Coming home again: What brings people back to a dying town?

Visitors passing through the town of Peru, Ind., might interpret the silence of empty storefronts as the sound of a town dying. But to many residents returning home after years away, it is the sound of opportunity.

Doug Struck
In the small town of Peru, Ind., many established businesses have fled. Officials are trying to renovate storefronts.

The settling quiet of Main Street in small-town America – so few cars now, shops closed, not so many people – is like a seashell held to the ear: It sounds different to each one who listens.

To a stranger coming to this central Indiana town, it is the silence of empty storefronts, of the stoplight blinking at the main crossroad with no traffic in sight, of a far-off lawn mower snarl echoing down empty avenues. It is the sound of a town dying.

To Sandy Ploss, it is a quiet that rings with the history of circuses that once filled this town with performers and trainers and riggers at their winter quarters – a history she helps preserve with the kids of Peru, who put on an annual Amateur Circus.

To Steve Dobbs, it is the sound of opportunity, a void that can be filled by fixing up abandoned buildings, by reigniting the lost ambitions of businessmen, by tapping a small core of youthful dreamers trying to give the town another chance.  

The United States Census Bureau has been documenting America’s move to cities for a century. In 1920 the number of Americans living in cities exceeded those in small towns and rural areas. Today that urbanization tops 80 percent. The population of most small towns has plummeted.

So it is in Peru (whose name was apparently a whim of its founder, who wanted something shorter than nearby Mexico, Ind.). By the early 1900s, the county claimed about 40,000 people. That was when the rail lines were bustling and circuses camped outside of town, filling Peru with transients, although the Census Department put the permanent population at 8,000-12,000. Once a canal town, it became a busy rail crossroads, later the host to a large Air Force base, and was the hub of economic activity.

“Peru was the place everyone from the surrounding area came to shop,” says Shirley Griffin, the town’s chief historian and archivist of the Miami County Museum.

But then the rail traffic slowed, and two lines pulled out. The circuses began to winter in Florida, instead. The Air Force downsized to a reserve base in 1994, wiping out 4,500 jobs.  Multinational banks bought out local ones, replacing institutions of 80 workers with small branches staffed by eight. Big manufacturers did the same. Senger Dry Goods, the three-story department store that was “the Walmart of its day,” according to Ms. Griffin, closed, leaving her museum a huge space to house the town’s memories.

The population dropped. It’s little more than 11,000 now, and still falling, according to the Census Bureau. Businesses moved. Restaurants closed. People vacated their frame homes, aligned soldierly on the straight avenues, to withstand the elements alone.

“Yes, it’s a dying town,” concludes Bonnie Arrick, a septuagenarian who grew up here, moved away three times, and returned each time.

That, say the folks who live here, is the thing about small towns. Lots of people leave, but some come back.

The pull of home can be strong, says the mayor, Gabriel Greer. He went away to college, studied in London, and eventually returned to Peru. “You talk to any 16- or 17-year-old in Chicago or New York or Peru, and they all say the same thing: I want to get out of here. But then they reach a certain age, and they want to give their kids the kinds of experiences they had.”

The heyday of manufacturing will not come back, Mayor Greer says. But instead of trying to get jobs to come to Peru, he wants to make Peru a place people want to live. Jobs will follow.

Those who do live here offer the expected sales pitch for small towns. It’s a great place to let kids grow and roam. No traffic jams to work. You know your neighbors. Prices are cheap.

So they are not giving up. Greer acknowledges the town is trying to buck population trends but says a new spirit and some new businesses are creating “a bit of a renaissance.” Like small towns all around the Midwest, he says, they are scraping for solutions.

For Ms. Ploss, that may be the circus. The town bills itself as “Circus Capital of the World” from its days as the winter hub for many traveling shows. The professional troupes are gone, but the town rigorously trains 200 kids a year in the arts of trapeze, tumbling, and high-wire walks, and puts on 11 polished shows each summer.

“If you’re a kid in Peru, you don’t have to run away to the circus. It’s right in your backyard,” says Ploss, the granddaughter of circus great Clyde Beatty.

“They think they are learning circus acts,” chuckles the town’s prosecuting attorney, Bruce Embrey, who has served as ringmaster for 37 years. “But what we are really teaching them are life skills. If you have the confidence to let go of a trapeze bar 30 feet above ground and fly toward a teenager you trust to catch you, you will have confidence for life.”

Maybe the town’s draw will be its history. A new pub – Dillinger’s – named after the famous bank robber, opened recently. John Dillinger himself stopped by town in 1933, the story goes, to hold up Peru’s police station and replenish his supply of weapons and ammo. Oh, and composer Cole Porter was born here.

Maybe it will be a spiffier look. Mr. Dobbs returned with his wife, a cousin of Porter, so she could practice farm law and they could raise their kids. Looking for cheap space for her law office, Dobbs says, they ended up with a three-story building, once a Montgomery Ward, right downtown. Fixing up that building launched Dobbs, with other mostly young professionals, to begin a campaign to tear down plywood and renovate building fronts.

“We can’t attract new businesses if they drive through town and see boarded up stores and abandoned houses,” he says. “We want to be in the running.”

Sandra Tossou signed on. She grew up here, then fled for culinary college in Rhode Island, and became a fast-rising star in the rarified world of pastry chefs, studying in Ireland, then holding top kitchen jobs at some of the best hotels in America.

She left it all five years ago to make wedding cakes and cupcakes and run a cozy bakery shop in downtown Peru, slowly watching her business grow and the vacant buildings beside her begin to fill.

“Some people think I took a step back from the limelight,” acknowledges Ms. Tossou, in the bright open kitchen of her bakery. “But it depends on your definition of success. In this community, I stepped into the limelight.”

Correction: Bruce Embrey was a ringmaster for 37 years.

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