Photos by Marc Viquez, Stadium Journey
The next time you are on your way to New Castle to watch a basketball game or visit the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, go south off of I-70 and venture a few miles to the town of Spiceland. A place that provides a glimpse of the past and houses one of the state’s classic old-time basketball gymnasiums.
The town consists of around 900 people and has a downtown that features a barbershop, library, post office, and city park. A few residences get around town via golf carts, and background noises of kids playing in the distance and dogs barking, along with the delightful aroma of a nearby barbecue, complete the imagery of this small town. I parked in front of the former Wilson’s Market that had been in operation since the start of the last century; they would hand slice their meat and had almost everything the town needed.
Spiceland is unique as no other town, city, or township in the country has the same name. The name comes from the abundance of shrubbery that grew in the area known as the spicebush. The first people to settle in town were so taken by the rich land, natural springs, and the fragrant smell of the spicebush. The bushes were spicy and could be chewed or boiled for tea. The name became official in 1838.
The plot where the Spiceland Gymnasium used to be adjacent to the Spiceland High School. The school was constructed in 1922 and would graduate its last class in 1969. The school would consolidate with Straughn and Lewisville to form Tri High School the next academic year. However, the three schools would operate as Tri High for the 1968-1969 season and lay at the Church Street Gym in New Castle until construction was completed on its new gym.
Basketball dates back to 1903 when Henry County hosted the first game on the second floor of Hoover Hall. The building still exists, and the bottom floor windows hold a cornucopia of school memorabilia from photos, varsity jackets, and senior chords. The room is still open upstairs, but its days of housing basketball games ended a century ago.
When a new gymnasium opened in 1919, it contained a boiler to heat the building that was in play. One could only imagine taking a headshot into the hot piece of metal during a game. Thankfully, 1937 plans called for the construction of a modern gymnasium on the same site that could hold anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 fans.
The Public Works Administration awarded contracts to the Stiencamp Construction Company in Batesville for $39,000, Industrial Piping & Heating in Fort Wayne for $5,943, and Sanford Electric Company in Indianapolis for $971 for wiring. A total amount of $27,000 in bonds was placed on sale by the Township Advisory Board as the final step to finance construction.
The building was constructed out of brick with a playing floor of 74 by 50 feet. The court had two half-court lines and sparse out-of-bound areas underneath both nets. At one end is a stage that stands a few feet away from the line. Showers and locker rooms were underneath the stands, a small concession stand was at one end, and large windows provided natural lighting on top of each seating section.
The gym was built in 8 months and dedicated on November 2, 1937, with a capacity crowd of 900 to watch Spiceland defeat Kennard 30-28. In the preliminary J.V. (or seconds as it read in the newspaper article) game, Kennard toppled the Yellow Jackets 27-16.
Almost 84 years later, I was able to walk inside the gymnasium that I had only witnessed from the outside the last few years. The tour was created by Wesley Hammond, South Henry School Corporation Superintendent. He invited Spiceland alum and historian Richard Radcliff to share stories and information about the gymnasium.
The gym had the smell of my grandmother’s attic, still full of belongings that date back to before World War II. Ratcliff believes the red curtain is the original and that the lights used to hang a little lower from the ceiling. He remembers fondly of Friday night games.
“It was always full. I don’t care who you were playing; it was always full. The place was hot with so many people in the stands. The kids would go around selling popcorn for five cents. They would move around the building with trays of popcorn; and sodas offered at the concession area. It wasn’t anything fancy back in those days.”
Hammond added a few memories of his own as a young child attending games in the building, “What was so cool about games in that kind of gym is that it would be so hot and you would open those windows, and the windows would steam up. If you were playing a day game or in a tournament, the sun glaring off the floor like it would at Hinkle.”
The gym would be home to much more than basketball games. Professional wrestling, school plays, dinners, and other civic events would be held at the gym. Even looking at its exterior, it reads both gymnasium and community center. That was the case for similar gyms of this nature scattered throughout the state.
“The band played on the stage, all the class plays were up on the stage,” stated Ratcliff. “I go to Tri High games, and I have a grandson who played this year, but I just can’t get convinced to root for the school. I will go to the games, but it’s not the same. My heart belongs to Spiceland, and it always has. I am a diehard, and there are not many people like me left.”
The stage is empty and filled with storage behind its thick curtain, the barrel roof has a few water spots, the old concession area is full of equipment, and one has to navigate their way through the visitors’ locker rooms below the stands. The windows have all been boarded up with white panels, and the wooden floor has a distinct creak when walking on it.
Despite those flaws, the building is still a treat for the eyes. It doesn’t look like it has changed that much since its opening over eight decades ago. The center court logo still features an S in the old school colors of black and gold, but the padding and seating now have a maroon and grey (Tri Middle School colors). The brickwork from its exterior is visible on the interior walls to provide the WPA look that harkens back vivid memories for some while conjuring up images for fans who never had a chance to watch a game in the old cracker box.
The historic Spiceland High School building was razed in 1973 but the gym remained standing for junior high activities, physical education classes, and girl’s sports. A new heating system was added sometime in 1974. The junior high athletic teams would continue to use the gym for many years, even indoor softball hitting and fielding drills. The high school teams would mostly use the old cathedral for practice from time to time.
“This gym was the home court of the Tri Titans junior high teams for about 30 years,” added Hammond. The elementary schools would have played games here until the 1990s. A new gym was built on the back of the elementary school with a full-size court and five rows of bleachers. All of the junior games went over there, but the practices have been here off and off since then.”
The three of us sat down in the old wooden bleachers and talked for quite some time about the gym. We also discussed everything from old gyms in the state, the pros and cons of consolidation, personal memories from high school games, and even the old-school nickname change.
Spiceland sports teams were initially called the Quakers but began using Yellow Jackets after New Year’s in 1925 based on newspaper articles. There was also an amateur basketball team called the Quakers around this time that represented the city. Sometime in the early 1940s, the name Stingers caught on to refer to the basketball team and by the next decade became the popular choice by fans and media. Ratcliff blames the name change on a local sportswriter at the time.
“He didn’t want to write the name Yellow Jackets in print. Morristown High School was also called the Yellow Jackets, and when I walked into that gym last season, it almost made me sad. There was our name, school colors of black and gold, and yellow jacket logo. They are still capitalizing on that name, and we changed it because of that sports writer.”
Ratcliff has a collection of material on the gym that he hopes to donate to the Indiana Historical Society. He more than likely has plenty more memories of the gym from its heyday. There are similar kinds of buildings in the state, and reassuring to know that one of them in Spiceland is still being taken care of long after it hosted its last varsity game. They don’t make them like this anymore, but we have them still standing for many of us to visit and explore.
“It looks pretty much like it always did, except for the windows and the paint colors, but it looks very good for its age.”