Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Up then, Melpomene!" The tragedy of Elkhart, Indiana

"Up then, Melpomene! the Mournful'st Muse of nine,
Such cause of mourning never had'st afore."

Edmund Spenser, The Shepherd's Calendar, November

For just over a century--from 1884 until 1986, when this ornate Victorian structure was razed, the Muse of Tragedy gazed down on downtown Elkhart from her niche on the third floor of the Bucklen Opera House. And so long as she presided over the the city, Elkhart prospered. But now her tragic spirit seems to reign.

I've called this town, named for the island at the confluence of the Elkhart and St. Joseph Rivers which the Miami and Potowatomi tribespeople said was shaped like an elk's heart, home for nearly 20 years, even though I've had to work in other cities. For three years I was a regular columnist for the Elkhart Truth.

In recent days, it's become a poster child for the recession. President Obama came here earlier this month for a town hall meeting, where he gave encouragement to the many unemployed. Kathleen, who watched the meeting on local TV, broke into tears at the president's compassionate words. She works at the Elkhart Public Library, which is now crowded with men waiting to use the computers to check in with the unemployment office.

Not so long ago, Elkhart was the home of Alka-Seltzer, Selmer clarinets and saxophones, and just about every recreational vehicle manufacturer. The Alka-Seltzer story began just a year after the Bucklen Opera House opened.

In 1885 Franklin Miles incorporated the Dr. Miles Medical Company and began marketing the patent medicine Nervine, which Miles claimed was a remedy for "nervousness or nervous exhaustion, sleeplessness, hysteria, headache, neuralgia, backache, pain, epilepsy, spasms, fits, and St. Vitus' dance." Like most such tonics, it was alcohol-based. By 1931 the firm introduced the effervescent stomach remedy Alka-Seltzer; four years later it was Miles Laboratories. By 1977, when the German firm Bayer A.G. bought the company, its Elkhart plant was producing One-A-Day Vitamins, Chocks, Flintstones, and Bugs Bunny vitamins, Bactine antiseptic, among other products.

C.G. Conn established the musical instrument company bearing his name in the 1870s, and by his death in 1931, Elkhart was the band instrument capital of the nation.

The 1930s saw the beginning of the recreational vehicle industry in Elkhart, beginning with Schult Trailer Coach. By 1949 Elkhart was known as the "Trailer Capital of the World." And while it's still known as the Recreational Vehicle Capital of the World, it's hardly consolation to the thousands of Elkhartans who are unemployed today.

When my family moved here in 1989, Elkhart had seen better days. In 1986, the year the Bucklen was razed, Bayer moved Miles' headquarters from Elkhart to Pittsburgh. The Miles name disappeared in 1995, after Bayer acquired Sterling Winthrop, which owned the Bayer name. (Bayer's name and facilities had been confiscated by the U.S. government during World War I.) Today, Bayer is a minor presence in the city.

Whitehall Laboratories, which manufactured Advil, shuttered its Elkhart plant in 1991, taking advantage of a tax break to move to Puerto Rico. Conn-Selmer, bought by Steinway in 2000, has been crippled by a strike (the union actually recommended that the workers approve the proposed contract with Steinway) that has divided the community.

What we have left, mainly, is the recreational vehicle industry, which has been hit hard by the recession. Because RV factory work required little education, the people who have been laid off by Monaco Coach, Jayco, and other RV manufacturers don't have the skills to work in 21st century jobs. Even the Amish, with their carpentry and cabinet-making skills, are hurting from the implosion of the RV industry.

Elkhart is still a fairly safe place to live. My neighborhood (just down the street from C. G. Conn's mansion is lovely. A friend, who once lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods once remarked that only in Elkhart could she live in such an area and feel safe.

And Elkhartans have contributed more than their share to the arts. Three former residents went on to win the Pulitzer: Jay N. "Ding" Darling (editorial cartoons), Howard James (investigative journalism), and Charles Gordone (drama). Poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth spent his early years here. He liked to boast that he lived just down the street from where Ambrose Bierce lived. He didn't, but Bierce did live in Elkhart for a year or so. Architect Marion Mahony redesigned her brother's home into a Prairie School showplace. (Like the Bucklen, it was razed.)

Unless something happens, such as a retirement or resignation at the South Bend Amtrak station, we'll soon be putting our Elkhart house up for sale, and both of us will live in Bloomington, Illinois.

P.S. The statue of Melpomene was saved, though it's now in a private museum. It's way too delicate to put outdoors. But perhaps a replica of the statue needs to look down on Elkhart, perhaps from the 1920s Elco Theater. Maybe she'd bless the town once more.


Charles Gramlich said...

It's sad to see so many communities really hurting right now. I'm almost afraid to go home to my small town.

Tea N. Crumpet said...

It sounds like it's becoming a ghost town-- that is very sad. So far, Alaska seems to be holding her own, but we don't know for how long.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece.

I have rather contrarian views about "dying" towns. Surprised?

My view is not just a semantic one, although it might sound that way at first. Towns do not live, and the cannot die. At one time people began gathering in a place for a reason (a river for a mill or transportation, a railroad, etc., etc.). Towns are based on economics (except towns like Aspen which are based on bullshit). The economic raison d'etre of a place is not a fixed and permanent one. If there is little or no reason to keep people in a place, they drift away.

Sounds terribly unsentimental, I'm sure, but I tend to save my sentiments for people.

steve on the slow train said...


Tea--I suspect Alaska won't be hit as hard. The Upper Midwest, with its reliance on heavy manufacturing and pharmaceuticals, is really vulnerable.

Gerry--I'm not sure where you're coming from on this. I'm not a big fan of the "Market as God" theology that's driven American economic policy since Reagan. In most cases, towns "die" because of human decisions, not the supposedly infallible market. It is true that geography has a lot to do with how towns begin, but government and business decision, often arbitrary, have almost everything to do with their decline. Case in point: About 10 years ago, Bayer promised to begin manufacturing capules if Elkhart would upgrade its sewer sytem. Elkhart kept its promise; Bayer reneged.

Anonymous said...

I guess I didn't express myself as well as I could have.

I'm not singing the praises of the "market" economy. I'm just saying that the tides of time and economics are pretty much bound to be determinants of whether a given place continues to exist as a center of human activity, a "town." I don't see that as something to get sentimental about.

Usually, trusting large corporations to the extent of spending public dollars to welcome them is a bad idea. Bayer is no more nor less reprehensible for failing to uphold its end with Elkhart than thousands of other companies in other places. Same as it ever was.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Steve-I have your review from January ready to go this Friday. Thanks.

Lilith des Cavernes said...

I'm hoping that the greening of our energy policy will aid Elkhart County. It's not just the city, but the entire county which is in serious trouble. Middlebury is devastated. I feel so blessed to have an income outside of manufacturing.

The immediate relief will come in the form of high speed rail which is in this stimulus package. It might raise property values while build the system... fingers crossed.

Tom talks about seeing the Bucklan before they tore it down. He loved that old building, but, as is Elkhart's way, they didn't care enough to keep it up... let alone save it. I'm glad the Elco is being saved. I hear they are returning the Lerner name. I love that idea.

Anyway, wonderful read. Thanks.

Kellie Davis said...

I just noticed your picture-- you are a nice looking man-- and your dog is *so* adorable! I just. . . I just want to throw a ball for him and spoil him with treats!

steve on the slow train said...

Gerry--I'm pretty sentimental, as you might guess. Still, you're right about trusting corporations.

Patty-Thank you.

Lilith--It would be wonderful if we got high-speed rail on the Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland corridor. Unfortunately, the state has never spent a dime on intercity rail, except through the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District. I suspect the Northeast Corridor plus the states with active rail programs--Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, California, Oregon, and Washington--will get the lion's share of the high-speed rail money. But you never can tell.

The Elco is certainly worth saving, as was the Bucklen. Personally, I like "Elco," as the Lerner name is not something that resonates.

Kellie--Thank you. Once upon a time, my hair was almost the same color as the dog's--just a bit lighter. Copper is already pretty spoiled with treats.

Lilith des Cavernes said...

Hi Steve,
Here's the high speed rail map. It looks like it's following US 20. I tried to post a clickable link, but it wouldn't accept my HTML... so the link is:


steve on the slow train said...

Elaine--Looked at the high-speed proposal. I remember that the plan was to run through Valpo and Fort Wayne, south of South Bend/Elkhart. That would take most of the $9 billion set aside for the whole country. The ex-NYC route through Elkhart would cost a lot less to set up, but the amount of freight on the line is a problem. So I suspect the Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee routes will get the money here in the Midwest.

gerry rosser said...

I'm also a sentimental sap, but basically only about people (and music).

And especially little girls (and I don't mean in any bad way here!).

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