DILLSBORO, Ind.—It was a happy accident that allowed this small Indiana town to make a big splash.
Developers were certain they were going to strike it rich with oil or gas when they began drilling here in the early 1900s, about 40 miles west of Cincinnati.
That dream never came true. But what the drilling did uncover was a huge mineral water spring that turned the town into a health resort, for decades offering healing mineral baths to well-heeled travelers making their way between Cincinnati and St. Louis.
These days, the town of 1,400 residents is working to make its own luck after the economic ebbs and flows of the past century.
The huge spa, known as the Dillsboro Sanitarium, has been turned into a rehabilitation center and nursing home. U.S. 50, which once ran through the middle of town, now bypasses it. The high school closed in the 1970s. A nearby cold-war military installation was decommissioned years ago.
All of this history will be explored when the Smithsonian-curated exhibit Crossroads: Change in Rural America begins its six-week run at the modern Dillsboro Public Library, a branch of the Aurora Public Library District.
But the exhibit, coming to six Hoosier towns as part of Indiana Humanities’ INseparable initiative, isn’t just about the past.
The display is part of the Museum on Main Street program, a division of the Smithsonian that brings high-quality exhibits and resources to rural communities. The exhibit’s purpose is to allow small towns a chance to explore how they have adapted, identify what makes them uniquely appealing and spark discussions about the future.
Dillsboro librarians already have encouraged the area’s school children to develop a vision for the town by asking them to consider what they would do if they were mayor. Some want to build a skateboard park. Others want a grocery store.
“For a lot of them, the theme was they wanted to do things to make people safe and encourage everyone to be kind to each other,” said Cathy Wilkymacky, the Dillsboro library branch manager. “Nice, reasonable things.”
Visitors will get their own chance to ponder the future of Dillsboro and other small towns by strolling through the exhibit as it traces the national ups and downs of rural America from farming to industrialization to the digital age. It also will feature a locally generated component on Dillsboro itself.
The exhibit will kick off with a grand opening on the evening of Sept. 6 and then officially open for its public run from Sept. 7 to Oct. 20. To add to the attraction, Dillsboro will host its annual Heritage Festival on Sept. 21.
Dillsboro officials already are developing a revitalization plan for the community and local librarians hope the exhibit could spur even more ideas.
Many assets make Dillsboro a likely place for growth, including its strong infrastructure, proximity to Cincinnati for people seeking to escape the big city, the possible development of a new Ohio River port in nearby Lawrenceburg and several town-owned properties that could quickly be converted to combo working-living spaces for merchants and artists.
“A lot of the hope for the exhibit is that people will develop a sense of enthusiasm for what Dillsboro could be and understand that the intention is not to disrupt the current lifestyle but to improve what is available for them,” said library assistant Judy Grady.
“It’s a hope that everybody will come out of their little cocoon and back into the center of the world and improve our corner of it.”