Feb 26, 2016

Some early memories of Somerset

My earliest memories are of a place that’s been underwater since the mid ‘60s.

My dad grew up on a farm at what is now the bottom of what is now called the Mississenewa Lake, a man-made lake that used to be called the Mississenewa Reservoir. That’s about a mile from the town, also underwater, where Dad went to high school, a Wabash County town called Somerset.

I go to the water’s edge sometimes to look for something familiar.

I was born in 1953. In 1953, Somerset included…the Gruener grocery store, the Hardacre Slaughtehouse, Somerset Hardware, a post office, Browne’s Shell Station, Somerset High School, two churches, a Masonic Lodge and 250 people. There were giant maple trees and a grove of white pine; but even though it hugged the Mississenewa River, there’s no record of flooding there in Somerset. The flooding was downstream in Peru; frequent and even deadly and that’s why the Army Crop of Engineers dammed the Mississenewa. 

My very earliest memory is of a mistaken thought, the moment just before I stuck my hand into the moving blades of a push mower. ‘I’m gonna make that stop.’

That’s where I see the paint-peeling grey two-story farmhouse up the steps across the gravel road from a creek (“crick”). I see a rusty iron one-lane bridge. I see myself telling my cousin Mike that touching the fence around the pigpen made my toes tingle.

That’s where Linda, Stan, and I each had our own set of cousins to play with, and where Aunt Emmie made everybody laugh except Howard, her husband.

Dad, three brothers, and one brother-in-law had been in the service during the War.  Burnell was out of touch for two years in the South Pacific and they worried he was dead.

But, Burnell and everybody else made it home by 1946 to the little farm west of Somerset.

Twelve years later, in 1958, the government told residents that Somerset was part of a five-square mile area that would be flooded in the Upper River Flood Control Project of the Corps of Engineers. An order to move was so unsettling that some people got sick.  Some of the older people couldn’t even talk about it.

Grandma Shroyer died in 1958. At the funeral home in Converse, her son Wendell lifted me up to have a look.

By 1964 Somerset was gone. Dad took the mower, the electric fence was mute, and Red Bridge was yanked off its supports. From town, they dragged some houses up to State Road 13 and put up a sign that first said, “New Somerset,” and later simply “Somerset.”

Dad said, “Thank you” at Christmas when Morse gave his siblings each a section of a blackboard salvaged from the high school, fashioned into a message board.  But, Dad never used it.

Grandma’s body was moved to the Pleasant Grove section, of the new Mississenewa Memorial Cemetery along “13, ” one of hundreds of bodies that had to be moved from seven graveyards, graveyards that were to be flooded. The dam at Peoria was closed, the water rose, and the Mississenewa Reservoir was born in 1966.

"Pop,” everybody called my grandfather “Pop,” Pop moved into a little trailer in Windfall, in Mary and Bud’s back yard. Pop rode the Greyhound Bus alone to spend long spells with relatives at his boyhood home in Miami County, Kansas and he took one-week intervals in the homes of his sons and daughters.  There’s a faded square Kodak color print of the last time I saw him, at Pete and Lenore’s, sitting on the davenport with Dad. It says “Jan 74” on the side.

I’ve poked around down there from time to time over the years, looking for the place where a kid learns not to stick his hand in a lawn mower. I’m looking for cousins….aunts and uncles, Pop and Grandma Shroyer.

I’m looking for Mom and Dad…. laughing.

Just once, God, let me slip through a crack in the universe. If I could find that house I’m thinking that the people I remember would be there, too. I go by the “no trespassing” sign where old State Road 513 bends west, walking north down the hill on a road that fades into tracks and then, like the past, disappears into the water.

For Michiana Chronicles, I'm Sid Shroyer.