What brings people back to a dying town?

The settling quiet of Main Street in small-town America – so few cars now, shops closed, not so many people – is like a seashell held to the ear: It sounds different to each one who listens.

To a stranger coming to this central Indiana town, it is the silence of empty storefronts, of the stoplight blinking at the main crossroad with no traffic in sight, of a far-off lawn mower snarl echoing down empty avenues. It is the sound of a town dying.

To Sandy Ploss, it is a quiet that rings with the history of circuses that once filled this town with performers and trainers and riggers at their winter quarters – a history she helps preserve with the kids of Peru, who put on an annual Amateur Circus.

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To Steve Dobbs, it is the sound of opportunity, a void that can be filled by fixing up abandoned buildings, by reigniting the lost ambitions of businessmen, by tapping a small core of youthful dreamers trying to give the town another chance.  

The United States Census Bureau has been documenting America’s move to cities for a century. In 1920 the number of Americans living in cities exceeded those in small towns and rural areas. Today that urbanization tops 80 percent. The population of most small towns has plummeted.

So it is in Peru (whose name was apparently a whim of its founder, who wanted something shorter than nearby Mexico, Ind.). By the early 1900s, the county claimed about 40,000 people. That was when the rail lines were bustling and circuses camped outside of town, filling Peru with transients, although the Census Department put the permanent population at 8,000-12,000. Once a canal town, it became a busy rail crossroads, later the host to a large Air Force base, and was the hub of economic activity.

“Peru was the place everyone from the surrounding area came to shop,” says Shirley Griffin, the town’s chief historian and archivist of the Miami County Museum.

But then the rail traffic slowed, and two lines pulled out. The circuses began to winter in Florida, instead. The Air Force downsized to a reserve base in 1994, wiping out 4,500 jobs.  Multinational banks bought out local ones, replacing institutions of 80 workers with small branches staffed by eight. Big manufacturers did the same. Senger Dry Goods, the three-story department store that was “the Walmart of its day,” according to Ms. Griffin, closed, leaving her museum a huge space to house the town’s memories.

The…

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