Friday, November 6, 2009

For Want of a Nail

An old proverb that’s been around since 1640 goes like this: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost, and all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

In January, 1968, two years following my graduation from Purdue University, my wife, Carol, completed her own work toward a degree from that venerable institution. Since we were no longer students, university rules dictated that we must vacate the married student housing where we had lived since our marriage on June 1, 1966, and seek residence elsewhere.

So, we moved ourselves, our infant son, Scott, and our meager belongings into our first “real” apartment at a complex known as Lorene Place on the outskirts of Lafayette. Little did we know when we took up residence in that small, one bedroom apartment in January, 1968, that the coming year would become one of the most volatile in the history of our country.

The year, 1968, saw the Memphis assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4. Just two months later, on June 5, Robert Kennedy was also shot to death following a presidential campaign speech in San Francisco. Then, in August, demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned violent with over 100 protestors who had been beaten by police being sent to various hospital emergency rooms. The Viet Nam war was also at a high point in 1968, with the TET offensive and the Battle of Khe Sanh.

On a much lighter note, on November 17, 1968, one of the most famous football games in history was played. The New York Jets went against the Oakland Raiders in the infamous “Heidi” game which would ultimately change TV broadcast schedules forever. The Jets were leading 32-29 with only 65 seconds left in the game. NBC, in its infinite wisdom, abruptly switched to a new “made for TV” version of the movie, Heidi, at its regularly scheduled time at the “top of the hour,” leaving millions of football fans thinking the Jets would win the game. In fact, the Raiders scored 14 points in the last minute to win 43-32. No fan in American saw the ending live on TV. Following that game, most sporting events on national television have been shown in their entirety to prevent a debacle of that nature ever again.

With all of the events occurring in 1968, the little southern Indiana town of Elnora had its own major story during that year. It wouldn’t come close to making national headlines, but it was (or could have been) extremely important to the town of Elnora, and especially to our family.

Carol, Scott, and I were eating dinner one evening when the telephone rang. My mother, Elizabeth Johnson, was calling from her home in Elnora. She was as excited as I could ever remember and said that she and her brother, William (Bill) Rench, were finalizing plans to “develop Elnora” as she put it. My Uncle Bill and his wife, the former Kathryn Summerville, had both grown up in Elnora and were currently living in Indianapolis.

Mother and Uncle Bill were preparing to announce their formation of the Johnson-Rench Development Corporation. Most of the project would include the 10 acres from the Rench family home place located at the east end of Main Street, extending north to the current Basiloid property in Elnora. My grandparents, James and Alice Hannah Rench, had died more than a decade prior. My parents became sole owners when they purchased the two other one-third shares from Uncle Bill and my mother’s sister, Audrey Rench Wilkin, who lived in McCordsville, just northeast of Indianapolis.

My mother and father had rented out the Rench family house and land for several years. However, since the death of my father, Emerson Johnson, in 1963, the house had fallen into disrepair and was no longer suitable for occupancy. Mother’s meager income would not allow her to make the necessary repairs, so this news was a welcome ray of sunshine on that cold winter day.

The new development was supposed to include single-family homes, an apartment complex, and a shopping center. Pending the start of construction, Uncle Bill also had contacted manufacturers who were considering building facilities in Elnora to provide jobs so that local residents could afford to purchase the new homes and live in the new apartments.

It took a few more months, but the plans were formally announced in May, 1968. The corporation opened an office in downtown Elnora and also built a new, “state of the art” model home on the east side of East Street, just across from my mother’s tiny house. The residential portion of the development was to be named “Beverly Acres” in honor of Uncle Bill’s & Aunt Kathryn’s daughter, Beverly Ann Rench, who died nearly twenty years prior at the young age of fourteen.

Midwest Gas was constructing a new gas pipeline into Elnora from the Plainville gas field. That project was completed in July, 1968 and on September 19 of that year many prominent businessmen formed a Chamber of Commerce. This action made Elnora unique in the fact that it was the smallest town in Indiana to have its own Chamber of Commerce.

Just when it appeared the plans would become a reality, serious obstacles began to arise. Some landowners were reluctant to sell land for the project “to an outsider from the Big City.” And, when it was also determined that Elnora needed its own sewer system to support a development of that scope, the project failed almost as fast as it began. By the following year, the corporation was out of business, my mother had lost her ten acres, my uncle had lost his model home, and everyone was very disheartened. I don’t think my mother ever recovered from the devastating financial and emotional loss of the family homestead. Her health began to decline, and she died a few years later in 1974.

Uncle Bill, having been a bar owner, stockbroker, and successful businessman, persevered through many bouts with cancer for several years following the failure of the corporation. He had been a Greyhound bus driver during the 1940s, so when throat cancer robbed him of his voice in 1970, he refused to give up and became an independent truck driver until his health forced him to retire in the mid-1980s. He and Aunt Kathryn left Indianapolis and returned home to Elnora, living in a house at the southwest edge of town until their deaths in 1987 & 1988.

Elnora finally considered formal plans for a sewer system on March 3, 1973. Following the approval of a loan from the Farmers Home Administration to help finance the project, the system was completed on June 17, 1977, nearly ten years too late for what might have been.

My 500 shares of worthless stock in the Johnson-Rench Development Corporation now occupy a prominent place in the family album. I rarely go to Elnora in person these days, but I visit it in my mind almost daily. The Elnora of my youth is gone and it makes me sad. It reminds me of myself, an old-timer whose best days are now long gone. I will always wonder what would have happened if that nail hadn’t been lost. So should the town.

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