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The Cockrum House, now owned by Oakland City University, Oakland City, Indiana, was built by Col. William M. Cockrum and his wife, Lucretia (Harper) Cockrum, in 1876 after the fashion of an Italian villa. It was this couple who gave the original ten acre tract of land where Oakland City College, now University, has stood since 1885. The Cockrums would be considered the "founding family" of Oakland City University.
Bricks which were used in the construction were brought, one wagon-load at a time, from Princeton, Indiana, about 12 miles west of Oakland City. The original house was a two-story structure, the discriminating feature of which was a distinctive tower which was never finished nor was apparently ever functional. Additions were added onto the house upon at least two different occasions to provide more room for the family.
Mrs. Cockrum died in 1917, and Col. Cockrum succumbed in 1924. Two surviving daughters, Ella Cockrum Wheatley and Zoe Cockrum Aldrich, continued to live in the home. At Mrs. Wheatley's death in 1943, Mrs. Aldrich, the last of the surviving children of W.M. and Lucretia Cockrum, continued to live in the house until 1958 when ill health necessitated Mrs. Aldrich's removal to a medical facility.
At that time, the Cockrum House became the property of Oakland City College, as it was known then. After remodeling, the house became quarters for the college's music department, housing both classrooms for students and offices for music faculty members. The house was used by the music department until 1995, when a new fine arts center was constructed.
While superficial repairs were done down through the years, the house slowly decayed until only a major renovation could save the structure.
Some exterior repair was done to the house in 1981, after the structure had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. A lack of funds prohibited any additional work from taking place. In 1999 the exterior reconstruction of the Cockrum House got underway; and in 2001, interior renovation began. This $750,000 project culminated in July 2002 with the dedication of Cockrum Hall, now the home of the Alumni and Development offices of Oakland City University.
Historically, the Cockrum family's name is found in the earliest records of Oakland City. The town was plotted in 1856 by James W. Cockrum, the father of Willliam M. Cockrum. James W. Cockrum received a land grant for his property in 1837 and was an early businessman in the eastern part of Gibson County. J. W. Cockrum started a mill and general store.
The family was active in the Anti-Slavery movement, and their involvement is chronicled in The History of the Underground Railroad, a book written by Col. W. M. Cockrum (he was also the author of Pioneer History of Indiana). In the book, Col. Cockrum explains how the anti-slavery movement developed, and he tells how his father and the family aided the fleeing slaves, many of whom came through Gibson County on their way to Canada. In his book, Col. Cockrum writes: "We had a barn built of peeled hickory logs, 40 feet square, and it was floored with thick planks so we could use horses in tramping wheat on it. Under the floor we had a cellar that we used for storing potatoes, turnips and apples." It was in this cellar of the barn, Col. Cockrum states, where the escaping slaves were kept before being passed on to the next station farther north.
While the present Cockrum House was built after the anti-slavery movement, many people find it satisfying and exciting to think of the house as one of the "stations" on the slaves' escape route.
While this barn has long since gone, the remodeled and modernized Cockrum House stands as a reminder of days gone by and of a family who gave Oakland City College, now University, its beginning, a family whose strong beliefs in the worth of the individual led them to take a leadership role in the anti-slavery movement in Pioneer Indiana.
Brown, William G. Cockrum, William M., House [Oakland City University]. National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, 1978.