Tales from the Road: Seeking the WPA in Historic Harrison County, Indiana

Some 34 years ago I traveled to the National Archives in Washington D.C. to go through Indiana’s WPA records. Perhaps the last WPA project was to compile the project records, each of which had an identifying index card, onto microfilm. What a boring, endless job that must have been! The cards themselves disappeared; all we had was the microfilm, catalogued by year. Within each year, projects were listed alphabetically by county, then location within each county. So at the end of several grueling days, I had eight separate handwritten lists (1935-1942) that later I conflated into one, my first effort using a computer, which was a required skill to enter the graduate school to which I had just been accepted.

That list has been a useful tool all these years since, but I soon discovered it was not complete, and so if a suspected WPA project is not on it, that does not mean it is not WPA, only that I need to search harder for another source if the building itself does not yield clues. And, of course, the list tells what was there in 1942, not today. Needless to say, the percentage of those structures still extant continues to dwindle.

Recently learning of a WPA shelter that had been rehabbed down in Corydon, Indiana’s first state capital, I perused the list to see what else might be in Harrison County that I had not yet checked. (The shelter in question was not mentioned on the list.) There were a number of other structures that I had never gotten down to verify; several seemed unlikely survivors (schools, gyms) but certainly worth seeking.

Shields Memorial Gym, Seymour

On the way down to the bottom of the state I passed through Seymour, in which stands the WPA-built Shields Memorial Gym that is currently on the 10 Most Endangered List compiled by Indiana Landmarks, our statewide preservation organization. This building, too, is not on my list compiled from the National Archives, but I have verified its WPA pedigree through other sources. I was not prepared to find such a magnificent basketball palace (this is Indiana, after all), once home to the proud Seymour Owls with seating for 3500(!) in such a distressed state. It stands forlorn and desecrated, the only structure in a grassy block in a residential area that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The 1910 school it once adjoined is long gone.

interior, Shields Memorial Gym, Seymour

Reaching the line of counties bordering the Ohio River, I passed through Floyds Knobs (Floyd County) in search of the WPA-built clubhouse for Valley View Golf Course.

much altered and expanded WPA-built clubhouse, Valley View Golf Course, Floyd’s Knobs IN

The building is actually still there, but scarcely recognizable unless you’ve seen a lot of New Deal buildings. It’s been altered and expanded, but the core of it is the original. Beyond that, the town park in Georgetown had nothing left of its WPA improvements, save a concrete slab that likely was the base of the original shelter, since replaced by one with a smaller footprint.

On to Harrison County, where much to my delight I found the 1936 community center in Crandall still intact and clearly still used for its original purpose. Vinyl siding hides the original clapboard, but the little building reflects that vaguely Williamsburg influence so popular when it was built.

Crandall Community Center

A few miles farther on I entered Corydon, which contains one of the oddest WPA projects, that of a sturdy memorial shelter for the creosoted stump of Indiana’s revered Constitution Elm that had died the previous decade. Under its sheltering leaves in a sweltering summer, Indiana’s first state constitution was created in 1816. The sandstone used for the memorial shelter was quarried in the nearby Harrison State Forest (now Harrison-Crawford and O’Bannon Woods State Park) by members of CCC Company 517. WPA workers completed the memorial in 1937, with the bronze plaque placed upon it in January 1938.

Constitution Elm Memorial, Corydon IN

I had come to Corydon specifically to check out a shelterhouse attributed to the WPA that, again, was not on the list. It was located in a recently revived park and was built of sandstone similar to that of the Constitution Elm memorial. It indeed was very likely a New Deal structure but I am still seeking documentation, although there is a recently placed sign on the property indicating it was built by the WPA in 1937 in what was then a recreation area serving the high school. I was disappointed to see the inappropriate metal roof and frou-frou shutters and doors. Ironically, the original stone riprap along the banks of the creek, almost certainly WPA work, was still in place and blessedly authentic.

Rice Island park shelter, recently renovated, Corydon IN

The WPA built several schools and gyms all over Harrison County, but I held out little hope, since these sorts of buildings tend to have a poor survival rate. A gymnasium in Mauckport on the Ohio River is gone–as indeed, is Mauckport for the most part. (It never truly recovered from the great flood of 1937.)

From there I passed through tiny Laconia and noted a suspicious-looking former school–an unexpected find–that was beautifully rehabbed into a community center and  apartments for the hamlet. I later discovered a secondary source that identified it as WPA, built as a replacement for a previous school that had burned in 1932, but while I have not yet confirmed this absolutely as New Deal, it almost certainly is.

former school in Laconia IN, now a community center and apartments

Upon reaching the little town of Elizabeth, my last stop, I was thrilled to see the former WPA school and gym, completed in 1939, was still serving the area well, now containing a branch of the Harrison County Public Library and a well used community center.

former school in Elizabeth IN, now a community center and public library branch

The gymnasium is centered in the building with former classrooms on each side. The gym has changed little since it was built; indeed, I spoke with a woman who had attended the school some decades before who confirmed that it appeared just as it was when she went there.

gymnasium in former school in Elizabeth IN

So much New Deal activity in one county! (And I did not even mention the considerable CCC activity in the state forest, today much of which is O’Bannon Woods State Park!)

shield on former school in Elizabeth IN

Nearly 90 years on, the New Deal still lives!

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1 Response to Tales from the Road: Seeking the WPA in Historic Harrison County, Indiana

  1. Eric Grayson says:

    Such amazing photos. And amazing research. Thanks for keeping this alive.

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