by Erin Thead
Reding’s Store closed its doors on a brisk December morning. Its sign, which the Redings themselves swore would stand until the property sold, read as a bitter and cynical obituary: “Reding’s Store, 1921-2002. Killed by ‘Economic Development.’”
I’m not completely sure why the Redings even bothered to put the sign up. To begin with, of the influential people of Batestown, they were in the minority in opposing the construction of the new highway, the four-lane, 65-mile-per-hour stretch of road that bypassed the town. Most of the local government officials and the other influential families loved the idea. “We’ll get a Wal-mart, fast food, you name it,” crowed one alderman. “It’ll be a great thing for the town. Folks drive down the old highway and see nothing but old buildings. No recognizable national chains. A tiny school—only for the residents of Batesville, at that, while the county has three equally tiny schools. We need to modernize.”
Secondly, with the new highway bypassing the town, and the only way to see the store being the old, two-lane, beat-up highway, there wasn’t much of a chance that anybody except people who lived in the town would even see the sign. It was preaching to the choir by any means; although the local government loved the idea, most of Batestown hated it and dreaded the construction, because they knew what it would ultimately mean: The death of the town as they knew it.
The Redings were always a kind of cantankerous, independent family, all the way back to 1921 when the grandparents of the last owners began the shop. First off, they completely ignored standard labor protocol. They didn’t want to have resentful clerks, so they would hire people, offer full benefits and extremely large wages for store clerks, and not let them work overtime. Full time, yes, but no after-hours. It just seemed natural and sensible to the townspeople.
You would walk into the store and often see old Reding himself when he was still alive. Those fortunate enough to see him (and he managed the store from ’21 to ’50) would come back with a purchase and tales of the man personally restocking his shelves whenever new merchandise came in. That was one of his weird psychological hang-ups. He trusted nobody to restock his shelves while he managed that store.
The next generation of Redings were similar to the old man, but the third generation brought sweeping changes to the old store. In a rush to compete with the new developments, the final owner, the grandson of old Reding, eliminated the benefits packages of the employees. His father, the second owner of the store, died soon after. Perhaps out of habit more than anything, he continued the tradition of restocking the shelves himself, but he had an air of resentment, unlike his father and grandfather, who did it almost lovingly. While the store was still in business, there was talk that this man would sell the shop to make way for a service station and convenience store, and it may yet happen. The property certainly isn’t earning him any money anymore.
Still, petty small-town rumors and changes in management couldn’t kill the store. It took an impersonal strip of pavement to send Reding’s Store into oblivion. Its replacements were the Wal-mart Supercenter and small strip mall that sprang up alongside the new highway. They brought more business to the county, and with that came more people. But not to Batestown itself, which remained off the main highway, although the communities that came with the new businesses claimed to be part of the town. Communities with such names as Rocky Groves (the only rock there was gravel), Pinewoods Estates (the pine belonging to the timber company), and Maplecroft Cottages (filled with $300-$400,000 brick “cottages,” all in the same style).
I’ve only been through these areas, built in loops, a few times, but it’s enough. I’ve lived in this town all my life, and I don’t know a soul who lives in any of those places. They’re the owners of the property off the highway and have made plenty of money in those businesses. None of them were from Batestown, but Batestown has supported them and made them what they are. In return, Batestown got its new school—a demand from the parents in this group of business owners, whose kids were not accustomed to the small school nor the “backwoods” appearance of the surrounding areas, including the original town.
That store wasn’t the only artifact of Batestown that the road killed.
Unlike Reding’s, the old school does not stand anymore. It was demolished and the property sold to an entrepreneur who built a cowboy-style bar. Derek’s Diamond Bar and Club became the hangout of choice for the less fortunate Batestowners, those who were left behind by the economic progress. The new school was built just off the new highway, visible but not accessible from it, within walking distance of the elite enclaves of business owners.
By the numbers, it’s a fine school. Kids come from all over the county to this one location, a new concept for most of the original inhabitants of Batestown (not to mention the rural areas), and the school is run by the newcomers, their heads filled with ideas of teaching and learning theory, pilot programs, experimental curricula, and plenty of jargon that most folks from the old part of town don’t understand but are impressed with, because it’s so new and fresh-sounding. The school is the one aspect of the development that they like. It has lots of team learning, extracurricular-but-not-completely-so activities that are voluntary but help the grades of those who participate, parental involvement in activities (especially for the parents of Maplecroft Cottages and the others), and an athletic program fit for a community college. The handbook says the school teaches far more than the old, small schools did, and I guess it does occasionally happen that they manage to teach foreign language or computer programming or advanced algebra, which incidentally were taught at the small schools except for the programming, but at this school, the focus is on The Career. In addition to career-exploration classes at all levels, most of which are required, the school has an expensive career counseling program for 11-year-old aspiring workers. —Do I sound sarcastic? Something about that doesn’t seem quite right, I guess—kind of a waste of time to counsel that age for careers.
The school is a beautiful sight, though—very modern and aesthetically pleasing. The gymnasium is especially nice, and it sometimes doubles as a quasi-theater.
After they graduate, the children of the newcomers to Batestown go on to the community college in the next county or one of the state universities, most of them to learn how to manage a business and ultimately getting MBA’s. The children of old Batestown, Batestown off the new highway, typically end up working at those businesses.
And, of course, heading to Derek’s Diamond Bar on Saturday nights, when they see no hope of a promotion, salary increase, or a chance anywhere except this dying town, only the opportunity to temporarily drown their worries in alcohol. None of this shows up in the numbers for the school, of course—staying in one location is considered a good thing by local governments, and the statistics don’t care what the graduates do with themselves after they leave high school. The statistics don’t tell that the only graduates who are really successful are those whose families were already successful. The other kids, those who still live in the poorer parts of the county, are left behind.
Sure, some of the old Batestowners have left. And there is always the odd duck here and there who seems to know what is going on and has the power or the money to do something about it for himself or herself. The Finley family, who were powerful in the town when it was still small, left just last year after their daughter Kate, a freshman, allegedly the valedictorian in her class at that time, shocked the school by dropping out to pursue a home-schooling program. The scandal that this wrought still hasn’t died down in the minds of the administrators, although nobody speaks of it anymore. The old Batestowners didn’t seem to have a problem with it, and indeed some of Kate’s former classmates who knew they were doomed to menial jobs and Saturday nights in Derek’s congratulated her on her escape. But the newcomers, with their ideas of proper educational theory, threw a fit and tried hard to force her back into school. It’s rumored now that the school board was at the point of bribing the family, but what irritated them more than anything was not Kate’s action (“teenage rebelliousness”) but the fact that her family defended her completely. Finally the Finleys were so tarred by the constant attacks that they left town. It’s funny; they and the Redings were the two most prominent families to be burned by the economic progress caused by the road, and they both despised each other when original Batestown was in its glory days. They never did learn to like each other, either.
Nowadays it’s like it’s two towns. You can drive down the main highway and see the seemingly aseptic new Wal-mart, strip mall, and busy fast-food restaurants. Turn off onto one of the small roads and you’ll go through the well-off and well-guarded “Estates” communities or drive by Consolidated, the colloquial term for the school complex. It looks like any neat suburban area.
But if you go down the old highway, through the old part of the town, it looks… run down. Tired. The buildings are mostly made of aging wood or brick, some painted, some not. The signs of the businesses that still survive bear that distinctive look of being homemade or nearly homemade, and the names of the businesses themselves are different: Joe’s Café and Filling Station, Batestown Country Grocery, Bates Pharmacy—the first business in town, started in 1884 by the town’s founders and still in business. The talk around the town, though, is that the Wal-mart is going to drive the drugstore out of business before much longer. These places have fewer customers than the streamlined stuff on the highway, and those customers are obviously about 98 percent denizens of the town or the rural areas around it. There is a general air of despondent fatalism inside these places, not just coming from the proprietors but from the customers themselves. “It just ain’t the same here since the highway got built,” you’ll frequently hear in the Café. “Nobody wants to come through here anymore. Won’t be long before Batestown is dead.”
There is resentment too. One older man still stubbornly buying groceries at the Country Grocery said to me recently, “It’s the folks settin’ themselves up those fancy houses that are to blame for all of this. It was them that asked for the highway. They wanted it so they could build outside the town. They knew there wasn’t no chance of putting anything in this town, so they put it outside the main town and then stole the town’s name. They’re runnin’ everything now, though—nothing to be done anymore. We ought to have stopped them when we had the chance, but the government cared more about what the rich folks had to say than what we did.”
I was driving the new highway myself recently when I saw splotches of red from a distance. As I approached, I realized what it was and my lunch went to my throat. Some poor dog had been hit and literally was in pieces across the road. The cars in front of me were avoiding the offal, and so did I, but as I passed by, I saw a loop with a shiny round object on it. This animal had been somebody’s pet, cared for, fed—now splattered across the highway, avoided by the repulsed drivers who most likely saw it only as a mess to avoid, and left for the flies.
In a few days, the scavengers will have removed it, the rain will have washed away anything they didn’t get, and it will be as though the dog never existed to most people. But not to whoever owned it, gave it that collar, and probably went looking for it the very day that it was killed, only to find their pet dead on the highway and reduced to bloody mounds that drivers in a hurry to get to the newly developed areas had to avoid. They can’t even dispose of their pet as they wished, but rather, will see it get run over again by some drivers, picked apart by scavengers, and eventually disappear into nothing, then be forgotten. Afterwards, the drivers will continue, and someday another animal will be killed in the same manner, with the same ultimate result. Rarely were any animals killed on the old highway. Folks drove more slowly then, even the drivers of the large trucks.
You can call it a casualty of the new road.
This story ©2002-2008 by Erin Thead and may not be reproduced without permission.