A tractor approaches Hicksville on State Rt. 18. This year, the drought hit the corn crop hard on some of the most fertile farmland in Ohio.
The Blade/Lori King
HICKSVILLE, Ohio — Corinne Hurni once went abroad with a friend from Napoleon, who took along a small stuffed caricature of the diminutive French emperor.
But it was the empty-handed Ms. Hurni whose hometown everyone remembered.
“You can go anyplace and in a crowd of people, I’m the one they remember because I’m from Hicksville,” the 83-year-old said last week while sitting on her porch enjoying a warm fall day.
The town’s name may conjure images of a backward place, but you’re much more likely to find well-spoken and warm people such as Ms. Hurni in this Defiance County village of about 3,500 people.
The misconceptions from such a hardscrabble name don’t bother her a bit.
“This is a good place, and I’m glad we never changed our name,” she said.
Ms. Hurni is a great ambassador for the town. Of course, it makes sense. For 50 years, she sold Hicksville, one home at a time, as a real estate agent.
She may have kept the best for herself.
Nearly 51 years ago, Ms. Hurni moved into the Victorian Queen Anne house where she still lives today. The home, with intricate parquet floors and pocket doors, was built in 1882, the same year as the town’s historic Hubner Opera House — a building that she helped save from being razed in favor of a parking lot.
ABOUT THE TOWN
Average Age: 37
Major employers: FWT, Mill Creek Power Tools, Crook Miller Handels, AP Tool, Arc Solutions, Trident Corp.
Unemployment rate: 6.7 percent in September (unadjusted)
Registered Democrats: 104
Registered Republicans: 421
Registered Independents: 1,635
Median household income: $35,815
How it voted: In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain beat Democrat Barack Obama 708 to 632.
A lifelong Democrat, she recalls her father’s admiration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his lifelong regret of once voting for Richard Nixon.
“I’d say the town will probably go Republican,” she said, “but I won’t.”
To her, President Obama is someone who cares, something he’s shown through his policy decisions in his first term. She said she also feels many of those who support Republican challenger Mitt Romney are voting against their own interests.
“I consider myself probably lower-middle class,” she said. “When Romney talks about middle class, he’s talking about people with $150,000 to $250,000 income. We don’t have too many of those around here.”
Dave Martin can’t remember much about when he drove to Detroit with his grandfather to see then-Michigan Gov. George Romney, but he’ll never forget shaking Mr. Romney’s hand.
“I thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” Mr. Martin said, while leaning back in a barber’s chair in his neat, brick-faced shop on High Street.
Nearly 50 years later, Mr. Martin is throwing his support behind George Romney’s youngest son. In a mostly conservative town full of likely Republican voters, Mr. Martin is among those most enthusiastic about the GOP ticket.
“I voted for John McCain, but I kind of held my nose when I did it,” he said. “I’m a lot more excited for Romney.”
He’s also more optimistic, predicting a big victory for Mr. Romney. The debates helped show America who Mr. Romney is and why he’s the better choice, Mr. Martin said.
With Mr. Romney’s campaign looking vulnerable, his strong performance in the first debate gave him a much-needed lift, giving the Republican a bounce that the convention didn’t.
“I know there were a lot of people who weren’t sure, and that negative advertising, it does make an effect,” Mr. Martin said.
‘Jobs name of game’
Hicksville, with a town center about 2 miles from the Indiana border, is about as far west as you can go in Ohio.
Like most rural towns, it’s a place where people look after one another. There’s a new school, few empty storefronts downtown, and lots of mom-and-pop diners.
It was that atmosphere — along with a local bakery and cheap burgers — that convinced Mr. Martin to open shop here 18 years ago without knowing a soul in town.
“I can’t say enough good stuff about it,” he said. “The people have been great to me, and it’s a nice place to be.”
Hicksville is surrounded by some of the most fertile farmland in Ohio. But this year, the drought robbed farmers of much of their corn crop. Driving into town, one can see fields of corn stalks no taller than a fire hydrant and immeasurably more dry.
Randy Eisel, general manager at Hicksville Grain Co., said a poor crop can take a toll on the town’s psyche, if not its economy.
“If there’s a drought or a down year, you feel it around town,” he said. “You feel it at businesses, you feel it at church. It’s not just the farmers.”
In spite of that, Mr. Eisel’s elevator is easily the busiest place in Hicksville this time of year, as a constant stream of tractors and trucks circle through to unload their grain.
There’s also some industry here, including a sawmill that processes local ash logs to be made into indoor flagpoles for all U.S. government offices.
Steve Lamier, senior vice president of operations at Crook Miller Co., said in an average month, the plant processes 2,500 sets of flagpoles, 500 of which will end up in government offices across the United States.
Once, the flagpoles themselves were turned out in Hicksville, but now the processed blanks are sent off to a factory in Stow, Ohio, to be finished. From there, they go to Valley Forge Flag in Pennsylvania, which has the exclusive government contract for indoor flags.
The sawmill employs 16 people, Mr. Lamier said. All the logs come from within a roughly 100-mile radius of Hicksville.
There’s also a new plant that makes steel utility poles. It’s the place people tell you about when you ask about jobs around here. By the end of the year, FWT LLC is expected to employ 200 people. Local officials say there eventually could be as many as 400 jobs there.
That’s good, but Mayor Larry Haver said Hicksville needs more. For him, that’s what the presidential election is all about.
“Jobs is the name of the game, and I think Romney knows how to do that,” Mr. Haver said.
Unlike many small-town mayors, Mr. Haver holds regular morning hours, giving his constituents a chance to drop in and chat. Lately, many of his visitors are businessmen and entrepreneurs who are afraid to spend money. A Romney presidency will fix that, and fix it quickly, he said.
Little towns matter?
Mr. Romney is fighting hard to convince other voters of that, especially in Ohio.
The Republican challenger held a campaign rally last week in nearby Defiance, where he focused on the rising national debt, asserting that President Obama does not have the right plan to speed up the economy.
Rex Dangler wonders how much either candidate really understands a place where not only do you know everyone and their kids, but you also know their dogs.
“I think they have an idea only because someone else told them. I don’t think they’ve actually experienced it,” he said. “The big question is: Are they really concerned about these little towns or are they catering to Wall Street bankers, or businesses, or unions?”
Now retired, Mr. Dangler spent most of his 40-year career at the International Truck experimental shop, where he worked on blast-proof trucks to help protect U.S. soldiers.
“I lived in the good times when it was easy to get a job anywhere and about any place you went was good enough to survive,” he said. “That’s not true today.”
As for the job of president, he wonders why either man would want it. Who would want to subject themselves to that much criticism and stress? Who would want to be the face of fixing the nation’s ailments?
“The problem we have, I don’t think either one of them can fix. It might be a start in the right direction, but we’ve got a long time to change our ways of doing business,” he said.
He doesn’t think Mr. Obama has been a bad President, especially when he considers the wobbly economy he inherited. Mr. Dangler thinks something has to be done about health care here in the United States, calling it a travesty that a nation as wealthy as this has so many uninsured people. But he’s voting for Mr. Romney because of the former Massachusetts governor’s private business background and hopes he can help cut government spending.
That’s a pervasive concern around here.
Though Hicksville voters favored Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential vote, the margin was close. This year, most people are supporting Mr. Romney. Many of them cite the economy and the deficit.
John Birkhold farms about 1,400 acres outside of town, planting mostly corn and soybeans.
He can tell you all about working the cropland here, but he’s not sure what to think of this year’s wild — and wildly expensive — presidential campaign.
He’s not thrilled with either candidate, though he said he’ll probably vote for Mr. Romney. Probably.
What he wants to see are cuts. Big ones.
“I know one thing, they’re going to have do something with that debt. They talk about balancing the budget, they need to pay [the deficit] off. They’re giving us old people a Social Security raise. I told [my wife] just take it away from me, 5 or 10 percent.”
Though most voters might not go that far, there is a real sense of worry from many of them about where the nation will be in the coming years.
In between taking orders, tending the all-you-can-eat baked chicken buffet, and warming up coffee cups at Yoder’s Restaurant, Kaycee Rowe sits behind the register and buries herself in an open textbook.
She’s enrolled at Northwest State Community College, working toward her nursing license. Eventually, she’d like to move out of town, maybe to someplace bigger. But for now, she said she likes Hicksville as a decent place to live and a safe place to raise her 5-year-old daughter.
Ms. Rowe, 21, doesn’t yet know for whom she’ll vote, but she considers her daughter’s future heavily as she weighs the decision.
“Whichever one is going to take care of her,” she said. But Ms. Rowe is also concerned about her own future.
“I’ve heard a lot about Social Security, and I’m a little worried about what it’s going to be like for me when I get older,” she said. “Am I going to have to work until I die?”
Carmen Laskay, a 36-year-old mother of two, is also going back to school, and also wonders about the direction of the country.
Ms. Laskay grew up in Hicksville, left to teach theater at Urbana University in southwestern Ohio, and came back home when her position was cut to part-time. She’s now enrolled at Defiance College, seeking a master’s degree in education and subbing when she’s needed.
She hasn’t completely made up her mind, but she’s none too happy about the Obama Administration’s response to the situation in Libya that ended with four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, dead.
“He’s been lying to us about it for weeks,” she said of the President. “It’s just very disheartening you can’t trust anyone. I don’t trust politicians in general, which is unfortunate, but when it gets to be that big, we lost American lives. That’s what’s disheartening.”
Though she may not like what she sees from Mr. Obama, she also doesn’t like the extreme partisanship she sees from others.
“Any president that’s elected is still my president, whether I chose him or not. Or her, hopefully one day,” she said. “So I try to look at it that way, but I’m not thrilled where the country is. But I wasn’t thrilled four years ago either when Obama was elected, so I don’t belong to either side. I try to look at both angles.”
Bill Zimmerman also has no taste for controversy about Mr. Obama’s right to office.
“As far as as his birth certificate, I think they made a big thing out of that,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “What makes the difference where you were born, you were born. God put you here. Come on guys, let’s give somebody a break here.”
Mr. Zimmerman, 84, epitomizes “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” He flies the Stars and Stripes above a Marine Corps banner on a flagpole in his tidy lawn, and he wears a staff sergeant pin on his cap.
But the incessant campaigning has worn down even this retired drill instructor.
“I wish they’d hurry up and get it over so our telephone could slow down,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “I don’t know. I don’t know why they have to do all the mudslinging.”
He doesn’t display any campaign signs for federal office, but he does have a placard for Defiance County Commissioner candidate Brenda Griffith, whom he said is a good friend. To him, politics isn’t about party, it’s about who can get the job done. Nothing else matters.
He’s no fan of Vice President Joe Biden, but thinks Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney could both do a decent job leading the country for the next four years.
When he gets around to saying who he’s supporting, it’s more aw-shucks than staunch.
“I’m not going against either guy,” he said. “Romney’s been in business. Of course, you can’t ever tell whether that’s going to help or not. Some businessmen are really great people, and some aren’t. But that’s the way I’m going to go. I’m just picking out the ones I think will do the best job.”
For others, there’s no doubt in their decision, and no question in qualifications.
“I’ve been through all different presidents and for my experience, the Obama years are the worst years I’ve put up with,” Bob Poth said.
Leaning at the counter of his auto repair shop, Mr. Poth couldn’t look more at home. You would know he is a mechanic just by seeing the dirt under his nails and healed scars on his muscular hands.
He doesn’t usually allow politics in his shop, and he doesn’t much care for the media, but he makes an exception this day.
“My own personal feeling, I probably will not be in business if Obama wins,” he said. “I cannot take another four years of him because of all the regulation and rules they’re passing.”
Mr. Poth’s shop opened in 1931 as a Chevrolet dealership. Later it was a gas station and repair shop. He said he quit selling fuel years ago because of increasing government regulations. Though many of his gripes are over ever-changing state rules, he said the Obama Administration has squandered money saving big business while ignoring the concerns of small business.
He especially doesn’t get the bailout.
“[Obama] saved the auto industry, he bailed them out. But if they’d have filed bankruptcy, they’d still be in business today. GM and Chrysler had to file bankruptcy anyway, so what did the bailout do except put us deeper in debt?”
In spite of that frustration, Mr. Poth still believes he lives in the best country in the world.
That’s something most folks in Hicksville can agree on.
“I’m just happy to live in America where we’ve pretty well got all our freedoms,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “I just say may the best man win. I’m just going to go with Romney this time. I think he’s kind of the underdog. I kind of doubt he’ll get it, but that’s just my opinion.”
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: email@example.com or 419-724-6134.