DELPHI, IND. — Flyover country is a term I’ve always hated. From a plane, the Midwestern fields look like an endless stretch of grids and circles, dotted with barns and farmhouses. But on the ground it’s textured and complicated, as diverse in opinions and experiences and origins as the rest of this vast country.
I grew up in Delphi, Ind., a town of 2,800 people about two and a half hours south of Chicago, an hour and a half north of the state capital of Indianapolis. Here, the land is flat, occasionally sloping down into the graceful valleys of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers.
It’s a place as familiar to me as my own body, or so I thought. I would not be who I am today without this town, its teachers or my family. These are the people who’ve always supported me. Each time I come home — although I was never a good fit for its culture of football and faith — I’m welcomed as warmly as if I’d never left.
After the election of Donald Trump, I felt the need to go back, to leave the liberal bubble of my adopted home on the West Coast, and talk with the people I’ve known all my life. In 2008, Obama won the town’s vote. Back then, I felt optimistic that my nearly all-white, conservative town had voted for the country’s first black president. But this year, Trump won the region by a large margin. I wondered whether without knowing it I’d become a stranger in my own land.
As I drove into town, the brown-gray look of winter was setting in. Here and there, a few trees still stood vibrant and golden, holding out against the inevitable. Several Donald Trump signs stood out — defiant spots of red, white and blue in the otherwise muted landscape.
Inside my grandmother’s house, the green shag carpeting set a warm tone. It’s gone unchanged my whole life. But I was startled to see something that I’d never noticed before. A gun that looked like a Glock sat on a wooden end table, as if it had always been there. I had my young daughter with me, and my own mother — sensing my concern — quickly moved the gun out of reach. When I asked my grandmother about it, she laughed and said it was a BB gun that she uses to shoot at squirrels that bother the birds. But she also told me that her neighbors now openly carried guns. That it scared her.
She’s in her 80s, a feisty, blunt-spoken woman. Not easy to scare. She wears her faith openly — a guardian angel pin glinted on her shoulder and carved wooden hands in prayer rested on a table in her living room. But she’s not going to church regularly anymore. One congregation seemed too old. Other services started too early. These days, she mostly goes to church on television.
As we talked about the story of the town, she said she had something to show me. By her bedside was a box of yellowed newspapers. My grandfather, Wayne VanSickle, smiled from the front pages. He served four terms as the town’s mayor. She’d saved every clipping from his campaigns. My grandfather died years ago, but the newspapers help her keep his memory alive.
Her memories of the town were unrecognizable to me. For forty years, she bagged groceries, stocked shelves and worked in the meat department in one of the grocery stores. She and my grandfather went square-dancing in one of the local nightspots and watched movies in one of the town’s two theaters. She remembered when her husband went door to door, campaigning for votes. Her home videos from the time showed homecoming parades in the courthouse square, hundreds of people celebrating. Her descriptions sounded like a town that I’d never known, but wished I had.
She sounded exasperated but resigned about its current state. “There’s nothing for kids, there’s no pride anymore,” she said. “I really don’t know. It really just came a little at a time.”
The place that I remember from my childhood in the 1980s had a courthouse square surrounded by small shops that vanished, one by one. It was a silent hollowing out. A woman’s clothing store, where I could twirl in front of the three-paneled mirror in the back. A soda fountain that always smelled deliciously of fresh sawdust, its counter lined with glass candy jars. An appliance store where the owner’s young son hid in the tree out front. All gone.
I grew up in the farmlands about five miles from town. My parents, who met in high school, built a house in a forest along a river bend. It was an idyllic place. I woke each morning to a sweeping view of the river. In the summer, the air was humid and thick with the sweet scent of my mother’s zinnias and cockscomb and bleeding hearts. We picked blackberries and hunted mushrooms in the woods and caught fireflies in jars. We canoed down the river and fished in a nearby pond and took family bike rides on country roads. At night, the stars were unlike anything I’ve seen in a city.
There was no need to lock the house. The biggest threats were the brazen peacocks who took up residence on our roof, or the raccoons that would get stuck in our woodshed. In the winter, neighbors would show up — unasked and unannounced — to plow open our driveway. I learned to cross country ski in the snowy fields. When ice storms knocked out our electricity, we made pancakes on our wood stove.
My mother was an elementary school teacher who stayed home when my sister and I were young. Each December, my father, the town’s postmaster, collected the letters sent to Santa and sat at our kitchen table, writing handwritten responses to each child. On Christmas, I rode with him to deliver packages.
I remember the lines of cars leaving the local factories at shift change. The two factories made faucets and furniture. They were located near a stone quarry on the edge of town. In the 1990s, a hog processing plant opened near my school. It was impossible to make it through downtown without smelling and seeing the pigs on their way to the plant, squeezed into semi trucks.
For me, trips to town meant a stop by the library, a grand brick building where I made my first childhood friends in story hour. The children’s librarian always knew the right book to suggest. We shopped at the town’s grocery store. We never made it through the aisles without seeing someone we knew. My school was in town. Each morning, I rode the bus, sitting on the cold vinyl seat and watching as the fields and farms flew by. It seemed a long way then, riding in the darkness.
In school, I always felt like an awkward fit. In class, I was the girl who always had her hand raised. I was terrible at every sport, the basis of the pecking order of small-town social life. The Future Farmers of America was the biggest school club, but I joined the academic teams and the school paper and loved art class.
I left after high school for college in Chicago, and I never planned to move back. I felt stifled by the town, and I wanted a career that wouldn’t be possible there. When I go home now, none of my childhood friends remain. They’ve all left for cities. I often see their parents and my former teachers, but it’s unusual to see someone of my generation. Many of the pig plant workers are immigrants or people who drive in from a nearby city.
In the summer of 2003, the faucet factory closed and moved to China. I was an intern at the Indianapolis Star. I’d seen the news come across the AP wire and asked if I could go and write a story. An editor said no, that a news brief would suffice. I mention this not to sound prescient, but to explain how as my town crumbled, as many other towns fell apart, it barely seemed to merit a mention.
As the years passed, my parents sounded less and less optimistic about the future. They desperately wanted Delphi to succeed. When I returned for holidays, they showed me volunteer projects they’d worked on. Three of my grandparents remain there, and my parents help to care for them. But my parents also have begun to talk about moving somewhere else or traveling for a few months a year, an extraordinary step for them. The grocery’s selection has dwindled, and my parents are now driving to the state capital every few weeks to grocery shop.
In 2009, my parent’s doctor, the local family practitioner, died unexpectedly. Not long after, a story appeared in The New York Times that he’d become a whistleblower about infections he believed were caused by industrial hog farms and that such an infection may have led to his own death. The air now often smells so foul from the hog excrement that my parents have to keep their windows closed.
Hundreds of people used to make their living here, doing solid work that provided middle-class jobs, enough for small luxuries and college tuition. Now, as I drive past the old factories, mine is the only car on the road. A barbed wire fence greets passersby. The UAW labor union office, housed in a white building across from the factories, used to advertise meetings and fish fry dinners. Now, it stands empty. Its sign broken, dangling in the wind. Its rusty mailbox overflowing with letters claimed by no one.
A container business has since moved into the old faucet factory. Stacks of crates fill the old parking lot. Local news reports cheered when the business moved in, but it offered dozens of jobs, not hundreds.
A sign next door, on the abandoned furniture factory, blares “no weapons allowed.” The bleeding here began in earnest in 2008, when 150 workers lost their jobs. By 2013, the factory finally closed its doors and headed to Mexico. Now, large “for-lease” signs advertise the buildings to potential tenants. A banner for a Christmas celebration covers the old shipping and receiving sign, but the wind has unraveled the ties, and it flaps forlornly. Across the street, in view of the factory, a Trump/Pence sign stands defiantly in a large dirt pile. “Make America Great Again.”
The town’s main employer is the hog plant. With about 2,000 workers, it churns out 3.5-million pounds of pork each day. Its wages start around $12-an-hour. The plant was running ads for workers when I was there, but I kept hearing that many people would rather commute to other cities for better pay making cars for Subaru or engines for Caterpillar.
Shane Evans knows the town’s troubles and its hopes inside and out. At 26, the town’s current mayor has a round face framed by a neatly trimmed beard and a slight Indiana twang. He’s unfailingly polite. He grew up here and left for college and law school. But unlike me, he returned, and he’s dedicated himself to revitalizing the town.
I didn’t know Shane when I was growing up. He’s eight years younger. But I realized immediately that we had common ties. My uncle was his wrestling coach. Recently, he had jokingly offered to help my grandma repaint her house. When I asked him about the local schools, he listed off all of the teachers who had retired after the state shifted focus to put greater emphasis on test scores — history, biology, physics, English — we’d had all of the same teachers, all gone now.
“I hear quite a bit from the older generation that there aren’t as many kids anymore,” Shane told me.
Most young people leave town after high school, he said. He wants to focus on appealing to people in their mid-thirties with children looking for a good place to raise their kids. He hasn’t figured out how to attract them, but he’s trying.
Before his election, the town had received a multimillion dollar state and federal grant to revitalize its downtown. When I drove in, I was surprised to see new sidewalks and renovated storefronts. The town’s opera house, abandoned for years, has been restored. A pub, the Brick & Mortar, recently opened, with exposed brick walls and craft beer. A teahouse, run by the former mayor’s wife, serves the lunch crowd in a cozy space decorated with tea pots and folksy art. For the first time in my memory, it looks like things might be turning around.
One of the town’s biggest boosters is Jane Miller, a petite woman in her sixties with a warm smile and an exuberant optimism. I spent an afternoon with Jane and her now-husband, who was my high school civics teacher. Jane was born here. She raised her kids in the Chicago suburbs, but she moved back years ago. She told me that she was so grateful the local grocery store was still in business. When her mother began suffering from dementia, the grocer would always call if her mother came in with unusual requests. What are the chances that would happen at Wal-Mart or Costco, she said.
Jane suggested that I stop by the opera house for the local production of “A Christmas Carol.” By the time I arrived, theatergoers were spilling into the street. Lights twinkled in the windows of the theater. I thought about how thrilled I would have been to have some place like that when I was growing up. On the stairs, I met Sara Daly Brosman, my high school theater director. She wore an elegant blue and white shawl wrapped around her thin shoulders. Her daughter, Claire, and I had been close friends. Like so many others, Claire had moved away. As I followed Sara through the halls, I recognized many cast members — parents of childhood friends and former teachers. But many of the younger cast members came from nearby cities.
Inside the theater, Sara and I sat down among the lines of red and gold chairs. The place had been reborn, but Sara sounded worried. She believed deeply in community theater, but the town had a long way to go. She was reeling from the recent election and what it meant. “What is it that he holds over them? Because they see something I don’t,” she said.
As I walked back into the chilly evening, I saw that someone had hung a Trump sign in the window of the nextdoor store front.
My grandfather’s memory loomed over my conversations. He’d died when I was in high school, but he’d devoted so much of his life to this place. I felt like I needed to visit his grave, to see a physical reminder of my roots.
It had been so long that I couldn’t quite remember where it was. I saw “VanSickle” in letters on a black stone before realizing it belonged to my second-cousin. Another stone, also engraved with “VanSickle” belonged to Jane’s late husband. Then, I saw the gray stone, marked with a World War II veteran sign and engraved with an etching of one of the wooden bird houses that he loved to make. I looked around the cemetery and realized that I knew many of the names, that I’d gone to school with their grandchildren. I wondered if my parent’s generation will be the last to be buried here.
It wasn’t the only thing that made me sad about the future of the town — and my connection to it. My favorite teacher, Mrs. Cox — I still call her that — told me the local school system had changed. She’d heard the elementary school had eliminated the librarian position, boxed up most of its library books and thrown some of the boxes away. If her own kids were young, she wouldn’t choose to send them to Delphi’s schools, she said. All four are gone, just like me.
I drove home in silence. As I neared the outskirts of town, I saw an overpass for the new highway bypass. Above me, the lights of semi trucks looked like carnival rides in the sky as they pulled off the road, one after another, and lined up to deliver hogs to slaughter.
On my last morning, I met another woman who had shaped my life, Teresa Isley, my piano teacher. As a child, I often practiced in her living room as her three young children played around us. Back then, Teresa had nearly forty piano students. A devout Christian, she and her family had left town to be missionaries in Jamaica. When they came back, no one had signed up for lessons. Now, the piano mostly sits silent. She runs a daycare instead. It’s the same at her church. She worries that when she stops playing its piano, there will be no one to take her place.
It’s the benefit and the curse of a small town. Each person plays an outsized role. Often, when I call my parents, they are at the opera house, manning the elevator or taking tickets. Just before I arrived, my parents had rushed around making props for “A Christmas Carol” and fixing a broken theater seat. When I told the mayor that I thought that was the appealing part of living in a small town, he laughed and suggested that I move back and revitalize the local newspaper. When I told my mom that, she looked serious, shook her head and said, “Don’t move back.”
Abbie VanSickle is a reporter for the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.