Saturday, July 09, 2005

modern farmland

“If you’re traveling Interstate 70, drive north a ways and stop by Farmland, Indiana.”

“Well, what’s there to see?” asked Blair, a retiree who spent her summer vacations meandering by car.

“Nothing much. It’s a one-horse, no stoplight town. Grocery store has a great ham salad, fresh on Thursdays and made personally by Bob the Butcher, who guards the secret recipe.” Blair made a note: Thursdays, grocery, Farmland, Indiana.

Weeks passed and she returned. “Bob the Butcher says hi!” she laughed. “He introduced me to everyone in the store, AND he called your mother.”

“I know! If she had been home to answer the phone, she would have dropped everything to come meet you. She called me as soon as she got the message.”

“I couldn’t remember your maiden name, but that didn’t seem to matter. Only one Denise in Farmland, Indiana?”

“Two, but the other one moved to Farmland when I was in high school, so she would be noted as ‘the other Denise.’”

When I consider my small town heritage with any depth, I am still startled by my view of the world as a child. The first day of school each fall, my brothers and I would report if there was a new person in our grade level. The assumption was that a “new” classmate happened rarely and was a special event. The assumption was that we all knew who the rest of us were, and this new person would be exotic, rare, unlike anyone we had ever known. Small towns offer no anonymity, and the scrutiny must have been painful to newcomers. It was such an adventure to think of someone having a fresh start, of people forgetting mistakes of your kindergarten experience, that I was often jealous of new students. How nice it must be to be new!

Luckily for me, “uptown” Farmland now has a booming business district, right in the middle of what has been designated Historic Farmland, where new cobblestone walks and old-fashioned looking streetlamps have replaced the bland and broken fixtures of the 1960’s. The four blocks of three-story brick Victorian buildings have never looked better, and due to the upsurge of tourist traffic to this rural icon, the town still functions as a town. Shopkeepers chant the motto, “It’s the only Farmland in America,” as some clever marketer indeed discovered that there is only one incorporated town in the United States named Farmland. Farmland USA—buy the merchandise. Many similar towns in rural Indiana have barely held on.

My town has a boutique gift-shop with hand-dipped chocolates like my grandmother used to make for Christmas, but you can buy one any day of the year. A stained-glass window craftman moved onto Main Street while I was still in school, and we all shook our heads, “He’ll never make it. Where does he think he is?” At the time that store opened, the “Five and Dime” had just boarded up, and Bailey’s Corner Drug Store cut back its menu and serving hours. But the store displays gorgeous work, just as it has for twenty years, right on Main Street in a store full of sunny windows. Across the street is a florist. A florist, in Farmland! A “country store” filled with country-ish things a little cornier than the former “Five and Dime” would stock. It’s a little insincere, but I will cut them some slack. Bailey’s has been transformed into The Chocolate Moose, a full-scale ice cream and soda shop, which added even more twisty-barstools and removed the pharmacy and magazine rack, and all pretense of being practical for anything.

The crowning additions as of my last visit to Farmland are the Farmland Cultural Center, a gallery of antique photos of famous houses and people in Farmland, AND the freshest oil paintings of town landscapes by a Mexican-American artist named Angel Mercado. And Main Street Coffee, which roasts its own blends of coffee in the windowed showroom by the coffee bar. The store sports the original pressed tin ceiling and polished wood floors—a Bostonian coffee shop would be jealous of the space and light, the gallery displaying paintings in the adjoining room. And the coffee is amazing.

What all of this means to me is that people no longer must leave Farmland to make an income, are no longer consigned to bag groceries if they wish to stay in town. It also means that factory jobs twenty minutes away are not the only employment. Bob the Butcher is long retired, and he did not share the recipe for his ham salad, though the grocery store still operates, with its Red Gold Tomatoes mural adorning the outside wall.

I am not sure how I feel about all of this movement to “upscale,” to luxury treats and luxury experiences of small town life, versus the hardware store and dusty feed mill so necessary in the past. I am not sure how I feel that my dad had never been inside the coffee shop, though it had been bustling for a year and he does like coffee. He does not feel it is “for him,” but for some unseen wealthier class who must be visiting from somewhere. The gift shop with the hand-dipped chocolates—has he been there? I am glad there is a hip little group of adults there, my age and successful enough. I saw a DVD for sale called Fright in Farmland, a pulp horror flick playing on small town themes and inside jokes. It starred some men who had been popular in my high school years. Like my father, I didn’t buy it, though it intrigues me. It seemed like it wasn’t for me. But the coffee, now that’s for me, and the chocolate shop offers flavored iced tea samples that make me want to shop all day. For postcards of Farmland, at $1.50 per card.

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