- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

MEROM, Ind. (AP) - Curt Buethe climbs into his red pickup and turns onto Indiana 58 through Merom, a community he fell in love with at first sight. Guests are in town, and there’s a half-hour’s worth of landmarks he wants them to see.

Most guests pay a visit during the annual Merom Bluff Chautauqua, coming up this weekend in the Sullivan County town overlooking the Wabash River southwest of Terre Haute. Buethe, who owns a pottery business, is helping promote this year’s festival as a member of the Merom Improvement Association.

He stops the truck on the corner of Market and Fifth streets, where the Carnegie library sits. Locals believe Merom is the smallest town in the U.S. with a library financed by the 19th century steel tycoon, according to the library’s website.

A sign in front of the two-story brick structure reads, “Books Are Seeds That Grow the Mind.”

The truck continues into a neighborhood of mostly unkempt houses.

“Now a lot of these places, there’s nobody living in ‘em,” Buethe says. “They either passed away, they let the place go down, it’s horrible what’s happening.

“But there’s no industry here,” he continues. “What you have downtown is two competing restaurants, a post office that’s open part of the time now because they changed all the hours everywhere, and my business and the library.”

“… There’s nothing else here. So all these people work somewhere else, or it’s vacant property they’ve let go back to the bank because they can’t afford driving back and forth to some job.”

Buethe and the association are working to change that. Proceeds from the festival, along with gifts, grants and donations, are funding a series of improvement projects. More than $360,000 has been generated into the community over 20 years.

The truck comes to a stop next to the community center, which the association built and furnished.

Buethe points to a blue, red and yellow playground set, the softball field and tennis courts the association also made possible. Soon, they plan to convert the tennis courts into an enclosed basketball court.

He turns the vehicle back onto Indiana 58, motioning toward a blank wall on a downtown building. This year, artists from Indianapolis will paint a large mural on the space - as a way to welcome visitors driving into town.

As the truck approaches Bluff Park, where the Chautauqua was originally held, Buethe sees a blue house that residents are convinced was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

He points to a side door that likely led to an opening for a deep channel. Longtime residents have told Buethe that slaves would use the channel to take flatboats into Terre Haute.

Buethe dreams of the community taking control of the house, turning it into a dinner theater and shoring up the channel. Guests could park in a nearby town, be transported into Merom, watch the show and take boats back to their cars.

“Nobody does anything like that,” he says. “We have the possibilities.”

Merom, located about 14 miles southwest of Sullivan, was founded in 1817. The town’s one building became a courthouse, but it wasn’t centrally located, so the county seat shifted to Sullivan.

For a time, as Buethe describes it, Merom was a “thriving little river town” with a population between 5,000 and 7,000. By the 2010 Census, there were 228 residents.

William Henry Harrison’s troops came through Merom on the way to the Battle of Tippecanoe during the War of 1812. The town provided refuge for conscientious objectors to World War II, who kept busy through the Works Progress Administration building Bluff Park’s entryway.

“There’s history here like you wouldn’t believe,” Buethe said before giving the tour, paging through booklets at his dining room table.

The Chautauqua began in 1905, based on a similar event in New York.

In the early days, notable figures such as Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan, presidents William Howard Taft and Warren Harding and athlete Billy Sunday lectured on the bluff.

“They wanted to raise the consciousness level of the people in this rural community,” Buethe says about the event’s first organizers.

The event grew to 47,500 people by 1908, all camping with their horses, buggies, chickens and whatever else they brought along. Buethe opens a recent festival program that features a photo taken around that year, showing a crowd in front of a huge, revival-style tent.

“There wasn’t enough lodging here,” he says. “I mean, they would stay in people’s houses, in their yards, all over the bluff.

“It was absolute chaos,” he continues. “Can you imagine that many people in a town that you can almost throw a rock across?”

The event continued strong until the late 1920s and stopped until 1966, when longtime resident Jack Gettinger reintroduced it as a nonprofit organization.

“So that’s what drove this to make money and to do something to try to pull this town together, and put it back in the community,” Buethe says.

The Chautauqua has since expanded past the bluff, incorporating other parts of town. This year’s festivities kick off at noon Friday, with the 28th annual Little Miss Chautauqua Pageant that evening.

Saturday’s events include a morning Asian carp netting contest on the Wabash River, a midday parade downtown and an evening talent show.

After church services Sunday morning, there’s a baby contest, a pedal tractor pull and other games and activities.

After driving through Bluff Park, Buethe steers the truck toward perhaps Merom’s most recognized landmark: the former Union Christian College.

Now a center operated by the Indiana-Kentucky Conference of the United Church of Christ for camps and religious retreats, the college was a liberal arts institution attracting students nationwide from 1859-1924.

The college’s main building - with its tall arched windows and an overlook - is one of the features Buethe quickly came to appreciate upon moving to Merom from northern Montgomery County in 2005. The town had invited him to help teach pottery techniques to children.

“This was something out of a storybook,” he says.

Buethe stops in front of the college and meets with Bonnie Stowers, a conference center employee, who knows the main building inside and out.

They take an elevator to the sixth floor, where a wooden spiral staircase leads to the overlook.

The smokestacks of an electrical plant rise above the trees on the overcast afternoon, and Buethe points toward the oil refinery 20 miles away in Robinson.

The view still astounds Buethe and Stowers.

“You should see kids come up here for the first time,” Stowers says.

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Source: Tribune-Star, http://bit.ly/1dHEFH0

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Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com

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