from Philip Hoose's book "Hoosiers, The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana"
On night sentry duty, two Onward farmers warm
they guard against any Walton attempt to storm the high school.
(Photo from Life Magazine)
In the summer of 1950, Township Trustee
Virgil Turner announced that the high schools of the towns of Onward, population
171, and Walton, population 835, would be consolidated beginning in September.
All the high school kids of the township would go to school in the Walton
building, and all the grade school kids would report to the Onward school.
Citing a study, Turner said this plan would save the township $20,000 and give all the kids a better education. The towns were only three and a half miles apart, so the inconvenience wouldn't be too bad. "It's my duty to make these decisions," he explained.
Trouble was, Onward and Walton were connected by more than just three and a half miles of county road. They were connected by a half-century of tradition and basketball rivalry. Onward had sent boys to two wars during that time, but there was no way they were going to surrender their high school.
On September 5, when school started, the Walton grade schoolers went peaceably to Onward, but the Onward teenagers refused to report to Walton, all except seven apostates. Ruefully, Onward principal William Helms reported that two of the seven defectors were boys that could have helped the basketball team. The Onward school year began with the brightest students as teachers.
Fearing that trustee Turner would try to take their school by force, the Onward citizens set up a defense brigade. They formed a twenty-four-hour sentry, men and women, in front of the school, and set up an air raid siren to alert the community in case of a night strike. In daylight hours, a small plane scouted the road between the towns.
On October 6, Turner rented a truck for a dollar, rounded up fifteen volunteers and loaded up the grade school desks from Walton. His intent was to exchange them for the high school desks still at Onward. Tensely, they began the drive to Onward. They were detected en route, and someone set the siren off. When the school came into sight, fifty men stood in front of it. Heated words were exchanged, then fists flew. Turner and his men retreated, as the Onward residents sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers."
A week later, Turner returned, this time with sixty-seven state troopers, one-fifth of Indiana's force. Onward, too, was better prepared, having formed two rings of trucks around the building, chained the doors and stationed fifty kids inside. Again there was shoving, and again, this time on orders from Governor Henry Schricker to avoid bloodshed, they retreated.
The state switched to a strategy of attrition. Accreditation was dropped. Teachers were not paid. State aid payments ceased. Onward kept a wildcat school alive for nearly two years, financing it mainly through chicken dinners which drew supporters from Peru, Logansport and Kokomo.
What hurt the people of Onward, maybe more than the loss of their school, was the realization that their small town was no longer autonomous. They had accepted money from the State Board of Education, and now they were paying the price. They were fighting for their independence.
Ironically, not long before, the state itself had taken steps to avoid Onward's plight. In 1947 the Indiana legislature had passed a resolution condemning all forms of federal aid. "We propose to tax ourselves and take care of ourselves," declared the lawmakers. But ultimately, that's a lot of chicken dinners, and the Feds knew it. In 1952 President Eisenhower, knowing Hoosiers love a good road, came up with a real soft deal: nine dollars of federal highway money for every Hoosier buck. By the mid-'70s, Indiana had more miles of interstate highway per acre than any other state.
The sympathy for Onward was spontaneous and genuine; no one would have wanted to be in Onward's shoes. Lose your high school, lose your basketball team, and you lose your identity. For a small town, to consolidate was to be erased.