Famous son: Revered World War II newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle was born in Dana, Ind., 121 years ago this month. His hometown celebrated its annual Ernie Pyle Fireman’s Festival on Aug. 13 and 14. His birthplace, now the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum, greets visitors on the south side of town. Staff photo by Mark Bennett
Famous son: Revered World War II newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle was born in Dana, Ind., 121 years ago this month. His hometown celebrated its annual Ernie Pyle Fireman’s Festival on Aug. 13 and 14. His birthplace, now the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum, greets visitors on the south side of town. Staff photo by Mark Bennett
With the return of the annual Ernie Pyle Fireman’s Festival just hours away, Janice Craft busily helped her fellow Dana Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary members prepare.

Her husband, Fred, stirred a steaming cauldron of green beans and bacon behind the firehouse on North Maple Street under the morning sunshine. Those 30 pounds of beans and pork were to complement the auxiliary’s noodles as main dishes for festivalgoers that night, Friday, Aug. 13. He’d make 40 pounds more to go alongside fried fish for Saturday, the festival’s final day.

“Been doing this for 40 years,” Fred said, swirling a paddle through the beans.

The festival — named for the town’s most famous son, the late World War II newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle — means much to Crafts, just as it does to the entire town.

Three years ago, Janice suffered a heart attack on the Thursday before the 2018 festival. Two days later, she and Fred joined in the festivities in progress. “Me and him were out there dancing,” recalled a smiling Janice, now 72.

The 2021 festival proved special for two reasons.

The coronavirus pandemic prompted the town to cancel the 2020 festival, so its return was much anticipated. “Oh, it was sad,” Janice said of the cancellation.

“It was heartbreaking for this community,” said Mandy Carter, a fellow auxiliary member, who was decorating shop windows along North Maple with Ashley Doan. “You block the street off and have the cakewalk right in the middle of it. Where else can you find that.” Indeed, a huge wheel of numbers was painted in white over the pavement, awaiting the cherished tradition.

Secondly, the town of 555 residents is experiencing some momentum, after years of vacant buildings, shop closings and declining population.

In April, Dana received a $438,925 Community Crossings Matching Grant through the Indiana Department of Transportation and Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Next Level Roads Program. Towns must apply for funds in the Community Crossings initiative, which has routed $931 million for local construction projects. Dana got one. Now, all of the town’s northsouth streets are being resurfaced. Two years ago, Dana got a similar grant and paved its east-west streets.

“So this was our goal,” said town clerk-treasurer Sara Benskin of fully repaved roadways. “I don’t know if that’s ever happened before [in a such a short timespan].”

Last December, Dana was awarded a $700,000 grant for water infrastructure through the U.S. Department of House and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant program, which is administered in Indiana by the state Office of Community and Rural Affairs. As a result, the town is getting a new water tower, as well as upgraded water lines and a water meter system. The existing water tower dates back to the 1920s, Benskin said.

“So we definitely were ready for a new one. [The old one] was beyond repair,” she said. Dana also received two grants in a six-month span from the Vermillion County Community Foundation aimed at attracting and retaining residents. The first, awarded in December, provides $10,000 for an extensive engineering feasibility study to determine whether its Town Garage and an adjacent building can be renovated into a town community center, or whether a new building is necessary. It’s the second phase of the fivephase quest for a multi-purpose Dana Community Center that can serve a variety of groups, from kids to seniors.

It could take three to five years to complete, Benskin said. Dana received a $20,000 grant in June, also through the foundation’s “Better When We Gather – Creative Placemaking Grantmaking Initiative.” It’s funding a new parking lot and resurfaced infield for the town’s ball diamond. Benskin said new scoreboard and safety bases could follow.

Efforts and resources to enhance the town inspire J.

Dana Trent, who spent childhood years and summers in the town. Trent now lives in Raleigh, N.C. The Duke University Divinity School grad is a professor of world religions and critical thinking at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, as well as an ordained Baptist minister.

Trent returned to her Dana for this year’s return of the Ernie Pyle festival.

And, yes, her parents gave her that middle name in honor of her father’s hometown, Dana. Trent called the $30,000 in Vermillion County Community Foundation grants “a huge boost to Dana’s vision for providing high-impact services to its residents, and the county as a whole. This is a game-changer for Dana, truly history in the making.”

As she walked through the downtown, hours before the festivities began, she was greeted by several

longtime residents who knew Trent as a child and her parents and grandparents. Trent’s grandfather operated the local grocery store for 27 years. Her grandmother served as a public health nurse. Inside the Off The Tracks café, she saw the familiar faces of Lew and Charla Perry ordering breakfast. The retired couple has lived in the same Dana residence for the past 52 years. Lew spent four years in the U.S. Air Force and 42 years working at Hercules/AET in Terre Haute, as well as serving seven years on the Dana Town Board. Charla served in several jobs with schools, from the classroom to the library, a bank, and an accounting office, and was a school board member. The couple now does volunteer work.

Both believe employment opportunities are crucial for Dana to grow. “Our whole community needs good jobs and infrastructure and streets and roads, like everywhere,” Charla said. The new water tower “is a good thing,” she added. Likewise, the local boosters club “makes Dana a better place to live.”

Outside, where volunteers and vendors set up for the festival, 42-year-old Mandy Carter and 33-year-old Ashley Doan — the auxiliary’s window decorators — extolled the tight-knit feel of Dana.

“It’s a small-town feel,” Doan said. “Everyone knows everyone. Everyone looks out for everybody’s kid.” The women believe the town would be helped by new shops, such as an ice cream parlor or a grocery store (which the town has lacked since a fire destroyed the downtown market 15 years ago). A Dollar General in nearby Montezuma carries some produce, Carter pointed out. “Wouldn’t that be great here?” she said. Their ages represent a target group for new residents. Dana’s population hovered around 800 residents through most of the 20th century, until dipping to 612 in the 1990 census. The newly released 2020 census recorded 555 residents in the town. Its peak came with 893 residents in 1900, the year Ernie Pyle was born.

The heroic journalist’s birthplace home was saved from demolition in the 1970s by the nonprofit

Friends of Ernie Pyle and moved from the countryside to the south edge of town, where it now greets visitors driving into downtown. It’s now the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum and has been overseen by the Friends of Ernie Pyle since 2010, following state cutbacks that ended its operation by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s nice to have the museum and [historical] things right there,” Benskin said.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted and complicated some projects, Benskin sees a brighter future for Dana. She’s also the mom of a three-year-old who attends a Christian school across the street from the Town Hall, where she works. She’s lived near Dana for all of her 35 years.

“I’m optimistic. We’re constantly making improvements,” Benskin said. “The Town Board has been very supportive, and the people — all the way from other states — are trying to help.”
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