News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 29, 2011

MARK BENNETT: In Prairieton, renovation gives new life to old park

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

---- — There wasn’t much leg room in that Radio Flyer wagon.

Our sons — two years apart but squashed together inside its fading wooden rails — always fidgeted until the black wheels started rumbling over the uneven WPA-era sidewalks running through Prairieton. The boys knew we were headed to Jerry’s Bakery for a doughnut and a Sprite, and then to the park.

As we spun them on the wobbly merry-go-round, they’d tilt their heads back, teeth clenched, laughing hysterically as they kept a white-knuckled grip on the bars. My wife and I pushed them in the swings so many times we should’ve had Incredible Hulk-sized biceps. After an hour, the kids were covered in sand, sweat and smiles. Exhausted as they (and their parents) were, we invariably had to load them back into the wagon, against their will, for the short ride home.

They grew up in a good place, a couple houses down from that park — the smallest of all Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department facilities.

Today, that little oasis — less than 3/4 of an acre — looks better than ever.

In an era when America’s tiniest communities face being reduced to a collection of houses, signs of hope in a small town deserve celebration. That’s precisely what the folks in Prairieton did earlier this month during a reopening ceremony at the George and Ida Smith Park. For nearly a month, folks there watched as the first renovations there in a generation transformed the park. Its last updating came in 1990, about the time we bought that Radio Flyer.

Within minutes of the start of the reopening ceremony on Sept. 17, anxious kids and their families streamed into the park, many traveling by foot, stroller or bike. Prairieton is still a neighborhood. The Prairieton United Methodist Church, Prairieton Cemetery, Prairieton Volunteer Fire Department, U.S. Post Office and the George and Ida Smith Park all are within walking distance for most of the town’s 250 residents. It’s blue-collar. Pickup trucks in Prairieton actually have stuff in the beds — bark from limbs cut up after the latest storm, a greasy tow chain, and a pair of mud-caked boots last worn in 2006.

I like it there.

And, I feel fortunate. Some villages such as Prairieton basically disappeared when their local schools closed during the consolidation boom of the 1960s and ’70s. Prairieton Elementary, a six-classroom schoolhouse with its cafeteria across the street and no library, shut its doors in 1971. Similar towns across the nation could soon lose their local post offices, too. Luckily, Prairieton isn’t among the 3,700 rural branches targeted for closure by the U.S. Postal Service.

By contrast, 40 years after the elementary closed, the local park preserves a bit of the school’s youthful liveliness.

The renovations turned the park into the heart of the town.

“It doesn’t even look like the same place,” said Dave Phelps, captain of the Prairieton Volunteer Fire Department. He’s served on that crew for 45 years. He’s lived in Prairieton for all 62 of his years. He attended Prairieton School. He attends Prairieton United Methodist Church. He helped grill hot dogs for an estimated 50 people who showed up for the reopening ceremony.

“It’s just where we grew up,” Phelps said of his connection to the town. “It’s just a nice little neighborhood.”

A little nicer, now. The renovations gave the park some new elements. The work represents the largest improvement to the facility since Virginia Phelps (no relation to Dave) donated the ground to the county in 1976 in honor of her parents, George and Ida Smith. It now features a 15-foot by 30-foot shelter, complete with an outdoor grill; three new basketball goals; new reinforced fencing and roadside boulders to separate the park from the adjacent highway (Indiana 63); three parking spaces; a single entrance off the less busy Hotel Street; and two covered picnic benches.

Of course, the centerpiece is the sturdy, colorful playground equipment — three slides, a tunnel, monkey bars and swings set into a wood-mulch base.

A cool destination to relax or unleash some energy.

“It’s really essential to have a place to play, to gather, to just enjoy, and parks provide that,” said Kara Kish, assistant superintendent of the Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department. “[George and Ida Smith Park] is a place where a family can go and enjoy an afternoon and that connection together.

“People don’t always realize how important play is to your mental state,” she added.

Kish spotted the little park’s potential during a tour of the county’s various facilities on her first day of work two years ago. The 28-year-old graduated with a degree in recreation and sports management from Indiana State University and a master’s in public affairs from IUPUI. She grew up in a small town — Mentor, Ohio, near Cleveland — and got her first taste of parks and recreation work as a lifeguard at age 15.

A year after first seeing Prairieton’s park, she and the department began forming plans to modernize it and arrange funding. Residents offered their ideas at two town meetings, organized by the parks staff. The $40,000 needed to complete the project came from the non-reverting fund, built through the collection of camping and shelter fees, as well as maple syrup sales at the parks. “Those are additional fees that should go right back into the parks,” Kish said.

The parks department crew, which included Derek Cleghorn and Jimmie Pierce, and local builders Derek Bennett and Gib Hair started work in August and finished in September.

As a result, Prairieton has a source of community pride again, a bond from one generation to the next. The original stone “Prairieton School” nameplate that overlooked that long-gone schoolyard playground decades ago now greets visitors to the park, surrounded by flower beds. Residents have offered to help maintain the plants, gather trash and mow the lawn, Kish said. Neighborhood Watch signs hang on the fence, along with park rules, and neighbors have told Phelps they will “keep an eye on it.” The concrete basketball court is the same one our kids played on, but the trio of new goals includes a shorter, 8-footer the boys would’ve loved all those years ago.

Then again, with that, we might never have persuaded them to get back into that wagon and roll home.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.