My Indiana

October 26, 2012

Rick Kogan

I can never drive to or through Indiana without thinking of Mike Royko and the feud he had with the fine citizens here. For reasons not at all serious, Mike frequently ripped into the state. He called it “the most miserable state in the union.” He called its capital, Indianapolis, “The dullest large city in the U.S.”

Hoosiers hit back: printing and wearing t-shirts that said Royko who? And writing and sending thousands of letters, some of which mike printed in his column, while noting and further fueling the feud, “I was amazed how many people from Indiana can write. Though most of the letters were done in crayon.”

I am in Indiana now, in downtown Crown Point, roughly 45 miles from Chicago. And 50 miles from here is at least one thing Mike liked about Indiana: It is a tavern where the phone is answered with “nowhere” and that is because it is the Nowhere Car & Grill.

On the wall is an old menu from 1958, when the place was called the Saugany Lake Tavern & Restaurant and a T-bone went for $2.50. None of the regulars seem to know how old the place is…1920s, maybe earlier.

Nowhere is, in every way, a charming place, from the friendly crowd to the colorful decor, from the low prices to the food. (There's also a signed photo of Oprah Winfrey on the wall. Ask one of the regulars why). 

The menu carries the slogan, "The best prime rib around." It’s good—and so are the burgers and homemade desserts. Mike and I tried, boldly, the "deep fried black olives stuffed with salsa and cheese." 

It would be impossible on this show to give you directions to the place. You can call—219-778-2074 but you still might get lost. But once you arrive you'll be onto a wonderful secret: Nowhere is really something.

And so is Hammond, Indiana, roughly 25 miles from downtown Chicago.

Now this city has been known to most Chicagoans for the bygone delicacies at Phil Smidt's and the double-down opportunities at the nearby casinos. But it is also home to and amazing mural, 56 feet long and 8 feet high. It was painted in 1965 by soon-to-be-famous-and-rich LeRoy Neiman. It is in the Mercantile National Bank. It is titled "Summertime Along Indiana Dunes."

The Mercantile National Bank and its branches had been run for three generations by the same family. Christopher Morrow, then the board chairman, told me that his grandfather, Jack Murray, was in New York in the mid-1960s, and one night in a tavern he struck up a conversation with a young artist who turned out to be Neiman. "One thing led to another," Morrow says, "And that artist came here and painted the mural. He even put my mother in the painting."

One more thing about Hammond; it was almost not Hammond, Indiana and here is why: In 1873 a coin was flipped to determine the name of a small town near the Illinois-Indiana border. Heads and it would be State Line. Tails and it was Hammond.

Tails it was and here we are…in Hammond.