Small-Town America’s Aging Population, Fond Memories

By Bill Strother, The Herald-Times
December 28, 2013 Updated: December 28, 2013

MEDORA, Ind. — The way into Medora from U.S. 50 passes by several neatly ordered rows of bright blue modules — storage units to fill with all the junk that’s forced your car out onto the driveway.

Behind the storage units lies an empty concrete slab, cracked and with a few weeds growing up here and there.

That was where the plastics plant, which once employed as many as 1,100 people, stood.

At the other end of town just a little beyond the town limits, a dozen huge kilns hulk close on the ground, their heavy, brick circular walls and domed roofs covered by vines and brush. The brick factory, the other large industrial activity in Medora, built in 1906, closed down in the early 1990s, about the same time or a little later than the plastics plant.

The brick factory employed only about 50 at its busiest, but in its time, produced vast numbers of bricks that were shipped all over the state and country, says Dennis Wayman, president of the State Bank of Medora, almost the only significant commercial enterprise that survives.

Medora, population 693 in the latest census, is not the bustling place it once was.

Wayman, a lifelong resident, speculates his hometown is very much in the same shape as many tiny towns across Indiana and the country. But, he points out, it really isn’t in steep decline, despite the empty streets and boarded up storefronts.

That’s because there isn’t much more, other than the school, that remains to be lost in Medora. “It’s probably been dying for 40 years,” he tells The Herald-Times.

In recent weeks, the town and its high school basketball team have been in the spotlight with the national release of a film documenting the team’s quest for what at times in the movie seems a hopeless goal, to gain a single win in its 2010-11 season.

The school’s tiny size — there are only about 250 students in grades K-12 in the entire district, all in one school — means that athletic skills, height and talent are spread thin enough to keep the school among the most losing high school teams in the state.

That is now. But back then …

One of the things that used to be was the town’s own railway depot, remembers Betty Campbell, Medora’s clerk-treasurer and another lifelong resident. “The train stopped in Medora,” she says. “That was when I was young. It was just a booming little metropolis at one time.” The tracks still run through the south side of town, but the depot’s gone and few trains rumble down the line anymore. And none of them stops.

She remembers growing up in a town that not only was home to the plastics and brick plants but one that had its own shoe store, a local doctor, up to three grocers at various times, a restaurant or two, a pool hall, a tavern, three feed mills and three working filling stations. Most of that is gone today.

Campbell, who graduated from Medora High School in 1966, worked in the plastics factory shortly after high school. Among the pieces she and the other workers produced were plastic parts for rotary phones and for Princess phones, both items more likely to be found in museums these days than in a home. The plant turned out lots of molded plastic for the auto industry, too, including lock knobs for car doors and some windshield wiper parts. One of the larger operations was production of Polaroid camera bodies.

But workers at the plant went on strike in the late 1970s, according to Wayman. The Polaroid work moved away, and the workforce was cut in half.

The factory then went through two or three owners, he says, until finally a man with similar operations in the South, citing pollution on the site left over from chromium plating of camera parts, shut down the Medora plant and transferred the work to his non-union factories. When it closed, only about 120 workers were still employed there. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management still monitors the site for signs of contamination.

Medora may have been a lot more active several decades ago, but it wasn’t a lot bigger. Campbell’s high school graduating class numbered 24 in the mid-1960s, only seven more than last year’s.

While population hasn’t fallen so dramatically that Medora is a ghost town — it’s ranged from a high of 853 in 1980 to a low of 565 in 2000 and back up to almost 700 in 2010, according to census numbers and Jackson County economic development reports — other demographics have. The population has aged and gotten less well off as younger people move to where the jobs are. About 80 percent of students at Medora today are eligible for either free or reduced-price school lunches, a generally accepted measure of the financial well-being of families in a school district. By comparison, Monroe County Community School Corp.’s rate is less than half that, with some elementary schools having almost no families with incomes low enough to qualify. At Brown County Schools, which like Medora is a more rural school district, only about half the student population is eligible, while in Medora it’s four out of five.

Wayman is not optimistic about a turnaround in his community. He points out the town is not on an interstate — that’s about 20 miles east at Seymour — and not even on U.S. 50, which used to be one of the major routes across America. It’s actually three or four miles south of that highway, which even with only two lanes still carries a heavy load of semi tractor-trailers. Adding to the problem of attracting commerce is the fact that the eastern and southern parts of the town lie in a flood plain, with the East Fork of the White River twisting lazily across the flat landscape less than a mile distant.

Digital banking has allowed Wayman’s bank to keep customers who earlier might have switched to ones with branches close to home. And many prefer the personal touch that a Chase or Wells Fargo can’t provide, so the bank is comfortably in a niche, Wayman says. But the town itself, that’s in a tougher place. The school, with a relatively new and up-to-date building and with the loyalty of the community, is now the heart.

Vicki Dean, school district treasurer and administrative assistant in the superintendent’s office, graduated from Medora High School in 1967. Her mother graduated in 1938, her son in ’89 and daughter in 1998.

One granddaughter, now majoring in pharmacy at Purdue, was valedictorian at the high school last spring.

Dean says today Medora is largely a bedroom community for its workforce. Her son drives 50 minutes to Toyota in Columbus for his job, with others working in Brownstown, Seymour or Bedford. But while local shopping is limited to a convenience store, “people don’t realize we are 12 minutes from Salem and 15 from Brownstown or to Seymour,” about as much time as it takes to drive from the east side to the west side of Seymour.

Now ready to retire — she’s moving away, but only a couple of minutes outside of town to help her daughter and son-in-law with their nine children — she can’t think of any place she’d rather have lived.

“I had a great childhood,” Dean remembers. “The friends you had in the first grade are the same you had as seniors. … I think there’s a loyalty there.” In fact, she recently met with several friends from childhood for lunch in Seymour.

“I just never have given any thought to being anywhere else. I have no desire to be anywhere else, probably because I’ve had a good life. I’ve had fun. I like my life,” she says.

Still, Dean realizes the struggle the town faces. “There’s no opportunity for young people,” she says. “What happens to the town without young people? … My heart says we will thrive again, but reality … it will be a struggle.”

The qualities of small-town life — “It’s absolutely worth preserving. America would be missing stability, lose the sense of loyalty, lose a lot from family life. It really gets hectic and chaotic with all the kids in church activities, in sports, but it’s good.”

Medora school superintendent John Judd works on a two-day-a-week contract because the district is so small. He came to the job only recently after a career in education administration. He knows how important the school is to the community.

Rumblings from the state about consolidation have been around a long time, but “we’re fighting it tooth and nail,” he says. The student population has actually grown recently, with some students now commuting into the district from Lawrence County and other nearby school districts, just as a few commute out.

With state funding based on student count, it’s critical to maintain numbers not only to have viable class size and a wider curriculum, but to pay the bills.

Judd goes so far in his recruitment efforts that if he sees a mother in town with kids he doesn’t know from school, he’ll approach her and make a pitch for his school, pointing out that if she’s home schooling and happy with that, her children still can enroll as part-time students to take advantage of special classes such as art or music, or industrial technology. For every class in which a part-time student enrolls, the district gets a seventh of the amount the state pays for a full-time student.

Wayman, the banker, served until recently on the school board and saw construction of the current building, which was completed in 2000.

The quality of the building itself likely will mean that even if consolidation eventually arrives, there still will be a school in Medora, he believes, either for middle school or elementary-age kids.

He says he’s seen the documentary on the basketball team, and thinks it presents an accurate portrayal of the community, including the problems facing many small towns — poverty, broken families and drug use among them.

“I don’t know as people in general have it any tougher than people who live in Brownstown or Seymour,” he says. Some problems might seem a little more glaring in Medora simply because “it’s so close and everybody knows everybody.”

Whether it will get better is another question. “There’s really not much chance of getting any industry here in Medora just because of where we’re located,” Wayman says. The town now owns the empty plastics factory site, and “would probably give it to somebody if they would build a warehouse or something there.” But even in such an unlikely event, Medora’s aging population would make it very difficult to find 50 able-bodied locals to work there, he adds.

“I look for it just to kind of muddle through,” Wayman says of the town. “I think it’ll continue plugging along here pretty much as it has for the past 20 years — we don’t have much to lose.”

From the Associated Press.