Seeing Things, Saying Things

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Archive for the ‘Small Town America’ Category

Christmas in Chagrin Falls

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We have a tradition of going out to Chagrin Falls at Christmas time to look at the lights and go out to dinner. Sometimes we do it before Christmas and sometimes we do it in the week after.

This year’s outing to Chagrin Falls coincided with the shortest day of the year, although that was coincidence.

We dropped off a Christmas present at the home of a friend and then went to eat. Then it was time to walk around and then drive around town to look at lights.

The village decorates its downtown with Christmas trees and lights and also illuminates the area around the waterfalls of the Chagrin River. Here are a couple of view of what they do


Written by csanders429

December 22, 2017 at 6:48 am

Fill ‘er Up With Nostalgia

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I ran across this old service station in Leetonia, Ohio, that is not easy to describe. Its various artifacts harken back to an era that has long since passed into history.

These include the old car, the signs in the windows and the gas pump.

Yet there are modern touches, most notably the siding on the building, the modern vehicle parked at the far left and even the tank on the far right.

I’m not really sure what purpose this facility serves. It might be someone’s business, yet if so I didn’t see a sign. Maybe it is just part of someone’s collection.

Whatever the case, the place is dripping with history and nostalgia and provides quite a contrast with the modern service station several hundred yards away on the other side of the railroad tracks behind this building.

Written by csanders429

May 24, 2017 at 7:08 am

No Longer Running

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I keep finding myself drawn to photographing abandoned service stations in my travels. I’m not sure why that is, but more than most abandoned businesses, service stations tend to still have a classic feel to them, even those that are in run-down condition.

Service stations typically were free-standing structures regardless of what era in which they were built. Many of those that have been abandoned and which are still standing were built of brick and featured a standard design.

The oldest ones had a single island for the gasoline pumps. There would be two garage doors for the service bays and a front door leading to the office/waiting room that also sold sundry other automotive-related items. Remember when oil companies used to issue road maps?

Maybe my fascination with old gas stations is rooted in a childhood ritual. During our travels about town Mom or Dad would stop at the filling station to “fer ‘er up.”

You didn’t have to leave your car. The attendant or even the owner would come out to you on the driveway.

My parents often knew the owner and chatted with him for a few minutes. They were guys you felt you could trust.

Service stations were part of the tapestry of small town America, but it is not like that today. In New Jersey a guy still comes out to fill up your car, but everywhere else I’ve been in recent years it is self service.

Today’s service stations — if that is the right term for them because they hardly provide any service — are large modern convenience stores that just happen to sell gasoline among other products.

Shown above is a former Marathon station in downtown Arcola, Illinois, that has been semi restored. The restoration has consisted of new paint and restoring the “best in the long run” Marathon herald.

It is located a block east of U.S. Route 45 just over the Illinois Central Railroad tracks. It probably took a major financial hit when Interstate 57 opened in the 1970s east of town. That is a story that is all too familiar in all too many small towns in America.

Small Town Institution

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I’ve been in a few arguments over the years about what constitutes a small town.

I describe the place where I grew up in east central Illinois as a “small town,” but other say that with a population of 20,000 my hometown doesn’t qualify as a small town. But I don’t consider it a city or even an urban area.

There is little doubt, though, that Milltown, Indiana, population 807, is a small town. I’ve only been there because my wife once lived there before we met.

It’s a quaint little town amid the rolling hills of Southern Indiana in that buffer zone between the North and the South.

One of the town’s institutions is Maxine’s Market. I’m told that this business has undergone some name and ownership changes over the years and perhaps it has a new name and owner now. It might even be out of business, although I found some references to it online.

I made this image in July 2011 on slide film that I exposed in the waning days of my time as a film shooter.

I don’t think I’ve ever been inside this market, but I’ve seen it from the outside a few times.

It is a typical small town establishment that is part grocery story and part community gathering spot.

Note the bulletin board sandwiched between the ubiquitous ice storage locker and the wooden front doors plastered with decals promoting various products.

More than any other place in town everyone goes to Maxine’s, even those who complain about having to drive some distance to shop at a real supermarket. There probably are some who find that Maxine’s has what they need.

Places like Maxine’s can never hope to match the selection of a Walmart supercenter, but it has an ambience that those big box stores can never match even if they claim to be about small town values.

Regardless of what the folks of Milltown think about this market, all of them would miss it if it went away.

As It Once Was in Small Town Indiana

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In the final scene of the movie Hoosiers, a small boy dribbles a basketball beneath a photograph of the 1952 Indiana state champion Hickory Huskers, dreaming of some day winning a title himself.

But chances are that title was not the state championship but the sectional tournament. In 1950s Indiana, winning the sectional title was as big as players in small schools dared dream.

The sectional was the first of three tournaments that a team had to win to reach the Final Four, which was played in Indianapolis.

Hoosiers was inspired by the story of how Milan High School won the 1954 state tournament, becoming the smallest school to ever do so.

But that was an aberration. Small schools stood little chance to win once they got past the sectional tournament because they would be playing larger schools and their deeper talent pool.

There never again was another Milan that won the championship when it was still single class. Milan was a once in a lifetime team.

Hickory is a fictional school and the actual 1952 Indiana champion was Muncie Central. The boys in the photograph in the Hoosier Gym are actors and their coach was actor Gene Hackman.

What some visitors might pay less attention to are the small banners “honoring” the 1931 and 1932 sectional championships that Hickory “won.”

Those banners are not meant to be just mere movie set props. And there is a reason why there is a line in the movie in which coach Norman Dale tells his players that it has been a decade since Hickory was in the sectional tournament title game.

Winning the sectional was once a big deal in Indiana, particularly if you had to knock off a larger school to do it.

Hoosiers represents an era when many Indiana schools were operated by townships. In the middle 1950s, Indiana had 776 high schools.

The Indiana School Corporation Act of 1959 mandated that school districts with fewer than 1,000 students in grades 1 through 12 merge with a neighboring district. The number of high schools in Indiana quickly shrank.

Most of the basketball scenes in Hoosiers were filmed in the former Knightstown, Indiana, high school gym. Today that gym is a community center and museum to Hoosiers.

When I visited the Hoosier Gym a few years ago I was reminded of my time in the middle 1980s, when I was a part-time sports reporter for The Herald-Telephone in Bloomington, Indiana.

My job was to cover the outlying high school basketball teams and I saw some gymnasiums much like the Hoosier Gym.

Like the Hoosier Gym, they had banners celebrating past sectional champions. And if a school had a once in a lifetime team that won beyond the sectional tournament, there was a photograph of it prominently displayed on the wall just like in Hoosiers.

The times have changed in Indiana. The last single-class state basketball tournament was played in 1996.

The next season the tournament was divided into four classes based on school enrollment.

Attendance at high school games had been declining for years prior to the switch to a four-class tournament.

Even when I covered high school basketball in the 1980s it wasn’t quite the same as it had been in earlier decades. I used to hear now and again about how that 1959 law requiring consolidation had changed things.

Of course high school basketball also lost popularity because people began having more things to do than attending a basketball game on a Friday or Saturday night.

Nonetheless, basketball remained ingrained in the social consciousness of Indiana. Hoosiers may have resonated with most people because of its storyline of the underdog triumphing, but it also harkens back to a time when dreams of hardwood success were more often than not focused on winning what many today might consider a “lesser” tournament.

Written by csanders429

February 20, 2017 at 5:33 am

Signs of Their Times

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Mantua, Ohio, is a village of just over 1,000 in Portage County, Ohio, that is probably as typical as any town of its size in America.

There is still life there, but it is hardly a growing place and that reality is unlikely to change anytime soon, if ever.

Small towns like Mantua are rich in history, much of which can be found in the central business district.

Downtown Mantua is a mixture of blight and prosperity with some vacant store fronts and viable businesses sitting side-by-side. I’ve seen much more advance stages of decay in other places.

I recently had lunch with a member of the local Rotary Club as part of my serving as a consultant for a project the club is undertaking to put up signs to tell the history of the Erie Railroad line that once went through town.

The rail line has been abandoned and is now a hike and bike trail. While in Mantua I also took the opportunity to photograph some faded signs that link to another era.

The one that most intrigued me sits atop this post. It from a storefront with a window that shows that the business was founded in the 1850s, but part of the lettering has been scraped away.

It probably will always be a mystery to me as to what was founded there in 1856.

Unlike the other signs, this one is still in relatively good shape. Whoever owns this property has sought to keep it up by painting it. The bright trim against the gray siding looks sharp.

Written by csanders429

January 28, 2017 at 9:19 am

Hickory’s Home Gym and Memories of Covering Indiana High School Basketball

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Sitting in these bleachers was the once the place to be in small town Indiana on a Friday or Saturday night.


Once a high school gym, then the set for a movie, the Hoosier Gym is now a community center.


Of course the door leading into the gym are made of dark wood. Norman Dale’s voice still echoes off these walls.


The dressing rooms in the 1950s were quite Spartan.


Some lines from the movie are scrawled on the board inside the dressing room.

I was driving home Ohio in August 2012 on Interstate 70 in central Indiana when I noticed a sign advertising the Hoosier Gym.

I knew it was where the local basketball scenes had been filmed for the 1986 movie Hoosiers. Set in the fictional village of Hickory, the gym is located in Knightstown and used to be that community’s high school gym. It wasn’t far off the interstate so I made a detour and go see it.

Earlier in my life I had spent time as a newspaper reporter in small gyms like this one covering high school basketball. That included two years in Indiana in the middle 1980s so the Hoosier Gym had a familiar and comfortable feel.

I was transported back to the days when I covered a small school in Greene County that had a storybook season much like the one that inspired Hoosiers.

If you know anything about Indiana high school basketball you’ve heard or read about the 1954 Milan state championship team on which Hoosiers is loosely based.

L&M was a consolidated school for the towns of Lyons and Marco. In the 1984-85 season, the Braves were for a time ranked the No. 1 team in Indiana. They were the subject of stories in Sports Illustrated and Esquire because many thought L&M might be the next Milan.

But their dream was crushed on a Saturday night in Evansville in March 1985. Had the Braves won, they would have gone to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

I covered that L&M basketball team for two years for The Herald-Telephone, the daily newspaper in Bloomington that has since been renamed The Herald-Times.

I was a part-time sports writer attending graduate school at Indiana University. Covering L&M was one of the more memorable experiences of my journalism career and the loss that knocked them out of the tournament would be the last basketball game I covered.

I thought a lot about that L&M team of long ago as I walked around the Hoosier Gym trying to visualize the scenes in the movie that were filmed there.

Hoosiers has a connection with that L&M team. One of the actors in the movie was Wade Schenck, who played the role of equipment manager Ollie. He’s the guy who sinks two free throws to win a key game. Schenck also played on that L&M team that had dreams of being the next Milan.

Hoosiers was not expected to become the big success that it did, making $28 million. Two of the film’s name stars, Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper, had doubts about it.

But critics have said it resonated because it seemed authentic, even to those who know little to nothing about Indiana high school basketball or life in small town Indiana. That authenticity extended to the gym used in the movie, which still feels like it’s 1952 even if there are some modern touches, e.g., the scoreboard, that are out of  historical context.

But walk around the gym and you can feel like it is 1952 again. You can see the townspeople of Hickory sitting on those hard wooden bleachers on a cold winter night in January and cheering for the Huskers as though that was the most important thing they would do that week with the possible exception of going to church the next morning.

Whatever the outcome of the game they will talk about it all week until the next game. And if Hickory wins that year’s sectional tournament, they’ll talk about that for the rest of their lives.