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 email@example.com.
There wasn’t much leg room in that Radio Flyer wagon.
- Mark Bennett B-Sides
MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?
Some phrases can only be uttered by a few people, or none at all.
MARK BENNETT: Glitches show limitations of high-stakes testing concept
The dog ate my homework. That age-old excuse — based on a shockingly unforeseen complication — rarely works for a kid who didn’t finish yesterday’s math assignment. Yet, in a role reversal, Indiana school children, along with their teachers and administrators, are left to accept an explanation for a disruption best described as the mother of all ironies.
MARK BENNETT: One step at a time to save lives
Remember that name.
MARK BENNETT: Sometimes, the mere posing of questions is significant
The era seems quaint now, almost like a fable. When people left their house doors unlocked. When the sight of a police officer in a school meant it was Career Day.
MARK BENNETT: New reality steers Nashville singer to Crossroads for Historical Society concert
People pass through the Crossroads of America for lots of reasons.
Business trips. College campus events. Federal prison sentences. Visits with relatives. Gas pitstops.
Or maybe a career change and a twist of fate.
Ty Brown makes his first stop in downtown Terre Haute as the headliner of a multi-band Sweet Sensations Country Jam concert May 4 in the Ohio Building — a fundraiser for the Vigo County Historical Society.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute barber ‘sharpens up’ customers for 50 years
People streamed through this section of downtown Terre Haute in those days.
“You could hardly walk by here,” John Hochhalter said, pointing toward the sidewalk outside the window.
The bustle has faded since the early 1960s. Hochhalter remains. He’s still barbering in the same shop he and late business partner Kenny Thomas opened a half-century ago this week.
MARK BENNETT: Memories, emotions rush back with announcement of new pope
I saw a pope once.Read quickly, that sentence sounds too casual, almost as if we’d crossed paths at Home Depot. Say it slowly, though, and the significance comes through.
MARK BENNETT: Reflections of grid success stir with Brent Anderson’s passing
A few hundred miles away, and nearly 40 years gone by, a special game ball still occupies a fond place in Rudy Bohinc’s memories.
Lent meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute
Initially, the concept might conjure images of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman jumping out of an airplane or sitting atop the Pyramids. Instead, think “Lent Meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute.”
MARK BENNETT: Never truer: Knowledge vital to narrowing ‘skills gap’
The pillar at the gates of Faber College in the movie “Animal House” bore a wise motto, despite its tongue-in-cheek intent …
MARK BENNETT: Great-niece to re-enact Paul Dresser’s musical legacy in Terre Haute show
People can be forgotten. Their lives end, time passes and memories fade.
Often, the only keepers of their legacies are family and friends, who tell and retell their stories, generation to generation.
For Paul Dresser, his fame burned strong enough as a turn-of-the-century, million-seller songwriter to preserve bits of his public notoriety.
MARK BENNETT: An Olympic takedown
Imagine an iconic image of American sports history erased.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s ‘skills gap’
A problem lasting decades ceases to be a “problem.” By then, the situation becomes “part of the culture.”
MARK BENNETT: America’s best quality of life? Indiana must address flaws, set priorities
Just as the job interview seems smooth, the interviewer drops the question.
“So, where do you see yourself in five years?”
MARK BENNETT: Pondering what is meant by ‘quality of life’ to Hoosiers
Sometimes it’s sincere. Other times, it’s sarcasm.
You cross paths with a friend, ask how they’re doing, and they say, “Ah, just livin’ the dream.”
Livin’ the dream. What exactly does that involve? Can it be defined?
MARK BENNETT: By whatever name, stomach virus still a sick story
It’s the ugly side of the cold-and-flu season.
MARK BENNETT: Living on the banks
We are the Wabash.
MARK BENNETT: Rising young producer lands spot in Sundance Film Festival
When a project clicks, the moment is clear.
MARK BENNETT: Remember the 20 children lost
Their names were listed on the screen at the front of the church on Sunday.
Our pastor asked us to choose one and pray for their family. I selected Noah Pozner, just by chance.
MARK BENNETT: Tasting panel to help find Champagne Velvet’s ‘million-dollar flavor’
Rounding up enough volunteers to serve on a committee can be a struggle.
MARK BENNETT: Thanksgiving’s feast can be defined by either the presence of family or the family’s quest for presents
The best gift deals will be gone by 12:01 a.m. Nov. 23.
MARK BENNETT: Salvation Army touches many lives
Sometimes, the unexpected happens.
MARK BENNETT: Election excellence: 30 out of 32 is pretty darn good
Detroit car makers unveil the latest Mustangs and Corvettes on Wabash Avenue.
MARK BENNETT: Climbing the rungs of Lincoln’s Ladder
One crucial quality helped Abraham Lincoln become America’s greatest president.
Courage? Political savvy? Wisdom? Moral character?
MARK BENNETT: Drop the needle
Over time, excellence and nostalgia inappropriately merge in our minds.
No matter the age, voting’s a part of American fabric
The electoral karma seemed, well, unfair.
MARK BENNETT: A moment on the brink
Ominous, but distant.
MARK BENNETT: Valley-born filmmaker influenced by roots
Real-life stories inspire Laura Brownson.
Even those vastly unlike her own.
MARK BENNETT: No debating it: Candidates have it easier than ‘forensics’ specialists
Nightmares can jolt us awake, just before we fall off a cliff or show up for work or school unprepared.
MARK BENNETT: Landmark win propels Sycamores to Hall
There’s a thin line between the possible and the impossible.
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?