When it comes to traveling, I’m typically all in favor of taking the fastest and least frustrating route from point A to point B for no good reason other than getting there means that I can do or see whatever or whoever it is that has prompted the trip in the first place. Not that I’m always that anxious to return, mind you. Some people and a few things are worth lingering to enjoy. Time spent in a vehicle traveling, however, has always been enjoyable only to the extent that I am finding some pleasure in the driving. When the pleasure cedes to fatigue, the joy is gone. There’s nothing productive to be had beyond having successfully relocated oneself.
As I mentioned last week, I really wanted to go Oklahoma this year. Another group of former classmates got together in Welch this weekend. Those dear souls I’ve not seen at all since we finished 7th grade. A couple of them have changed a bit and it would have been nice to become reacquainted. With that option off the table, though, I didn’t want my trip to Northern Indiana to be over in two-and-a-half hours, which is how long it takes if one drives North from Indianapolis on I-65 until it reaches I-94 then nod off just a bit to the East. I needed the journey to be something more, something to replace the adventure I had originally planned before everything South of Joplin became swampland.
What I decided to do was that thing one always says it would be nice to do but rarely, if ever, does: take the back roads.
My late father occasionally mourned the fact that when President Eisenhower instituted the national Interstate system he effectively struck a death blow to small and even mid-sized towns all across the country. When they were relegated to unseen exits off the highway they were doomed to be forgotten. Funding for the roads that connected small towns to bigger towns became less and less a priority. As logistics became an issue, even those companies who decided to stay in the US still packed up and moved where they would be closer to major transportation hubs and where cities eager to boost their tax base would lure them with abatements and other discounts. Those places that managed to not disappear completely from the map suffered great losses and still struggle to hold on to those glory days immediately after WWII when it seemed as though every town would enjoy the profits of victory.
My trip was a bit meandering not only to give me a view of towns of which I’ve heard and never seen but to also put about the right amount of space between so that the pleasure of driving would not disappear between them. I also needed to time meals and snacks and fluid intake to align with medical necessity, which is at times a bit of a bitch.
Four towns were chosen: Kokomo, Peru, Logansport, and Valparaiso, the latter of which was of initial interest only because the university there manages every few years to come up with a basketball team that upsets everyone’s March brackets. Each one is very different and very unique in its own way but still shares some of the common characteristics, the pain, and challenges of trying to survive.
There are a number of pictures here, so to make the viewing a little easier I’ve divided them up by location with a couple of addendums. Outside Peru, if one has some assistance and the waters aren’t too high, is the International Circus Hall of Fame on the grounds of what little remains of the once-mighty circus winter headquarters. Those photos deserve their own section. I am also including some pictures of Chesterton, which was my host for the week. I’ll talk more about Chesterton in a subsequent post but photos of the town itself deserve to be included here.
Reminder: the pictures below are only thumbnails and as such often crop the full image. Click on any picture to see the full-size gallery for that town.
The good people of Kokomo would probably bristle a little bit at being called a “small” town. They are, after all, the 13th largest town in the state of Indiana. That fact probably says more about Indiana than it does Kokomo, though. Just about a 45-minute drive North of Indianapolis on US Highway 31, Kokomo’s long relationship with the auto industry has taken some blows. Its population has decreased steadily since the 2000 census as some of its largest employers either left town or, in a couple of relatively recent cases, closed altogether.
I arrived downtown Kokomo a bit before 9:00 AM on a Thursday morning. The clouds were dark as yet another storm system was moving across the state. I found a cute little coffee/sandwich shop that was open and parallel parked the van because that was the only option available without risking running too-great a distance between the coffee shop and the vehicle in the inevitable downpour. Immediately, I noticed something that felt incredibly out of place for a workday morning: the streets were empty. Yes, there were a handful of people in the coffee shop, but there were no executives, no shop owners, and certainly no early shoppers out on the sidewalks bustling between work and whatever else one might be doing. If I were going to film a dramatic scene inferring an eventual horror, this would have been the place to do so! Dark, billowing storm clouds did a lot to add to that effect.
I went to the little shop, had a charming cup of coffee and some sort of sandwich consisting of egg and spinach and cheese, which was absolutely delightful, sat through that storm that had been brewing, and then grabbed the camera and started walking. It’s obvious that the city has put a lot of effort into keeping its downtown area an exciting, picturesque, and charming place to visit. Old trolly tracks still lie embedded in some of the streets, concrete lions guard a courtyard, and even alleyways are strung with lights and filled with flowers and benches. The pictures were fun and had there not been yet another wave of storms about to move through I might have stayed and explored a bit further. I’m especially curious about what appears from the outside to be one of the most upscale tattoo shops I’ve ever seen.
Here are the pictures.
From an external perspective, Peru, Indiana seems like an unusual place to be called the “Circus Capital of the World,” but it is a title they’ve had much longer than any of us have been alive and something which they hold dear. Getting here at all, though, means having a good GPS system and trusting your best instincts. Highway 31 bypasses Peru completely and US Highway 24 barely skirts along the Northern edge of the city limits. If one wants to see downtown, the best move, especially if one is coming up from Kokomo, is to just off Hwy 31 and take Business Route 24 which delivers one right onto Main Street, then take a right onto Broadway which is where all the action takes place.
Central to everything is the Peru Youth Circus headquarters and performance facility. This is the only real piece of the circus that remains in Peru, but it’s an exciting piece. Students in the Peru school system work and train all year to perform in the circus the second full week of July (13-20 this year). Circus week is a BIG deal here and the final weekend of performances, priced nicely at $14 and $15, sell out quickly. If I can possibly swing it, I have every intention of taking the kids back for one of those performances. Since I was there early on a weekday, the Executive Director of the facility was kind enough to give me a quick tour. Unfortunately, it was too dark for good pictures but it is still astonishing.
The circus is not Peru’s only claim to fame, though. This is also the birthplace and childhood home of American composer Cole Porter who wrote over 800 songs, many of which, such as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” are considered standards in the Great American Songbook. Unfortunately, the composer never really liked Peru all that much and once he had a taste of New York and Paris he rarely returned. His former home is now a B&B and isn’t too terribly far off the main portion of town. You’ll need a little bit of help finding it, and there’s no museum at the site, just a plaque.
What struck me, though, was the house next to Porter’s homeplace. Both structures were built in similar style ostensibly around the same time just before the turn of the 20th century, but only Porter’s has been kept up well, and that only due to its historical significance. The second home is worn and looks as though it might fall from the pressure of its own weight.
I was also amused to find an old Sinclair sign on an auto shop still in operation. I hadn’t seen one of those since I was a teenager.
Peru was delivered another blow the week after I visited as the town’s largest employer announced that they’re closing down and moving to Mexico, taking several hundred jobs with them. For all its charm and loveliness, staying vital and alive is an ongoing battle.
CIRCUS WINTER CAMP
Few people are still alive who remember the heyday of the circus that existed prior to WWII and the Great Depression, but there was a time when circuses dominated the entertainment industry in the US and a number of them traveled across the United States during the Spring and Summer months. They thrilled towns not only with ariel acrobatics and wild animals but sideshows and carnivals that promised amazing sights and experiences. When winter came and traveling grew difficult, many of those circuses came to Peru, Indiana to practice and rest up from injuries and develop new acts.
This once-massive campground would fill with the trailers of the Sells-Floto Circus, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, the John Robinson Circus, the Sparks Circus, and the Al G. Barnes Circus. Jerry Mugivan brought them all together here and the camp flourished right up until the start of the Great Depression.
Finding the place now isn’t easy, especially with high waters making some local roads impassable. There aren’t many signs directing one from downtown Peru out to the former campground and those that do exist are faded and small. I missed the turn-off from a small, two-lane road with no shoulder and had to drive through water twice to get there. Fortunately, Google Maps knows exactly where the place is and was able to get me there safely. I still felt a bit rushed, though, as the water was obviously rising and I didn’t want to get stuck.
Interestingly enough, the campground has flooded before. In March of 1913, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus lost eight elephants, 21 big cats, and eight performing horses in a massive flood that prompted dramatic changes in how water is managed across the state. Many of those dams and levees are still a critical part of the state’s flood control system.
In 1929, the American Circus Corporation was sold to Jonathan Nicolas Ringling and its assets were merged with the massive Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey circus. Ringling Brothers moved the winter campground to the more friendly climate of Baldwin Park, California. Use of the Peru camp began to decline.
There’s not much left out there now. A couple of massive barns, old circus wagons, and a trapeze setup. Because of my concern for the water, I didn’t take the time to go through the International Circus Hall of Fame located there. If it ever stops raining for a couple of weeks I might attempt a return. It’s worth noting that the facility has a GoFundMe page set up to try and stay solvent. Without some help, what little that is left may soon disappear.
Logansport, IN was next on my trip. Traveling West on Hwy 24 until it dead ends into Hwy 35, it’s not too terribly long of a trip but it was getting close to lunch time and my thinking had me looking for a nice diner or mom & pop place to eat downtown, something that would be locally owned. Apparently, I came on the wrong day.
First of all, just getting to the downtown area was a challenge not only because it’s well off the highway but because, being Indiana, there was road construction all over the place. I don’t fault the city for either. They get even more snow than we do and getting roads repaired during warm weather has to be a priority. Still, I had to stop and check my GPS multiple times to make sure I was going in the correct direction.
When I got there, though, despite it being the lunch hour, what I found were nearly desolate streets. The most popular place to eat was a Chinese-themed restaurant, which didn’t exactly excite me as being native Hoosier cuisine. I walked around until I finally found what I thought, from the outside, was a quaint little cafe. I was disappointed upon entering, though, to find it was an over-priced hoagie and grinder shop. I opted to wait. There was nothing on the menu that was remotely exciting.
Of the towns I stopped in on this trip, Logansport was the most discouraging. Here is where I saw the highest number of closed and vacant storefronts, most of which appeared to have been in that condition for quite some time. While there were a couple of architecturally interesting pieces downtown, including a fountain I had to shoot from a distance due to crews actively paving on every approachable side, as I drove around town there was an abundance of homes for sale well below market price compared to much of the rest of the state. The few people I did come across were friendly enough and I’m certain this is a lovely place to live, but the town shows all the signs of a place struggling to attract new business and new residents and keep its streets free of snow between November and April.
Leaving Logansport, I followed US Hwy 35 North until it intersected with US Hwy 30. “Hey, look! More rain!” was a statement I made to myself twice and both times the rain was heavy enough to require pulling over and waiting a few minutes. Looking out across what should have been corn and soybean fields and seeing nothing but standing water was depressing. I’ve never known a time when farmers haven’t been struggling and the severe delay in planting is a setback that not only hurts farmers but ultimately hurts state revenue as well.
Traveling West on Hwy 30 eventually took me past Valparaiso University. Had fatigue not been starting to set in I would likely have made a short detour and at least driven through the university. I kept driving, though, with the excuse that commencement had already taken place so I wouldn’t get as accurate a picture as I would have wanted. Empty college campuses are depressing.
Winding around, I eventually made it into the downtown area and found it to be very alive and very bustling, far different from the other towns I’d visited. Not that Valparaiso didn’t have its fair share of boarded-up houses and empty storefronts, but here there were actually people in the streets doing things.
Let me clarify that a bit. There were teenagers in the streets doing things. Apparently, school had just let out and in a real throw-back type of aesthetic, downtown seemed to be the popular place to hang. Why, I’m not sure. They were near the community splash pad and some other public buildings but were congregated in small groups, one of which didn’t especially like having their picture taken. One young man tried telling me I should put up my camera. I smiled and told him to stay in school.
I was also amused by a chalk sandwich board outside a resale shop operated by the local Presbyterians advertising a sale on sleepwear and women’s undergarments. Finding those items at a resale shop is a little creepy on its own. At a store run by Presbyterians the sign just made me laugh. I immediately took a snapshot and sent it back to Kat.
Valparaiso is not the largest of the towns I visited that day but it felt like it was. People were about, eating at sidewalk cafes and shopping and getting business done. There was a sense here that the city is moving forward, progressing despite the obstacles other towns are experiencing. I’m thinking a return trip in the fall might be necessary.
Heading North from Valparaiso on state highway 49, it was only a few minutes before I was in Chesterton which would be my home for the next six days. From the highway, though, all one sees are fast food joints—EVERY fast food brand available—all within far-too-convenient walking distance of my hotel. I had chosen to stay close to the highway for its convenient access to the state park. I was second-guessing the wisdom of that decision.
After checking into the hotel and taking a short nap, I wandered around a bit and found the downtown area easily enough. The pictures below were taken on a different day as it was late enough that heavy shadows would have made the town look gloomy. What delighted me about Chesterton is that its downtown area is filled with locally-owned shops and diners and restaurants. I made it a point to eat in as many of them as was reasonably feasible (storms kept me close to the hotel more than once).
As I looked around the downtown area, which was busy enough but still quiet even at 6:30 on a Sunday morning, a number of things struck me. The first was the constant presence of trains running through town. Every few minutes, one hears the sound of another diesel engine as it comes roaring through. Oddly enough, this track isn’t the one where commuters catch the train into Chicago, which is a mere $10 ticket if one finds the immediate area boring (I didn’t). Each time I was downtown, though, at least three trains rumbled through over the course of a meal or coffee.
A charging station for electric vehicles stands out along the curb. I never actually saw a vehicle plugged in there but I assume there are enough in the area to warrant its presence. Such a facility says something about the environmentally-conscious attitude of the people here. There are also several little art galleries scattered around and on the walls of the Red Cup, which I’ll have to talk about in a subsequent post, are images from a very active and very talented photography club.
What struck me most, though, is that unlike every other small town I drove through, Chesterton has no churches in its downtown district. None. No steeples pierce the town’s skyline. In fact, nothing but a water tower rises higher than the trees. There are churches here, for sure, but they are in more suburban parts of town where one has to know where they’re going. Their presence isn’t overwhelming. There is no visual bully dominating the town square.
On the morning of my first full day there, I was standing in the birding tower at the state park talking with two local residents about the bird migration that was ending. Upon hearing that I was new to town and looking for a good place to eat, one of them immediately found a scrap piece of paper and not only gave me a list of restaurants but also drew a crude map showing me exactly where each place was. All week long I experienced that same level of friendliness and a desire to help. Chesterton is definitely a small town worth experiencing more than once.
Good Reasons To Take The Backroads
Making this trip reignited my fascination with small towns. Each had its own charm and its own challenges. Each was a unique community of people working hard just like everyone else to make ends meet and raise their families in a safe environment. Yes, come sundown there’s typically not a lot going on. Sure, there are a few bars and strip clubs here and there (these towns aren’t that small) but one’s not likely to have to wait in line to get into their favorite watering hole, either.
Every place we visited was within a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Indianapolis. There are probably a dozen other places of similar size scattered across the state. What this trip proved to me is that one can get a cursory view of three or four towns within a day’s time and still make it back to Indy in time for dinner.
What I think is important is that places like these not be forgotten or ignored. In societies rush to tightly inhabit cosmopolitan spaces I fear we’re ignoring a substantial part of what genuinely makes the United States the strong country that it is. These are the small towns where things start, where geniuses and star athletes and astronauts first find that spark of excitement that drives them forward. Sure, everyone grows up and moves away for a time and, like Cole Porter, not everyone moves back. But small-town America is still home and I’m thinking we all might benefit from visiting home a little more often.
What better reason can there be for jumping off the Interstate and taking the backroads?
Where To Go Next
Now that the travel bug has infected my bloodstream again, I’m open to suggestions for where I should visit next. The qualifications are that I need to be able to get there, walk around, preferably enjoy a meal, take plenty of pictures, and still get back home before the kids are out of school. You can let me know in the comments below or drop me a note here.