Ball State doctoral student Bruce Geelhoed and his wife Debby fled their on-campus mobile home for the safety of Men’s Gym.
Someone had reported a tornado near Tipton, Indiana, and warnings had spread 35 miles east to Ball State University. The day was April 3, 1974. It would become one of the largest and deadliest tornado outbreaks in history, with 148 twisters in 13 states.
Inside Men’s Gym, which eventually became part of the Jo Ann Gora Student Recreation and Wellness Center, the young couple waited for an “all-clear” message.
“We were wondering if we would have any possessions left,” Geelhoed said.
Luckily, the tornado missed Muncie and the Geelhoed trailer survived unscathed.
However, the 80-unit mobile home court where the couple lived didn’t last much longer, closing just three years later.
“Disappeared without a trace,” Geelhoed said.
The land is now parking lots R4, H7 and G2, east of Worthen Arena and north of the Student Health Center.
The existence of a Ball State mobile home court is likely news to current students and even many alumni. Yet the University operated not just one, but three, between 1946 and 1977.
As Ball State celebrates its Centennial year, Geelhoed is making sure this novel piece of the University’s past isn’t forgotten. Michael Szajewski, assistant dean for Digital Scholarship and Special Collections, helped with the research, presented as the keynote address of this year’s Ball State Student History Conference.
Did you live there?
Bruce Geelhoed’s research into the trailer court is not finished. He continues to gather information, including personal stories.If you lived there, he’d love to hear from you. You can contact him at email@example.com.
‘A vibrant place’
Geelhoed, PhD ’76, a longtime Ball State history professor, has been researching and writing about Ball State history since the 1990s and has authored two books on the subject.
The communities, which housed married students, were “vibrant places of social and familial interactions,” according to Geelhoed. Couples gardened in tidy lawns. Neighbors played cards together on weekends. Children rode their bikes and tricycles on new sidewalks and played basketball on a playground.
The court was constructed in response to an urgent need for new student housing. After World War II ended, former soldiers sought college degrees en masse.
“Virtually every state college and university in the United States faced this unique problem of student housing and the larger matter of finding suitable living space for this new class of students, married students,” Geelhoed said.
On many campuses nationwide, enrollment doubled between 1945 and 1946. At Ball State, the increase was even higher. In May 1945, Ball State Teachers College had an on-campus enrollment of 550. By Fall 1946, enrollment had grown to 2,200 students, and almost half were veterans. Furthermore, 56 percent of those veterans were married, and many had children.
To help address the crushing housing needs, Ball State’s first 15 mobile homes arrived in early 1946. The homes were located at the southeast corner of Tillotson Avenue and Gilbert Street. Additional mobile homes arrived throughout that year, and by October the court housed 30 families.
Then-controller Winfred E. Wagoner acquired the homes from the Federal Public Housing Authority after a meeting in Chicago. According to Geelhoed, Wagoner deserves credit for managing the housing crunch so effectively. One longtime University employee described Wagoner as working himself “nearly to exhaustion.” It was just one of many unsung contributions that Wagoner made to Ball State, Geelhoed said.
That fall, Ball State trustees responded to a demand for lots from students who already owned their own mobile homes. So, within the same Tillotson and Gilbert complex, the University opened a second mobile home court.
Students who rented a “Ball State mobile home” paid between $25 and $30 a month depending on size. To rent a space in the “private mobile home court” cost a family $14 per month.
In his research, Geelhoed found that Penn State, Michigan State, and Indiana University also offered mobile home courts during this time. However, conditions at those courts varied. At IU’s Woodlawn Court, for example, there was no running water, Geelhoed discovered, and reports of pests such termites, ants, and mice were commonplace.
In contrast, Ball State’s mobile home courts were known for being modern, comfortable and appealing.
“Perhaps sensitive to the less-than-positive reputations that mobile home parks can have, the University wanted to make sure that such a reputation did not attach itself to the Ball State park,” said Geelhoed, “especially since it was in such a visible part of the campus.”
Popcorn and Kool-aid
When the complex at Tillotson and Gilbert closed in 1956, it was part of larger trend. By this time, most universities were phasing out mobile home courts.
Ball State, however, took another approach. It built a newer, larger mobile home court that same year. Initial plans called for a site to accommodate 50 units, all privately owned.
The new mobile home court was an instant success, Geelhoed said. The University expanded it to 80 lots in 1959.
Linda Rent, ’65, lived in the University’s mobile home court during the 1960s with her husband, Al. Known as “Mr. Ball State” for his enthusiastic support of the University, Al, ’67, died in 2017 at age 73. He was executive director and general manager for public broadcasting operations at Ball State.
In a conversation with Geelhoed, Linda described a warm camaraderie among the court’s residents.
“We loved it,” she said. “The people in the court were friendly because we were all in the same situation. If you came to our home to play cards or just to visit, we served you popcorn and Kool-Aid because that was all we could afford. We lived on very little money, but we had everything that we needed.”
Beginning of the end
The Geelhoeds moved to the park in 1973 from a comfortable, two-bedroom duplex in Jenison, Michigan, where Bruce had been a secondary social studies teacher and assistant high school track coach.
Downsizing took some getting used to, but the couple appreciated the court for its convenient location, inexpensive rent and utilities, and safety.
They left in 1975, selling the trailer to another couple who kept it on the same lot.
Dave and Nancy Heynen lived in the court from 1974 to 1977 while Dave, ’78, studied architecture and Nancy, ’77, studied nursing. They live in Alaska now and are retired.
Living in a mobile home held an additional economic benefit for students, Dave told Geelhoed.
“We were able to sell our mobile home for approximately $5,000, which was a good amount of money in 1978.” Dave said. “This was an added benefit we wouldn’t have had if we had rented in married student housing.”
The Heynens were among the last residents of the mobile home court.
By the late 1970s, occupancy had declined and newer, all-electric mobile homes were straining the court’s electrical system. Ball State’s mobile homes also stood too close together for modern fire standards. The passage of new mobile home codes that affected new and existing courts “would have required almost a complete redo of the park,” Geelhoed said.
The court closed on July 1, 1977. But for those who lived there, it continues to provide fond memories of a close-knit and peaceful community. And, thanks to the efforts of Geehoed and Szajewski, its existence is now officially a part of Ball State’s often surprising history.