I can’t help but think that something should be said. A few kind words passed along, a line or two written in memoriam of a good and once-pleasant place, now rather unceremoniously dumped.
For all intents and purposes, Fort Shawnee died Saturday morning. The moment passed with little notice. A few stories in the local news, some chatter at the nearby bars, but all-in-all, not much attention paid to an event that alters the history of our county in rather remarkable ways.
To quote my favorite line from “Death of a Salesman,” attention must be paid.
To outsiders, the dissolution of a village best known for speed traps and bad bookkeeping may not seem much of a loss. Truth be told, a majority of the roughly 4,000 folks who are now former Fort residents likely feel the same. Ask any random resident of the area that includes Fort Shawnee and Shawnee Township where they live, they’ll probably just say Shawnee. The school is the core of the community, as it should be. Aside from some of the older residents and a few council members, most people don’t identify themselves with the village in the way someone who lives in Delphos or Bluffton might.
That is likely the best way to explain why a majority of the voters in the village elected to dissolve the municipality. There are other reasons as well. Financial troubles left voters with a sense that leadership was in over their heads. Cuts to services such as street lights and annual trash removal left them wondering what exactly they were paying for. And a police force famous for speed traps and questionable stops reminded them that some of the things they were funding, they didn’t want.
But ultimately, it was the absence of community, a failure to make people feel they were part of something special, that led to the village’s demise. The same lack of identity that left some residents uncertain about what part of Shawnee they lived in, made it easy for them to vote against maintaining the Fort. If you doubt that, try to imagine people in Bluffton or New Bremen doing the same.
The sad part is, it wasn’t always that way. I grew up in Fort Shawnee, just a few blocks from the village hall. My dad was the village police chief. His office was the back porch of a councilwoman’s home. His job, maintaining order in a decidedly orderly place.
Back then, everyone called it “The Village” and it felt like a community all to itself. As a boy, I’d ride my bike down Breese Road to the Elmview Hardware or Reaman’s Pharmacy. We had three or four gas stations, an ice cream store, the Harris IGA and a couple of good restaurants. Add in the roller rink, the Dixie Drive-In theater, the Bargain Center and our own newspaper and you had pretty much everything you needed within minutes of home.
More importantly, there were things that brought us together as a community. During the nation’s bicentennial celebration, I stood with my dad on a makeshift stage in front of Helen Jean’s Hallmark store, dressed in colonial garb and re-enacting some historic scene I can no longer recall. As a teen, I wore my first and only clown suit to entertain children at the annual Fort Shawnee Christmas festival. We had Lions Club barbecues and Optimist Pancake days and any number of reasons to get together. These are the things that remind people they live in a community. They might seem like icing, but they are actually glue.
I can’t tell you when or why all that went away, but it did. The roller rink and drive-in closed, along with the hardware and the IGA and the Hallmark store. The Lions Club folded when it couldn’t replace its aging membership. As older residents died or, worse yet, moved to Florida, they were replaced with a generation that didn’t really seem to care about festivals or anniversary celebrations or any of the trappings of community. People tried to bring it back. They held farmers markets and parades, but by then, it was too late. We all sort of felt it, we just didn’t know until Election Day, when those thoughts became a truth.
And so here we are, after more than 50 years, the village all but a memory. There are still some administrative tasks to manage, a few months of final steps, and then, nothing.
Most people think it’s for the best and they’re probably right. Still, it feels as though something more should be said, because if it could happen in Fort Shawnee, it can happen almost anywhere.
And for that reason, if none other, attention must be paid.