This entry is inspired by and dedicated to my friends at the Educational Heritage Association. This small but hardy group maintains a museum and archive at Sugar Creek Elementary School (Consolidated) west of West Terre Haute and is dedicated to preserving the educational heritage of Vigo County schools.
While Sandy and Pat were showing me around it brought to mind that I had real connections to three of the schools. Well, four if you count my day and a half attending St. Leonard’s Catholic School. My matriculations there was cut short by my antipathy to rising early to attend mass, which required kneeling my scab-ravaged knees on the hard kneeler, and long heard terror stories about the nuns gleefully recounted by my uncles. At any rate, shortly before noon on the second day I absconded from St. Leonard’s and walked the ten blocks back to Grandma’s house. My parochial education was at an end.
Modern public school education in Indiana did not begin in earnest until after the Civil War. Though the state’s new constitution of 1851 had provisions for a system of public education there was little money allotted or real effort made to systemize schooling until the 1860s. Then it was left to individual townships or towns to use tax funds to set up schools in their district. This led to the heavily mythologized one-room school houses. As populations grew more and bigger schools were needed, but for much of the rest of the 19th-century one-room schools, housing scholars from first to eighth grade, predominated in much of the United States.
A small one room school met West Terre Haute’s needs until the 1890s. But as the population grew from the mining boom the need for a larger school grew with it. By the fall of 1900 a third and fourth rooms were added to the little school on the north end of town. That was not enough though. A new school (dubbed naturally, south school, or school number 2) consisting of a two story, four room building was erected at 6th and Lee. As the population of West Terre Haute continued to rise due to the mine and clay plants, yet another was needed by the 1920s. That school, located at 4th & Lee was the Central School. And that is where I began my formal education.
It was a two-story building with a gravel and paved playground when I timidly ventured through its doors as a first-grader in September, 1959. It was about five blocks from Grandma and Grampa’s and I was allowed to walk alone to and from the school after the first week or so (such were the innocent days). My teacher was Miss Dumas, a kindly woman whose house was just a few doors down Riggy Avenue from our house. I remember the cloak room, where habiliments were shed and hung on hooks and those in need of a good talking to or a well-placed whack were taken out of our sight, but not our hearing.
It was Miss Dumas who first confirmed that my eyesight was not just poor, but terrible. She told my grandparents that no matter how close to the blackboard she seated me I had trouble making out the words. This led to my mother taking me to a doctor who diagnosed the Marfans Syndrome that caused my lenses to be askew an all but worthless. This, in turn, led to my brother and I having eye surgery the following summer and three uncomfortable days of lying with our heads between sandbags to keep our heads still in the pediatric ward at Union Hospital.
I have three dominant memories of Central School. One was walking down the stairs at recess with a classmate who noted that my first name was the same as the boy from the Lassie TV show. Yes, I admitted, but my name was Tim while his was Timmy. To my chagrin, Timmy became the name most used by my peers.
The other, sadder, memory also involved recess. I think I have recounted this somewhere in one of my blogs, but an incident occurred that filled me with a seeping terror for several days. While playing crack-the-whip one day I was the next to last person in the chain. As we twirled I lost my grip pn the boy on the end of the chain. He flew away and slid under a teacher’s car, causing a riot of blood and shrieks. Soon word reached me that his older brothers believed I had let him slip free on purpose and vowed revenge. I do not know if I finally confessed my fear to my grandparents or if Miss Dumas told them what had happened. But for a few days, Gramps decided he needed to walk me to and back from school. Just to make sure no mayhem ensued.
A happier memory is the Easter Parade. It was the custom of the school to march us on an Easter parade along National Avenue. I distinctly remember marching past the Dodge Drugstore. Now, we were all supposed to wear some sort of Easter headgear. On the girls they were called bonnets. On us recalcitrant boys I am not sure what they told us they were. I bestrode National Avenue in a bonnet(?), hat(“) made by Grandma. I am not sure how I felt at the time while wearing a chapeau made from orange and blue plastic doilies and artificial flowers that she crafted. Perhaps, I enjoyed it. God knows I was noticed as I was already over five feet tall in first grade. But I know Grandma made it with love for me. Perhaps that is why I am known as a lover of hats til this day, with my collection of bowlers, fedoras and caps.
Over the summer between first and second grade my family moved from Terre Haute to Larimer Hill west of town. It was decided that if I were to remain living with my grandparents that maybe I should follow my uncles to St. Leonard’s. Well, we know how that turned out.
Instead I moved back fulltime with my family and was enrolled at Consolidated School, just off the National Road west of town. School consolidation was a feature of education beginning in the 1920s. As populations grew and the old one or two room school houses became overcrowded there was a move to “consolidate” schools within a district. The purpose was two-fold. One was financial. Ultimately it would be cheaper to staff and maintain one school instead of many (a 19th-century school manual recommended at least nine schools in each township). It was also felt that by retaining only the best teachers, the students would benefit.
Consolidation of the rural districts of Sugar Creek Township began with the opening of Concannon School (named after township trustee Thos. Conacannon) in 1918. This took care of the schools in the northern part of Sugar creek. Then they looked south and noted that the southern part of the township. There were still five aging one-room schools in that section. They were eventually consolidated as the Consolidated School in a new, modern building opened in 1922. Later, pupils from Toad Hop were added to the rolls. It was not as diverse a population as Concannon (where 11 nationalities mingled), because the student body was mainly formed form old farm families, instead of immigrants children whose fathers worked the mines and clay plants.
So, in the fall of 1960 I began my three-year tenure at Consolidated. I remember them as happy years. I made friends. Two of them were the Moss brothers, Lloyd and Dusty. They were, in effect early Civil War re-enactors, who had us sporting blue or gray caps and recreating battles on the playground. Two of my most vivid memories took place in the gym, was added later.
One was standing next to my mother as she cast her vote there in the 1960 election. Being Democrat and Catholic, our family were staunch Kennedy supporters who knew, despite what many said, that Kennedy would be his own man, not a puppet of popery. And it was in the gym that I partook of a miracle drug. This was the era of the polio scare. I had seen TV shows of people, mainly kids my age, in iron lung machines. The disease terrified many of us kids as much as it did our parents. I had nightmares of being strapped in one of those machines, unable to move my arms (one of the reason open-sided MRI machines were a boon to me.). But in that gym I stood in line to take that sugar cube filled with vaccine. As it melted on my tongue so did many fears.
The classrooms saw me excel until long division was taught and I received anything other than an “A,” starting my lifelong fight with higher math. It was in Mrs. Porter’s second grade class that I was disciplined for the only time. One day, out of nowhere came a whack on my shoulder (inflicted with some great force) from a wooden ruler. Now there were other times I might have deserved it, but in this incident I was as blameless as a saint. It was the two boys behind me. But Mrs. Porter was deaf to my pleas of defense. It still stings.
High school was not an option for most during the early years of the twentieth century. All that most aspired to was getting their Common School Diploma (see below). This, in essence, was an 8th grade diploma. That was all that most aspired to. During the first 15 years of the century going on to high school was not a common event in towns like West Terre Haute. The percentages of those attending high school were small and likely roughly analogous to those attending college before WWII.
Before 1908 anyone from West Terre Haute who wanted to venture on from common school were forced to go to Terre Haute, which had two high schools, Wiley and the “lab school” at Indiana State. It appears that a fledgling high school began in West Terre Haute in 1906, but it was the building erected at Church and Johnson Streets in 1908 that saw a “real” high school come to the town. West Terre Haute High School (then and forever known as Valley High) opened with only 25 students. It was officially accredited by the state in 1911.
My connections to Valley are tangential, but strong. I first heard of it from my grandmother, who started there in 1914. Her favorite teacher was Miss Piepenbrink who taught German. West Terre Haute was not immune to the anti-German hysteria that swept the nation during WWI. Sauerkraut was renamed “Liberty Cabbage” and towns with the word “German” quickly changed their name. At Indiana State Normal an honored and accomplished professor, Dr. John Schlicher was fired for merely pointing out that not all Germans were bad (if you search the Indiana Magazine of History for 1991 you will find my article on the event). So, due to the outcry, they stopped teaching German at Valley and Miss Piepenbrink moved on. My grandmother still lamented that seven decades later.
As a side note, I always imagined Miss Piepenbrink to be spinster looking old lady school teacher. But as you will note in her photo, she looked like a stunning young woman.
That was not the only controversy in the young school’s life. In 1913 thirty students went on strike. It seems that the senior class had the unmitigated gall to place their pennant above that of the junior class’ pennant in the assembly room. This audacious act caused juniors Josephine All and Donald Phillips to storm the bastion and rip down the senior’s flag. This resulted in their suspension.
Outraged, thirty members of the class walked out of school and proceeded to pick up Miss All and take her to the movies. The hapless sophomores, upon hearing of the strike, attempted to escape the confines of the school and join their brethren by lamming out of school. Alas, they were caught and returned to their academic confinement. When the superintendent explained the suspension to concerned parents, the strike ended as “The strike movement seemed to find little sympathy among the parents of the strikers.”
My uncles and aunts went to Valley. Two of them, my uncles Wayne and Jim were noted athletes. My first connection with Valley was with the basketball team. Though I confess to not remembering it as I was only three or four, I am told that when some of my uncle’s basketball teammates would pick him up to go to play, they would shake my hand for good luck. Not sure how often it worked.
I made my appearance at Valley during its last year. As part of a 1960 Christmas program held in the gym, the Central School first graders were formed into a bell ringing choir performing, I believe, Jingle Bells. I remember rehearsing several times. Unfortunately, though I love music, I have absolutely no talent at performing it. Because of my poor vision (the music teacher, a woman named Inza Owens would point to the color that designated when I and my cohorts were sjake our bells) and my lack of rhythm I fear I was seldom “on the beat.’ Three months later Valley High shut its doors. I am comforted by the knowledge that it was because of the already sanctioned further consolidation with Concannon High resulted in the opening of West Vigo High School that it closed, not due to the lack of bell-ringing acumen on my part.