I grew up in a wonderful town right smack-dab in the middle of Indiana. In fact, Elwood, Indiana is called, “The Heart of Hoosierland,” due to the intersection of two major highways, State Routes 37 and 28. As a kid, I always loved my hometown’s title because it gave us an easily located spot on the map. Although it is still an easy location to describe to my fellow Ohioans who inquire about where I grew up, I now find the word, “heart,” is more descriptive.
Perhaps the most incredible moment in my hometown’s history was August 17, 1940, when Elwood son, Wendell L. Willkie, returned home in triumph to accept the Republican nomination as a candidate for President of the United States, racing against incumbent president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The stories surrounding the legendary Willkie Day are some of my favorites.
All through high school, I worked at the Elwood Public Library, an original Carnegie design. I was often assigned to the Elwood History Room, and basked in the collected legacies of my community. I was blessed to come in contact with countless citizens during my tenure at the library, and though many of those grand folks are no longer with us, I cherish their spirit. Through these characters from the script of my youth I gained so much insight, and an even greater love for Elwood.
Growing up in Elwood was pretty typical of any other kid living in the Midwest in the 1960’s through the 1980’s. We swam at the city pool, played baseball, enjoyed playtime at Callaway Park, had marching band practice, participated in or watched thrilling parades, attended the Spring home show at the armory, watched Fourth of July fireworks, and went to schools rich with educational personalities.
Every August, Elwood added a touch to Central Indiana life that clearly put the stamp on the community,
distinguishing it from others: the annual Glass Festival parade and celebration, and the smell of spices added to the cooking tomatoes at several of the local canning factories.
Elwood was once home to several plate-glass factories, as well as several glass blowing companies, primarily the St. Clair Glass Company – The House of Glass. In 7th grade my science fair project was “The Making of Glass,” for which I received grand champion. My mother, and grandpa, took me to the glass factory where I interviewed Joe Rice, and was even allowed to make my own paperweight. Still to this day, I get excited when I spot a St. Clair glass piece at flea markets or antique stores.
The tomato industry has been a staple in Elwood for nearly one hundred years, perhaps longer. I know many of my family members had seasonal jobs at the canning factories, supplemented by hundreds of migrant workers who arrived each summer to pick the tomatoes. I don’t believe I’ve ever stepped foot in Fettig’s Canning Factory, nor the current leader, Red Gold, headquartered in Elwood, but the scintillating aroma that wafted over the town each August was a signature smell. I think the scent from the canning factories is one of the most welcoming, yet, now, wistful smells, second only to my mother’s Este Lauder’s Youth Dew.
Elwood, when I was younger, was a mecca for beautifully designed, and well-maintained buildings that were indicative of that era of grandeur, the 1880’s thru 1920’s. Even the older elementary schools, and the Central and Wendell L. Willkie schools in the center of town were great testaments of a community’s dedication not only to education, but beauty, and perfection. The design for many of the buildings piqued my great interest in architecture, and the scenic interiors of the buildings were equally sensational. Sadly, the majority of these buildings no longer stand.
The true beauty, and inspiration of Elwood, Indiana, went far beyond its fascinating history, community events, tomatoes, glass, and wonderful architecture. The true gem of Elwood was, and has always been, its people. There were always so many wonderful people in Elwood, and fortunately, I am connected with a majority of these fine folks on Facebook. So many of these gems impacted my life in one way, or another, and I still treasure what I have carried through life from so many of these individuals, and families.
Growing up in Elwood was, quite simply, idyllic. I am sure I would have had a great childhood in nearby communities Alexandria, Tipton, or Anderson, but thanks to my ancestors, many of whom were pioneers of Madison County, and the townships of Boone and Duck Creek, I was blessed to be raised in Elwood. It could not have been a better childhood.
As an adult, I have been fortunate to live in two super Ohio communities, Centerville, and now, Kettering. I have fantastic neighbors, not unlike Luther & Ida Myrick, Dick & Betsy Herndon, and Don & Susan Fortner, and so many others. We have great schools, many events, beautiful homes (the architecture for public buildings is somewhat sparse), many local sports, a great marching band, and tremendous individuals who add so much to our daily journeys. Although Kettering, Ohio is currently my home, it will never match the depths of all I treasure in my hometown of Elwood, Indiana.
I miss the Elwood Glass Festival, and seeing the familiar faces at the park. I can never replace the delicious meals at Mangus Cafeteria or Wolff’s Restaurant. I recreate in my mind the echoes of the Panther Band and all the familiar sights and sounds of the annual Variety Show, especially the baby food glass jar stages created by the phenomenal trio, band directors Clifford Brugger, Rex Jenkins, and choreographer Tudy Smith. And each August, I do miss the smell of the tomatoes when the spices are added. Most of all, I miss the faces so familiarly attached to my youth.
Within a few months, my immediate family will be entirely removed from Elwood. In fact, it will be the first time in nearly two hundred years that my own Clary-Noble-Greenlee-Ball line has not resided in Madison County, or nearby Boone Township where nine generations of my family rest peacefully in the tranquil Forrestville Cemetery, surrounded by the heritage of so many of our family’s farms.
Though my visits to Elwood will naturally become more infrequent than my current half dozen, or so, visits each year, I will never be truly disconnected in spirit, nor in my deep-rooted devotion to the community, and most importantly, the numerous individuals who added their own imprint on the mosaic which depicts my life. These loving, inspiring folks are truly the “heart” that places “The Heart of Hoosierland” on the map.