Early education in Owen Township: 1800s-1910


Education was an important institution for Owen Township citizens throughout the 1800s up to 1910.

In fact, according to the History of Jackson County, Indiana, the early settlers “were not slow in giving their children all the opportunities for an education.” The first building was a “rude log schoolhouse” where children earned a “limited knowledge of ‘redin,’ ‘ritin’ and ‘ciferin.’” The building had a big fireplace “puncheon floor and paper windows.”

By 1891, the area hosted no less than 12 schools. “Dodds and Kurtz schools had two rooms each.” The remaining one-room schools were in Antioch, Clearspring, Goss Mill, Harrell, Liberty, Mt. Zion, Norman Station, Pleasantville, Smith and Wray’s. Young people in Kurtz attended one of three schools: The Kurtz school, the Smith school east of Kurtz on Thompson Road or the Blind Horse school.

Citizens recognized the value of education. When truancy became a problem in Kurtz in February 1894, the Brownstown Banner read, “The future welfare of our country demands the regular attendance of the pupils and a hearty cooperation of the parents and teachers of our common schools.”

In the earliest years, the cost of education “for the whole township did not exceed in the aggregate $150 per year.” By 1884, the township was investing about $4800 a year. In February 1901, Owen Township reported annual expenditures of $1,131.71 for 708 enrolled children.

The school years were considerably shorter at this time. The Elmer Cummings school at Kurtz ended April 14, 1903. “Owen Township had 124 days of school” that year, which by comparison was only 69% of the 180 instructional days mandated by Indiana state law in 2018.

The end of the school year could vary as much as six weeks among the schools. On the last day at the Blind Horse school in March 1905, “a bountiful dinner was prepared and served by the patrons of the school after which an exercise was given by the scholars.” The Kurtz school closed April 13 with “sumptuous dinner … for the teachers, Jacob Tanner and Jacob Kindred … Three long tables were loaded with the choicest of things.” More than 100 ate and enough was “left for that many more. After dinner, they all marched to the church, where the evening was spent with music and recitations.”

On Thursday, Jan. 28, 1904, tragedy struck Kurtz. The two-story brick schoolhouse burned down. At 5 o’clock in the morning, neighbors discovered the fire “and made every effort to save the building and its contents… Some of the men ran upstairs, thinking the blaze could be extinguished there, but … were compelled to make their escape.” Only “the teacher’s desk and a few books from the first floor” survived.

Caretakers routinely kept a fire going overnight. “One theory is that some fire fell from a crack in one of the stoves, and the other is that the fire originated from a defective flue.” The loss estimated between $2,000 and $2,500, which far exceeded the meager $900 offered in insurance coverage. The Methodist church held classes for the remainder of the school year.

But residents were resilient. In June, Owen County Trustee Ezra Scott began soliciting bids “for the construction of a two-room frame school building.” By August, architect William Mohr was inspecting the quality of construction. In early October, the new school was “completed and ready for school, but for the seats and blackboards.”

The schoolhouse was a hub of social activity, used for fundraising, community gatherings, political meetings and church services. One Friday night in December 1889, several citizens from Kurtz attended a box supper in the Blind Horse school house, which doubled as a church. On Christmas day in 1901, to raise money for the library, a masquerade festival took place at the Kurtz school. Admission was 15 cents.

The following year, few Ratliff Grove residents attended the masquerade party because of a smallpox outbreak at Kurtz, but “a fair crowd” from Clearspring and Goss Mill showed up. It was a “very nice affair except a few drunken boys who got noisy.”

In October 1904, John C. Branaman spoke at a Democratic rally at the Blind Horse schoolhouse. In August 1905, organizers invited the entire community to “an ice cream supper at the Blind Horse schoolhouse.” In April 1909, citizens held the mutual telephone meeting at the Kurtz schoolhouse. In October, a pie supper was held at the Kurtz schoolhouse, proceeds going to “young people’s reading circle books.” And teacher Thressie Edwards countered two weeks later by inviting residents to a pie supper at the Smith schoolhouse on Nov. 12.

Education’s role in Owen Township through the early 1900s would go on to contribute to the civic values embodied by later generations of Hoosiers from this part of Jackson County.

Craig Davis, who was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central High School, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. Send comments to [email protected] or [email protected].

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