Dead Mans College near Culver - a glance back for Halloween

By: 
Jeff Kenney
Citizen editor

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE OCT. 28, 2010 CITIZEN:

A short drive from Culver, just down 700 North in Fulton County (that’s a short bit south of S.R. 110, if you’re not familiar) is one of the more unusual of the many places rumored for years in whispered tones — and nowadays on scads of websites which discuss such things — as a haunted spot in Indiana. And it’s easy to see why. At the very least, it’s a strange anamoly almost too odd to be real, though it is.

These days, no one would think of naming an elementary and/or high school “Dead Man’s College,” much less want to send their children there, but in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, at least some residents of Richland Township did just that. I stumbled across the existence of this one-room schoolhouse one drizzly, cold spring Saturday when my wife, children, and I were looking for something to do without driving too far or spending tons of money. I began browsing the internet for Indiana oddities (did you know the World’s Largest Rosary is — or at least was — in nearby Starke County? Neither did I), and stumbled across Dead Man’s College.

The building still stands at the intersection of 700 N and 500 W, looking lonely and forlorn in a desolate space surrounded by cornfields. That gray afternoon, my family and I headed down 700 N to the east, off S.R. 17, and discovered a raised hump of ground around which 500 W makes a “Y,” some 100 feet in front of (to the west of) the school building itself. The ground was (and is) an abandoned family cemetery, where at least three young children are buried, in addition to David Rumbaugh, who was born way back in 1798 (he died in 1850). That cemetery, coupled with the large, wooden sign, “Dead Man’s College” (which was added more recently), makes for a somewhat jarring discovery.

The legend of the place is, of course, even more dramatic than its “stranger-than-fiction” reality: Supposedly at least one person is buried under the front steps of the schoohouse (another is rumored in some tales to be buried under the building itself), and of course there’s the obligatory claim that if one visits the place at midnight, children (presumably ghostly ones) will come out and ask you play with them (whether these children are presumed to be those buried in the plot, or former students who attended school at Dead Man’s College, is never made very plain).

Dead Man’s College wasn’t a college at all, but one of the many one-room school houses — which accommodated all grades, elementary and high school included, back in those days — dotting the rural American landscape; it’s also the last standing one-room school in its township. It was built sometime after 1876, according to internet sources (the latest year of death given among the graves is 1864). Besides its unique name — and yes, it went by that moniker during its days as a school; and no, “Dead Man’s College” was apparently not just a nickname — perhaps its greatest claim to fame is that Vernie Bowen taught there in 1918, when his infant son Otis was born.

As every good Hoosier knows, Otis would become a very popular Governor of Indiana in 1972, and later was Secretary of Health and Welfare under President Reagan. Culverites will be interested to learn, too, that our local artist of renown, Esther Miller (of The Painter and the Poet gallery on Main Street), painted a watercolor of the school not many years ago. A good deal less sensationalist recollections of Dead Man’s College can be found online, in Fulton County resident Judge Tombaugh’s invaluable local history and genealogy material at the Fulton County Library website (go to www.fulco.lib.in.us, click “Local Genealogy,” head for “Fulton County Handbook,” and locate it alphabetically under “Schools”). There we glean by far the most detail about the school, largely via firsthand accounts from several people who actually attended classes there. Wood frame outhouses, we’re told, were located behind the building, and as there was no water source, drinking water had to be carried in by students and teachers.

The playground was in front of the building, which, interestingly, puts it in close proximity to the cemetery. Photos of the school in its prime appear in various editions of the Fulton County Historical Society Quarterly over the years, including a shot of a h ole in the foundation of the school where a student prankster is said to have crawled to attach a bell to a string or rope. Former pupil Dan Cook (born 1893) reminisced in the Quarterly about the school and the bell-ringing prank, which he attributed to classmate Oren Anderson.

“He would ring the bell with his foot during school,” wrote Cook, “and was not detected by the teacher. This became a sort of tradition (among students through the years)...a favorite line the boys told the teacher was that the bell was rung by the ghost of one of the dead people buried under the school.

There was even a story that a man was killed and buried under the school.” Also on the Fulton County site, Vernie Bowen went into great (and often charming) detail about the school and his tenure there as a teacher, noting his own father John Bowen drove the horse-drawn “hack” school bus which took children to school. During his second term there, more than 35 children attended, Bowen notes.

The site also lists each teacher at Dead Man’s College between 1900 and its final semester in operation: spring of 1926, after which it went the way of one-room schools in the Culver area, across Indiana, and across America. It’s a short and pleasant trip from Culver to Dead Man’s College, and worth the drive for anyone interested in history, or frankly the just-plain-odd and obscure.

Any readers so inclined are welcome to drop by the place for a visit around midnight some evening — Halloween, perhaps? — and let us all know what, if anything, they find! However, it’s clear from the recollections on the Fulton County website that, far from finding the old place a source of fear and dread, its past teachers and students remembered it fondly as an inviting and happy place.

“Although it bears the marks of age,” wrote Bowen of the school 64 years after its closing, “to all those who went to school there or taught there, it is an emblem of community service. If it would talk, it, like all of the other abandoned one-room district school buildings, would say, ‘Farewell. I have served my time.’

Category: