Historic preservation is a noble thing, a concerted effort to keep structures from succumbing to entropy and neglect, in an attempt to have a material record of civilization.
But it’s easy to think of preservation as sort-of highfalutin, the province of folks with plenty of time and money on their hands. In Indiana, we might consider the massive restoration of the stupendous West Baden Springs Hotel, for example.
To be worthy of restoration, though, the building in question need not be the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World. And the preservationists might be equally unlikely.
The longtime residents of a small Jackson County village were drafted into the business of historic preservation rather suddenly when, in 1990, a film production company offered a thousand dollars to burn the community’s old wooden schoolhouse down for a scene.
The Houston School opened in 1910 to serve the small population of farm families who lived near this village about 80 miles south of Indianapolis. Over the years, though, fewer people farmed and the population began to dwindle.
By the early 1960s, the development of Indiana’s largest reservoir further evacuated the area. Though Lake Monroe was needed to provide a water source and control flooding, it literally washed away whole towns in Brown and Jackson Counties.
Finally, there weren’t enough students to keep the Houston School going. Area schools were consolidated, and the school closed its doors in the spring of 1967. In time, the old frame building became so derelict the thousand bucks looked like a pretty good deal to some.
But other Houston School alumni, former teachers and longtime residents stepped in to save the school, which is owned by a church. To raise the funds necessary to begin restoration, plans were hatched for an annual festival on the school grounds.
Since 1994, the second Saturday of October has been Houston Fall Festival Day, a chance to gather on the school grounds on the edge of the Hoosier National Forest for live bluegrass and gospel, a cake walk, a greased pig contest, and horse-and-buggy rides through what remains of the village.
Funds raised through sales of old-fashioned bean soup, homemade desserts and arts and crafts help to restore the old school. The preservationists have put a new roof on the school, replaced the windows, refinished the floors and restored the old pressed tin ceiling.
The school house is open during the festival. You can sit with some of the old timers and eat your bean soup or apple pie in the light-filled, high-ceilinged main classroom with the portrait of George Washington looking down at you from above the chalkboard and imagine what it was like to attend school almost a hundred years ago in this small farming community.
The Houston Festival takes place Saturday, October 10 from 8 am to 6 pm. Houston is nowhere near the beaten track. Coming south on SR 135 from Nashville, pass straight through the first 90-degree turn after Spurgeon’s Corner to drive directly into Houston. Allow about an hour from Bloomington.