Education Rooted In TraditionNovember 30, 2018
Story by Leann Burke
If you’ve ever wondered why Dubois County has four school districts, the answer, according to County Historian Art Nordhoff, is basketball. The year was 1959, and the Indiana Legislature had passed the “School Corporation Reorganization Act” that called for the consolidation of many of the states’ small schools. That legislation led to the consolidation of the county’s schools in 1968 that formed the educational landscape known today.
At the time, Dubois County had 14 school corporations, only seven of which offered first through 12th grades in the corporation, according to historical records. The county’s last one-room school house — the Bender School in Hall Township — was still operating, and only one school corporation, the Jasper City Schools, met the state’s minimum enrollment requirement. To the dismay of many in the county’s smaller communities, consolidation was imminent.
Per state law, Judge William Dudine of the Circuit Court appointed a nine-person committee to create a consolidation plan. Several of the committee members, Nordhoff said, were local basketball fans. Ralph Seger, the committee’s secretary, for example, was a former high school basketball coach in Dubois, and Earl Buechler, the committee’s treasurer and superintendent of the Dubois County Schools, which covered all the schools outside cities, was a local basketball fan. The concern, it seems, was that when schools consolidated, some would close, leading to the possible loss of local teams and traditions.
Committee members weren’t alone in their concerns. The committee submitted its first plan to voters in 1962, offering two school corporations for the county — North Dubois County and South Dubois County.
“That was a no, big time,” Nordhoff said.
According to election records from the time, voters rejected the plan 7,157 to 1,689.
Six years later, the committee submitted its second plan, offering voters four school corporations: Northwest Dubois (present day Greater Jasper), Northeast Dubois, Southwest Dubois and Southeast Dubois. Voters approved that plan, and the consolidation went into effect in 1969.
As soon as each of the four new corporations formed, the boards — all appointed at the time — started making additional changes. Almost immediately, Northwest Dubois changed its name to Greater Jasper, Nordhoff said.
“The people of Ireland about died,” Nordhoff said.
At the time, Ireland High School was still in operation, though it would close at the end of the 1969-70 school year. That decision caused a lot of tension between the Jasper and Ireland communities. Terry Gress was a freshmen at Ireland High School when it closed. He recalls that nobody wanted it to happen, and some of his classmates still aren’t over the closing.
“Some classmates didn’t want to have anything to do with Jasper,” he said. “But we didn’t have much choice.”
For him, Gress said, the change wasn’t a big deal, and it actually worked out well. He went on to play football at Jasper High School, a sport that wasn’t offered at Ireland. Gress now lives west of Ireland near the Pike County line.
Ireland High School wasn’t the only county high school to close after the consolidation. The Southwest Dubois School Corporation also closed Holland High School after consolidation, forming Southridge High School out of Holland and Huntingburg high schools.
“They felt they should do something that recognized Holland,” Nordhoff said. “Or at least didn’t leave Holland out.”
In Northeast Dubois, the closure of schools in Cuzco and Haysville left bad blood in that region of the county, and the closure of Haysville’s school is part of why, to this day, the Northeast Dubois school board is still appointed, Nordhoff said. The corporation has voted twice on whether to transition to an elected board like the other county school corporations, but each time the measure was voted down. The reason: a belief that an elected board would give the town of Dubois too much power. The four townships in Northeast Dubois — Columbia, Hall, Harbison and Marion — all meet in Dubois, leading to the belief that the town could potentially decide any school board election simply due to being the most populated area in the school corporation, Nordhoff said.
Possibly the most contentious school closing came when the Southeast Dubois School Board decided to close the high school in Birdseye, consolidating the corporation’s high schools into Ferdinand High School, which was previously St. Ferdinand, a parochial school. The people of Birdseye sued the school board, Nordhoff said, pursuing the case all the way to the federal courts in Chicago. In the end, the courts ruled that the schools could consolidate, but Ferdinand High School had to remove more of the religious imagery left over from its days as a parochial school.
The state-mandated consolidation of 1968 wasn’t the first time schools in the county consolidated. Dubois County’s educational history began prior to 1866, though that is the first year local records mention schools, according to George R. Wilson’s 1910 history of the county, and schools consolidated many times throughout history.
The county’s earliest schools were all one-room school houses built from logs serving single settlements. According to Wilson’s history, the school terms at that time lasted about 60 days, and schools were often affiliated with local churches, the school buildings doubling as church buildings. In fact, Wilson credits the Presbyterian ministers of the time as setting the building blocks for the county’s educational system.
“It is generally conceded that the Presbyterian ministers of pioneer days were the best educated Protestant men in the early settlements,” Wilson wrote in his 1910 history.
Early settlements each had their own school houses, often built in the woods about a mile from the settlement and away from roads so as not to disturb the students, Wilson wrote. At one time, the county had 90 school houses, with the last one — the Bender School — closing in 1963.
When a school became too small, it was abandoned, and a larger school was built closer to the most populated area. Eventually, the one-room schools consolidated into multiple-room school houses and school systems serving entire townships. The county’s largest communities — Jasper and Huntingburg — also established city schools independent of the county system. Historian John Teder talks about the transition away from one-room schools in his 1910 history of the county.
“As time went on, men’s minds improved, and the people in the county raised their standard of living and demanded more conveniences and better educational facilities for their children,” Teder wrote.
Although the earliest schools were built for single settlements, as the county became more populated, its education system became more stringent. In the mid-1800s, township trustees were tasked with managing the schools and selecting teachers. That system endured into the 20th century. A county-wide superintendent was also set up to oversee all the schools, and the position existed until the 1968 consolidation. In 1843, John McCausland became the county’s first school examiner, an office later renamed school superintendent. Other notable men who served as county school superintendents include the Reverend A.J. Strain, Father Joseph Kundek — who is also credited with founding the county’s parochial school system — and historian George R. Wilson. Wilson also became a prominent figure in statewide education.
Although only men held the county-wide superintendent office, women played important roles in developing Dubois County’s education as well. In 1887, Margaret Wilson became the first pupil to receive a common school diploma in the county. She went on to teach in schools across the county, finishing her career as principal of Jasper High School.
In Ireland, teacher Helen Rose led the charge to establish an accredited high school for the town is the early 1900s. A Dubois County native, Rose attended the Adams one-room school in Marion Township before pursuing a teaching career. According to a biography of Rose compiled by local historian Delbert Himsel, Rose began teaching eighth grade and some high school subjects in Ireland in 1900. In 1904, the first two pupils entered high school in Ireland, then called Ireland Normal. Determined to keep a high school in Ireland, Rose often took her horse and buggy around Ireland and the surrounding rural areas to convince the local farmers to let their children continue high school. She met her goal, and the state commissioned Ireland High School in 1909.
Dubois County’s historical records show an educational landscape that is constantly evolving, and the evolution continues today. Faced with declining enrollment, officials in the Northeast Dubois School Corporation have tough choices ahead, and a 2015 feasibility study for the corporation mentioned consolidating Dubois Elementary and Celestine Elementary into a single school as an option for the corporation, though the general consensus has been that such an action would be a last resort. In the Greater Jasper School Corporation, construction has started on Jasper Elementary, which will consolidate Fifth Street and Tenth Street schools into a single building. It makes one wonder what future historians will add to the annals of Dubois County education when they look back at today.
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