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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

More than we expected — and less

We had been looking forward to going to the Parke County Maple Fair, partly because of the food (pancakes just don't get made at our house) and also just because it would be a good way to get out of our routines and "blow off the stink," as a visitor to our neck of the woods had so eloquently put it.

So, last Sunday morning we took I-465 down to Rockville Road and headed west, creeping on the multilane highway past endless strip malls until we had gotten beyond Avon, when the traffic fell away, the landscape opened up and we finally felt as though we were going somewhere.

Our progress slowed briefly as we passed through Danville ("Gateway to Covered Bridges!"), then resumed speed as the houses got further apart and the landscape became variations on a theme of vast, snow-covered fields punctuated with occasional structures and bordered by distant trees. When the trees finally came up next to us and the road started carving its way down bluffs and around corners, we knew we were approaching Raccoon Lake, and that Rockville would be just up the hill and a few more minutes away.

There wasn't much going on in Rockville — the Maple Fair isn't anywhere near the kind of draw that the Covered Bridge Festival in October is, when the town square is clogged with vendors and thousands of tourists, who cruise the roads of Parke County taking in scenery, souvenirs and shooting photos of the ridiculously photogenic covered bridges that are the region's claim to fame.

At the western edge of Rockville we turned north on U.S. 41 and headed up the road past some new construction until we got to the 4-H Fairgrounds, where we would find our All You Can Eat For $5 pancakes, served with two sausage patties and coffee. We went into a building set up for vendors and looked at the pottery, T-shirts, gifts and locally-made baked goods and candies, and bought a raffle ticket for a chance to win a beautifully restored, antique Oliver tractor.

Then we went next door, down the hallway hung with photos of decades of local 10-year 4-H members, into a big room filled with booths housing local artists and vendors of the fair's featured products — maple syrup, pork, and flour. One corner was cordoned off for the main event, where 4-H members passed trays of pancakes and sausage out the serving window to diners, who picked them up and carried over to open spots at the cafeteria tables.

The ambience and dinnerware were institutional — styrofoam plates and plastic utensils, served under unflattering fluorescent lighting — but the pancakes were light and fluffy, the sausage satisfyingly tasty, and the maple syrup a delicious accompaniment to both. It was a good place to watch people (and, no doubt, to be watched), and it was comfortable and relaxing to be a part of the Indiana that exists outside of the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

After we ate our fill (one serving each was plenty for us), we got up to browse the booths while we sipped our coffees. Next to the cafeteria area was the display of flour ground by the water-powered mill in Bridgeton, including the type used to make the pancakes we had just eaten. On the other side of the dining area was the booth of the local pork producer who had supplied the sausage, and in between were several booth representing the county's various maple camps.

At the end of the row of the maple producers was the booth for Foxworthy's, which I was glad to see. The Foxworthy homestead is just up the road from the Narrows bridge at Turkey Run State Park, and a favorite place of ours to visit. Archie Foxworthy and his family sold their products at an old schoolhouse on their property — the oldest structure in Parke County — and we fondly remembered it as a place filled with warmth and good smells, as well as their collected antiques and homemade syrup, candies, cookies and jams. I was glad to see that they were still producing syrup, because when we had last visited years ago a Foxworthy grandson had expressed concern that they wouldn't be making syrup much longer, because it's a lot of work and the kids weren't really interested in it — the same situation that has affected farm families for centuries.

Seeing the Foxworthy's syrup for sale in the 4-H building was good news, then, because it meant they were still carrying on, and we could go visit the place. "Are they selling syrup at the camp today?" I asked the lady at the booth.

"Yes." she replied, and nothing more.

"I'll pick some up there, then. Thanks!" I said, but got no reply. This puzzled me a little, since everyone else in the hall was cheery and chatty, and the woman at the Foxworthy booth clearly wasn't. Maybe I was just another annoying tourist asking stupid questions. Oh, well.

We continued our loop around the hall, looking at the plentiful paintings of covered bridges, barns, tractors, old trucks, dogs, horses and lighthouses (lighthouses?), then made our way back to our car for a drive through the country, past Turkey Run and the Foxworthys, then the back way home via Shades State Park, Ladoga, Jamestown, Brownsburg and points between.

The Cox Ford bridge was on our way, so we took the car down a long, steep, snowy hill and took a few photos of it. We decided not to try to drive back up the hill, so drove across the bridge, looped around to the highway again, and drove by the entrance to Turkey Run on our way up to Narrows Road, where we turned left to go to Foxworthy's. We passed the Narrows bridge and the Lusk home perched on the hill above it, and stopped briefly to take photos of an old barn decaying in the woods across from the park grounds. As we were getting back into the car a log truck rolled by, a reminder that not all Indiana crops are annuals. We drove up the hill and into a clearing; in a moment we would be turning into Foxworthy's.

And then we were there, but there was something terribly wrong: Where the old schoolhouse was supposed to be there was nothing but charred timbers sprinkled with snow, surrounded by yellow tape emblazoned with CAUTION – DO NOT CROSS. It took a moment to process what we didn't want to comprehend, and we parked next to the ruins and got out. "Chimney fire, Wednesday night," some people getting into their car told us. "The guy in the sugar shack told us all about it. He's pretty interesting."

We grieved for a moment, then headed for the shack, where wood smoke was coming out the long chimney and steam poured from the door. The same grandson we had spoken to years ago was there. We told him how sorry we were, and he filled us in on the details. A couple of the girls had gone in to clean the place up before the fair started and built a fire in the fireplace. A chimney fire started, and the place went up quick. All his grandmother's antiques, most of the stock they were going to sell, and 700 gallons of maple sap he had been planning to cook into syrup had been lost. And the place was had been woefully underinsured — a total of $11,000 for the structure and contents, nowhere near what it would take to rebuild it. "It would cost a good $50,000 to build another one," he said. "Archie's 92, my dad's 66 and I'm 45. I don't want $50,000 worth of debt at my age, and it sure wouldn't make any sense for Dad or Archie, either. I don't know what's going to happen."

The whole family was stunned, and exhausted. The grandson had cleaned up his machine shop next door so that what remaining stock they had could be sold there, he said. But their kitchen was gone, so there was no place to make any more.

We spent a little more time in the sugar shack, thinking this time it might really be the last time we got to see an historic operation like this one, at least in Indiana. Then we headed over to the machine shop, which had tables stocked with homemade cookies, candies, syrup, jams and preserves. We bought $40 worth, including a CD of Archie reading some of his poetry. Archie is mostly blind now, we were told, but he could see the flames from his house and broke down and cried. I thought back to the attitude of the woman at the Foxworthy booth back at the 4-H building, and understood. For us, and for the rest of Parke County and Indiana, the burned schoolhouse is a loss of history and heritage; for the Foxworthys, it is a personal tragedy. It was if a revered family member had just unexpectedly died, and the body was still in the parlor.

We left the Foxworthy family hoping that something could be done, but what? The covered bridge in Bridgeton was rebuilt after an arsonist torched it a few years ago, but that bridge was vital to a whole community; the school was vital just to one family. From an urban perspective, $50,000 isn't that much — I just spoke to someone yesterday who recently spent half that amount on a piece of art — but it's a small fortune in rural Indiana.

There is plenty of timber nearby, and sawmills, and Amish craftsmen who could do the work. I'd like to see the a new school rise on the old one's foundation, but the fact is that another piece of old Indiana has disappeared, and it won't be back.

I'll post some photos to illustrate this piece later. In the meantime, surf on over to my Flickr set.
J. Silverheels Gray, 12:36 PM


I'd help rebuild it.
Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:21 PM  

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