PIKES PEAK — Crouch’s Market hasn’t been open since Norma Crouch closed for the winter nearly two years ago.

Yet, for one final day, the Van Buren landmark hosted a crowd of shoppers, visitors and hangers-around.

Norma did not attend the April 30 auction; she hadn’t been down the hill since the closure, said son-in-law Gary Fields.

“She’s doing well, but we thought maybe this might be a little too much on her,” he said. “So, I know she’s up there at the house. She’s got her binoculars. She’s a’ watchin’.”

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“It was very well attended — regardless of all the rain,” Norma said. “Can you believe they were parked all the way to both bridges, in the field and everywhere?”

All around the grounds, locals mingled with bargain hunters for the final auction of most of the store’s remaining inventory and equipment.

Though he is from Clifford, on the east side of Bartholomew County, Charlie Deweese knows Crouch’s Market. It was a frequent stop for Mike Mensendiek’s auctioneering team — of which he is a member — when passing through the area.

“A lot of the smaller places like this are going away, and it’s too bad,” Deweese said.

“It’s just progress, I guess.”

The auctioneer’s chant had a musical, almost toe-tapping quality. Looking out at the crowd, Deweese smiled. “If they can get a bargain, they’re here,” he said.

But not everyone was looking for bargains.

For many, the hope was to find a piece of their memories to hold onto.

Jeff Jones said he practically grew up at Crouch’s Market. He now lives in Jennings County and hadn’t been back in about 20 years.

Catching up with an old friend, Mary Hendershot, Jones stretched out his arm to bring his umbrella over the head of anyone who stopped to talk with him.

A sign collector, Jones had hoped that the Nutria Feed sign would be up for auction, as advertised, but he couldn’t find it.

“I guess Norma decided to keep it,” he said.

Hendershot still lives in the area. She was helping run the food booth with her church group from Walker Chapel. Connie Fields — Norma’s daughter — is a church member, and they were raising money for a new church roof.

When Hendershot was a school bus driver, running a shuttle bus, she would wait at Crouch’s Market with other drivers, shooting pool and sharing time.

“We’re gonna miss this place,” she said. “We really are.”

Carolyn Pruitt remembered stopping at Crouch’s on the way to work and grabbing a bacon sandwich, smiling at the mention.

“We’d come through a lot, going through to our daughter’s,” said Pruitt, a former teacher at Van Buren Elementary School.

She was looking for some kind of souvenir of those days. “It’s special, you know?” She said, “You hate to see something like this go.”

When Gary Bradley was younger, he brought sets of cattle horns to the store. At the auction, his daughters, Amanda Arndt and Shannon Eaton, bought a set back for him.

For the sisters, Crouch’s was a childhood treat and an adolescent hangout. The children could get a sandwich, play pool or “Pacman” and put a song on the jukebox, Arndt said.

Though they always came with an adult, the children were aware Norma had an eye on them.

“I mean, she knew everybody,” Arndt said.

“She would tell,” Eaton said. “She knew your mom, so she would tell.”

“And I’m kind of sad that my kids won’t get this same experience,” Arndt said.

“There is no substitute. There’s nothing that’s like it.”

Past and future

Norma’s husband, Harry, passed away in 2013 in the house where he was born and raised, within view of the store he and his wife started 41 years earlier.

Gary Fields had difficulty speaking when he recalled the day Harry drew his last breath in the living room. He recalled, too, the story Harry shared of his birth, claiming that a stain in a corner of the house was from where his mother dropped him on his head.

After Harry’s death, Norma kept the store going, but as times changed, it became more and more difficult, both financially and physically, said their son, Wendell.

The store opened when Wendell was in second grade. Many of the store’s tales are the stories of his life.

In the 1970s, the owner of the Pacers had a place nearby where he would host barbecues, and basketball stars would regularly stop by on a snack or beverage run.

“I remember, I was taking care of the counter one night, and George McGinnis walked in, and Billy Keller, from the Pacers,” Wendell said. “And Rik Smits owned a property up the road here.”

Norma was concerned that the 7-foot, 4-inch Smits was going to eventually get hit by the ceiling fan over the counter on one of his visits.

“So I actually had to move the ceiling fan back to make sure that when when he went to the counter to pay, Rik didn’t get hit in the head,” Wendell said.

Anyone could get their picture up on the store’s “wall of fame.”

While others gathered at tables in the front of the store or around the auction items, Luella Dickmeyer Jones wandered back and forth in the far back room, studying the faces in photographs.

Among picture after picture of fishermen and hunters — from deer to mushroom — holding their trophies, Jones found the face she was looking for: Her late brother, Thom Dickmeyer. She paused to snap a photo of it on her cellphone.

Crouch would even get pictures of people with the catch of a lifetime: their spouse. Some locals made Crouch’s Market their first stop after saying “I do,” Wendell said.

“It was Van Buren central, you know?” said John Price. “If anything happened, it was known of here.”

“As somebody was growing up, when you killed your first deer, this is where you came. When you got your first fish, this is where, you know — you got your picture on the wall at Crouch’s,” Wendell said.

Those photos weren’t up for auction.

Neither were a few other pieces of Van Buren Township history, such as a trophy of the first turkey shot in Brown County after the birds were re-introduced to Indiana. It had hung in the store near the counter.

In the back are still trophies from the teams Crouch’s sponsored — none of which were put up for auction. Norma would give the ballplayers free ice cream when they came by after a game, Wendell said.

The cornerstone from the original Van Buren Elementary school stayed, too.

Gary said the family has considered seeing if the Brown County Historical Society would be interested in photos and memorabilia collected since the store opened.

“I’ve had people wake me up at night wanting to get them pictures off that back wall back there,” he said.

“And I’m sorry, you can’t. That’s too much to remember people by.”

Will it reopen?

There is no sure plan for the future of Crouch’s Market, owner Norma Crouch said.

Though ideas have been offered, she does not know what would be feasible.

The store does not have a septic system. Customers used a porta-potty — “the blue room” — and the store was built piecemeal over time.

Brown County Health Department environmental health specialist John Kennard said the amount of work involved in reopening would depend on what kind of business went in.

But aside from the expense, he knew of nothing else that would stand in the way.

Regardless the future of the store, Norma will still be around, said her son-in-law, Gary Fields.

“If you have an extra five minutes, stop and say hi to Norma,” he said. “If you’re a true friend, stop in and say, “Hi, Norma how you doin’?'”

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.