Etna Green, Indiana , a pretty little town of just under 600 inhabitants, sits along the south side of old Route 30, about 40 miles south of South Bend. Chicago is a distant thought, three hours to the northwest. The town of Warsaw, its big brother, is a mere ten miles to the east.
The new Interstate 30 takes the bulk of traffic now, and runs parallel with occasional traffic lights. The more rural road has the occasional four way stop signs. Once the artery of commerce between east and west Indiana in the northern third of the state, it passed through little burgs of towns like Etna Green, Atwood and Bourbon. The Pennsylvania railway line ran the same route with freight trains headed for Chicago and passenger trains which paused to gather up folk in these small places, but the passenger trains and their charming depots were discarded decades ago.
The Etna Elevator
I visited Etna Green this week, impressed with its pretty residential streets, tidy houses, beautiful parks, an occasionally open historical museum, an active bank and grain elevator but no beauty shop. Fasttimes Fabrication and Custom Sheet Metal Shop takes up most of a block on main street. The Post Office has limited hours. Corn fields on hilly rises lap the edges of town proper. In a block you can go from residential to open farm fields with little transition, and you feel the ordered fields gathering you up into their lushness as you buzz down two lane roads.
Downtown Etna Green mural by Robert Hudson
A massive mural in the downtown bandstand park depicts a mountain valley scene with horses grazing. There are no mountains for many miles, but it does give an honest sense of beauty and tranquility which the town has. Just substitute corn fields for mountains and you’ve got it.
Downtown Mentone mural
Many other area towns have hired the same painter–Robert Hudson of Mentone, Indiana– to depict historical scenes of their towns or patriotic slogans. The mural of longhorn cattle running through the streets of Mentone with strands of electric lights overhead is worth a look. Ligonier has over two dozen murals mostly downtown; Akron has one on route 114 at the gas station; Bourbon has one at route 331 on the side of the Subway shop; Silver Lake ( on state rd 15) has two. And there are more.
When asked, Eileen Hall— the Utility Department Clerk in the city offices ( housed at the Fire Station)—, rattles off the distances between Etna Green and neighboring attractions—10 miles to Wal-Mart in Warsaw, 15 miles to Amish-themed tourism in Nappanee, 20 miles from Plymouth, 8 miles to Mentone, 5 miles to Bourbon, and about 3 miles to Atwood. A veritable Center of the Known Universe, I quip, borrowing the line from a little town called Concrete, in my state. Eileen smiles. She’s originally from Detroit and knows about bigger places.
Etna Green Cafe
Warsaw and Plymouth have their Starbucks in Martin’s grocery stores, but Etna Green still has a café where locals hold court seven mornings per week, alongside a now-quiet highway, near the Tippecanoe River, in North-Central Indiana, in the American Heartland. A land of towering corn that is tasseling, verdant fields of soy beans, conservative politics, Ford and Chevy and GMC pickup trucks, and really cool ball caps with ag logos. A town I feel an affinity to, because although my people are from Atwood and Crystal Lake, we no longer have such a meeting place. Turns out the once active café in Atwood, near my mom’s home ground, has closed (along with most other commerce).
My Atwood-native friend Ron Truex points me to the café, five minutes west, down old 30 in Etna Green.“Watch for Kelly the waitress,” he says. “Ask her to do her rooster calls. She’s won prizes all over.”
Ron also offers pointers about the clientele. “The real farmers come about 5:30 AM,” he says. “The second shift comes about 7. The retirees come about 8:30. Depends on who you want to catch,” he says.
I’ve been reading the northern Indiana-based novel South of the Big 4 by Don Kurtz, and take it along when I go alone to the café to suss out the atmosphere. It’s my diversionary tactic, as I write in my small journal, recording impressions of the men around the rectangular table less than two feet to my right. Pretty soon it’s clear Don nailed the scene, and I smile to myself as I read his account of the farmers at the traditional café table in the book, while I am in the middle of my own tableaux of the same. I keep my eyes on my plate of sausage and two eggs over-medium with toast, and listen with my ears wide open.
A rectangular table with three, seventy- something men are at my elbow. A round table sits a little further away. I can hear talk of the state fair, tractor pulls, a friend’s illnesses. One man asks another what he’s been doing. “Baling straw,” he says, “and it’s fair to middling.”
The two-person, green upholstered booth near the front door in which I sit, is closest to the bathroom— I’m hoping for invisibility. The floor is covered with blue and grey checkerboard linoleum tiles throughout, has a traditional counter towards the back flanked by a Coke-sponsored pie case, a Coke fountain-drink dispenser, a double stack coffee maker, a milk shake machine, and plastic divided silverware trays. On a wall shelf are framed photos of kids, ribbons from the fair, and a child’s hand print in plaster. A strand of jingle bells on a leather strap hangs on the door. Ruffled café curtains with hearts hang over the top of little windows.
A tall man with sharp features comes in, with an equally tall rustic— but charming—curved-handled walking stick/cane. He parks it inside the doorway along the wall, and joins the rectangular table, commanding attention in his plaid shirt and blue-jean bib overalls. In the next five minutes he spouts vignettes with clichéd punch lines, although I must say he does use them to full advantage. (Mr Hanes, another cafe fixture, later tells me the tall man’s name is Fred Miner.)
“He’s had a few regrets in his life, but who hasn’t?” he says. The other men nod and murmur in agreement.
“His mother was always one of those club women who didn’t take care of her children,” he says. A silence follows that one. What woman is he speaking of I wonder, dead or alive? Friend or foe?
“Dad had me on a horse at age four,” he says. “He taught me to balance. I had a good life, I can’t complain. There are consequences for everything you do or say in life,” he continues. The men nod again.
The waitress Kelly weaves her way around the table, refilling coffee cups. She offers me more tea water and a couple of smiles. She notices my book and leaves me be.
One of the other men starts up, “leave ‘em alone and sometimes it works out.” Murmurs again. “That girl out there was three times the woman as…”
The round table empties out and my near-table mates give signs of leaving too. It’s now after 10AM. Even for the retired guys it’s time to move along to the rest of their day.
As if offering the benediction, a final comment is put on the table, “You never know what life holds.”
With that the men vanish, and I am left to my novel, which life has been imitating at my elbow, plot point by point. It’s uncanny.
I’m going back tomorrow morning and see if they remember me, listening like a mouse in the corner booth, writing like mad. Afraid to catch their eyes and become part of the conversation until I have them sorted out. This may take a while. I’ll read slowly.
P.S. Saturday when I stopped by the museum, retired school teacher Dennis Johnson showed me around the cases of Etna Green school memorabilia. Cheerleader uniforms, school trophies, team photos, newspaper clippings etc. Proof of the historic Indiana-style basketball rivalry between other area towns is evident. My take-away is the pride Etna Green still feels for its past. The school was consolidated with two others to form the Triton School District some years back. Now the kids are bused to Bourbon, in the adjacent county. Dennis shared with me the loss a small town feels when they lose their school which was the heart of a the community, the nexus of so many social gatherings. He fears the Post Office is next.
Consolidations of smaller districts were mandated all over Indiana years back according to Dennis. Etna Green is not the only town feeling this loss of centered identity.
In the mean time, the museum complex was humming today for the first Etna Green Beauty Pageant. Moms of girls ages 8-16 (or something in that range) were busy changing outfits and curling hair, braiding and pinning it up. Four change of outfits were required for the four stages of the competition and the girls and their moms looked pretty excited.
Aumrie Weiss (9) and her mom Chrissa paused long enough for a photo. Thank you ladies!
Details: The Etna Green Cafe, Etna Green, Indiana
Owners: Vince Stills (father), Kelly Smith (daughter)
M-Th, 5 AM – 2 PM, Friday 5 AM-8PM, Saturday 5 AM-2 PM, Sunday 6 AM-2 PM
Details: Etna Green Museum: Hours: 1-3 Saturdays. Located near the Park.
Easterly sunset over corn fields south of Etna Green
Category: Indie It Travel