Tales from the Road: the WPA in Indiana’s First Capital

Glory-June Greiff

Abandoned WPA-built gym in Seymour IN, currently on Indiana Landmarks 10 Most Endangered List.

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 for all the states, 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 microfilms, catalogued by year. Within each year, projects were listed alphabetically by state, 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 only 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 checked the list to see what else might be in Harrison County that I had not yet sought out. (This shelter, incidentally, was not mentioned.) There were a number of other structures that I had never checked; several seemed unlikely survivors (schools, gyms), but certainly worth seeking.

On the way down to the bottom of the state I passed through Seymour, in which stands a WPA-built gym that is currently on the 10 Most Endangered List compiled by Indiana Landmarks, our statewide preservation organization. This building, too, is not on the Archives list, 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, in such a distressed state. It stands forlorn and desecrated, the only structure on a grassy block in a residential area. The school it once adjoined is long gone; its fate is uncertain.

Vandalized interior of Seymour gym, once host to Indiana Sectional basketball games.

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

The almost-hidden core of the Valley View Golf Course outside Floyds Knobs IN was a WPA project.

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. A few miles farther on I entered Corydon, which contains one of the oddest WPA projects in the state, the sturdy memorial shelter for the creosoted stump of Indiana’s revered Constitution Elm that had died the previous decade. Under the tree’s 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 1936 by members of CCC Company 517, encamped nearby.

The charm of this WPA-built community center in Crandall is only slightly tarnished by the vinyl siding, metal roof. and replacement windows.

I had come to Corydon specifically to check out that shelterhouse attributed to the WPA, located in a recently created park and 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 adjacent creek, almost certainly WPA work, was still in place and blessedly authentic.

The Constitution Elm Memorial in Corydon, which replaced an earlier shelter placed over the stump when the tree died in the 1920s.

Gussied-up and weather-proofed WPA-built shelter in Corydon.

The WPA built several schools and gyms all over Harrison County, but I held out little hope, since these buildings 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.) Upon reaching the tiny town of Elizabeth, my last stop, I was thrilled to see the WPA school and gym, completed in 1939, was still serving the area well, but now containing a branch of the Harrison County Public Library and a well used community center. The gymnasium is the center of 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 gone to school in the building some decades before who confirmed it.

Former school in Elizabeth, now a library and community center.

Historic photo of the school upon its completion, from an album in the library.

Original plaque affixed to the former school’s exterior.

So much New Deal activity in one small rural county! And I did not even mention the considerable CCC activity in then-Harrison State Forest, today O’Bannon Woods State Park. The New Deal lives on!

Glory-June Greiff is a public historian based in Indianapolis. She has been researching the work of New Deal for 35 years.

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