In the late 1990s, the old consolidated schoolhouse in Lyles Station — situated in the midst of local farms just west of Princeton, Indiana — was completely surrounded by at least 40 trees. Many did not know the building was still there, says Stanley Madison, founder and chairman of the Lyles Station Historic Preservation Corp.
“Everybody was worried that story was going to get lost,” he says of the only historic African-American farming settlement still working the land in Indiana.
The fate of the schoolhouse changed when Madison and a group of 19 committee members took it upon themselves to save the school, which was built in 1922. In June 2002, the group broke ground on the renovation project. With the help of businesses and organizations — Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana, Build Indiana grants, the Efroymson Family, the Eli Lilly Foundation, the USDA, architect George Ridgway, Jeff Koester of Koester Construction in New Harmony, Indiana, and Marsh Davis of Indiana Landmarks — the school was completed and opened to the public in fall 2004, showcasing a museum for visitors to learn about the history of the town started by freed African-Americans in the 1840s.
“We were wanting to put back at this location something a little different than other projects and sites,” says Madison. “We were able to complete … a site that not only had a unique story to tell of our African-American history for 200 years, but we also were able to take our young people and expose them to an adventure.”
The schoolhouse has welcomed classes of first through fourth graders from all around Southern Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky since 2004. Field trips include touring the schoolhouse, making candles, churning butter, and taking a lesson in the Heritage Classroom. Reconstructed with help from Toyota Princeton, the classroom has period-correct seating and books, and also includes artifacts from the days when the school held classes for children from first to eighth grade.
“I want to share with (children) the past and how we today are so much more advanced than our great-grandparents when they went to school,” says Madison.
Soon, Lyles Station’s reach will extend beyond local school children coming to hear the history of early American education. Lyles Station will be featured in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in the fall in the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The exhibit will feature artifacts from the community that was not only a farming settlement, but also an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
“It’s been a wild ride since that point,” says Madison. “That’s why I took this project on, very seriously. No one’s really had someone to tell the story about Lyles Station.”
For more information about Lyles Station, call 812-385-2534 or visit lylesstation.org. Be sure to visit Lyles Station in February for events celebrating Black History Month.