Restoration of this treasure would take an enormous effort, if it could even be accomplished at all. But, as I stood and eyed the old schoolhouse, I couldn’t help but feel that maybe it wasn’t too late to save a wonderful slice of our rural Indiana history – a one room brick schoolhouse named “Bethel.”
Anyone up for a challenge?