WEST COLLEGE CORNER, Ind. – The basketball gym in West College Corner has a story that cannot be told without a few detours — contours, really, of time and geography that must be traced carefully. That includes the dead G-Man and the desperado who gunned him down, the outlaw eventually swinging from a noose in downtown Indianapolis while a bloodthirsty crowd cheered on Alabama Street.
This story about a basketball gym? Can’t be told without mentioning the football team being banned 100 years, or the car jutting obscenely out of the schoolhouse wall.
But this has to start where all stories start. With the dateline. See what it says there? West College Corner, Indiana? That’s true. That’s where this story takes place. But step over here, just a few inches, and you’re in College Corner, Ohio. Another step, and you’re back in Indiana. Another, and … yup, you’re in Ohio.
We’re standing inside the basketball gym of the old College Corner High School, the smallest gym you ever saw, but big enough to span two states.
The midcourt stripe?
That’s the state line.
Quirky gym causes unique … issues
The town was here first, before that chunk of ground to the west had itself a name: Indiana. If you’re wondering how something like this could happen, well, that’s how. College Corner, Ohio, was settled in 1811 – eight years after Ohio became a state, but five years before Indiana did the same. The eastern border of Indiana cleaves the town in half.
“But we’re one town!” Sandy Johnson is telling me, and she’s animated, because this is her town, her passion. She grew up here, graduated from College Corner in 1965, worked 40 years in the cafeteria and now lives in a house across the street. She lives on State Line Road.
“On the Indiana side,” she says with a smile.
The founding fathers of College Corner, Ohio, and West College Corner, Ind., built the original schoolhouse in 1893 as a compromise, on land covering both states. When they built a bigger school – the current school – in 1926, someone got cute and suggested putting the gym at the school’s epicenter, straddling the court on the state line. The midcourt circle has an “I” on one side for Indiana and an “O” on the other for Ohio, marking an arrangement that has led to all sorts of oddities.
For example: Back when Indiana was in the central time zone, a possession that started on the Indiana side of the floor could lead to a basket an hour later in Ohio.
“You could take a long shot from one state,” says Chet Curry, class of 1969, “and make it in the other. That happened all the time.”
All sorts of oddities, like: The school played for decades in the Ohio state basketball tournament, but switched to Indiana in the 1960s to get a piece of the sectional pie and stayed there until the high school closed in 1972, consolidating with Short High in Liberty to form Union County High School.
Let’s see, what else. Oh, right: The school cafeteria, built under the gym, has to pass an annual inspection from both states – the building remains home to College Corner Union Elementary, technically in Ohio – and prospective teachers interview with officials from both states. And in 1978 when a snowstorm canceled school for a week, well, Ohio didn’t allow for as many snow days as Indiana. Poor kids from College Corner, Ohio: They had to attend school a few extra days to catch up, while their Indiana buddies started their summer.
“There’s not another school like this,” Sandy Johnson says. “Not anywhere.”
Mounted outside the school is a historical marker, put there in 2004 by the state of Ohio, highlighting the two-state oddity.
“What’s really odd,” Sandy’s telling me, “is that it’s not the only historical marker in town. We have two.”
The other marker is a half-mile down the road, she tells me. It memorializes the spot where an FBI agent was murdered, a story that ends with the last execution in Indianapolis.
“He was my great uncle,” Sandy says.
Your great uncle, I’m asking her? He worked for the FBI?
She shakes her head.
Indianapolis mob liked the smell of blood
The man who thundered into The Grove in a stolen car on Aug. 14, 1935, had been arrested four years earlier for the killing of his mother. He was tried twice. No verdict either time.
The man pursued by two FBI agents into The Grove – a quiet, tree-lined park in West College Corner, Ind. – was tall, angular, with a glass eye from an earlier caper gone bad. He was a Kentucky native who had family in College Corner, Ohio, and that’s where George Barrett was headed when he was tracked down by FBI agent Nelson B. Klein. The two engaged in a shootout, with Klein taking out both of Barrett’s knees, but with Barrett killing the FBI agent, who fell 22 feet inside the Indiana state line.
And so it was that George Barrett was sent to trial in Indianapolis, convicted of murder and sentenced to die by hanging in the jailyard on Alabama Street. Outside, the bloodlust was running deep and cold as workers inside the jail grounds fashioned a makeshift gallows out of wood under a carnival tent, set up to shield the gawkers. When Barrett and his ruined knees were carried up those 13 stairs, when the trapdoor opened beneath him and he lurched to his death, a crowd estimated at 5,000 on Alabama Street cheered.
Here in College Corner, Sandy Johnson is glum. Barrett was her great-uncle, remember.
“We’re ashamed of him,” she says. “I’m not sure how many people he killed in Kentucky. He’s in an unmarked grave in Indy now.”
We’re silent for a moment, standing just off the court of the gym that brought me here, under a balcony that townspeople filled on game nights, turning this tiny arena into an oven. Slats in the ceiling were opened to let out the heat, unless it was raining.
“And then it just got hot,” Sandy says.
We’re eager to change the topic, both of us, and Sandy leads us downstairs. That’s where they keep the history of this gym, this school.
That’s where the stories are.
Football cheaters, basketball showmen
Sandy catches me looking at a framed photo of the 1926 College Corner football team, leaning close to read the team’s record that season: 30 and 2. That’s a lot of football games, I’m telling Sandy.
“You’re looking at the last football team in College Corner history,” she says. “It had players from Miami University – you just went down the road and got ‘em, I guess. An announcer recognized two of the players, and Ohio banned us for 100 years.”
Over here, inside one of several trophy cases below the gym, is a news clipping about the Trojan Basketeers. The Basketeers were a barnstorming group of middle-school kids from College Corner who traveled to high school and college games in both states, putting on ballhandling exhibitions patterned after the Harlem Globetrotters. They wore flashy uniforms, did tricks and silly skits, even had a football bit where they snapped the ball and tried to kick it into the basket.
One night the Basketeers were at old Withrow Court at Miami in Oxford, Ohio. Rival Ohio University was in town, and the 3,500-seat gym was standing room only when College Corner sixth-grader Art Bleill kicked it into the basket.
“The place went nuts,” says Chet Curry, who was the snapper.
Down the hall is a trophy case devoted to Curry’s dad, Wilbur, who kept the scorebooks at College Corner (and then Union County) for 67 years, starting in 1943, his devotion earning him spots in various Halls of Fame as well as a Sagamore of the Wabash at age 92, shortly before he died in 2015. Sandy catches me reading about Wilbur, and digs through a cubby hole in one of the cases. She pulls out a butter knife.
“My key,” she says mischievously, and goes to work on the latch beneath a trophy case down the hall. She jimmies the door open, and basketball scorebooks from World War II cascade onto the floor, with this one on top: 1944 Spalding Basket Ball Score Book.
“I’m not a pack rat,” she says. “But I do think these things need to be kept up.”
Now she catches me staring at the strangest picture down here, a newspaper clipping that shows a car – a 1973 Plymouth Gold Duster – embedded in the school. It happened in July 1977, when school was out and a student from Wright State University was driving down State Line Road toward the school and just didn’t stop, tearing through the grass and up an embankment and going airborne for 27 feet before crashing into the brick wall of the school’s boiler room. Her car came to a halt seven feet above the ground, hovering above two states, smack dab between the school’s two front doors: “Indiana” on the left, and “Ohio” on the right.
“She must have been going fast,” Sandy says.