Life Along an Overlooked Road

GO west at the IGA on Highway 45, the road less traveled, the one where nothing's happening and the odd people live, and discover Brown County, Indiana. The real one. No quaint, no cute, no quiche. A break from the contrived folksiness of Nashville, Indiana. It's pickup trucks and bait shops, folks sitting on the porch, and basketball hoops on peeling barns. It's a place where the rhythms of life remain unchanged for generations, where roads have no names and wind along ridges that never end. A place where people are comfortable with who they are, where they are, and what they have. There's no souvenir ``shoppes,'' but you can buy a fine handcrafted broom from James Cullum in Helmsburg. There's no restaurants, but Pansy Cullum might well sell a bushel of homegrown potatoes for $5.50 at The Corner Grocery. And there's no entertainment, but sometimes the haunting sounds of Grey Larsen's dulcimer drift through the thick woods near Needmore.

Over by Trevlac, a smiling George Ray Fleener is usually on the porch waving at cars. He's been waving over half a century. From the same spot. He's seen it all and he's got plenty of time to talk about it.

Pansy Cullum, proprietor of The Corner Grocery, opens a few minutes early each morning so Frank Patterson can eat breakfast.

``I can feed my friends, but I don't dare sell it because I'm not a restaurant,'' says Pansy Cullum, who grew up in Spearsville and Peoga but moved to Helmsburg 23 years ago when she married James. He owns the Cullum Broom Factory.

If Pansy Cullum didn't let Frank Patterson come in for a microwave breakfast of sausage, eggs, and biscuits, he probably wouldn't eat. He's 72 and lives alone on a street with no name in Helmsburg. His wife is dead, his kids scattered, so Pansy feeds him and lets him hang around.

For lunch, Frank Patterson eats a bag of Cheetos on his front porch across from the church with no minister and waits for morning again. Sometimes he walks one block across the railroad tracks, hangs around The Broom Factory and watches James make brooms or cut sassafras switches for fireplace sweepers.

Factory is a misnomer, because in addition to being the founder and president of the company, James is the only employee. He makes every single broom, about 25 dozen a day. He once had another employee named Fred.

``Fred got married, quit, and went to the big city and bought a Corvetty,'' said James. Life in the fast lane triggered Fred's downfall. James predicted it, but Fred wouldn't listen. Foolish young people must learn for themselves, laughed James.

Fred got divorced, the Corvetty was repossessed, and he drifted back to Helmsburg, broke, disillusioned, and distressed that James wouldn't forgive the breach of faith and rehire him.

Never. James needed someone solid, dependable. He hired his mother, Roxie Cullum. She won't be tempted by the lure of fast cars, bright lights, and the silly notion that life is always better someplace else. She helps bind the broom corn brush and answer the phone.

``Mom's good on the phone,'' says James.

``Ours is good brooms,'' says Roxie Cullum. ``You want a broom?''

There are about 72 houses in Helmsburg, that's how many post office boxes Postmistress Laverne Chandler rents. Business is always slow, she says, which allows her to close for an hour at noon and work on her button collection. She has 2,000 and is a member in good standing of the National Button Society. ``We have no mailmen because the streets have no names or numbers so everyone must come in to pick up their mail,'' explains Laverne Chandler. ``Once that's over, I work on my buttons. I sort them by category.''

A few winding miles down Highway 45 around a wide sweeping bend in the road on a high hill overlooking the Trevlac Volunteer Fire Department, George Ray Fleener sits on his porch waving at cars. The sign on his driveway is an eyecatcher: ``GEORGE RAY FLEENER. TEACHER OF THE CENTURY.''

For 44 years, Fleener taught Brown County kids to read and write, starting back in 1915. He also taught in one-room schoolhouses in Needmore, Brkanstetter, Helsburg, Bear Creek, Cottonwood, and Beanblossom schools.

After all those years of living and teaching, he figured he'd apply to be Teacher of the Century. Sadly, there was no such award, he learned. Why, he'll never understand. ``I applied to the United States of America Department of Education, and the guy said there was no program, so I decided I'd just make myself teacher of the century and let 'em fight it out,'' Fleener explained. In July 1986, he put up the small sign proclaiming his new status.

The Brown County school system had no teacher of the century program either, but since Fleener had already declared himself the winner of a something that didn't exist, action was required. Couldn't have an illicit teacher of the century. So the school system gave him a plaque and named him Brown County Teacher of the Century. Now it's official.

The fine house on the hill is surrounded by 20 acres of fields and deep woods and six outbuildings. Fleener built the buildings himself, planed every board, drove every nail. He farmed the rich bottom land and raised laying hens to support his wife and their three kids. Teachers earned $50 a month back then.

He's got a bucket of lard out back that he filled during the Depression, about a half century ago, and he wonders what it will do. Every so often he'll pry off the lid to look at the rancid lard. It doesn't do anything. For some reason, this fascinates him.

``I don't know, I keep thinking it should evaporate,'' he says. ``Funny, how some things keep you wondering.''

When he's on the ancient porch, smiling and waving at cars, he wonders why people drive so fast. When he first settled in the hills, horse-drawn wagons moved slowly down the road. There was time to visit because the horses needed rest. There was no reason to rush anywhere, anyway. There still isn't, he notes, but people do for some crazy reason. ``Now, people rush around and they don't seem as happy,'' he says. ``You ever wonder about that?''

Just up from George Ray Fleener's place, Highway 45 bends a few times and cuts south into Monroe County by the Needmore Grocery where nightcrawlers are but $1.25 a dozen. On the wall are faded Polaroid snapshots of fishermen holding up fat bass taken from nearby Lake Lemon. A couple straight-back wooden chairs by the soda pop cooler provide sittin' and talkin' space.

West of the grocery on the road to Lake Lemon, Grey Larsen plays his Norwegian Hardanger eight-string fiddle. He fiddles and plays dulcimer for the classical folk group, Metamora. It's the kind of music Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau calls ``air pudding.'' The Larsen's have two kids. It's a good place to raise kids, they say, here along the road less traveled. Life's rhythms are predictable and soothing, not jerky and erratic, like in a city.

It's also a good place to create and make music. The bald eagles from Lake Monroe drift over and circle out back sometimes. The deer come down in the morning and the eternal beauty of the forest provides balance to life's problems.

Those were the very reasons George Ray Fleener chose the house on the hill to raise his family 75 years ago. Some things simply don't change. George Ray Fleener and Grey Larsen are bound by the tradition and values of life along an overlooked road.

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