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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
There wasn’t much leg room in that Radio Flyer wagon.
- News Columns
MAX JONES: Newspapers can be fun, too; check out Readers’ Choice
Smart and savvy newspaper readers (that’s all of you, of course) know full well that their daily consumption of news and information isn’t an exclusively high-brow pursuit.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Lugar’s Legacy
In October 2012, at a dinner with friends, I found myself sitting next to a woman who’d grown up in Russia.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: AG goes after his own kind
Supporters of same-sex marriage hailed Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring when he announced that he wouldn’t defend his state’s prohibition against gay marriage.
THE OFF SEASON: So what does kindness look like?
There is an argument going on near my window sill. As I sit down to clack away at what will be a story about kindness, a squirrel and four blue jays bicker over a pile of birdseed I have left as charity.
I am not sure who will win out, but my money is on the jays, if anything, for their persistence and general orneriness.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Offshore tax havens undermine state
Gov. Mike Pence has spent months pushing the idea of repealing the tax on business equipment that provides $1 billion a year to schools, libraries and local governments.
MARK BENNETT: Illinois officials content their state has its business advantages, too
Most people count the Wabash River as an economic asset for Terre Haute. Of course, economic development officials in the Land of Lincoln beg to differ.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘To sleep, perchance to dream’
I’ve been thankful this winter for a full propane tank and ample cold cranking amps and school snow-delay days that have kept me off the roads until the sun is up on the most frigid of these mornings.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Overshadowed bills address veterans, guns, ‘Do Not Call’, TANF drug tests
If you’ve ever blown past a school bus with its bright red “Stop” arm extended, convinced you wouldn’t get caught breaking the law because no police were around, you might think twice about trying it again.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Law hits poverty-stricken schools hard
Chuck Brimbury is no-excuses kind of guy.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana should revisit its time-zone classification
Mister Spock would look at the situation in Indiana and, in that dispassionate “Star Trek” voice, utter a firm conclusion.
“That is illogical,” he’d say.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The night the snow fell
You would think that the cold winds and deep snows that we endured two weeks ago would be old news by now, but as I stood in the checkout line at a grocery store just a few days back, a gallon of milk in one hand and a quart of orange juice in the other, a customer just ahead of me appeared to be stocking up to make a run for the Donner Pass, and all she could talk about was the storm.
MAX JONES: Digging for wisdom in Larrison’s lament
Ferocious winter storms have been a rarity in west-central Indiana in recent decades, even though heavy snow or sub-zero stretches of days drop in occasionally to remind us how miserable they can make us.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Plenty of ‘emptiness’ to go around at start of 2014 session
Last Tuesday’s cold start to the 2014 legislative session was warmed by the standing ovation given to House Minority Leader Scott Pelath following his traditional opening day remarks.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Conservative fight against constitutional amendment
Megan Robertson grew up in a Democratic family in a heavily Democratic area known as “the region” for its proximity to Chicago.
MARK BENNETT: Album turns memories into musical Christmas message for Terre Haute’s Dave Frey, band
In a way, Dave Frey walked in the footsteps of Charles Schulz.
Both men worked hard to let Linus Van Pelt explain the “true meaning of Christmas.”
MARK BENNETT: ‘Longest Night Service’ a time to reflect, remember
Holiday images rarely depict hurt or struggle.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Meth labs so prevalent, test kits on market for homebuyers
Donetta Held knows how strange the world of methamphetamine is.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘The mind is a dark forest’
If you hadn’t noticed by reading this newspaper or hearing me crow about it myself, I have another collection of stories out in print.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Hoosiers’ priorities vs. legislators’ agenda
Every year at about this time, Statehouse reporters like me ask lawmakers what their priorities will be for the coming year.
MARRIAGE EQUALITY: Cheneys’ feud hits Indiana
Oh, it’s on.
If there was any doubt that the coming fight over the same-sex marriage ban amendment in Indiana was going to be elevated to the national level, it’s gone.
Chamber: Repeal ‘smoker’s bill of rights’
When Indiana lawmakers return for the 2014 session in early January, they’ll step into the highly charged issue of marriage equality as they debate the proposed amendment that would lock into the state constitution a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Inching on toward a cold winter?
I’m not ready for snow and ice and the daggers of a north wind, but I have finally accepted the fact that winter is nearly here.
MARK BENNETT: Words, and what they mean, is what we remember
I remember scanning the granite wall at the grave of President John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, looking for those words.
Citizens fight for school funds
Never underestimate the power of high school band parents.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John getting another shot at Baseball Hall of Fame
Go ahead, circle Dec. 9 on your calendar.
Pence eyes reducing infant mortality as key legislative goal for administration
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence opened the state’s Infant Mortality Summit last week by sharing a personal story: He and his wife had struggled with infertility issues early in their marriage, so the eventual arrival of their three children was met with deep gratitude and appreciation.
Filling our void: Terre Haute artist Bill Wolfe poured his heart and soul into the project of a lifetime
Bill Wolfe thumbed through a series of photographs documenting his sculpture of basketball legend Larry Bird.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Pumpkins: Good for the fork and the (carving) knife
My wife and I are fairly frugal; we are budgeters and planners. In the fall, we set aside what we’ll need to heat the house and pay the doctor and buy sensible shoes for school. I think we’re going to have to open an account for pumpkins, too.
MAX JONES: Fight for public access among Dave Cox’s legacies
A group of Indiana newspaper editors who advise the Hoosier State Press Association on issues related to access to public records and meetings had the opportunity to meet new Public Access Counselor Luke Britt last week.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s Donnelly part of ‘The Middle’ that got deal done
Hanging out in the middle isn’t cool.
Its occupants don’t attract a captivated circle of listeners at parties, their comments don’t inspire hell-yeahs on Facebook, and they don’t pretend to always be right.
- More News Columns Headlines
- MAX JONES: Newspapers can be fun, too; check out Readers’ Choice