In late August sixty-four years ago (1953), I made my first trip to the village of Somerset in Wabash County, Indiana. My wife and I were meeting the people with whom we would live for the next three years while I attended seminary in Indianapolis, seventy-five miles to the south.
It has been more than thirty years since I have driven through this broad swath of land in the corn, hogs, and soy beans strong hold of the Hoosier state. There was much to see when my daughter Carolyn and I revisited this community on a recent summer day.
Wind farms: Halfway into our drive, we came upon the first surprise, slowly moving, three-bladed windmills towering over the corn fields. Wind farms belong in western states, I thought, where landscapes are open, often desolate, with nothing to impede the constancy of wind. Now turbines have settled into the rural landscape of the Middle West. Already, I have found out that there is much to learn about the politics, economics, and environmental aspects of this development.
Corn, soybeans, and beautiful buildings: On this trip we drove over about a hundred miles of rural Indiana, much of the distance on state highways, especially IN 13. Although there has been little rain for the past thirty days, everything was green. Corn has reached its full height of twelve feet or more, and lush, green soybeans filled many fields. Houses and farm buildings seemed to be in good repair and many were surrounded by significant spreads of well-tended lawns. Even the berms appeared to be regularly mowed by property owners. I am confident that farming as I experienced it in the 1950s has changed dramatically, and here, too, there is much that I want to learn.
Country churches: The Somerset in which we lived was on low land close to the Mississinewa River, about five miles from the city of Peru. It was the largest settlement in Waltz Township and the township school, with forty-seven students in grades nine through twelve, was across the street from the parsonage. In addition to the Christian Church and Methodist Church in Somerset, five other churches were out in the township.
In the 1960s, a flood control dam was built down river near Peru and a wide strip of land across the center of the township is now part of the reservoir. Somerset was relocated on higher ground near IN 13, and the Christian Church building, which we had erected in 1954 following a fire that had destroyed the old building, was moved to a new site.
In later years, the church dropped its affiliation with the Disciples of Christ and changed its name to Somerset Church of Christ. It looks despondent, and a nearby resident told us that she sees only five or six cars parked nearby on Sunday mornings.
In sharp contrast is the College Corner Brethren Church. Despite its location in open country, far from populated places or state roads, it has flourished through the years. It has preserved the frame building in use when I lived in the township but has added on and in 2002 constructed a large worship space, fellowship hall, and staff offices. Here, too, there is much I want to learn.
County seat religion: Our travels took us through three county seat towns: Noblesville, Tipton, and Wabash. In each community, two sets of public buildings anchor the downtown areas: the county court house (and other governmental facilities), and churches, especially, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Christian.
There was a time when these churches were also the bulwarks of denominational strength: large memberships, generous financial support of denominational life and ministry, and the ability to encourage smaller congregations in outlying communities. As we drove by, the buildings looked as substantial as ever, but on a sunny Friday afternoon in late summer, it was hard to see that anything was happening.
Two decades ago, when I retired and moved away from Indiana, I thought that I understood church life in this part of the world. My recent drive in the country, however, makes it clear that much has changed since I went away and there is much for me to learn.