20 Route 6, Eastham: The Crossroads of America

From Indy, I followed the rails about an hour's drive west.

I didn't have high hopes for my visit to Terre Haute. Comedian Steve Martin called it "the most nowhere place in America."
Mr. Martin, who owns two Edward Hopper paintings, might be surprised to know that Terre Haute's Swope Art Museum is home to Hopper's Route 6, Eastham. But then, the town surprised me at every turn, maybe partly because my first dealing with someone from there was a museum employee e-mailing back about where I might interview residents who knew the painting, "Most people in Terre Haute have never been to the Swope. It's really out-of-towners like you who know about our collection."

I arrived at dusk on a Saturday night and headed for the one local brewpub, hoping to find some people to interview, even if they didn't know anything about art. To bypass a long wait, I accepted a seat in the smoking section. In the booth across from mine sat a wiry young man with a goatee, smoking a cigarette and wearing a loose-fitting yellow button-down shirt. He nodded in greeting as if we had met before. His tanned female companion flashed a flirtatious smile beneath dark eyes. I covered my confusion and aloneness by digging into my Caesar salad.

When the man left the table, the woman leaned over and asked with a foreign accent, "Can I ask what you are doing in this town?"

When I explained why I was there, she said, "My husband is an art curator."

I wondered, "At the Swope?" Nope. He returned and explained that he worked at a local college, the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He introduced himself as Matt and his wife as Alexandra. She excitedly told him I had come to see the "Edward Hooper" at the Swope. He ignored her mistake.

"Are you from here?" I asked him.

"Born and raised. I left though and came back. I can tell you all about this town." He sidled forward and drew hard on his cigarette, obviously eager to share his views.

"Route 40 through town was the National Road, and Route 41 followed the Wabash River, so Terre Haute became known as the 'Crossroads of America.' Eugene V. Debs was born here and began the American Socialist Party here. Because of that, Terre Haute has a larger liberal contingent than its neighbor cities. In the 1920s, it became known for prostitution and gambling. Mob guys from Chicago would vacation here. Vice was the major local industry. Then in the sixties, some local ladies decided to sweep the city clean. Since the 1970s, it has been less plagued by vice, but also less patronized by business. Now?" he concluded with another long drag on his cigarette, "Terre Haute isn't so much isolated as forgotten."

"You're obviously not from here," I said to his wife.

She again looked down and batted her eyelids. "No. I am from Colombia."

Matt interjected, "We met in California: one of my times away. When we wanted to start a family, we came back here. Grandma's baby-sitting right now."

Matt tsked when I asked about the art scene in town. "The town's most famous painter was a realist watercolorist named D. Omer Seamon. He chose as his nickname, of all things, 'Salty'.
Salty Seamon's wife was the only previous curator at Rose-Hulman, so I'm mostly in charge of where to hang the huge selection of Seamon watercolors the college owns."

Alexandra nudged Matt, and he said sheepishly, "We have to go back to put the baby to bed. Grandma's about at her limit."

I drove back to my motel and retired, marveling that the first resident I interviewed was in the arts and wondering what surprises I would find sightseeing the next day.

No comments: