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Ruritans are true community in small towns

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By Laura Clark

"We're waiting on taters!" Mark Schank hollered to the line 20-deep at the kitchen window.

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It was just before 6 at the Mount Eden Ruritan Club Fish Fry on Friday night. Hungry customers were filling the building and taking advantage of drive-thru service. On the menu: fried fish, potato wedges, cole slaw and baked beans.

Events such as this are a staple in rural communities around Shelby County. Waddy, Finchville and Cropper each have Ruritan clubs that conduct community events, such as festivals and parades, and coordinate activities for citizens.

The Bagdad Ruritan Club holds rib-eye suppers and runs tee-ball and softball leagues in the summer.

"They kind of keep things going for the communities," Bagdad President Kac Newton said.

Cities Shelbyville and Simpsonville have government groups and other civic clubs to help them, but in the county’s more rural communities, if there’s a community-wide event, chances are the Ruritans are behind it.

Shelby County Ruritan clubs are civic organizations with a national affiliation. Founded in 1928 and based in Dublin, Va., Ruritan claims 32,000 members nationally.

Their motto, Schank said, is to "make our community better," from public safety to social gatherings. And you can see that mission play out.

When the club in Mount Eden club developed in 1961 out of a defunct Lions Club, one of the first thing charter members did was establish a volunteer fire department. Eventually, that fire department became independent, but before it did, the two were housed in the same building: Ruritans in the front, firemen in the back.

The Ruritans have a legacy of helping anyone in the community in need, be it gifts at Christmas or clothes and other items if a home has burned down.

Stepping up for individuals tops Schank's list of extraordinary things he's been a part of since joining in 1989.

About four years ago, the Ruritan Club held a fundraiser to benefit an ill Mount Eden resident. They organized a chicken dinner and silent auction.

"We had to do a lot of prep, but in five hours we raised $34,000," Schank said. "I bet McDonald's can't even do that."

Another time a club member had leukemia, and the Ruritans held a blood drive. So many people showed up to donate that the Red Cross stayed an extra five hours.

"Mount Eden's just a real close-knit community," Mount Eden Ruritan President Tim Perry said. "We're real proud of that."

Founding member Donald Perry, Tim's uncle, said he couldn't imagine what his community would be like without the club.

"It's done a whole lot for Mount Eden," he said. "It holds people together that's in the community. If there's nothing going on, people are scattered here or there, and they don't know anybody."

The average age of Mount Eden members is just over 60. Men and women can join the club by coming to two meetings and being nominated by existing members. The club would welcome new members, said Bobby Glass, who has been a part of the club since it began.

 "I was a young man then, and I wanted to work in the community," Glass said. "I've just enjoyed being associated with the people I know. We have things in common."

The club holds annual celebrations near Christmas and the Fourth of July. Two fish fries are held each year, one on Good Friday and one the Friday before Election Day, so local hopefuls can do their politicking.

But during the years, the community has lost interest in things such as tractor pulls and beauty pageants. People just seem to be too busy, Schank said.

Though you wouldn't know that from the turnout for the fish fry. The friers were popping all night. The table full of homemade pies cleaned off early. Behind the building, the cooks were finally able to slow down and chomp on a fish sandwich.

The men have been hopping for hours, competing with frozen cod and a stiff breeze through the carport.

Like churches, the Ruritan Club is a foundation of the community, they said.

The club can be a great way for new residents to meet people. It can instill in youngsters a dedication to volunteering time for others. And it can make the wide-open spaces of the countryside not seem so lonely.

"It's kind of taken me back to the days when people used to visit each other on the front porches," said 20-year member Tony Carriss. "It's here at the Ruritan Club."