For more than 70 years, the Banta Community Hall has been the heart of this small Johnson County town.
Residents gathered to cast their ballots on Election Day. Generations of people celebrated weddings inside its walls and hosted barbecues or pitch-ins on summer weekends, and farmers would meet at harvest time to sort their crops.
So when a lack of funds threatened to close the small meeting room, a fierce sense of community motivated local residents to save it.
A group of concerned people have come together to save the Banta Community Hall. A benefit hog roast has allowed them to open the center back up, and improvements to the windows, interior and sidewalk have created the potential to host weddings, class reunions and other events.
With enough funds now to pay for heat and electricity until next summer, the nine-person community center board is forming a long-range plan to ensure the building remains standing.
“It’s a part of the community that we don’t want to see go away,” longtime Banta resident Shelley Kelly said.
The local 4-H group meets at the community center, and it was a polling place as recently as 2000.
When tomatoes were an important crop for the people of Banta, everyone would meet with their harvest at the community center, sorting the best fruit to be sent to the canning factories, said Michael Kelly, Shelley’s husband.
Since the community center is just down the street from the Banta United Methodist Church, the community center often has been used for church events. The Ladies Aid would meet in the hall, and weekend bake sales, chili suppers and other fellowship activities were conducted there, Shelley Kelly said.
She remembers that, when she was young, the community center would be the site of raucous smorgasbords every month.
“Doctors, lawyers, people from Greenwood, Martinsville, from all over would come that first Thursday of the month. The ladies of the church would make everything themselves — noodles, pies,” she said. “Before I was old enough to go to school, I remember being here and watching them work. For over 50 years, this has been a part of us.”
The Kellys had their wedding reception in the hall in 1981, and Shelley Kelly had a baby shower for her first child in the center.
Most people drive right past the community center, and through Banta itself, without realizing what they’ve seen. Banta, on the western edge of the county, was founded in 1883.
Aside from about 20 houses, the only other buildings are the bright red Banta General Store and Beekeeping Supply, Banta United Methodist Church and the community center.
The property where the community center sits was donated in the early 1940s by the Order of the Redmen, a local men’s organization that met in the nearby general store.
Once the land was obtained, community leaders debated the best way to use it. Instead of building a structure on it, they found an existing Army barracks in Fountain Square that no longer was being used and arranged for it to be moved to Banta.
Around 1941, the long, white building was brought by truck and set down in the middle of Banta, community center board president Lin Hunt said.
Renovations took place over the next 70 years. Windows were removed to make it look less like a barracks, and improvements were made to the electrical system.
But as time passed, the building became run-down. Older people who had come to the community center died, and younger residents didn’t feel the same connection. The hall fell into disuse.
“The older people have died off, so now we have to get younger people aware of it and interested in using it,” Michael Kelly said.
Area residents started mobilizing three months ago, after the board that oversees the building raised concerns that it could no longer pay its bills. The center had no income coming in to support it; only $62 remained in its bank account, Hunt said.
A new board was found, with its members attempting to breath new life into the building.
Strong show of support
A benefit hog roast was conducted in October, which raised $6,200. That was enough to open it back up and pay the electricity bills and insurance costs for the next six months.
“There was a line that stretched out the door and down the street. It was a great showing of people who wanted to keep this building alive,” Hunt said.
Donations made in the fall allowed the community center board to pour new sidewalks up front and make the building wheelchair-accessible. The board added flowers and plants to garden areas around the exterior,