The Ernie Pyle Fireman’s Festival: Jitterbugging, Elephant Ears, and Trophies
One particular weekend each summer I become extremely nostalgic (more than usual) for Dana, Indiana. The rural western Indiana town, population 608, is where I spent my middle and high school summers with my paternal grandparents while my mother, a single-parent nurse, worked (too hard) at her full-time job at our local public health department. Summers away gave my mother a much-needed break and it gave me a sense of the magic that can exist in one extremely small town.
Each year, the town holds the Ernie Pyle Fireman’s Festival, a Thursday-through-Saturday night extravaganza where the otherwise sluggish Main Street meets its best hustle-and-bustle. The grayness of winter has long faded, the corn is bursting with the promise of a healthy harvest, and the townspeople are ready to honor their hometown heroes: firemen and the most famous person to come out of Dana–WWII journalist Ernie Pyle.
Growing up, the Ernie Pyle Festival was the highlight of summer for the Lewman Girls (me and my two cousins Britainy and Erin). From cake walks to celebrity auctions to pet parades to tractor pulls to talent shows and jitterbugging contests, the festival left no one on the sidelines. The downtown street was closed to accommodate fair vendors with their yummy Elephant Ears and deep fried everything. The Brown Family (native to Dana) made their famous kettle corn and my Grandmother’s 49ers social club sold raffle tickets for the quilt they had spent all year crafting. There was a merchandise drawing each night, where prizes from local vendors sat piled on a trailer awaiting their new owners. And, there were trophies, too–trophies for everything! Each year, there were enough trophies given away to boost a child’s self-esteem well into the school year, which, for me, was the real boon of weekend.
Our Grandmother, God love her, made me, Britainy, and Erin attend jitterbug lessons all summer long at the Dana Firehouse in preparation for the Saturday night Jitterbug Contest, sponsored by the 49ers. My Grandmother and her best gal pals blasted the Glenn Miller Band’s songs as 30 confused children of the 1990s tried to learn the historical steps. When we were too old to dance (or somehow talked Grandmother into letting us sit one out), the girls and I dressed up as the Andrews Sisters and provided a stunning rendition of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” for the contest’s intermission entertainment. We have it on tape.
The annual festival gave the small town enough stories and gossip (did you hear those Lewman Girls sing?!) to last all year long. Best yet, my Uncle Jon and Aunt Phyllis would tape the entire weekend, ensuring that they would have enough embarrassing video moments to show our future husbands.
I long to be transported to Dana this weekend–where, in another era, all I cared about was making my WWII veteran grandparents proud with clever jitterbug moves to “In the Mood” and relishing the rare Main Street excitement of this sleepy Midwestern town.
Editor’s note: If I can find some of our outrageously wonderful photos of me, Britainy, and Erin from the festivals, I will post them!
Photo credit: http://www.hoosierhistorylive.info/archives.html