HOOPESTON — In Kevin Root’s classroom at Hoopeston Area High School sits a custom-made can, complete with a picture of a smiling cob of corn dribbling and the names of the 1984-85 Hoopeston-East Lynn boys basketball team that finished third in Class 1A. On the side, it reads, “Made by The American Can Company.”
Root has collected all sorts of memorabilia over the years, and much of it hangs on the walls of the classrooms. The can, though, was particularly apropos of Hoopeston at the time, when three canning companies employed many of the 6,500 or so people in town.
In the decades since, two of those canning companies left, along with other manufacturers, including FMC Corp., whose former factory burned for days in a tire fire in 2013.
“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was great,” Root said. “There was a lot of industry. It was just a great atmosphere to raise a family. Today, a lot of businesses are shut down or moved away, and there are a lot of empty buildings or empty houses now.”
When the factories left, so did many of the people. Now, the town’s population hovers around 5,000.
Large houses that Root used to enjoy looking at when he was a kid have fallen into disrepair, and so has his childhood house.
Several buildings downtown, where people used to shop at department stores and share meals, sit vacant.
Through the changes and the departures, one defining aspect of the town stayed constant: its unique mascot. It started out as a joke by a sportswriter in the Danville Commercial-News in 1920, according to an article on ihsa.org, but the high school athletics teams have been the Cornjerkers ever since.
At games, a large, smiling corn cob mascot, only halfway husked, waves its arms and fires up the crowd. Root, who makes and sells Cornjerkers T-shirts and memorabilia in his classes, said the school gets orders from all over the country.
During basketball games, fans had plenty to cheer about many years over the last few decades. During football games, though, the crowd has had very little to celebrate in recent decades. Since the Cornjerkers’ last playoff appearance 28 years ago, the Cornjerkers won more than two games only four times.
“At one time — and I hate to say this,” said Wayne Bandy, who used to run the clock at football games, “but I kind of had the fastest clock in the Sangamon Valley and Vermilion Valley Conference. It was a battle.”
As the team cycled through various co-ops with declining enrollment, it became so difficult to put together a full team that the district considered a move to eight-man football two years ago.
Players, though, urged the school board not to make the move. And this year, the team won three of its last four games to finish 5-4. The Cornjerkers will play Fairfield on Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Class 3A playoffs.
“The boys (told the district), ‘We’ll work hard, we promise,’” lifelong Hoopeston resident Emily Brown said. “And they did. And I think that’s the most exciting thing.”
While the Cornjerkers have found success in various sports over the last few decades, winning football can have a unique effect on a town. When he was athletic director from 2002 to 2010, Root was shocked to learn that the struggling football team brought in far more money than the basketball team.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way. Hoopeston is a basketball town,’” Root said. “But he was like, ‘Hey, listen, there’s still marching band and people still follow football. Those (four or five) home games made more money than 10 home basketball games.”
This year, though, the investment around town is far different. At Brown’s coffee shop and wine bar at the edge of downtown Hoopeston, she hears constant chatter about this year’s team, which has become appointment viewing for many in town.
The gleaming white building, which sticks out among many that sit vacant and decrepit, hosts a large cross-section of customers. Early-morning coffee drinkers and late-night bar patrons, of course, visit daily. Study groups also meet, families hold funeral dinners, and sports fans head over after autograph signings at Bricks and Ivy Sports across the street, which Brown and her husband, Bob, also own.
The building mixes modern touches, including the black ceiling and hanging light bulbs, with a rustic feel of a structure that was originally built as a high-end restaurant in the late 19th century.
When Brown was a kid in the 1980s, the building was a law office in the midst of a downtown that was replete with department stores and clothing shops mixed with places to eat. It changed hands multiple times in the ensuing decades, and it sat vacant for years before the Browns, who also own Built to Last Construction, decided to purchase and remodel it.
The building was a disaster on the inside, with a sagging ceiling and a messy floor, but it had good structure, Brown said.
The Browns fixed the ceiling, installing a long beam and painting it black, moved walls, and put in a new floor. After hacking away at a plaster wall, they discovered that the brick underneath was in good enough shape to leave it exposed. The shop opened just as COVID-19 began shutting down indoor dining last spring, but the Browns quickly built a patio area to host patrons outside.
Brown said that others have also committed to buying other decaying downtown buildings and remodeling them. That includes the Lorraine Theatre down the street, which has undergone a series of remodels over the last seven years, thanks to a group of community members.
“One of our big missions has been to kind of revive downtown for my husband and I and other families in town,” Brown said. “I think it’s important to me because this is my town and I’m proud of my town, and I know that we have wonderful people here that support good businesses.
“To me, every single day we get people who come in and say, ‘We’re just so thankful you’re here. We’re just so appreciative that you’re here.’”
Both Root and Brown are optimistic about the town. They see new businesses trickling in slowly, even while others leave, including longtime restaurant Henning’s.
Even as the town lost jobs and residents, Brown, who used to work at the high school, remained enamored with Hoopeston. Members of the community, she says, have a habit of rallying around each other, whether that means supporting the local football team that suddenly finds itself in the playoffs or revitalizing downtown.
“I used to tell new teachers, ‘You’re not going to find another community (like this) where everybody has your back,’” she said. “If somebody has a need, people are all about it. It’s just that small town feel. Everybody knows your name, and I love that.
“I love that I know all of the families and all of the places to go and things to do. It’s just fun to be a part of that.”