Only Memories Remain at Old Freshman School Building

by Bob Lamirand, State Editor

The large structure encompassing nearly one square block on East Main Street, between Indiana and Detroit streets, has seen a large amount of activity in the last 70 years --from being the Center Ward Elementary School when the east, west and center wards were all located on Main street; a junior high school building; an armory for the National Guard prior to World War II; the site of fever-pitched basketball tournaments in the 1940s and 50s; a freshman high school facility, and the school's Central Administration Offices.

Now, however, those two buildings (which were joined when the school took over the armory) are empty, and are expected to remain so until the wrecking ball arrives to make room for a proposed downtown hotel, or some other purpose. The old structure was vacated this week when the CAO was moved onto a new site on State Rd. 15 South.

It was only a matter of time, since the school corporation had been told the past 10 years that the Main Street structure was unsafe for school usage. "The fire marshal repeatedly looked the other way," said Superintendent Dr. Larry Crabb about the old freshman building.

Little by it was used less and less.  The boys and girls clubs have not used the old gymnasium since the Pete Thorn Youth Center was constructed a few years ago on North Park Avenue.

When the new Freshman High was constructed in April of 1985, the freshman cagers naturally used that building and further deserted the old structure.  The only apparent usage of the gym was by the Kosciusko Community YMCA, which used that area for gymnastics classes through that summer. An auction resulted in the sale of the basketball equipment, closing the final chapter on the gym.

The cafeteria/commons area was temporarily used as a drop-in club by the Mental Health Association of Kosciusko County from June of last year until October.  A lack of water and heat forced that group to discontinue using the building as a meeting place.  It still utilized the commons area for storage until May of this year, when new quarters were found at 207 East Center Street.

Now the final vestiges of activity are gone with the move this week of the CAO.  But at one time the building was a scene of much activity.

Built in 1916, the school was used for grades one through nine and at one time reportedly had a 60-1 pupil to teacher ratio.  It later was used jointly for middle school and freshman grades.  An addition to the west side of the building was made in 1937.

A move in 1963 resulted in the freshmen moving to the building now housing the Retired Tigers.  In 1975 a new middle school was constructed.  When the junior high students moved to the new site, it appeared then that the old building was near its end.

It gained a reprieve, however, in mid-summer of that year when officials discovered the old freshman site was better than the building on West Main Street and moved the ninth graders back to their old building.

At one time, the structure on the east side was used as an armory after construction in 1928, and became a scene of hectic activity in 1940 and early 1941 when local troops joined the war effort even before the United States became officially involved.  Also included there was a shooting range.

Don Dreis of Milford was a member of the Company L State Guard, a local group that included such others as Carl "Tuffy" Latta, Clarence DeTurk and Gibson Bolinger. "We used the gymnasium for activities," reminisced Kreis.  "We drilled during the daytime and slept on the floor at night.  You can image (sic) with yahoos like that we didn't do much sleeping.  Restaurants and movies were free to us for two weeks" in January of 1941 until the company was sent to Shelby, Miss., for basic training.

The group was broken down into platoons, such as machine gun and mortar sections, and conducted their drilling work at different shifts.  The members used that area for sleeping, drilling and going to class. "We ate in shifts.  We alternated between drills, classes and subjects," added Kreis.

The close quarters in the old gymnasium weren't conducive to the best of living conditions.  "We weren't there any more than we had to be.  We'd have gone home if we could.  I remember it as a little cold."

Company L went on to see action in Southeast Asia, moving around from Hawaii to New Guinea, Mindanao, Luzon and Corregidor in the Bataan Peninsula of the Philippines.  Before Kreis went overseas, however, he married his wife of 43 years, Eloise, who had attended that old school during 1931-33 when it was a sixth through eighth grade facility.

She has memories of sliding down the steep hill beside the school as a shortcut in the morning.  Eloise walked the nine blocks from her home at that time on the end of South Washington Street.  "Everyone walked to school, we didn't have any buses then." There also wasn't any cafeteria then, so everyone had to walk home for lunch. "If you came back late, you were marked late.  Everyone left and came back at the same time."

Gym classes were held in the separate building of the armory and students had to walk the short distance over to the other structure.

That armory, though, was the site of great action during the 1940' and 1950s with the county tournaments and sectionals until the new high school was built in the early 1960s.  The National Guard moved over to the fairgrounds before its current structure north of Warsaw was built in 1957 and finished in 1958.

Bob Lichtenwalter fondly recalls those hot times in the old armory.  "The basketball tourneys -- they had people packed to the rafters.  From the second row on back they only saw one-half of the floor and they sold it out.

The Harlem Globetrotters once performed there, as did the Fort Wayne Pistons in an exhibition game in which former WCHS cage coach Boag Johnson played.

Lichtenwalter, a freshman high history teacher when he started his career in 1949, said that people were packed together in the armory during those "Hoosier Hysteria" events.  He remembered the place having dead spots on the floor.  Being the Warsaw home gymnasium, the Tigers knew which spots to try to avoid.

"It was shoulder to shoulder and fanny to fanny," Litch said of the crowds that came into the armory.  "They would stand outdoors on Main Street and at the bottom of the steps through rain, snow, sleet."  The fans would  would provide the air conditioning by rolling the windows up on the east and west sides by pulling chains, he related.

"Litch" started teaching physical education to the freshmen after 10 years at the school.  "One year they didn't have anybody to teach the classes.  I took it until they found someone else, and I'm still at it 27 years later."

He never thought much about the need for a new building during those 36 years before the new freshman structure was finished last year.  "Buildings don't change that much -- not like people."

But then, much of his day was spent outdoors, as he received permission to take the youngsters down to Rarick park for physical education, because the armory was also being used for seventh and eighth graders and was overcrowded.

He said the building now at the site of the Retired Tigers had a much smaller gymnasium than the armory.

The school became crowded when it held the seventh through ninth grades and there became a problem with theft at the building.  Litch remembers one occasion when he went up to his room and a policeman was hiding with a shotgun.  "He said I was lucky I was whistling," recalls Lichtenwalter.

There were advantages as well as disadvantages to the old frosh high, as the equipment room had an area with bars on the doors.  "You could look out at thieves.  One time a kid went through 70 some pair of pants."

And the kids, adults and numerous people who used those buildings will have many memories of those times.

Warsaw Times Union Saturday November 15, 1986