One of the reasons I was so attracted to moving from Southern California to Central Indiana came when I learned that 50% of the country would be within an 8-hour drive. There's so much of this country that I have never seen. Places with history and stories, regional foods, and intriguing accents. For me, it's not enough to know there is a place called Cleveland. I want to walk and drive its streets, know what the air smells like, and be able to tell you about that incredible doughnut I ate there, or the way people did/didn't stare at my interracial family.
There's a need I have to experience a place viscerally. To absorb it into my senses. But more than that,
I am infinitely curious about story. I love taking the tour, visiting the historical society, reading the information brochure. And if there is a trait of mine I hope I pass on to my daughter, it's my curiosity: my interest in what has happened and where things might be headed. There is nothing as fascinating to me as learning how people came to live in certain places and when. Or discovering a unique historical connection in small places.
And that is, in a nutshell, how we found ourselves chasing the Garfield Trail just before New Year's.
Garfield creator, Jim Davis, was born and raised in Grant County, Indiana, which is about an hour north of where we live. A few years ago, they erected Garfield statues at different sites throughout the small towns in the area. And by visiting the statues, you explore Grant County.
Interestingly, I learned that the county was once a natural gas boomtown at the turn of the last century. The largest city, Marion, was bursting with theatres, cable cars, sports leagues and glass factories. As we drove through the towns this early boom was evident. There were dilapidated Victorians everyhwere, and ranshackle brick-facaded downtown areas that were mostly-shuttered now, but appeared to have once been something.
That something vanished a long time ago, almost as quickly as it had come. By 1930, much of the area was abandoned. A dozen ghosts towns sprung up. The gas wells had run dry. The sports teams relocated to Indianapolis. The street cars stopped running. Those who could, moved on.
Those who were left, were hopeless angry as the Great Depression began to spread across the nation, unleashing a decade of hatred and despair. The citizens of Marion would exercise that rage by committing one of the most heinous acts of public torture and execution. On August 7, 1930, Marion, Indiana would become the northernmost city to lynch black men. They would beat and hang two black teenagers who were accused of rape and murder. An iconic and devastating photo of the lynching is believed to have inspired the lyrics of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit.
In 1930, my family kindly walking these same streets would have been, at best, unthinkable. At worst, deadly. I am so much more keenly aware of that here in the Midwest, which is far more segregated than most places on the West Coast. We are always greeted warmly. But the difference is stark.
In the mid-1950's, General Motors built a giant stamping plant in the area, making way for Grant County's second boom. Like most of post-World War II Midwest, Grant County flourished with high-paying, blue collar union factory jobs. And as we drove through the towns, we could see the thousands of Mid-Century, suburban ranch homes that sprung up to meet the demands of the workers and families who at one time poured into the area. Some of these neighborhoods looked aged, but quaint. Many others seemed to be struggling. I wondered out loud how some people were staying warm inside houses with failing roofs and plastic-covered windows.
We drew curious glances when we stopped by the public library in Gas City about 45-minutes before closing. It was warm inside and the children's books were plenty. There was only one other patron inside on this very chilly afternoon. I asked if it was always this quiet, and was told it was usually quiet that day, but normally they were much busier. I was relieved to hear. Libraries are one of my favorite places. But a library without patrons won't be around for long. We stayed long enough to read couple of picture books and moved on to our final stops.
In the end, we didn't make to all 11 of the stops on the Garfield Trail. We started our journey too late. The sun was starting to set when we visited our final statue in front of Ivanhoe's Drive-In. But our adventure has me excited for those other un-named trails we get to travel on, as we learn to make Middle America our home.