A Small and Mighty Force: The Town of Staunton

William Shakespeare wrote, “Though she be but little she is fierce.” While the famous author was not writing about the town of Staunton, it may be the perfect description of the Clay County town.

Staunton is a town in Posey Township with a population of 472, according to the 2020 census. The township has approximately 73 businesses, an impressive figure given the small community population. It also boasts educational accolades and a volunteer fire department that serves a critical need for Clay County.

Coal Mining and Railroad Beginnings

Staunton was started in 1851 as a railroad town. It was originally named Highland because it was the highest point on the railroad line between Terre Haute and Brazil. Yet like many early towns, the name had to be changed because there was already a town named Highland.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Staunton became one of the first coal mining towns, with the first load of coal from Clay County coming from Staunton. In the 1930s, draglines excavated the coal, which was left in piles on the sides of the roads that later became rough hills. In the 1960s, Staunton participated in a government program to plant trees over the former coal piles. As a result, pine trees now cover those rough hills and border the roads.

Just off N Cory Staunton Road is the Chinook Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA), which is 2,141 acres of surface mine land that’s free to public access. The Chinook FWA includes 200 acres of water and lakes, and is home to hunting, fishing, mushroom hunting, walking, hiking, and kayaking and is a place where residents can enjoy nature at no cost.

A Force in Education

Staunton has extremely impressive public schools that are pillars of academic excellence, both regionally and statewide. Staunton Elementary School is home to 290 students. While it may be one of the smaller elementary schools in the region, it’s ranked 67 of 1,200 elementary schools in Indiana. In 2018, Staunton Elementary was named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. Only seven schools in Indiana received that distinction. North Clay Middle school has 750 students and is a purple-star designated school, which means their support for service members and veterans has been highlighted by the state of Indiana.

The high schools of Brazil, Staunton, and Van Buren combined to create Northview High School in 1984, which is located just outside of the Staunton area. Roughly 1,200 students attend Northview High School and their extra-curricular and sports programs continually win awards and receive notoriety. Northview’s marching band is one of the best in the state. It was awarded the state championship nine times, placed runner-up seven times, and finished in the top five of the last 33 of 35 state finals competitions. Its winter guard is a two-time state champion, and the indoor percussion program also won a state championship.

Northview’s sports programs have also achieved impressive feats. The baseball team won the state championship in 2016 and volleyball was the runner-up in 2018. The boys’ and girls’ cross country running teams qualified for the state championships the last two years.

A Force in Community Service

The Posey Township is bordered by Highways 42, 40, 340 and Interstate 70, which keeps the Posey Township Clay County Volunteer Fire Department quite busy. This volunteer fire department has five firetrucks in a somewhat newly constructed, LEED-certified firehouse. In 2009, the department received a grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the largest grant for firehouses in Indiana —to rebuild the firehouse. The station was designed to be energy efficient with solar pans on the souse side of the building that generates about $30 of energy costs per month. Construction was completed in December 2012.

The Posey Township Clay County Volunteer Fire Department made 425 firehouse runs in 2021 and their numbers are on track to be higher in 2022. Team members respond to accident calls on I-70 or Highway 59, which auto accidents making up approximately ten percent of the firehouse runs. More than 70 percent are medical emergencies. Anytime an ambulance is dispatched, the Posey Township Clay County Volunteer Fire Department is dispatched. Medical calls consist of many breathing issues and falls, often with more elderly residents.

Larry Tempel is a Staunton community member and serves as assistant fire chief. He admits that finding volunteers for the fire department is a difficult task, especially for the short-staffed daytime shifts.

“Many times during the day, I may be the only one on call and I work at home in my basement,” said Tempel, who works for Ceres Solutions Cooperative.

Finding prospective service members and volunteer firefighters, and grooming youth to take over those roles, is a goal of the Indiana Sheriffs’ Youth Ranch, located on N State Road 59 in Staunton. Hundreds of sheriffs and deputies from rural and suburban counties will use the ranch to mentor future law enforcement officers, bond with at-risk kids and help young witnesses and victims of crime.

The serene 62-acre property will host the Indiana Sherriff and Police Explorer Academy and its companion Fire and EMS Explorer Academy. The curriculum will mirror training given to first responders by local and state agencies, including cyber security, substance abuse, drone use, financial fraud, firearm safety and other topics. In addition to the public safety training, cadets learn team building through horseback riding, swimming, hiking and more. There is also a canine agility area on property that was designed by, fundraised for, and built by a local Eagle Scout troop.

The property was purchased in 2019 and has been in the process of renovation for the last several years. Community members and organizations have given philanthropic support for construction of the youth cabins, kitchen rebuild and more.

Longtime Clay County physician Dr. Everett Conrad sponsored the Conrad Youth Cabin in memory of his wife and as a tribute to his family and dedication to the community. The United AutoWorkers 933 Local wanted to give back to the community and present a different site of organized labor. Their members were instrumental in the kitchen reconstruction. Indianapolis resident Phillip Ping, owner of Ping’s Tree Service and Ping Properties LLC, donated $32,000 for the kitchen renovation. The kitchen is named Stephanie’s Kitchen, in honor of Ping’s wife who passed away from cancer.

When the Indiana Sheriffs’ Youth Ranch is fully built, it will reach 100 kids each week. Until it’s ready, the facility has been used for Clay County community youth events, including serving 150 kids for a breakfast with Santa. The facility also hosted a pumpkin painting event and partnered with First Christian Church in Brazil for an Easter egg hunt that included 20,000 stuffed eggs.

Scott Miner is the executive director of the Indiana Sheriffs’ Youth Ranch. He is passionate about the facility and putting together an academy that will give kids something to look forward to, especially youth who are at-risk.

“We hope these programs will help kids go back into their communities wearing their student leader shirts and help with events like National Night Out Against Crime or help at the county fair or maybe eventually become a dispatcher or correction’s officer,” said Miner. “We want them to be riding in the front seat of the sheriff’s car instead of the back seat.”

Miner also sees how important this type of training and facility is for building a pipeline for volunteer fire departments, like that of the Posey Township Clay County Volunteer Fire Department.

“These young kids want to be in public service and be heroes,” he said. “Yet from the innocence of elementary school to middle to high school, we lose them. We compete with trades, military, and four-year colleges. They’re not coming home to be sheriff’s deputies in Clay County anymore. This program and facility can help change that.”

Beyond the firehouse and public safety lies another type of community service in Staunton that’s centered around a group of women and the Staunton Community Center. The Center was opened in 2010, the same time a group of women got together and called themselves the “Lady Volunteers” and provided coffee and donuts at the newly built center. The “Lady Volunteers” evolved into organizing monthly fundraiser dinners for the community. What started as dinners for less than 50 people now serve 150 to 215 people at each sitting. Dinners are attended not just by Clay County community members, but also folks from neighboring Vigo and Parke Counties.

The “Lady Volunteers” are known for their chicken and noodles and homemade rolls. They also receive dessert donations from residents. Dinners typically take place the last Friday of the month, from January through October. The “Lady Volunteers” and their dinners have touched numerous community organizations with funds raised by the dinners going towards Staunton Elementary School, Staunton Community Assistance, Staunton Community Center Projects, local school backpack programs, Methodist Church Food Pantry, Clay County Humane Society, Posey Township Fire Department, and various other projects.

Whether it’s a robust business community, top-ranked public schools, its volunteer fire department, or its committed “Lady Volunteers,” Staunton’s community is a force. Its rich history as a coal mining town has made it what it is today, which is signified through serene surrounding of pine tree and a sprawling fish and wildlife preserve. While the town has changed significantly since its beginnings, Staunton is investing in its youth, and by doing so, ensuring its future.

To learn more about the Clay County Community Builders Institute, please contact Jonathan Eilbracht, Clay County Community Engagement Officer, at jonathan@wvcf.org.

Article written by Leah Singer, a freelance writer who lives in the Wabash Valley.