News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

April 18, 2010

How about ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,’ partner?

TERRE HAUTE — Just a little way off Indiana 63, just a few miles north of Terre Haute, sits the sleepy little town of Shepardsville. Like most towns its size, it has seen its heyday come and go, and virtually every business that once made it a place to be on warm spring nights so many years ago is gone.

Jerry Yates — Fayette Falcons, Class of ’58 — remembers those days, and despite knowing he can’t go back in time, has done the next best thing: He’s brought a little of the past back to him, and he’s sharing it with his friends.

Yates, who turns 70 in August, has spent a life in the Navy and farming and at Columbia Records and selling Amway and hawking recreational property and trading cars, but his memories of growing up in Shepardsville have always brought him back home. Why, he even tried “city living” in Terre Haute for four years; “But it wasn’t for me,” he says.

A few weeks ago, my friend Bill Wolfe gave me a call and told me that I needed to meet Jerry Yates and that I needed to drive to Shepardsville to the place that Jerry, with a little help from his buddies, has built. It’s called “Yates’ Station,” and Bill told me, “You’re going to love it.”

So, with little more than Bill’s word to go on, Joanie and I headed across the river and south out of Vermillion County, and found, what we later agreed, was a wonderfully simple, marvelous place.

Calling Jerry a “collector” is akin to calling Donald Trump “well-off.” The station, roughly modeled after the gas stations and general stores of Jerry’s youth, was framed by the Amish out of yellow poplar, and the stone for its massive fireplace came directly out of the hills of Brown County. Even the dog that hangs around the front porch — Jerry doesn’t own it — is friendly.

“When I was growing up, we’d sit around there in Shepardsville,” Jerry said with a nod to the east, “and we’d drink pop and listen to the hillbilly music that came out of the tavern there. We just had a good time. I wanted to get some of that back when we built this.”

Inside and out, a visitor to Yates’ Station sees that Jerry never saw an old gas pump or antique oil can or antifreeze advertisement that he didn’t like. “This has been my dream,” he says of the station. “There’s a little bit of each of my friends in this place,” Yates added.

We met Bill on a gloriously blue evening, the warm breezes blowing out of the west as we parked in Jerry’s yard and made our way to his screen door. Bill, and his dad (Bill’s namesake), have been going to Yates’ Station on Tuesday nights as of late — that’s when Jerry and his buddies, who happen to call themselves “Blue Ridge Country” — get together for a little informal jam session.

“We play some bluegrass and some country,” Jerry says, “but our main objective is just to have fun.”

A few folks were sitting around the station picking and tuning guitars when Bill introduced us to Jerry, who in turn, offered us a can of pop out of his fridge and asked us to pull up a chair and relax. Mine was a comfortable old mission-style rocker, and slowly, but surely, after Jerry picked up his mandolin, a group of three, then four, then five members of the gang arrived to play and laugh and talk. We mostly just sat and listened and ate the pie that Bill brought along that night. It was, as Mozart put it, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” — “a little night music” — and it was wonderful.

Jerry was joined by Al Roach, who plays a five-stringed banjo, and Linda Popejoy, who plays bass and rhythm guitar. Rick Wheat was there with his rhythm guitar, too, and so was Bill Wheat, who hasn’t been playing his dobro for too long, but knows what he’s doing. After a while, Claude Umphries came in with his harmonica, while Jim “Jimbo” Fiock arrived a little later after making the trek down 63 from Montezuma. Jerry’s wife, Patty, usually gets into the act, too, as does Nancy Long on the rhythm guitar, and Bill Henson and Jack Shannon, on occasions. The whole gang misses Richard “Pitch” Livingston, who passed not too long ago and took the sonorous tones of his four-string tenor lead guitar with him.

The two Bills and Joanie and I, and a few others, sat, and rocked, and kept time by tapping our hands on the rocking chair arms and our feet on the planked floor. I occasionally closed my eyes and listened to the music, an old-time radio show that my grandparents listened to years ago playing in my head. I gazed over Jerry’s vast array of pop bottles, pedal tractors and black-and-white photos, and the old bicycle he had propped up against a wall; there’s enough steel in it to build a battleship.

Jerry’s walls may be filled with license plates and Orange Crush outdoor thermometers; the station may have a popcorn machine and an old pot-bellied stove and gloriously refinished Texaco and 500 Platolene gas pumps, but it was the music that kept us there later than we planned to stay that night.

The friends played “Little Rosewood Casket” and “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and someone, the senior Wolfe, I think, asked Linda to play “You are My Sunshine,” which has been around since the latter years of the Great Depression. A refrain from one song kept coming back into my mind; “Old flames can’t hold a candle to you,” it went…

Before we left, I stood with Jerry near his door for a few minutes to tell him how much we had enjoyed ourselves and that we’d try to get back over to his place sometime. Bill wanted us to know that there was a little pie left if we wanted to stick around for another slice. 

We headed to the car as the stars were just beginning to show and drove home with the windows down, the wind in our hair and that sweet music still in our ears.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, and by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Check Mike’s Web site at www.mikelunsford.com for a complete list of stores that sell his books, and a schedule of where he’ll be signing and speaking soon.

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