Monday, August 23, 2010

A Community First, An Amusement Park Second: Inside Indiana Beach State Park

If you were driving down Broadway Avenue in Monticello, Indiana (pop. 5,293), this past Thursday and saw a woman at a picnic table wearing a cover-up over a mismatched two-piece--her first bathing suit (and Wal-Mart purchase) in years, acquired no less than a day earlier--near a sign advertising, "Lowest Rates in Town, Free HBO, Vacancy," then you saw The Pipeline.

If you didn't see her, or her traveling companion, who is chilling out in today's masthead photo, on top of the world, or at least near the top of Indiana Beach State Park, rest assured The Pipeline got up close with both individuals, notably the woman at the picnic table on the lawn of the Monticello Inn, scribbling this story onto a steno pad with a borrowed pen that introduced her to Louis Quirk, Bail bonds, who wants to put "your feet back on the street."

Monticello Inn's evening manager, Gloria, who I'd met when I popped by the front desk to procure a new light bulb for my room, said I could keep the pen. She added that it was left in her establishment by a patron from Chicago who'd gotten himself into a bit of trouble. The important part of what Gloria said was "from Chicago." Indeed, it's possible to get from here to Monticello on less than a tank of gas in about two hours.

Monticello is one of seven small towns comprising White County, a heartland tourism hotbed which attracts 1.2 million visitors each year, with a total annual economic impact of $60.4 million, according to a community profile from the Greater Monticello Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. Among the visitors to Lake Shafer, Lake Freeman, and the Indiana Beach and its adjacent amusement park are fun-seeking families from places like Streamwood and Midlothian and Hanover Park and Kankakee, based on an informal sampling of folks I lazily collided with on 'Action River.'

I first landed on the shores of this "poor man's Lake Geneva" in 1983, in a powder blue Datsun with two parents chain smoking in the front seat and my brother and I marking boundary lines in the back seat and fighting over fast-food French fries like a pack of wild wolves. Last week I discovered it to be one of the Midwest's most affordable destinations, offering historical museums, restaurants, a winery, a drive-in movie theater, and a golf course, among other attractions, that complement the showpiece that is the park. Last week we didn't leave for two days, save for popping in at the Double D, which has potato wedge fries I am still thinking about.

Spirits inside the park are high---and not just from all the funnel cakes, fudge, and popcorn. To change into your suit in a dressing room with a painted wooden door and a wooden plank floor, with girls putting on waterproof mascara in front of massive mirrors like the kind inside the roller skating rinks and penny theaters that exist less and less these days, and to pop in and out of the shops with hand-painted concession signs along the park's boardwalk, is to be transported to a time when vacations meant what that word means.

It wasn't that long ago when there were no out-of-office emails to send before you jumped into a car with a duffel bag, joyfully singing "holiday rooaaaod," because there was no email, or hotels with full-service business offices, or laptops, or iPADs, or PDAs, all of which now practically demand that you tweet about your movements to people you've never met and who aren't along with you for the ride that should be experienced with wide eyes and undivided attention, no matter your age, as we committed to doing. Maybe that's a downright luxurious decision in today's fast-paced-yet-oft-going-nowhere world. But that's just me.

It was a time before our nation became so virtually connected that it lost its ability to emphasize, and there was nothing ironic yet about wearing an airbrushed T-shirt. You really could have your Coke and smile, too, because corn syrup wasn't in the news, nor were oil spills, our nation's widening trade deficit, rising unemployment, and the general sense of unease that I keep asking myself if I'm just imagining or not. It was a time when Dipping Dots were still considered by many folks, this e-newsletter writer not excluded, to be "the ice cream of the future." And it is a time and place that miraculously still exists, in 2010, in a "space" made possible by the people of Monticello, who offer up a good dose of what Monticello Herald Journal's last remaining staff reporter, Scott Allen, described as "Hoosier Hospitality."

Scott was quite hospitable himself when I met him this past Friday night, having returned to the Double D, where the previous night I'd interviewed its owner, Beverly. On my second visit to the bar and grill I was introduced to Scott by Beverly, who was perhaps politely wondering to herself if the big city reporter from an e-newsletter she'd never heard of was going to leave all the giant Indiana spiders out of this story and write promotional copy about their county, which boasts a solid base of manufacturing, including a Fortune 500 aluminum can supplier, and agriculture, wherein the county ranks among the state's finest in corn, popcorn, soybean, and hog production.

What the community profile doesn't say, and what a proud and hardworking person like Beverly (and pretty much everyone else I met over two days) didn't say, and that I'd find out later, is that based on the U.S. 2000 Census, 8.1% of the population of Monticello lives in poverty. That's a number that likely hasn't decreased in this recession (and since a 2005 fire at a manufacturer of outdoor furniture, cushions, and umbrellas that made national headlines).

Another unspoken conversation, just touched upon by Gloria at the Monticello Inn, is a sharp decline in tourism that hits directly on the bottom line. The fact is, This Special Place Where Time Stands Still is largely dependent upon the success of a two-and-a-half month tourist season, cut even shorter this year by Indiana and Chicago Public Schools' decision to start the academic year in mid August instead of after Labor Day, a break in tradition wreaking havoc on an already flat summer, especially for a business like the Monticello Inn, a second choice in better times, when the pricier cottages and cabins on resort grounds are booked to capacity, and an oft overlooked choice in times when the lowest price in town is the one that can be bargained. In response to the earlier school season, the park implemented a new schedule, too, which Gloria also said I could keep.

Thankfully, some sunlight fell upon the park's ledger the weekend prior to our visit, Aug. 6-8, the last weekend before school began. Record-breaking crowds, just 23 folks shy of 16,000, streamed into the park, per Kurt Hunt, a friendly and enthusiastic marketing manager, who'd approached when he saw me chatting up Shantel, with that darn steno pad I swore I wouldn't bring and had whipped out only after trying to win a basketball from her booth. In addition to the strong weekend the week prior, Kurt said that lots of groups and family reunions are taking advantage of the package deals. He wondered if I'd mind mentioning the 1st Annual WE Will Survive American Cancer Society Day on Sat., Sept. 11. On this day, all cancer survivors will get into the park free. Family, friends, and supporters of the survivors will enjoy a reduced $20 admission.

The decision to close the park during the last two weeks in August, keeping it open only on the weekends, was a pragmatic budgetary one, Kurt explained, enacted by the park's newish owners and his employer, Morgan RV Resorts, which purchased the amusement portion of the 85-year-old park three years ago from its founders and longtime owners, the Spackman family, the very name of which elicits a Willy Wonka-like reverence among the townies. That's not surprising, considering generations in Monticello and surrounding communities grew up working at the park as their first job, or running it as their full-time one, or working at a motel or restaurant that catered to tourists from the park. Scott, who grew up in a town about 30 miles north, reported that he'd worked at the park in his youth and recalled many fond summers, when Mr. Spackman would give the kids a slight raise in their hourly wage at the completion of one summer and the beginning of the next, in appreciation for loyalty.

Indeed, loyalty is an emotion that seems to run through the park. There's the tourist determined to visit the beach again and vie for a new version of a lost stuffed animal of sentimental value, which I found in this Facebook photo and story caption, which I discovered back at home and online again. Stalking the park, I heard from the mouths of townsfolk that "the rumor floating around town" is that the Spackman family, in the event of a possible bankruptcy by the new owners, is preparing to buy back the park.

Kurt referred to the the rumor as a townie legend which has reared its head around the same time for the past three summers. Also dispelling the rumor, though not as definitively, was Janet Dold, executive director of the Greater Monticello Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, who, in addition to being a cornucopia of information on all things Monticello (and, coincidentally, one of the three former Herald Journal reporters that Scott had referenced earlier), gave me the community profile sheet along with a very different pen than Louis Quirk's, this one with the bureau's tagline of 'Life with a Splash.' Speaking of slogans, I recalled singing in the back of the powder blue Datsun, "There's more than corn in Indiana / It's the best part of Americana / Indiana Beach!" which aired about 47 times a day on WGN-TV during my formative years. Janet said it was "all the Spackman family," who developed the jingle in partnership with an advertising agency in Ohio.

Back at the Double D, I'd asked Scott about the rumored return of the Spackmans. He paused for a short while before hedging his words, intimating a closeness to the Spackman family which I did not try to see if he'd like to elaborate on. Scott said there is such a rumor but added that it is one that "stems from hope."

After spending a few days off-the-grid among the people in Monticello, you just have to hope that, as Bob Marley sings (piped throughout the park every four hours), "Every little thing is gonna be all right" for Indiana Beach State Park, for the lovely townies, and the loyal tourists. And if by chance there's a bit of trouble, there's a comfort in having visited a rare place which has first and foremost created a community, and a tourist trap second. Any way you spin it, there's nothing but goodness to be found.

**This story (with links and accompanying images), by Alisa Hauser, originally appeared in the Aug. 17, 2010 edition of The Pipeline weekly e-newsletter, est. July 13, 2009. It may be reprinted with permission, and photo/story credit back to The Pipeline.

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