It’s 8 a.m. in Sharpsville and four school bus drivers are congregated at the local convenience store, getting snacks and fueling up one of the Tri-Central buses, having dropped their charges off.
Like in most small towns, the 24-hour gas station is at the center of things. The one in Sharpsville experimented with removing the booths a while back, but the owners decided to put them back in. The booths get their fair share of use.
“That’s the guy you should be talking to,” driver Tom Moulder says, pointing at a red Dodge Durango moving slowly down Meridian Street, toward the east end of town.
The man in question, Lester Rood, wasn’t difficult to find. After one lap around the northern Tipton County town, Lester’s Durango was spotted pulling into the gravel drive of the town’s water station.
Rood is the unofficial mayor of Sharpsville, having lived there since his freshman year in high school. He and his wife, Marcia, who does hair for the ladies of the town, married when they graduated from the old Sharpsville-Prairie High School and never left.
He’s served on the town council, almost as a favor (“politics aren’t my thing,” he says), but he’s most proud of 42 years spent on the town’s well-equipped volunteer fire department. Now 67, he’s a bit wistful when he relates how he hung it up with the department last year, taking himself out of active service. He’s around all the time and available for whatever the town needs.
“There comes a time when the older generation has to let go and let the younger people run things,” he said.
In Sharpsville, there’s a generational change going on, but there’s not much of a dividing line. Unlike a lot of small towns, the average age of the residents has remained remarkably stable. As older residents pass on, younger residents have been taking their place. Everyone knows everyone, and families stick around.
From the annual fish fry for the fire department, to special community events, like the recent fundraiser for the family of Tri-Central Middle School assistant principal Anne-Marie Bailey, when there’s something big going on, the whole town gets together.
The town’s park, on land where the high school once stood, is immaculate, and next to it, the old O.H. Hughes Memorial Gym, built in 1926, is a true architectural treasure.
When people from outside the state think of the movie Hoosiers, the Hughes gym is the kind of place they imagine, with its wooden block bleachers rising a foot from the out-of-bounds line, the light streaming in from the glass architectural bricks, and the stage behind the south basket.
The town is compact, with about 280 homes sitting on the north side of Broad Creek, bounded on three sides by farm fields and centered around one main street. The Sharpsville United Methodist Church’s red brick steeple is the tallest structure in town.
They take care of things in Sharpsville.
In the town history published for Sharpsville’s sesquicentennial, there’s a note: “1967 – Train station razed, by Ed Odle, Tipton.”
It gives the distinct impression that an outrage had been committed, and by a Tiptonite, no less.
Running the town
If the affable Rood is the town’s “good cop,” town council president Linda Smeltzer might be the tough cop.
Drive around the town (it takes five minutes), and it’s hard to find a property which hasn’t been kept up, even though Rood estimates 30 families moved out during the recession and the number of rentals increased.
One property out toward the Tri-Central schools looks in need of paint, but Rood explains that it was used in a movie shoot, and hasn’t yet been restored.
Linda has taken on the unenviable task of code enforcement for the town. She’s also the chairwoman of the Tipton County Democrats, so it’s fairly certain she’s not driven by a need for popularity.
“I tell people, all you have to do is go out there in the yard, bend over and pick stuff up that doesn’t belong, but a couple gallons of paint, and you’ve got a mansion,” she says. “All it has to be is clean and neat.”
It’s a measure of the continuity in the town that the town council backs Smeltzer in her quest for a tidy community. Smeltzer’s grandparents lived in the house she and her husband, Don, now occupy. Rood’s grandparents lived in Sharpsville. The ties that bind are still strong here.
“If the weather’s nice and we’ve got our work done, we sit on our porch and wave, and everyone waves back, whether you know them or not,” she said.
Over the years, they’ve also learned to engage the outside world a bit better, from hiring a new, less aggressive town marshal, to welcoming new businesses to town.
Gabe’s Pizza is the new restaurant, and in a town like Sharpsville, having a pizza place open is a big deal.
Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight may be at the forefront of a national movement to restore “walkability” to cities, but in Sharpsville, they never lost it.
“We can walk downtown and get pizza, but if you walk downtown, you don’t want to be in a hurry, because someone’s going to stop you to talk,” Don Smeltzer said.
Over at the convenience store, the bus drivers were all piled into one bus, getting a ride back to their houses from Jay Rayl.
Rayl’s father, Philip Rayl, Moulder and fellow drivers Herman Cook and René DeAngelis are all contract drivers and they own their own buses. It’s something rarely seen outside of rural areas with rooted families.
Explaining Rood’s importance to the town, it’s all light-hearted jokes at Lester’s expense.
“His wife Marcia does hair. She does Lester’s hair too, but it doesn’t work.”
“Lester’s been here so long, he’s got the covered wagon he came to town in parked in front of his house.”
Rood is unfazed by his popularity, preferring instead the nuts and bolts issues concerning the town.
Within the last 15 years, they’ve replaced their aging water and sewage systems. The park looks new, but it has been around more than a decade. They’re working on finding funding to refurbish the historic gym to its original glory, replacing the stands which used to line the western wall.
The population is unchanged over the past 15 years, but there’s hope of growth now that Chrysler is starting up the new Tipton Transmission Plant 10 minutes’ drive from Sharpsville.
The town’s clerk treasurer, Berniece Farris, is another pillar of the town, and she remembers the days when Sharpsville was, in her words, “kind of like downtown Kokomo is now.”
She works out of the town hall, which occupies an old brick storefront on Main Street, one of the oldest buildings in town. It was a sad passing when the Order of the Eastern Star chapter, which had long leased the top floor of the building, was forced to merge with another chapter and moved out.
The population of the town hasn’t fluctuated much for half a century, but big box retail has had its effect.
“We had everything you needed: a post office, a bank, an American Legion, two gas stations, two groceries…
“But it’s like that everywhere. As things change, it’s like everything, you don’t have to like it, but you have to accept it,” she says.
It’s all part and parcel of small town life.
Rood regrets the old days a bit as well, but he’d rather tell people about Tipton Electric, the Sharpsville-based motor shop which does a bustling business or talk about how the town raised more than $100,000 to build the park.
“Sometimes you have to get off your bandwagon and say it was great while it lasted, but it’s time to move on,” he says of the old days.
He likes to tell people that the town has “about 600 happy people – and a few others.”
“It’s really not a bad community. Like every community, we have our problems. We have drugs … we don’t have any murders out here, but we have our problems,” Rood says.
“But for a small town community, if that’s what a person wants, you couldn’t find it much easier.”