A short drive from Valparaiso, Michigan City or La Porte lies a small town with a lot of pride.
Westville, Indiana takes up only a little more than three square miles, but is home to about 6,000 people - many of whom have been proud to call the town home for many years.
Kathie Long has made Westville her home since 1973, and says the town has changed a lot since then, mostly for the better.
“It has always been a very nice town, but we once had an oil refinery that caused some pollution. When that closed, things got better,” she said, adding in that the town’s best feature is its location.
“I love that we can get to La Porte, Michigan City and Valpo in less than 20 minutes and Chicago in less than an hour on the Toll Road.”
She says the town is headed in the right direction, with some urban businesses on U.S. 421, the main drag.
“We have a nice grocery store, a drug store and resale shop from our church that is pretty vibrant,” Long added. “I would like to see a bit more retail here, though - maybe some more restaurants and a nice coffee shop.”
Count Mike Albert, Town Council president and councilman for the town’s First Ward, as one who sees the additional retail being added to the area near the junction of Rte. 2 and U.S. 421.
“The intersection now has five lanes, and I think you are going to see that area develop soon,” said Albert, a lifelong Westville resident.
“There’s a lot of open land there,” he added. “With the highway, it will be easier to get in and out, and developers look at places with easy entrances and exits.”
Albert also sees the town’s location as its greatest feature.
“We are a small town, but within an hour you can be at a pro or college sporting event, a symphony or a play. We are very fortunate,” he said, noting that the most recent U.S. Census indicated Westville as the only town in La Porte County that has grown over the last decade.
“We are proud of that - people are moving here for a reason,” he explained. “In a recent study, we were declared to be one of the five safest towns in the state of Indiana.”
Albert says that while the downtown business district isn’t huge, it boasts some quality stores have have been in business for several years.
Old Time Foods has been the anchor of the Westville Shopping Center on 421 since 1971. Main Street is home to a few other anchors, like Westville Printing - located right next door to Town Hall.
“I like how everything in Westville is real close to each other, so it’s not a hassle to get to places,” said David Pilarski, a longtime Westville resident who has operated the press at Westville Printing for the last 34 years.
Pilarski gives credit to the town’s street department, which “does a great job on the roads.”
“I’m always able to get to work,” he said, also praising Westville for its convenience.
“We have a pharmacy, grocery store and lumber yard - so we don’t have to travel for last minute needs.”
The largest employers, without a doubt, are the Westville Correctional Facility and Purdue University North Central (PNC).
Albert says that when the former first began as a Correctional facility, there were “a lot of growing pains,” but is now something residents have gotten used to and does serve as a positive economic boost.
“There haven’t been any escapes, and it does help the economy,” he said. “A lot of people work there every day and are buying gas, shopping or eating here.”
Long pointed out that the Correctional facility is the largest employer in La Porte County and that “a lot of people come through our town” for that and PNC as well.
“PNC is a great asset to our community,” Long said.
“They have helped quite a bit,” Albert added of the school that first opened its doors in Westville in 1967.
They are also doing quite a bit as well. PNC is in the opening stages of construction on a new student activities building on campus and continue to grow and serve the communities around them. A merger with Purdue University Calumet, Purdue’s other Northwest Indiana school, is also in the opening stages and promises to be a positive regional force once completed.
“We also have a variety of academic programs on four different campuses so people have choices,” said Dr. James Dworkin, Chancellor at PNC.
The unification, while “a long process,” is expected to be fully implemented by 2016.
“A lot of people are putting in hard work on this,” Dworkin said. “Several individuals have already been appointed to jobs across both campuses.
“There is still a lot to do on the academic side in terms of accreditation with 15 separate documents needing to be worked on, but we are meeting regularly and moving at a good pace.”
Once unified, the school will be known as Purdue University Northwest, with Calumet (Hammond) and North Central (Westville) campuses.
The new student and athletic facility is a $35 million project that spent 10 years in the planning stage and finally broke ground a few months ago thanks to a pair of separate $1 million gifts and another donation of $500,000. Once completed, the 102,000 square foot new building will have room for intramurals, gymnastics, locker rooms, the PNC Veterans Lounge and health and workout rooms on one side with the other being home to a conference center that could hold up to 900 people for larger events such as the PNC Sinai Forum.
“It will also be nice for our students to have the chance to graduate on their own campus, although Valparaiso University has been great in allowing us to use their facility in the mean time,” Dworkin said.
On the new building, Dworkin said a ton of help was given from the local legislatures.
“They all helped,” he said. “Three Republicans and three Democrats. They have all been really good to us.”
Other projects in place to improve life at PNC include a triangular bus route that will soon connect Michigan City and La Porte with the University and the possibility of adding more athletic teams such as men’s volleyball to a school that already has six squads.
“We are finding out that more and more men are opting to play volleyball, and some of the other Midwest schools in our league already have teams,” Dworkin said.
Dworkin said the college is happy to be in Westville and notes some of their co-ops with the town.
“Westville is a nice community, we employ a lot of people who choose to live in Westville,” he said. “There is a reasonable cost of living and a really good school system.”
In addition to bringing sewer and water utilities and working hand in hand with the town on economic development needs, Dworkin said a lot of concurrent enrollment takes place for students at Westville High School, with a number of juniors and seniors taking dual credit classes at PNC.
Through PNC’s early childhood education program, “Little School” - a Westville preschool, has been created and turned into “a good experience for the kids,” Dworkin said.
Timothy O. Willis, D.D.S. and president of the Westville Area Chamber of Commerce, says there are “many great links” between PNC and the high school and that PNC’s location and expansion is paying dividends in attracting new residents and businesses to the town.
“There’s no one closer to them than us,” Willis said with hopes that expansion at PNC will “pull people in.”
“We’d like to have more restaurants and places to stay,” he said.
Willis points back to that statistic showing Westville’s moderate growth as the beginning of a more active future for the community.
“We are growing, it’s inevitable,” he said of Westville, which he called “the ideal place for growth” based on its centralized location in La Porte County.
“The Chamber is really trying to actively influence growth in the town,” he said. “We’ve seen some growth without much effort or planning recently, but we know we need to plan and are reforming now after a few years so we can see even more growth.”
Willis’ dentist office sits at the southeast corner of the 421/2 intersection. He says “a ton of traffic” comes and goes from that point every morning.
With some 60 members of the Chamber in Westville and the outskirts of the town, Willis calls the town “a community in the making.”
“We just want to grow, and we know we are doing just that,” he said.
The theme of growth can be talked about not only for the town in general, but in particular the Westville school system.
“We have a growing number of kids coming from other districts because this is a wonderful environment for learning,” said Curtis Strietelmeier, who is in his third year as superintendent of New Durham schools.
He says the strong learning environment stems from their philosophy of focusing on the student, “not just on academics, but the child as a whole.”
Already having created strong partnerships with PNC and Dunebrook, Strietelmeier says an integration of organizations takes place every so often as 10-12 groups get together and discuss how they can compliment each other’s interests.
Among these are Tri-Kappa, the Lions Club, Masons, the board of education, PNC, Ivy Tech and United Methodist Church.
“The town really cares about the school. Everyone cares,” he said. “If you need something or want something, they will make it happen. Westville is a great small town and we are excited to be a part of it.”
United Methodist Church is one of a good amount of places of worship for a town of Westville’s size. In addition to their collaboration with the schools and other positive organizations, they are the ones responsible for setting up the “Care and Share” partnership with the community.
Long, a member of the church, helps organize this effort which has a purpose to give kids who don’t have adequate food in the summer or weekends the nourishment they need.
“We do backpacks on Friday for those kids and have a weekly meal in the summer where we give away groceries,” Long said. “We’ve have seen some very generous donations. Whatever we need seems to be provided through businesses and the community.”
Long, a speech pathologist at Kesling Middle School in La Porte who spent several years working for Westville school, said the idea, which was brought up 3-4 years ago, was modeled off a similar program in Portage.
“We like to give away healthy foods such as fresh fruits, the kind of stuff they don’t get at a food pantry. The school has been very supportive of it.”
Good and healthy food is the basis behind the Westville restaurant scene as well. Although there aren’t a plethora of dining options in the town, you’ll find a good one at Olga’s Place.
Owners Olga Pecanac and her mother, Esada came to the United States from Croatia in 1994 and now offer the finest European food at Olga’s.
“We have a huge coastal influence, from the eastern Europe coast on the Adriatic seas,” Olga said. “We are not Italian, but are right next door so you will find a lot of Italian-like food here.”
The big ticket item, Olga says, is the sauteed jumbo shrimp - but you can’t go wrong with the spaghetti and meatballs and “amazing” brick oven pizzas.
“We have a lot of return customers from La Porte, Michigan City, Valpo and Chesterton,” Olga said. “People are always coming back, so we must be doing something right.”
But residents of Westville, like Long, can’t stop loving the place as well.
“Olga’s has quality food that is fresh and unique,” Long said. “They are fairly new to the area and have started this really cool restaurant.”
Owning the restaurant is “living the American dream,” Olga says.
“My mom and I came here to live the dream, and in 2007 we opened here. I got my business and marketing degree from PNC because it is better to be your own boss than to have to listen to someone else,” Olga said.
With everything fresh and homemade, Olga says her restaurant will “put a smile on your face when you come here.”
A yearly event that has put a smile on everyone’s face since 1991 is the Westville Pumpkin Festival, a three-day event held yearly on the first weekend of October (unless there are 5 Saturdays in September) at Prairie Meadow Park.
Jenny McBride explained that when the event first began, John Coulter was one of the main organizers.
“He wanted to bring some activity into the town and promote everything Westville had to offer,” McBride said. “It was a way to give back to the community, and since then it has blossomed.”
Pumpkin Fest is organized by the Westville Festival Corporation, of which McBride is the treasurer, with the help of the Westville Tri-Kappa.
With no admission fee, it’s hard to tell how many people Pumpkin Fest draws each year, but parking is always a bit hard to come by on that weekend.
“That’s because we have a lot going on,” McBride said. “We have a walk-run, pumpkin pie eating contest, arts and crafts and food venues as well as a car show, tractor pull, entertainment and a parade.”
Top of the line when it comes to Westville events, for sure.
When it comes to moving forward, it is back to look back a bit but keeping the future in mind.
Long remembers visiting the beach at Clear Lake some years ago. Although the town still owns the area, the beach has been closed for several years.
“I’d spend a lot of times there with my kids and friends who would bring their kids,” Long remembers.
Albert says a current project constructing a wastewater treatment plant to replace the old one near the south edge of town is “going well” and should be wrapped up in May or June of 2015.
With numbers in the town and the schools on the upswing, and residents still as proud to be from Westville as ever, this town has a chance to become yet another destination spot in La Porte County.
Inspiration Wood Cottage Inn & Conference Center, 642 E. Inspiration St.
Crossroads Lounge, 9954 W. U.S. Highway 6
Olga’s Place Pizzeria and Restaurant, 454 Main Street - Ranked No. 1 on tripadvisor.com. One reviewer stated: “Olga's Place is absolutely one of the best restaurants you'll ever find. The food is all homemade from scratch. You will never find a pizza to match Olga's. The acorn squash soup is a masterpiece. She offers specials from time to time that are superb. I love the atmosphere and service. You are definitely treated well here.”
Ramsay’s West Point Lounge, 11042 W. U.S. Highway 6
Angelo’s Pizzeria, 156 S. Flynn Rd.
Casey’s Carry Out Pizza, 500 N. Flynn Rd.
The Blackhawk Inn, 257 W. Main St.
PNC Coffee Central, 1401 S. U.S. 421
Westville Schools, 207 E. Valparaiso St.
United Methodist Church, 154 W. Main St.
Fellowship Baptist Church, 453 Main St.
Did you know?
The Lincoln Funeral Train, which carried the body of deceased President Abraham Lincoln, stopped briefly at a site in Westville at 8:09 a.m. on May 1, 1865.