Coming back better
That's just the way Roanoke is
Roanoke, 16 miles west of Fort Wayne, can claim the nickname its larger neighbor trumpets – ”the town that saved itself” – though today it will take a practiced eye to see from what.
Aheavily sodden storm stalled over Roanoke last July 13, causing a flash flood that inundated the historic downtown, filling basements and first-floor showrooms with muddy water. It happened in moments, but the cleanup took months. Town Council President Dave Tucker noted Roanoke residents pulled together not only to clean up, but to renew.
“What I’ve always noticed over the years is anytime we have anything like that, a flood, a natural disaster, a death or something like that, the community comes out and supports almost immediately,” Tucker said. “With the flooding we had people out helping before the storm was even done. That’s just the way Roanoke is.”
Neighbors helped neighbors pull out flood-damaged furniture, muddy carpets and ruined drywall. They helped sand warped floors, toss out destroyed belongings and repaint walls. Since the flood, the town council has been discussing ways to make sure the McFerren Ditch and Cow Creek, which wind through downtown, don’t overflow again the way they did in the middle of that July night.
“The town is built at the base of two hills and two creeks,” Tucker said. “We’re in a bowl. … We’d like to make two retention ponds (upstream) on both waterways.”
Compounding the problem is that the town received no state or federal disaster relief money, which means all cleanup and repairs had to come out of Roanoke’s approximately $1 million annual budget.
“We started with the essentials, cleaning out storm drains and fixing pavement,” Tucker said. “We probably won’t have the park (fixed) until May or June.”
But what a park it is. The 25-acre Roanoke town park, which sits just west of downtown along Seminary Street, features hills, a playground and tennis and basketball courts, plus large grassy areas perfect for picnicking. Cow Creek runs through it, and when it overflowed its banks, it brought mud and debris to the park. Tucker said he believes the repairs will be in time for “Rolling into Roanoke,” the classic car show and festival that draws thousands to the park. The show, presented by the Roanoke Beautification Foundation, is set for July 23. This year’s event features the General Motors “Parade of Progress” with a Futurliner Promo bus from 1939 and museum cars from the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum and Kruse museum, both in Auburn. This year also features a collection of Corvettes, with the goal of showing a Corvette from each year it’s been made, plus live bands and a food court. Two-EE’s Winery will be offering its delicious wine slushies downtown.
Festivals are part of what make Roanoke so charming. On May 14, it’s “Springtime in the Village,” a town-wide garage sale and hog roast to benefit the Roanoke Town Library and the Roanoke Volunteer Fire Department. Then there’s the Roanoke Friday Night Street Fairs on the first Friday of the month in June, July and August. The Vintage & Handmade Market June 18 brings artisans and antique and vintage dealers to downtown. On June 30, it’s time for Freedom on Main, a patriotic concert that’s truly stirring. Farmers markets shut down Main Street on Saturdays in July, August and September, and the eagerly-anticipated Taste of Roanoke is Aug. 20 on Main Street. The granddaddy of the town’s festivals will be Sept. 8, the 63rd Roanoke Fall Festival. The Indiana Bicentennial Torch will pass through Roanoke on Sept. 30, and a week later, it’s time for the juried and fine art show “Renaissance in Roanoke.” The kids will get to trick or treat Oct. 29 at the Roanoke Merchants Group shops, and the Holiday Gift Extravaganza Nov. 5-6 offers open houses both days throughout the town. Santa arrives by fire truck at the Roanoke Town Library Dec. 2.
Roanoke’s downtown also offers a host of charming shops and restaurants to explore. The Trove is truly a treasure trove of gift ideas and home accessories, plus the softest bathrobes and wraps you’ve ever felt. Candles, cards and throw rugs, plus jewelry, lotions and notions and blouses and dishes and more make The Trove a place to find the perfect gift (plus something for yourself). The charm doesn’t stop there. La Dolce Vita, which offers cooking demonstrations plus a charming collection of items for the home and kitchen, always offers luxury and elegance. So does Fine Consigns, offering high-end furniture and home furnishings, ceramics, painting and home decor. Other shops offer clothing, ice cream and dining options in and around Main Street.
Speaking of art, there’s plenty to be found at Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, a Roanoke staple for more than 50 years. Offering framing as well as fine art displays, Crestwoods is owned by Ann Shive and her husband Wayne Shive, who founded the Best Boy & Co. line of sauces and rubs. All profits from Best Boy sales are donated to charities that support women and children. (The “Best Boy” of the name is the couple’s spaniel mix, James, who can be found most days lounging around the gallery.)
Roanoke then and now
Once the hunting and fishing grounds of the Miami Indians, Roanoke became a prosperous commercial center in the mid-19th century. The construction of the Wabash & Erie Canal included a lock at Roanoke, which led to the establishment of warehouses, mills, stables and hotels. The village became known as one of the best trading and shipping points on the canal, according to information provided by Discover Roanoke.
The arrival of the railroad brought a close to the canal heyday, but Roanoke continued to prosper. Its Main Street became a commercial and retail center, serving a growing population and the surrounding countryside. With a population of 1,722 in 2010, Roanoke has become something of a bedroom community for Fort Wayne to the east and Huntington to the west.
Roanoke owes a lot of its revitalization to Pete and Alice Eshelman, who chose Roanoke as the home for Pete’s company, American Specialty Insurance, in 1990. Back then, Roanoke was a sleepy village with a dilapidated downtown. The Eshelmans chose Roanoke for its proximity to Fort Wayne International Airport and for its potential. They deliberately chose to open in a town they thought would be helped by having a high-end, world-class business such as American Specialty, which specializes in insurance and risk services for the sports and entertainment industries.
“We started with the local hardware store,” said Alice Eshelman, and turned the second-floor space into executive offices. From there, the couple renovated the downstairs into retail space, then bought up a few more properties in the downtown area. The need for a fine dining location to entertain visiting clients led to the creation of the Joseph Decuis restaurant, perhaps the most visible of the Eshelmans’ efforts. The only restaurant in Northeast Indiana with a four-diamond rating from AAA, Joseph Decuis continues to offer an upscale menu created with ingredients grown or harvested from the Eshelman’s farm, including Wagyu beef bred from the genetics of the famed Kobe beef from Japan. Joseph Decuis spun off a more casual dining spot, the Emporium, next door, which offers that mouth-watering Wagyu beef in hamburgers, along with other lunch options, plus a fully stocked wine store and deli.
American Specialty recently moved its headquarters to Fort Wayne when it outgrew its space in Roanoke, but that didn’t end the Eshelmans’ commitment to the town.
There’s still work to be done, Alice Eshelman said. “We’ve been talking” about getting a drug store and a grocery store back in business and about how to keep the businesses that have opened in recent years thriving. There’s even a zipline at Camp Timber Lake near Roanoke, and a meat market opened recently.
The Roanoke Town Library, which opened in a new, larger location several years ago, was a true community project.
“That was a beautiful community event,” Eshelman said. “The books passed person to person through downtown” from the old building to its new home next door to Crestwoods Gallery.
“This is a wonderful town with a wonderful school with teachers who care. We have a beautiful park, and we’re raising money for new playground equipment,” Eshelman said. “We have buildings to fill again. There’s real estate available. I’d love to see more retail. There’s more room. It’s a nice place.”
First appeared in the May 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.