ROLLING PRAIRIE, Ind. – Two years ago, Chicago-area transplant Rick Erwin, a documentary filmmaker and visual journalist, was in the Rolling Prairie post office as he was occasionally wont to do, witnessing something he didn’t usually see in that small town.
A large group of old cars parked in front of the Rolling Prairie Community Center on a Tuesday afternoon.
“And I went inside the community center and there was a sea of elders, 35 or 40 of them,” Erwin told The LaPorte County Herald-Argus. “A sea of elders all sitting around having a good time. And I saw a copy of this sitting on a table.”
He held up a document titled “Historical Rolling Prairie,” with a forward by Don Grimm, and said the content of the book opened up a whole new world for him, a bygone world where Rolling Prairie was a significant hub for motorists traveling between Chicago and New York, a world full of motels and restaurants and commerce, a world he wanted to capture for everyone to see.
“So I started thinking, `I need to pass through here with my camera,”’ he said. “So that’s what I did.”
And he made it the subject of his first documentary on a small town, “Going Rolling,” and will present it to the community during a free screening at 1 p.m. Sunday at the First Christian Church of Rolling Prairie.
Roughly an hour long, the documentary encompasses the history of Rolling Prairie from its start in 1832 through its emergence into the present day, with first-hand accounts supplied by local residents.
Erwin noted that between 1920 and 1940, when U.S. 20 passed through town, Rolling Prairie was a bustling community with three grocery stores, eight to 13 gas stations, a motel, bed and breakfast joints, two hardware stores, at least two doctor offices, an appliance store and a pool hall, among other offerings to motorists passing through.
And he heard a number of stories about it from residents.
For instance, there’s the story of a motel owner who kept getting burglarized at night, so he stationed his dad inside the entrance of his business with a shotgun. Then one morning he found his father asleep, curled up with his gun and the money missing again.
Then there’s the recollection of the Rolling Prairie Grade School fire, when the building burned to the ground; and later of the train derailment when some 70 or 80 cars fell off the track and started a fire.
So many firefighters were reportedly called down that residents had to start opening their doors and bringing out food so there would be enough for them to eat.
nd Erwin spoke to Dave Surma, who once had one of the largest Christmas light displays in Northwest Indiana. Its tally was 80,000 lights.
But what really interested Erwin was a practice that took place between 1935 to about 1950 at the end of Depot Street. It was a free weekly movie sponsored by local business owners. The owners got together, hung a white sheet on a set of poles, and showed the films to the community in order to encourage residents to stay out late.
He noted the event was so popular that some residents would park their cars close to the poles in the morning, go to work, then come back afterward with their families so they’d have a good seat. He said the practice was most likely ended because of the increasing popularity of television.
But getting these stories together was another matter.
Because he was an outsider, Erwin said he had to find someone who was a Rolling Prairie native, someone who was trusted by the community and knew people in town, and could convince them to talk in front of the camera. Erwin needed this before he could start making the film.
So he found residents Gail and Russ Cavinder, who contacted knowledgeable people to come out to the shoot.
He arranged a set up in Rolling Prairie Community Center with lights and cameras and started inviting them in, with help from local filmmaker Tina Young, who he said conducted a majority of the interviews while he operated the equipment, and Annette Clark, who became his production assistant for the project.
But there was a problem. He was having difficulty finding enough old photos for the film, and people kept telling him about a large cache of pictures somewhere that someone had. After a long search, he finally found that someone – Irv Schroeder. Erwin said he had to meet several conditions before Schroeder let him borrow the pictures. He had to collect the photos and memorabilia on a Saturday morning at 6, transport them in an American-made car, and then bring them back the way he found them.
Erwin was unable to find an American car in time so he had to collect the photos and memorabilia by hand and walk them over to the community center two blocks away, despite the beginnings of a rain storm.
Now 55, Erwin said he has been making documentaries professionally since he was 19, having sold his first film to the PBS show “Image Union” on WTTW in Chicago.
Since then he has worked on the PBS show “My Sister’s Keeper,” about a nun, and made several of his own films including “Risking Change,” about people’s inability to make changes in their lives, “Hugo: Through the Storm,” a short film on Hurricane Hugo, and “The Guardian Angles,” about a group of kids who advocate for their community in New York.
He has also taught documentary classes at Purdue University-North Central and St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame.
Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Erwin moved to Rolling Prairie in 2006. He noted that the community is probably one of the last “God’s countries” in the Midwest, with subtle changes throughout the years and a community that just embraces its home. He said he was glad to make this film.
“It was a story that deserved to be told,” he said, “and needed to be captured as part of a history of their community.”
For more information on “Going Rolling,” contact Erwin at rick(at)erwinmedia.com .
Information from: The La Porte Herald-Argus, http://www.heraldargus.com