EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh in a series of reports The Sun-Commercial will be doing on the history of schools that have closed their doors and, in some cases, exist today only in the memories of those who attended them.
WHEATLAND — In the middle of the 1960s, this town's two stately brick school buildings were demolished.
No monument or memorial was built on their grounds to recall for passersby that once upon a time the site played host to sock hops and pep rallies, bookkeeping classes and 4-H club, basketball games and theatrical productions.
Instead, the schools and all they stood for live on in the history books and memories of their alumni.
The “prosperous village” of Wheatland, located in Steen Township, was laid out in December 1858 by William G. Long. A year later, Richard E. Steen's addition was made part of the village, according to historian George E. Greene's 1911 book, “History of Old Vincennes and Knox County, Indiana.”
The name “Wheatland” was chosen “on account of the territory surrounding it producing large yields of wheat,” Greene wrote.
The town sat in the center of a rich agricultural area and it was also in the coal belt of Knox County. It had a mine, operated by the Washington Wheatland Coal Company, within its corporate limits, and there was another mine located just outside the town.
Around the time Greene wrote his history, Wheatland was brimming with businesses, including the Farmers-Merchants Bank that gave “commercial tone to the place.” There were shops that sold hardware and drugs, furniture, coal, dry goods and groceries, meats, boots and shoes. There was a baker, a real estate and loan business, livery and sales stables and physicians.
Gradually, as the town grew, its education landscape became more developed as well. Steen Township was originally part of Harrison and Palmyra townships and formed a “triumvirate sharing in the benefits of the earlier schools,” Greene wrote.
The Steens, for whom the township was named after, were also among its pioneer educators. Nancy or Mary Steen not only had the distinction of being the township's first teacher, she was likely the first female teacher in the county as well. She taught at a small schoolhouse that stood in the general location of what eventually became Wheatland.
According to “History of Wheatland High School,” compiled and edited by its alumni and published in 1973, the early educators in the township “were said to have been very proficient with the hickory stick,” so discipline wasn't an issue.
By the time Greene's book was published, Steen had eight district schools and a graded school located in Wheatland. What was then Wheatland High School, which eventually came to serve as the grade school, was built sometime around 1907 or 1908.
“(It) is artistic in design and has all the modern improvements,” Greene wrote.
Horse-drawn wagons transported country children there, making one-room country schools unnecessary, according to the WHS history book.
In Wheatland schools' early history, students took classes like tree planting, botany and domestic science. They participated in 4-H and Beta Club, and different grades hosted class plays. Admission to the junior class play in 1913 was 25 cents or less.
In 1904, the high school's first basketball team was formed. The school's own principal “tried his best at coaching,” according to the WHS history book, and also acted as umpire at away games and referee at home games. Lacking a gym, the team played in an old livery stable and even on the upper floor of Hendrick's Drug Store. Back then, basketball was a slow-moving game and the winning team rarely scored over 20 points.
One of the earliest names of the basketball team was the “Harvesters” and they were also called the “Reds” at one point. Around 1937, the name “Jeeps” was started.
What exactly is a “Jeep”?
That's hard to say, according to alumna Rita Sandefer.
“A 'Jeep' is a little animal of some kind,” said Sandefer, who graduated in 1959 after attending Wheatland schools from the first grade on.
Whatever it is, the name “Jeeps” stuck and stayed with the schools for years.
Several decades after the brick school building, distinguished by a bell tower and arched doorway, was constructed, another building took shape across the street to house additional Wheatland “Jeeps.” In the mid-1920s, the structure was complete and served as the high school. The original brick building became the grade school.
There was also a “colored school” in town for African-American students. After the eighth grade, those students began attending Wheatland for high school.
Just like it was when Greene wrote his county history, Wheatland was a lively place when Sandefer was a student. The town had a bank, dry cleaner, two or three grocery stores, drug stores, a laundromat, insurance company, two or three barber shops, beauty shops, several churches, at least five gas stations and even a drive-up restaurant.
The town revolved around the school community, which even into the 1950s and '60s remained a small one with small class sizes. Sandefer's own graduating class had fewer than 30 students, and that was one of the largest classes ever enrolled, she said. The last group to graduate from the high school comprised fewer than 20 students.
“I loved the small classes, usually about 20. We were all close friends,” said Janet Spotanski, who attended Wheatland schools from first grade through the beginning of her freshman.
Throughout Wheatland High School's history, its graduating classes chose their own class colors. At various points, the colors were purple and white, bright red and white, old rose and silver, green and white.
To accompany the colors, each graduating class also chose a motto that ranged from the simple — “Dig,” “Over the top,” “Jog on” — to the poignant. Others included “Not evening, but dawn,” “We build the ladder by which we climb,” “Life is a picture, paint it well,” and “Hitch your wagon to a star.”
Wheatland's school colors were black and gold by the time Sandefer was a student. Baseball and basketball were the primary sports and 4-H remained a popular extracurricular. There were class plays, local churches hosted ice cream socials for the students, and the town's drug stores were popular places for students to hang out.
“A lot of us country kids would walk down to the drug store and have a burger and fountain Coke and hang out there till the bus was ready to take us to a basketball game,” Spotanski said.
A buckeye tree stood out in front of the grade school building, providing easy pickings for the Wheatland “Jeeps.”
“We'd all line up there to pick up a buckeye and peel it,” Sandefer recalled.
Classes taught at Wheatland during the later years were similar to the ones offered at other county schools. There were basics, like English and history, math and science, and there were also shorthand and typing, bookkeeping and home economics for the girls, workshop for the boys.
“I remember how hard we worked at our penmanship,” said Spotanski. “We memorized our times tables and helped each other so we could recite in class. All of our teachers worked hard at teaching us, giving us special attention if we needed it.”
Wheatland students put together Christmas programs, participated in band, cheered on their sports teams at pep rallies before the ball games and shed their shoes for sock hops after.
The junior and senior classes also went on class trips, Sandefer said, to Niagara Falls one year and Washington, D.C., the next. When she and her fellow classmates became juniors, the school principal wouldn't allow them to take their class trip, so they decided to throw a prom.
“That was the first year Wheatland ever threw a prom,” she said.
The next year, when Sandefer was a senior, they were supposed to head south for their class trip but had to tweak their plans. There were two African-American students in their class that year and because of segregation, hotels in the south wouldn't allow them to stay in the same hotel as their classmates. The students went to Chicago instead.
Over the years, the Wheatland schools — like many other small county schools that have been wiped from the map — served as defacto community centers for the small town.
Wheatland was the type of place where everyone knew each other, Sandefer said, and she loved going to school there because it was such a close-knit community.
“Everybody knew everybody else and everyone was friends. It was more of a family deal,” she said. “It was just really nice. I enjoyed going to school.”
But every good thing eventually comes to an end.
Almost a decade after Sandefer graduated, Wheatland students were absorbed into the South Knox School Corp., causing the township to close its schools. Both the grade school and high school were razed in 1968.
It was a sickening feeling, watching the town's beloved school buildings crumble to the ground, Sandefer said.
“It broke my heart to see those historical buildings gone,” said Spotanski.
The school demolitions sparked Wheatland's sharp decline; without the students, local businesses didn't have much of a customer base. One by one, they gradually closed their doors.
“When they consolidated South Knox, it really changed the town of Wheatland itself,” Spotanski said.
“I don't think there's much there anymore,” said Sandefer, who now lives in Monroe City with her husband and fellow class of 1959 graduate, John.