Onya’s Gift

by Henry Swain

During the post World War II years before television began spreading through Brown County like the Japanese beetle, parties served as a source of pleasure and entertainment. Onya LaTour reigned as the Perle Mesta of hostesses in our community.

It was considered an honor to be invited to one of her parties at her “Spellbound” home atop a hill overlooking the Salt Creek valley at the north entrance of Brown County State Park.

The curving driveway to her home left highway 46 just west of artist Charles Barnes cabin and art studio, which at that time was occupied by furniture maker Earl Page and his wife Alice.

Karl and Becky Martz, both recognized potters, lived in their studio home just west of the drive. They later moved to Bloomington, Indiana where Karl taught pottery at Indiana University, gaining worldwide recognition for his experimental work in pottery glazes. Their Brown County home became “The Razor’s Edge” hair styling salon which Rob Lawless operated for many years.

Onya was a devoted patron of the arts, especially modern art, that was at the time not very well accepted by the local art galleries whose works were more traditional. She hired a local carpenter with whom she worked alongside to build her rustic hilltop studio home. It had large picture windows and a two story tower from which she could better view the valley and rolling State Park hills beyond.

Near sunset guests would begin arriving. They would park their cars at the foot of the hill and walk the winding driveway up the hill. Statues lined the driveway and two tall cathedral candlesticks with their flickering tapers marked the approach to her patio.

Onya would walk out to greet the guests and make introductions among the strangers. Her dark braided hair contrasted with the white blouse she wore above a pleated peasant skirt that held a pattern of butterflies hidden among the pleats. The skirt seemed appropriate for she would flit from guest to guest like a butterfly making each guest feel they were her very favorite guest among all those invited.

After refreshments some would retire to comfortable chairs on the patio to visit while others would climb the tower to watch the afterglow of sunset spread over the valley and watch the lights blink on at the Lon Weddle and Paul Snyder farms below and at the State Park Lodge among the trees across the valley.

Onya’s guest list read like a recipe whose ingredients, when mixed, made a kind of social stew. Young and old, native and new, professional and tradesmen, all were stirred by Onya’s special touch and seasoning. She would charmingly steer social opposite together, then smilingly leave them assuming they would discover their common humanity, which under her spell, they invariably did.

By the time the full moon was high enough to light the driveway, the party would begin to disperse in little segments to say their goodbyes, then drift lightly down the gravel drive into the mist to find their cars.

I considered Onya a social botanist. She would hold these parties to cross-pollinate members of divergent social status and age, and I often imagined her making lists of prospective opposites to bring together.

Later in her life Onya married Carl Mcann, another patron of the arts. After many good years together illness and death dissolved the union. Onya willed a substantial sum to the town for the building of a community center for the arts and other activities.

The fund lay dormant for many years after her death. A later town council, none of whose members had known Onya, proposed to use the funds to build a new town hall. Those who had known Onya questioned this disposition of the funds. The matter was resolved when the New Town Hall was built at a new location and the former Town Hall and parking lot were deeded to a committee that established the Onya LaTour Center for community activities.

A new County Library was built in the year 2000. The Onya LaTour Center committee sold its property, folding the proceeds into a dedicated multipurpose room in the new library called the Onya LaTour room.

After many years and convoluted turns Onya’s bequest for a Community Center finally came to a peaceful and fitting resolution. I have attended numerous meetings in this room since the new library opened. I cannot help but feel Onya’s presence at my numerous times in attendance.

Every community has certain citizens that understand how much of the future is determined by those in the present Her vision and generous gift were an investment in the future of our community and its children. She inspired us to lift our expectations of ourselves always with the faith that we would live up to the higher goal.

I recently sat alone in the LaTour Room after attending a meeting. Memories of Onya came drifting back in a nostalgic wave. After a few moments of reflection I rose to leave. I looked at the plaque on the fireplace mantle that informed the unacquainted of Onya’s vision. As I turned off the lights to walk to my car I thought, “Onya would be pleased. Past and Future are now at peace.”