Richland Township Gym: From Basketball to Bourbon
Somewhere along an old state road in the Hoosier State, miles away from the closest interstate, is Newtown. There are 200 people in the town, intersected by State Roads 341 and 55. However, don’t blink because you might pass some of the best bourbon whiskey. It's made in what was a former high school basketball gymnasium.
Old 55 Distillery opened for business on Labor Day 2017 in the former Richland Township High School gymnasium that graduated its last class in 1965. The gym itself was last used by grade school children in 1973. The old gym and its classrooms underneath began deteriorating until the Fruits brothers began using it to age its bourbon barrels about five years ago.
The opening of the distillery has drawn interest from around the world, with orders and visitors from Japan, Canada, and Australia. The brothers had no prior experience with making bourbon but submitted a business model to their father after lengthy research and travel to various bourbon distilleries around the country.
“Jason did a lot of the research,” said Aaron Fruits, whose family has deep farming roots dating back many years in the area.
“He showed up one morning and drove up to Michigan to look at a craft distillery to see what the operations were all about, then Chicago, and a few other places. When we got back, we asked Dad if we could do this, and he said yes.”
The brothers produce clear corn whiskey, single-barrel bourbon whiskey, and 100% sweet corn bourbon whiskey. Old 55 is the only distillery in the world that produces sweet corn bourbon. The unique concoction is labor-intensive and costly, but the brother’s grandfather grows corn on the cob on his farm, helping reduce the cost of production.
A bottle sells for $120 at the tasting room but doubles in price in retail shops throughout the state.
“In the retail business, you have two chances, is what you get,” says Fruits as he holds up two fingers. “If they go the store looking your product and it’s not in stock, they’re done. They tell you in economics to have two chances, and then you’re done.
The new lease on life of the former basketball gymnasium is somewhat bittersweet. It was the home to Red Devils teams for only 22 years before the high school consolidated with Wallace, Kingman, and Veedersburg High School to become Fountain Central High School. Before the distillery opened, the building was storage space for different grain and machinery parts.
Construction of the gym began in 1941, and there was a shortage of laborers due to World War II. The WPA hired high school boys, who were excused from several classes, to help with the building’s construction. Richland Township alumnus and former boys basketball coach, the late Bob Quirk, stated in his book Real American Stories.
“When they poured cement, we high school boys would come to school in work clothes, and instead of going to class, we were hired by the WPA to help pour cement; we got paid 40 cents an hour.”
Construction of the gym and school began when two other local high schools, Mellott and Newtown merged. Classes began that academic year in September, but it would not be until 1943 when basketball was played at the gym. The reasoning annoyed Quirk many years later.
“The thing that I am still mad about was that they said the gym was not finished and that they couldn’t find a coach, so we couldn’t have a basketball team. They said they could not find a coach because the war had started, and we had no place to play our games since the gym was not ready. Can you imagine today announcing that there would be no basketball team this year?”
The gym was one of the finest in the area and soon became the gathering spot for many in the surrounding community. On a cold winter night, the facility would be packed for home games, but it was not necessarily much warmer inside.
“It was the only thing to do in town,” said Carla Knecht, who remembers cheerleading in the gym. “The place would be packed for every game, but it would always be cold. We always had a great time watching games or cheering with the crowd.”
The gym featured seven rows of wooden bleacher seating on both sides of the court, a hangar-shaped roof, a performance stage, and concession and ticket booths on the north side of the gym. The handsome-looking building was located in the back of the school and offered additional classrooms underneath the playing surface in the basement.
Today, the original ticket booths are still there but rotted away, the performance stage has been sealed, and only one strip of wooden bleacher remains inside the building. The roof caved in several years ago and was replaced, and the additional classrooms downstairs are now home to bourbon barrels aging whiskey. The place is dusty and could use a little clean-up, but its dank conditions are perfect for distilling barrels of bourbon. There is no sunlight reaching into the basement of the former high school hoops gymnasium.
The Old 55 Distillery isn't a novelty in repurposing the gym. There are copious other former basketball palaces that are barely standing. In Newton, the gym is finding new life even though many don’t see this side of the distillery. There will always be a reminder of its athletic past inside its walls, from the grandstands to the ticket booths and the wording on the exterior of its walls.
The front of the gymnasium that once was the school is now a modern building that houses the distillery's tasting room. Visitors come in and sample bourbon whiskey or perhaps enjoy it straight from a glass with a few friends. One of the Fruits brothers will gladly take you back to the former gymnasium. You will find several barrels aging the next best batch of bourbon for consumption.