Preservation leaders look at their communities through a different lens, one that sees history as powerful asset for enriching the future. This year’s winners of Indiana Landmarks’ annual Sandi Servaas Memorial Awards are using such community-focused vision to foster an appreciation of heritage in Flora and Montpelier.
A century ago, civic-minded residents formed the Flora Community Club to support local businesses and uplift their hometown quality of life. They recruited doctors, enhanced the 4-H fairgrounds, helped build a permanent post office, and made improvements to the downtown business district.
In 2013, the club took on its biggest challenge to date: saving the town’s 1908 Vandalia Railroad Depot. A symbol of the era when railroads fueled the town of Flora, the depot served daily passenger and freight trains for 50 years before ending service. In 1969, the building was moved from its original location to South Sycamore Street, where it operated as a laundromat. In 2003, tragedy struck when a customer loaded gas-soaked clothes in a washer, sparking a fire that left the depot a charred wreck for the next decade.
With demolition looming, the club realized the time to act was “now or never.” “That the Flora Community Club had no idea what it was doing when it committed to saving the depot is an understatement,” says Melissa Bishop, project chairman. “We may have gone into it not having any idea how it was going to turn out, but we did try very hard to make sure we were doing the right thing. This building was very important to the history of our town and the people who live here. We had lost a number of historic buildings through the years, and we hated to see one more thing go.”
Flora Community Club received grants from Indiana Landmarks and the Carroll County Community Foundation to hire architect Dann Keiser to assess the building and create a phased plan for restoring it. Over the next nine years, the club raised $400,000 in grants and donations to reconstruct the depot on a site across the railroad tracks from where the building originally stood.
Workers salvaged as much of the damaged depot as possible and incorporated wood flooring and pendant lights rescued from another town landmark slated for demolition. The depot’s grand reopening as a local history museum and community space coincided with Flora’s sesquicentennial celebration last September. In January, the club directed the momentum toward an even bigger vision: hiring its first full-time executive director to raise the profile of the town and the depot as a heritage tourism destination.
“It’s an ambitious vision in a town of 2,200 people,” adds Bishop. “I think we sometimes forget what we’ve done, that this has been nine years in the making. We forget people outside of our community see this as important. Getting this recognition from Indiana Landmarks on a state level is humbling and we’re proud and can’t believe it happened to us.”
In Montpelier, Indiana, educator Ryan Ingram formed the Montpelier History Club in 2017 to share his love for his hometown with local youth. On Wednesday afternoons year-round, students in kindergarten through high school gather to learn about Montpelier’s past. They take field trips to local landmarks—such as the historic bank robbed by Dillinger in 1933—and take on community improvement projects, including cleaning local cemetery headstones. They even researched and transcribed wartime writings to publish a book, The Letters of B.G. Shinn: Correspondence of a Civil War Soldier from Montpelier, Indiana.
The club has also created several full-length local history documentaries, including a series highlighting lost landmarks called Ghost Buildings of Montpelier. Students browse newspaper archives and visit the sites where the buildings stood.
“I want the students to know about the fascinating history that took place in their hometown. The hope is that through illuminating the past, it will instill a desire to save and preserve the historic sites that are still standing,” says Ingram. “We have a saying that History Club is not just about being better historians but becoming better people. They learn etiquette and community pride, what it means to take care of each other and our community.”
As winner of the youth-serving category, the Montpelier History Club receives $1,000 and organizational winner Flora Community Club receives $2,000. Both groups will receive Evansville artist John McNaughton’s original sculpture “No Doors to Lock Out the Past” at Indiana Landmarks’ Annual Meeting on September 9.
This article first appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Indiana Preservation, Indiana Landmarks’ member magazine.
Stay up to date on the latest news, stories, and events from Indiana Landmarks, around the state or in your area.