Mike Flowers remembers it like it was yesterday: the beads of moisture on the windows on a cold winter night; the smell of cigarette smoke mixed with hamburgers and French fries; and the sound of his friends and neighbors singing the school fight song when the basketball team arrived at Harry Hill's restaurant after another big victory.
This was Colfax, Ind., in the 1950s. If not bustling, the Clinton County community of 750 people was, at the very least, self-sustaining. There was a doctor's office, furniture and hardware stores, two lumberyards, two auto shops, a bank, a barber shop, an insurance business and several restaurants.
And at the figurative center of it all -- a school and its basketball team. The school itself, a two-story red brick building constructed in 1908, was beginning to show its wear by the 1950s. But it was the community's own. From kindergarten through high school graduation, Colfax's kids passed through its doors for decades.
"Everything in town revolved around the school," said Flowers, who attended the Colfax school through eighth grade. "When the school closed, it was devastating. It literally destroyed our community."
When the Indiana High School Athletic Association and state senator Mike Delph, R-Carmel, embarked on a series of town meetings around the state this spring to allow the public its say on the basketball tournament format, many complained the current four-class model doesn't allow an opportunity for the little guy. There can never be another Milan over Muncie Central, critics say, citing the 1954 state champion underdog story later immortalized in the movie "Hoosiers."
While the debate over the IHSAA's decision to implement the four-class tournament in 1997 will continue, there is no doubt that the landscape of high school athletics has changed significantly since the 1950s.
There are communities all over the state like Colfax that had their hearts ripped out through school consolidation, mandated when the Indiana General Assembly passed the Indiana School Reorganization Act of 1959 for school districts with fewer than 2,000 students. Small communities that once rallied around their sports teams -- primarily basketball -- were forced to share a school with their former rivals, or lose a school entirely.
Simply put, the Milans of the world no longer exist, at least not as they once did. In 1955-56, two years after Milan's championship, there were 776 high schools in the state. Of those, 230 had an enrollment of between 100-199 students (Milan had 161) and another 293 had fewer than 100 students. Only 41 schools (5.3 percent) had 1,000 students or more.
Compare that to 2011-12, when 108 of 407 schools have more than 1,000 students, and nearly 67 percent -- it was 13.3 percent in 1955-56 -- have more than 400. To put it in perspective, there is nearly twice the enrollment gap between Muncie Central in 1954 (1,662 students) and 2012 Class 4A champion Carmel (4,443), than there was between Milan and Muncie Central nearly 60 years ago.
"Those individuals who talked and were referencing the '50s and '60s, that was a different era," IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox said. "It was a different era for public schools, a different era for this organization, a different era for this basketball tournament. . . . The other thing that gets lost sometimes, and the reason the class initiative was started, was that the disparity between large and small schools was widening.
"It's continued to get greater."
Onward's battle cry
Though most of the state's school consolidations came in the 1960s, one of the most bizarre, hostile unions of two communities came in 1950 -- at least, it was supposed to.
In the summer of 1950, the consolidation of the Cass County schools Walton and Onward -- located 41/2 miles apart -- was announced by school trustee Virgil Turner. On the surface, it was a logical move. The towns were located in the same township and Turner estimated that the consolidation would save $20,000 per year. Grades 7-12 would be moved to the larger Walton (population: 835) and Onward (pop: 171) would get the elementary school.
If only it were that easy.
"Onward didn't want to give up its school," said Betty Wilson, 90, an Onward resident then and now.
When school started Sept. 5, Walton's elementary students came to Onward as planned. But with the exception of nine defectors, Onward's high school students stayed away from Walton. When the people of Onward heard that Turner planned to take their high school furniture to Walton in a truck, they took turns guarding the school 24 hours a day with a portable air raid siren.
In its Oct. 16 edition, Life magazine chronicled the feud, writing, "In two Indiana small towns last week, the larger problems of U.S. education were being brought down to a lunatic local level."
While Onward residents cited Walton's delinquency, lack of morals and lack of qualifications to run a high school, Turner hit on something far more likely at the center of the ordeal:
"The people of Onward just don't want to lose their basketball team," Turner told Life.
On Oct. 6, Turner sent a dump truck and 15 brave volunteers to Onward to retrieve the school equipment. When they arrived, they found themselves surrounded by 50 Onward residents. A few punches were thrown and the Walton clan retreated and informed Turner the invasion had failed.
"I was afraid people were going to have guns," said Lloyd Bruner, 88, then a Walton resident. "They didn't, but it was pretty near that bad."
Meanwhile, Onward was running its own rogue high school. Teachers were paid with funds raised through soup suppers, pancake breakfasts and fish fries even though the school was no longer accredited and its basketball team -- the Onward Redcoats -- no longer recognized by the IHSAA.
Still, Onward marched on. Things came to a head on Oct. 17, 1950, when 67 state troopers were sent to the town to forcibly remove the school furniture. The farmers were ready, blockading the troopers with tractors roped together around the school. Inside, students were told to remain at their desks even if the troopers broke through.
The troopers fell back, told by governor Henry Schricker to avoid violence at all costs. Once again, Onward had held its ground.
"There was pure disgust over the decision to consolidate," said John Mays, who was a junior at Onward at the time and still owns one of the John Deere tractors that helped barricade the school that day. "The decision was made quickly that we were going to go along with it. It seemed foolish to continue the operation of the school at Walton. We had a more modern school and theirs didn't have the same features."
Six seniors graduated from Onward in 1951. Unable to keep the high school going the next year due to finances and the lack of state accreditation, students went elsewhere. For Mays, Walton was not an option; he graduated from Bunker Hill in 1952.
Though the resentment has subsided over the years and many of the key people involved are long gone, the Onward-Walton feud still occasionally comes up in conversation. As does the debate over consolidation.
Lewis Cass, formed in 1963 as a consolidation of eight former area schools -- including Onward and Walton -- won the 2A boys basketball championship in 2003.
"If bigger schools are better, than consolidation is good," Mays said. "I think sometimes they are too big now. But things change; you wouldn't even think of having a little school like Onward now. But what is the proper size for a school? I don't think we know the answer to that."
The most recent educational policy brief from the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University concluded that despite some legislative interest, mandating school consolidation would have minimal impact on state spending on public education.
"Also from an academic standpoint, there is not a compelling case to be made for further consolidation," said Terry Spradlin, the associate director of education policy at CEEP. "It should be done on a case-by-case basis. Let local communities decide what's best for them."
Despite the objections of small communities like Onward, Spradlin said the School Reorganization Act of 1959 was necessary and came at a time when Indiana lagged far behind most of the country in school reorganization.
An 81-page document produced by the Indiana State Chamber of Commerce in 1957 titled "The Case for Indiana School Reorganization" appealed not only to an improved education, better use of school personnel and more equitable distribution of school tax burdens, but also athletics:
"Consistently good basketball, football and track teams require many more students than are found in a large percentage of the high schools in Indiana," wrote W.W. Hill Jr., director of the education department.
But as consolidation became a reality in the 1960s, a vital piece of Indiana's basketball fabric was also fading: the small community that rallied around its basketball team and against its neighboring rivals.
Gone were the Epsom Salts, Fort Branch Twigs and Griffin Tornadoes, and along came antiseptic consolidated names like Tri County, Eastern and South Central. Many of the consolidated schools were built on less expensive farmland, outside any of the communities that had been consolidated.
"In many communities, the athletic teams -- and most times the basketball team -- was the source of pride," Spradlin said. "It was the way to rally around a common cause. There's nothing left to bind that community together and the town begins to erode and decay over time. Not all of that can be tied to consolidation, because a lot of it is economic trends and the job market, but consolidation certainly has played a factor."
While many of the communities that lost their high schools were able to at least keep an elementary school, Colfax lost it all when it consolidated with Jackson Township, Mulberry and Washington Township to form Clinton Prairie in 1961. Just four years earlier, the Colfax Hickories had won their only sectional in school history in front of a packed house of more than 3,000 people at Howard Hall in Frankfort.
The school was completely torn down a few years later.
"Consolidation killed Colfax," said Ward Suter, class of 1958. "The town crumbled. There's no drawing points here, nothing to keep people here. We lost that camaraderie where everybody knew each other and got behind the school. Now we're a bedroom community for Lafayette (22 miles away)."
Not all of the consolidations were as contentious as Onward and Walton. But even that has cooled over the years, smoothed over by six decades.
"A lot of the die-hards are gone from back then," Mays said with a laugh, recalling the situation. "Those were some rambunctious people. But it all came back to this: The school was theirs and they were going to hold on to it any way they knew how."