ROLLING PRAIRIE, Ind. (AP) - Two years ago, Chicago-area transplant Rick Erwin, a documentary filmmaker and visual journalist, was in the Rolling Prairie post office as he was occasionally wont to do, witnessing something he didn’t usually see in that small town.
A large group of old cars parked in front of the Rolling Prairie Community Center on a Tuesday afternoon.
“And I went inside the community center and there was a sea of elders, 35 or 40 of them,” Erwin told The LaPorte County Herald-Argus ((http://bit.ly/1abAznk ). “A sea of elders all sitting around having a good time. And I saw a copy of this sitting on a table.”
He held up a document titled “Historical Rolling Prairie,” with a forward by Don Grimm, and said the content of the book opened up a whole new world for him, a bygone world where Rolling Prairie was a significant hub for motorists traveling between Chicago and New York, a world full of motels and restaurants and commerce, a world he wanted to capture for everyone to see.
“So I started thinking, ‘I need to pass through here with my camera,’” he said. “So that’s what I did.”
And he made it the subject of his first documentary on a small town, “Going Rolling,” and will present it to the community during a free screening at 1 p.m. Sunday at the First Christian Church of Rolling Prairie.
Roughly an hour long, the documentary encompasses the history of Rolling Prairie from its start in 1832 through its emergence into the present day, with first-hand accounts supplied by local residents.
Erwin noted that between 1920 and 1940, when U.S. 20 passed through town, Rolling Prairie was a bustling community with three grocery stores, eight to 13 gas stations, a motel, bed and breakfast joints, two hardware stores, at least two doctor offices, an appliance store and a pool hall, among other offerings to motorists passing through.
And he heard a number of stories about it from residents.
For instance, there’s the story of a motel owner who kept getting burglarized at night, so he stationed his dad inside the entrance of his business with a shotgun. Then one morning he found his father asleep, curled up with his gun and the money missing again.
Then there’s the recollection of the Rolling Prairie Grade School fire, when the building burned to the ground; and later of the train derailment when some 70 or 80 cars fell off the track and started a fire.
So many firefighters were reportedly called down that residents had to start opening their doors and bringing out food so there would be enough for them to eat.
And Erwin spoke to Dave Surma, who once had one of the largest Christmas light displays in Northwest Indiana. Its tally was 80,000 lights.
But what really interested Erwin was a practice that took place between 1935 to about 1950 at the end of Depot Street. It was a free weekly movie sponsored by local business owners. The owners got together, hung a white sheet on a set of poles, and showed the films to the community in order to encourage residents to stay out late.
He noted the event was so popular that some residents would park their cars close to the poles in the morning, go to work, then come back afterward with their families so they’d have a good seat. He said the practice was most likely ended because of the increasing popularity of television.