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April 7, 2020

3/25/2020 2:06:00 PM
New in town
Mount Hayden: 1955

(Editor's note: This was written by a former North Ver­non resident who has requested to remain anonymous. "I have never forgotten how this community profoundly touched my life. I truly enjoyed the memories of living in North Vernon," the author said. This is a work of fiction based off of North Vernon.)

Once we had the kids in school, found the grocery store and the park, it was time for me to meet some new friends. At least I hoped they'd be my friend. I was off to meet maybe the one person who knows almost everything that happens in a small, southern Indiana town - the editor of the local newspaper.

Richard Hawk had been the editor of the weekly Mount Hayden Record for over 30 years and had written about any event that occurred in town in that time, good or bad. When I walked into the newspaper office, there were two people inside, a woman typing as fast as I'd ever witnessed anyone type, and a mid-50s looking man with silver hair and glasses perched on his nose, watching her type.

I introduced myself, told him I was the new claims adjuster at Arlen Insurance, moved here from South Bend with my wife, Mary Louise and our two kids, and asked did he have a few minutes to chat. He extended a hand and invited me to his office. He had to move a pile of newspapers from a chair so I could sit down in his office, which was cluttered, disheveled, not very well organized and dusty.

"What would you like to know?" he smiled the smile of someone who could answer just about anything about Mount Hayden. Getting right to the point, I told him I'd be honored to buy his lunch if he'd escort me around town and introduce me to some people, the people he'd want to meet if he were new to town. Surprisingly, he agreed, said he'd actually kind of enjoy that opportunity, maybe he'd get some news to print along the way. We could start first thing in the morning, right here in his office.

"Don't eat breakfast at home tomorrow," he smiled.

Guess I'll be buying more than lunch.

There was Rich waiting for me bright and early the next morning in the parking lot at Leach's Lunch, an old red building in need of paint. Rupert Leach the owner, a short, stubby fellow with a thin mustache, greeted us, ready smile and a pot of coffee in hand. Most of the tables were full of eating, talking people getting ready to start their day.

In conversation, Rupert said he once tried to make his fortune in southern California but missed the family of small town life. He liked all that California had to offer: the desert, mountains, ocean, and the excitement - but looked puzzled when I asked him about the main difference between southern California and southern Indiana.

He gave it some thought then said softly, almost quizzically, "Ya know, you don't see as many dead animals in the road out there!"

Rich said to leave the car, we could walk to Bott's Funeral Home two doors down, just across the railroad tracks. Bill Bott was a quiet, distinguished looking man, and a World War II hero. He had flown gliders packed with troops on D-Day, carefully crash landing a motor-less plane in France in the dark while Germans tried to kill him and all of his passenger soldiers. He made four similar glider landings during that war and was decorated for valor.

Bill smiled as he told us of an experience he'd had the day before. Harley Berkshire had stopped into Miller's Pub for a beer or two before paying his respects at the funeral home. Staying a little too long at the pub, he arrived at the funeral home with a "nose full" just about the time Rev. East called all the mourners, Harley included, to form a circle around the coffin for prayer. Rev. East cautioned the mourners, "We come into this world as dust and we leave as dust. "To no one in particular Harley responded, "Hell, that's fair enough."

Half a block away was the church pastored by Rev. Hank East. People weren't sure if that was his real name but that's what he called himself. Hank was what the church ladies called "slovenly," rarely combed his hair, his clothes rumpled and his shoes unshined. Many church members may have wanted him gone but he more than made up for being "slovenly" with incredibly inspiring sermons. That and the fact that his wife was a Cown, a wealthy, well connected local family without whom there wouldn't be a county fair.

Just past a small grocery store on Main Street was the Blue Sky Furniture store.  Rich and I entered the store but didn't see anyone or get a response when Rich yelled the owner's name. Soon we found the answer why. Hubert "Slick" Cunningham, the proprietor was sound asleep on one of his couches. What a solid endorsement for comfort!

As we walked our way around the town, Rich continued to introduce me to new people, each with their own unique story.

There was Doc Schindler, a portly small-town physician whose office was in a large Victorian home where he lived. Doc took chickens, eggs, vegetables, or a promise of those for services rendered.

Ike Cunningham, the high school principal, was a Navy vet who in college had been a football player and heavyweight wrestling champion. There weren't any discipline problems at the high school.

The hardware store, insurance agency and beer distributorship were owned by the same man, Buddy Smith. Buddy and his wife Rose had 12 children, all of whom had a job in one of the businesses, even the very youngest. Regardless of job or schedule, all the Smiths ate dinner at home at 6 p.m.

There seemed to be two of everything in Mount Hayden. Two grocery stores, two clothing stores (one each for men and women), two banks, and two barber shops - though Wally's shop might be open, Wally might be fishing. Wally thought people might need to sit a spell or take a nap so he left the doors open while he was gone fishing.

The famous and infamous passed through Mount Hayden: Babe Ruth, Franklin Roosevelt (whose mother was born out in the county), Joe Louis and - once - a bus carrying the Radio City Rockettes broke down in town.  A photo hangs in Bernie's Garage autographed by every Rockette. Lincoln's Burial Train passed through town on the way to Springfield, Ill.

Legend has it that John Dillinger stayed at the since burned down Hotel Hayden and there are still people looking for citizens who may have looked like him, another local legend.

There are no taxicabs in Mount Hayden or any other type of public transportation. About as close to public transport was when the high school basketball team won the sectional in 1949 and they all rode into town that night on the fire truck.

A major Mount Hayden employer is the Three I Railroad. The Three I carries freight through three states, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.  During World War II, over 125 trains passed through Mount Hayden every day. Depending on the time of day, some people on one side of town were logistically unable to get to the other side of town.

Rich did pick up some newsy tidbits on my tour and I got to meet some very interesting people. Mount Hayden may not be New York or Chicago or South Bend for what it's worth, but if day one is any indication - it won't take long to not feel like I'm new in town.

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