A Small Town with Big Pride: Clay City, Indiana

Clay City, Indiana was established in 1873 as a railroad town. Like many other rural south Central Indiana towns, its origins revolved around the two predominant commodities: coal and rail. After going through several different name iterations, the community settled on Clay City because of the abundance of clay in the region. One of its first businesses, Clay City Brick and Clay Company, was founded in 1895 and by 1902, it was producing 20,000 bricks per day. Before World War I, Clay County had a renowned baseball team, a literary society, college graduates, and inventors, and it was considered so progressive it was often referred to as the “Athens of the Wabash Valley.”

By most estimations, Clay City is a small town, with a population of 880 people, according to the 2020 Census. Yet even with what’s considered a small population, the Harrison Township community is thriving. This is especially clear in its business sector with more than 100 local businesses. Residents are proud of their community, of the contributions their businesses make to the local economy and the quality of life they enjoy.

A Farm Connection

Alan and Mary Yegerlehner, along with their daughter, Kate, own and operate Farm Connection in Clay City. Farm Connection produces 100 percent grass-fed beef and dairy products, as well as pasteurized pork and eggs. They raise their cattle without hormones, antibiotics or pesticides.

While Farm Connection started as a dairy farm in 1950 by Alan’s parents, the property itself has been in the family since 1860 when David and Magdalena Jegerlehner (Swiss spelling) and their children bought the 104 acres and settled in Clay City, not long after the family immigrated from Switzerland to America. Kate is the seventh generation to manage the farm.

Farm Connection has always made quality its focus above anything else, including high production. They calved approximately 60 cows in the spring of 2022 and during peak season, produced 60-70 gallons of milk per day. They process the milk and sell it by the bottle, as well as butter and cheese. Their butter is a popular item, sold nationwide because it’s difficult to find grass-fed butter. Farm Connection is also known for its several varieties of ice cream, which is made in house with a Prairie Farms mix. Dairy products are sold through the farm store and online. Farm Connection makes four deliveries every two weeks to Indianapolis, Bloomington, Terre Haute, and Palestine, Illinois. Customers order online and stop at various pick-up spots for customers to receive their items.

The Strength of Local Business

“We believe strongly that the customer is the most important thing,” said Lance Hofmann, who owns Clay City Napa Farm and Home with his wife, Christa. “If you go to a large chain store, you don’t matter to the people there. But here, you are important. Your business is very important to us.”

From gas stations to banks and restaurants, Clay City is home to more than 100 businesses that are owned or managed by local residents. The community’s downtown Main Street is the business district, where you can find the Rein Center Library, Third Generation Bar and Grill, Clay City Pharmacy, Glory Days Restaurant and Pub, Mayberry Malt Shoppe, and many more. What they all have in common is unique services and a commitment to the customer.

“These establishments are not cookie cutter,” said Lance. “You can’t go anywhere else and get the same products or service as you can here.” In December, the businesses come together to host Hometown Holidays, which draws hundreds of area residents and out-of-town visitors to Clay City. The highlight is the Chocolate Walk fundraiser in which purchase a ticket that entitles the visitor to receive a piece of chocolate from all participating businesses. This event not only raises money for the community, but also brings customers into the storefronts.

Clay City Pottery has been a mainstay business for more than 100 years. Established in 1885, it’s one of the few family-owned pottery businesses in the country that still makes traditional stoneware. Justin Lewicki is the sixth-generation owner of Clay City Pottery.

The original Clay City pottery property was in Illinois. It was moved to its current site in Clay City because of the higher quality and quantity of clay. The original buildings are still standing, including the log cabin that is now located within the property, and the kilns.

With the help of his mother, sister and a few part-time employees, Lewicki continues to produce original pottery that’s sold in their storefront and online. They make predominately kitchen pottery and dishes and still use the original, lead-free glaze recipe that’s been in existence for more than 100 years. Clay City Pottery stoneware is sold and shipped worldwide, including to Australia, Great Britain, Germany and other countries. They also sell several pieces at the annual Pottery Festival in June.

Building a Quality of Place

One of Clay City’s most popular destinations and family-friendly areas is Goshorn Park. This community gathering place has playground equipment for children and basketball courts that are a popular feature. The annual Clay City Fair takes place at Goshorn Park every summer and brings together 4H participation. There is a parade that begins at the park and travels downtown every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. during the fair.

Adjacent to Goshorn Park is the new Wilma & Liston Buell Community Center. This community building was envisioned as a place where community members can gather, host events, offer after school care programs, and provide a food pantry.

The building was in the planning stages for ten years when the son of Wilma and Liston Buell, who grew up in Clay City, donated the funds to begin construction. The Wabash Valley Community Foundation also contributed $75,000 toward the building, along with many other private local donors. The Wilma & Liston Buell Community Center is expected to fully open its doors in early 2023 and will be a tremendous community asset to Clay City and its residents.

Clay City’s community pride shines through every aspect of its community. When Clay City Junior/Senior High School athletic teams travel to away games, it’s not unusual to see more people from Clay City attending the sporting events than the competing home school. From the dairy farm to pottery and stoneware production — and all the storefronts on Main Street — the businesses and customers matter greatly to each other. Owners take pride in their work while customers, in turn, are giving back to the community they live. Clay City residents are committed to improving their quality of place and continuing the tradition of keeping Clay City a small town with great pride.

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.