A window in Sara Benskin’s office gives her a view of downtown Dana, Indiana — her hometown.
“I can see where three buildings were, and there’s no longer buildings there,” she said.
The small Vermillion County town near the Illinois border featured a flower shop, restaurant, grocery store, bank and other businesses when Benskin was a youngster. Those businesses flanked Dana’s greatest niche in history — the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum in the famed war correspondent’s boyhood home on the corner of Maple Street and Briarwood Avenue.
Today, the 34-year-old serves as the town’s clerk-treasurer. The Pyle museum remains, but most of the downtown amenities Dana had during Benskin’s childhood are “missing” now. “But the people and the feel of Dana haven’t changed,” she added.
Dana isn’t alone.
Rural communities across Indiana and the nation have lost residents, businesses and entities that bind together little towns, such as schools, churches and social groups. Purdue University studied the trend of empty storefronts and dwindling job bases in small towns in 2015. The researchers found that Hoosier rural counties’ populations grew by 1.9% between 2000 and 2010, the last two federal census years, compared to a 9% growth for Indiana’s urban counties. The number of rural residents living in poverty rose 44%.
Vermillion County actually lost 3.4% of its population during that decade. The 2020 census figures aren’t calculated yet, but the U.S. Census Bureau estimated Dana’s population had dropped to 570 residents by 2019, down from 608 in 2010. And, Benskin pointed out that poverty and joblessness remain a problem.
There’s good news, though.
Benskin and a team of residents are working to give Dana a new hub of activity.
The group is methodically working to build a community center in the heart of the town. On Tuesday, the Vermillion County Community Foundation awarded the Town of Dana a $10,000 grant to study the feasibility of converting the town garage building into a multi-use community center, or constructing such a venue elsewhere in town. The study comes as Phase 2 of the project. Town officials surveyed residents in and around Dana, asking what the town needed most.
In a nutshell, the respondents’ ideas could be met with a downtown facility, offering services and activities unavailable locally.
“There’s such an opportunity just to have a centralized gathering place,” said J. Dana Trent, a former resident who now lives in Raleigh, N.C. She met Benskin on a return visit to the town last year, as the community center effort began taking shape.
Population slips since heydays
Trent was born in Los Angeles. Her parents gave her the middle name of Dana — which she goes by — in honor of her father’s hometown. They moved to Dana just months after she was born. Trent spent the next six years of her life there until her parents divorced in 1987, but continued to spend summers in Dana with her grandparents.
The 39-year-old graduate of Duke University Divinity School is now a Baptist minister, author and professor of world religions and critical thinking at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, where she and her husband live. Trent’s memories of Dana are rich.
She rode her bike downtown, looked forward to the annual Ernie Pyle Festival, tagged along at her grandmother’s 49ers social club events, and took jitterbug dance lessons at the firehouse. Trent’s father taught her to shoot pool in the local video rental shop and to drive on the rural roads.
“That’s the experience I want for the kids who live there now,” Trent said. “I want them to feel the magic we had then.”
The town experienced heydays long before the 1980s and ‘90s, too. Platted in 1874 and incorporated in 1886, Dana came into existence when the Indianapolis, Decatur and Springfield Railroad tracks were laid through the area, according to the 1913 “History of Parke and Vermillion Counties, Indiana.” In its first 40 years, Dana bustled. The roster of businesses listed in the book included handfuls of attorneys and physicians, groceries and hardware stores, hotels and dentists, along with a theater, newspaper, blacksmiths, and places to get jewelry, lumber, coal, meat, haircuts, furniture, grain and veterinarian services.
An 1886 description of the town declared, “Dana is the most rapidly growing town in Vermillion County, comprising a shrewd and enterprising class of businessmen and surrounded by an unusually good agricultural country.”
Many railroad towns lost vitality in the 20th century as airplanes, trucks, buses and cars joined America’s transportation options. Dana’s population peaked at 893 in 1900. Ernie Pyle — the future Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist — was born that year on a tenant farm near Dana. Today, the town’s population is less than two-thirds that size.
Urbanites may come home
Rural communities could become destinations again. Instead of a railroad, digital technology may reopen small towns’ popularity. This year’s COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has forced tens of millions of employers to equip their employees to work remotely from home. More than a quarter of U.S. workers were doing their jobs exclusively from home, according to an August Gallup poll.
Job duties once reserved for an office setting can now be done at the kitchen table or a den.
Thus, “there’s a lot of urbanites that want to come back to their hometowns,” said Dale White, CEO of the Vermillion County Community Foundation, which awarded the $10,000 grant to Dana. The foundation has granted nearly $170,000 for local projects and programs through the years.
The foundation also this week received a grant of $200,000 from the Lilly Endowment’s Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow initiative, which will support quality-of-life projects in Vermillion and Fountain counties. Those could include bike and pedestrian trails, streetscape beautification, community art projects, and a community leadership skills institute.
“The more of these amenities that are made available, the greater the likelihood those [urbanites elsewhere] may move back,” White said. Such active small towns could draw newcomer residents, too, he added.
A new community center would give Dana a step in that direction. Sara Benskin envisions the center as a base for senior services, kids activities, meetings, community events, job search and skills programs, health and wellness checkups and more. The feasibility study begins next month to assess whether the former town garage building is suitable, or some other space or structure. Some downtown buildings are deteriorating, she said.
Town Board and community supporters would prefer the center “not be a pole barn,” Benskin said. “I would like to see us be able to put in a community center that blends in well with what’s here [downtown] already.”
Once the feasibility study is done, the next phase would require fundraising. The possible resources could be public-private partnerships, possible state grants, donations from local corporations and community grants, White said. Once those are secured, construction would begin. White praised Dana’s “practical” approach to a long-term project.
Dana Trent believes the ideal date for the center’s opening would be Aug. 3, 2023 — Ernie Pyle’s 123rd birthday.
“If Ernie were to walk back downtown, we’d want him to be happy with it,” Trent said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.