SHIRLEY — In 1876, some coal miners in Eaton, Ind., punched into what came to be known as the Trenton Field, the largest natural gas find of its time. Forty miles to the south, the town of Shirley was poised to run with the gas fever.
The field ran under 17 counties and covered more 5,000 square miles, according to the American Oil and Gas Historical Society. The cheap fuel spawned factories, foundries, railroads and jobs, with Shirley landing its share.
By 1903, the town’s population grew to between 1,500 and 1,700, according to Hancock County historian George Richman in “History of Hancock County, Indiana: Its People, Industries and Institutions.”
When the Trenton Field stopped producing in 1910, industrialists turned to coal. And Shirley residents eventually were happy to commute to automotive factories in Anderson and New Castle, said Andy Ebbert, chairman of the Shirley Visionary Group, which has for a little over a year been trying to bring the town back from an economic recession that took away the auto plants, factories and half the town’s population from its gas-era heyday.
“I’m pleased with the progress in the little over a year that’s been going on,” Ebbert said.
The visionary group has taken the point in the movement to revitalize the town.
“There have been several efforts with this initiative in mind,” Ebbert said. “The historical society, the Octagon House, the fire department have all been doing these things, but this is the first time we’ve had all that in one group.”
The group spearheaded the rebirth and birth of several town festivals and events in 2013 – bringing the Strawberry Festival back after a 15-year absence and starting a Christmas Walk downtown – but last week, the visionaries upped the ante when they met with the Indiana office of Community and Rural Affairs as a first step toward becoming a member of Indiana Main Street, a program that provides technical, educational and financial assistance to the state’s rural towns and communities.
“How often are we now seeing these small communities fight for their futures and reinvest in themselves?” said Susie Ripley, OCRA east central Indiana community liaison.
The sprawl and expansion of the 1970s drove stakes in the collective hearts of many small communities and downtowns. Big box stores and interstate bypasses left downtown merchants to wither and die.
“Downtowns had to get smarter, and they had to change to get people back,” Ripley said.
But now there’s a fair amount of change rippling the waters in Shirley.
The town has gone virtual with a new website, www.townofshirley.com; it’s joining with social media on Facebook and Twitter and putting cash behind a campaign to raise awareness.
“We’re spending money now on marketing to get people to pay attention to us,” said visionary group vice chair and resident Jason Scofield, who designed the website and acts as one the group’s graphic artists. “We want to make people want to come here.”
Scofield, 27, is part of the new blood in town who recently moved from Anderson to Shirley for the small-town feel, security and the sense of community he finds there.
“If you look at this town, there’s a lot of potential,” he said. Preserving Shirley’s historical buildings and re-inventing its local, “home-built businesses” will be critical to drawing further investment.
Revitalizing the downtown through facade grants that might be available through the Main Street program is atop the town’s list in order to bring more shops and merchants with money to invest.
Dennis and Linda Westridge own one of Shirley’s last longtime businesses, and they’ve been hanging on for 20 years.
“We just didn’t want all the businesses in town to go away,” said Linda, who has spent virtually her entire life in Shirley.
When the grocery store left and then the drug store closed without warning, the Westridges decided to jump at the for-sale sign in the hardware store window, if for nothing else just to keep it going.
“We thought if we didn’t make it, we didn’t make it,” she said.
Though it’s been tough to remind people to buy local and shop local, Westridge says she’s excited about the future.
“We’re centrally located between Anderson, New Castle and Greenfield, and we’re not too far from Indianapolis,” she said. “I do get excited.”
Community leaders say they are eager to get their Main Street paperwork filed with the state by early spring to move forward.
In addition to revitalizing and drawing new business investment to town, a nagging problem of non-resident homeowners has to be overcome to stabilize the community and the real estate base.
“Right now, we have a lot of cheap houses that aren’t selling, and we’ve got to find a reason for that,” Ebbert said.
Whitney Thompkins married into the town in 2007, and she said the move to the Hancock-Henry county line was a revelation of sorts.
“I thought I came from what I thought was a small town, but now I know it wasn’t,” she said.
Still, she thinks the town is an ideal place to raise a family, and she’s excited about where the community is heading.
“We have our ideas formulated, and now we’re working to achieve the result,” Thompkins said.
While there might be many tangible hurdles the town faces on its road back to the days of the Trenton Field, the real challenge will be to keep its residents – visionaries and rank and file – moving toward a common goal.
“The biggest obstacle I can see is having us tear ourselves apart,” Ebbert said. “This is not a competition; it’s a struggle for a whole community.”