By Joy Neighbors
In the 1830s, two former slaves from Tennessee arrived in Indiana in search of a place to put down roots as free men.
Brothers Joshua and Sanford Lyles purchased more than 1,100 acres of land at the convergence of the Wabash, White and Patoka rivers, near what is now Princeton. Their dream was to create a farming community where escaped and emancipated slaves could find freedom and opportunity. Lyles Station became the earliest Black settlement in Indiana.
From the 1850s to 1913, Lyles Station had more than 800 residents. Most were farming families who grew corn, wheat, melons and hay (alfalfa, clover and timothy.) Othes raised hogs and sold timber. The town boasted 55 homes, two churches, two general stores, a railroad station, grain elevator, lumber mill, blacksmith shop, post office and an elementary school. Part of the community’s seasonal life included orchestra and band concerts, baseball games and thrashing dinners.
At the Lyles Station School, a well-rounded education was taught to nearly 40 local children. The level of education was set to a high standard and many who attended the school went on to become leaders in their communities, and the world.
The town thrived through the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th. It took the devastating Great Flood of 1913 to begin the exodus of residents from Lyles Station. With very little left of the town, many moved to nearby Princeton, Vincennes and Evansville, enticed by the allure of a new life and a steady paycheck.
In the 1950s, the school was closed after serving the village from 1865 to 1958. Once abandoned, it was rumored one farmer, a former student, used it to store grain and house animals. Over the decades, the structure began to deteriorate.
Today, the town of Lyles Station is home to only a few residents but nearly half are descendants of the original settlers with a couple still upholding their family’s legacy as Black Hoosier farmers.
Today, Lyles Station is the only original Black community that still exists in the Hoosier State that was once home to 22 rural Black settlements. Three buildings remain: the school, grain mill and the original African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the last physical reminders of the once thriving town. Lyles Station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 as a rare surviving manifestation of Indiana’s rural Black heritage.
Three years later, in 2002, plans began for the renovation of the Lyles Station School. Brick by brick, the original building was dismantled, the foundation cleaned and stabilized, and the bricks reset. The structure was rebuilt on the same footprint as its predecessor. A few new bricks were needed to fill in spaces where original bricks had crumbled but it’s difficult to spot where repairs have been made. One year later, the building was opened as a historic school and museum.
In 2016, the story of Lyles Station went national when it was included in the “Power of Place” exhibition at Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, located on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Nine other Black communities were also featured in the exhibit.
President Barack Obama was on hand to dedicate the museum. In his speech Obama remarked, “We’re finally going to get a chance to tell our story of the pioneer African American farmers. That’s a plus for us. It’s never been recognized and never been told.”
Today, Lyles Station School is a cultural center with a heritage classroom that transports visitors back in time. With wooden desks, slate boards for lessons and an ever-present willow switch as a reminder how discipline was once handled, the classroom offers an opportunity to experience life in the early 1900s. Indiana schools can send children to spend a day soaking up lessons of the past as they read from McGuffey Readers, learn arithmetic and practice their handwriting while being taught by an appropriately dressed schoolmarm.
In the museum, a community timeline stretches along one wall as farming implements hang from another, providing a look back at how residents lived off the land. An original wooden loom and various community artifacts offer more of the town’s history. And a room dedicated to the stories of well-known residents captures the spirit of residents.
Lyles Station’s role in the Underground Railroad is also documented. When slaves crossed the nearby Ohio River, they were taken in, fed, clothed and hidden in local barns before being helped on through the state. Although many suspected the community was a part of the Underground Railroad, no one ever delved too deeply.
During the summer, a visit to the log house and medicinal herb garden will round out an enjoyable afternoon.