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Maribela Ledesma, with sons Gerardo, front, and Geobiny, has lived in Cromwell for 10 years. They represent the changing population in the town.

Minorities fuel population growth in Indiana’s small towns

Photos by Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette
Indiana 5, or Jefferson Street, is the main road through Cromwell. A new restaurant and liquor store are planned for downtown.
Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette
A town that is more than 150 years old, Cromwell is located in west Noble County and is home to 73 minority residents.

– The kids are fidgeting, but Maribela Ledesma is patient.

You can’t blame Gerardo Billa, 2, and his brother Geobiny Billa, 1. It’s sunny, the wind is light and the temperature perfect this day in Cromwell, a town of 512 in west Noble County.

Around town, people are mowing grass or tending gardens. A distant noise comes from workers constructing a new restaurant in one of the downtown storefronts.

The boys want to finish their stroll down tree-lined Third Street, but their mother stops to talk to a visitor. They are distracted when two shy, barefoot friends run across the street to say a few words.

A small town frozen in time, yet changing in subtle ways.

If not for 26-year-old Ledesma, her family and other Hispanics like them, Cromwell’s population decline since 1990 would have been far greater. Most of the modest increase since 2000 can be credited to minorities.

In fact, without the increase in minorities, fueled mostly by Hispanics, the combined population in Indiana towns with 5,000 or fewer residents would have dropped by nearly 4,000 last decade, according to census figures.

Sixty percent of population growth in all Indiana cities and towns between 1990 and 2010 came from minorities. The smallest towns were no different.

Of the more than 450 towns with 5,000 or fewer people, 62 recorded no minorities in 1990. By 2010, the number had dropped to 8. All but three of those had lost population.

Much attention has been focused up the road from Cromwell in Ligonier, where Hispanics now make up more than half the population. Ligonier, with 4,400 people, joined East Chicago as the only Indiana towns that are majority-minority.

While the numbers in Cromwell are smaller – 73 minorities call the town home – the change is no less significant. There were no minorities in town in 1990.

It is a town like so many others across the Midwest. There are no stop lights on Indiana 5, or Jefferson Street, the main road through town. There is a post office, and the Noble County Public Library has a branch among the brick storefronts on the east side of Jefferson.

There’s a bank and a used car lot that used to be a Pontiac dealership. Town Hall is a small, white aluminum-sided building on a side street across from the Sparta Township Fire Department.

Clerk-Treasurer Bob Leamon calls the town a bedroom community for Ligonier, Goshen and other larger communities. Many residents live in Cromwell and work elsewhere.

That includes Hispanics. Ledesma said she works in Ligonier and her father works in Goshen. In Cromwell, they are buying or renting homes, participating in festivals and coming-of-age ceremonies for their teenage daughters at the community center, Leamon said.

It’s not as if the town’s diversity occurred overnight, said Leamon, who has lived in Cromwell his whole life. As a child, he remembers Hispanic migrant workers picking tomatoes in the area.

“There wasn’t any bias or anything like that,” he said. “They were hard workers.”

Michael Hatfield, president of Freedom Wire, which manufactures wire harnesses in town, said he hires a number of Hispanics. The business has been in Cromwell since 2003. Hatfield, who also serves as the town marshal, has lived in town since 2008.

Hatfield said he started requiring his Hispanic workers to learn English, something he partially paid for.

“They live in America and they should learn the language,” Hatfield said.

The initiative, he added, received a lukewarm reception.

During the national recession, several Hispanic families moved from mobile homes outside of town to homes in town, Hatfield said. And, he added, they have started to get a little more involved in the community.

That movement hasn’t been lost on Ledesma, whose family is from Mexico.

Back on Third Street, she is lifting little Geobiny to her hip. The two barefoot boys exchange goodbyes and run off down the middle of the street.

Ledesma looks at the houses around her and considers the people she knows.

“I see a lot of Mexicans buying the house,” she says.

It’s a scene being repeated across the state.

More than 550,000 people live in small Indiana towns. After a 4 percent increase in whites in the 1990s, small towns saw a 1 percent decline in whites last decade. While the 138 percent increase in minorities recorded in the 1990s has slowed, minorities still saw a 51 percent increase in small towns last decade.

Leamon, the clerk-treasurer, knows every one of those people count. With some state revenue to towns based on census figures, Leamon believes the town lost $1,000 to $2,000 each year last decade because of a lag in residents returning 2000 census forms. The population dropped from 520 in 1990 to 452 in 2000, according to census results.

“We think that back in 2000, people responding to the census was relatively poor,” he said.

It apparently didn’t improve. The U.S. Census Bureau lists a 66 percent response rate for the town in 2010, about the same as in 2000. Statewide the rate was 79 percent in 2010.

Leamon is optimistic for the town’s future. The restaurant and a new liquor store are good signs. The key, he said, is getting young people involved in the community.

“We have all the things we need,” he said. “We just need to maintain it and move forward.”

What part Hispanics and other minorities will play in that future is unclear.

Ledesma said her uncle came for the work and encouraged others to follow. But her parents say they will return to Mexico when they retire, she said. For now, Ledesma, who was born in Mexico and attended West Noble High School, seems content to stay.

“It’s really nice to live in a small town,” Ledesma, 26, says. “I like that – a small town.”