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Exchange Medora's Struggle

The tiny town of Medora, Ind., which lies on the White River plain, just east of hill country on the west side of Jackson County continues to struggle to maintain its vitality after jobs have moved away.

MEDORA, Ind. | The way into Medora from U.S. 50 passes by several neatly ordered rows of bright blue modules — storage units to fill with all the junk that's forced your car out onto the driveway.

Behind the storage units lies an empty concrete slab, cracked and with a few weeds growing up here and there.

That was where the plastics plant, which once employed as many as 1,100 people, stood.

At the other end of town just a little beyond the town limits, a dozen huge kilns hulk close on the ground, their heavy, brick circular walls and domed roofs covered by vines and brush. The brick factory, the other large industrial activity in Medora, built in 1906, closed down in the early 1990s, about the same time or a little later than the plastics plant.

The brick factory employed only about 50 at its busiest, but in its time, produced vast numbers of bricks that were shipped all over the state and country, says Dennis Wayman, president of the State Bank of Medora, almost the only significant commercial enterprise that survives.

Medora, population 693 in the latest census, is not the bustling place it once was.

Wayman, a lifelong resident, speculates his hometown is very much in the same shape as many tiny towns across Indiana and the country. But, he points out, it really isn't in steep decline, despite the empty streets and boarded up storefronts.

That's because there isn't much more, other than the school, that remains to be lost in Medora. "It's probably been dying for 40 years," he tells The (Bloomington) Herald-Times.

In recent weeks, the town and its high school basketball team have been in the spotlight with the national release of a film documenting the team's quest for what at times in the movie seems a hopeless goal, to gain a single win in its 2010-11 season.

The school's tiny size — there are only about 250 students in grades K-12 in the entire district, all in one school — means that athletic skills, height and talent are spread thin enough to keep the school among the most losing high school teams in the state.

That is now. But back then ...

One of the things that used to be was the town's own railway depot, remembers Betty Campbell, Medora's clerk-treasurer and another lifelong resident. "The train stopped in Medora," she says. "That was when I was young. It was just a booming little metropolis at one time." The tracks still run through the south side of town, but the depot is gone and few trains rumble down the line anymore. And none of them stops.

She remembers growing up in a town that not only was home to the plastics and brick plants but one that had its own shoe store, a local doctor, up to three grocers at various times, a restaurant or two, a pool hall, a tavern, three feed mills and three working filling stations. Most of that is gone today.

Campbell, who graduated from Medora High School in 1966, worked in the plastics factory shortly after high school. Among the pieces she and the other workers produced were plastic parts for rotary phones and for Princess phones, both items more likely to be found in museums these days than in a home. The plant turned out lots of molded plastic for the auto industry, too, including lock knobs for car doors and some windshield wiper parts. One of the larger operations was production of Polaroid camera bodies.

But workers at the plant went on strike in the late 1970s, according to Wayman. The Polaroid work moved away, and the workforce was cut in half.

The factory then went through two or three owners, he says, until finally a man with similar operations in the South, citing pollution on the site left over from chromium plating of camera parts, shut down the Medora plant and transferred the work to his nonunion factories. When it closed, only about 120 workers were still employed there. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management still monitors the site for signs of contamination.

Medora may have been a lot more active several decades ago, but it wasn't a lot bigger. Campbell's high school graduating class numbered 24 in the mid-1960s, only seven more than last year's.

While population hasn't fallen so dramatically that Medora is a ghost town — it's ranged from a high of 853 in 1980 to a low of 565 in 2000 and back up to almost 700 in 2010, according to census numbers and Jackson County economic development reports — other demographics have. The population has aged and gotten less well off as younger people move to where the jobs are. About 80 percent of students at Medora today are eligible for either free or reduced-price school lunches, a generally accepted measure of the financial well-being of families in a school district.

By comparison, Monroe County Community School Corp.'s rate is less than half that, with some elementary schools having almost no families with incomes low enough to qualify. At Brown County Schools, which like Medora is a more rural school district, only about half the student population is eligible, while in Medora it's four out of five.

Wayman is not optimistic about a turnaround in his community. He points out the town is not on an interstate — that's about 20 miles east at Seymour — and not even on U.S. 50, which used to be one of the major routes across America. It's actually three or four miles south of that highway, which even with only two lanes still carries a heavy load of semitrailers.

Vicki Dean, school district treasurer and administrative assistant in the superintendent's office, says today Medora is largely a bedroom community for its workforce. Her son drives 50 minutes to Toyota in Columbus for his job, with others working in Brownstown, Seymour or Bedford.

Now ready to retire — she's moving away, but only a couple of minutes outside of town to help her daughter and son-in-law with their nine children — she can't think of any place she'd rather have lived.

"I just never have given any thought to being anywhere else. I have no desire to be anywhere else, probably because I've had a good life. I've had fun. I like my life," she says.

Still, Dean realizes the struggle the town faces. "There's no opportunity for young people," she says. "What happens to the town without young people? ... My heart says we will thrive again, but reality ... it will be a struggle."

Wayman says he's seen the documentary on the basketball team, and thinks it presents an accurate portrayal of the community, including the problems facing many small towns — poverty, broken families and drug use among them.

"I look for it just to kind of muddle through," Wayman says of the town. "I think it'll continue plugging along here pretty much as it has for the past 20 years — we don't have much to lose."

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.