PBS host, blogger seeks out Indiana’s hidden gems
August 9, 2013 2:14PM
Jessica Nunemaker | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 12, 2013 6:12AM
“Well I was born in a small town
Prob’ly die in a small town
Oh, those small-communities”
— John Mellencamp
To my knowledge, Jessica Nunemaker never has been crowned Miss Indiana, but she is Ms. Little Indiana.
She is the owner of littleindiana.com, a PBS host, and a small town explorer. Her television show is “little Indiana: Where to Stay, Play and Eat in Small Towns Across Indiana.”
Nunemaker, 33, is married to Jeremy. They live in Rensselaer and are raising two sons, ages 8 and 3.
“I lived in Chicago Heights, Ill. until I finished kindergarten,” Nunemaker began. “I remember going to story hour at the library in Chicago Heights. Then my parents moved to DeMotte.”
Did you attend Kankakee Valley High School?
“Yes. I really liked theater when I was in high school.”
When you left DeMotte, where did you go?
“Indianapolis. I attended the University of Indianapolis. I made better grades in college than I did in high school, but I dropped out after a year because of financial reasons.
“I’ve always loved writing. In college, a professor told me I had a nice turn of phrase.”
“How did you know that?”
Your likes, dislikes, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at. Nine of 10 times I can tell if someone is a southpaw. Do you dislike math and are you directionally challenged?
“You got it. It’s funny, my husband and our oldest son also are left-handed. Our poor youngest has to watch everything being done backwards.”
Is Indianapolis where you met your husband?
“Actually, we met at Ball State (University), even though neither of went to Ball State. We had mutual friends there. We just started talking. I had never given out my phone number to a guy in my life, but for some reason, I gave it to Jeremy. He told me within an hour of meeting him, ‘I’m going to marry you some day.’”
Yeah, I used to use that one back in the day.
“Turns out it he was right, but he also joined the Navy two weeks after we were married. 9-11 had just happened; I guess he was feeling patriotic. We moved to Charleston, S.C.; then we were transferred to Seattle. After two years, we moved to Rensselaer. Housing was outrageous in Seattle.”
The birth of “little Indiana”?
“One evening during our first December in Rensselaer we started hearing sirens — lots of sirens. My husband decided to see if there was something he could do.”
What was it, a bad fire?
“Jeremy returned almost immediately and said: ‘Grab your coats, you’re not going to believe this, but there’s a huge Christmas parade going on out in the street.’
“We had no idea they do that every year. It got me thinking, if we didn’t know about the parade, how many other people didn’t know?”
When did you get your own website and start blogging?
“I registered the name in January of ‘09, but the site didn’t go live until September. It took me a while to find my groove, but I eventually decided if a town is 15,000 people or less, I’ll go there.
“I’ve been to more than 100 small towns now. I just went over the 50,000 reader mark and have more than 4,400 Facebook fans. We were taking a tour of a college the other day and a man tapped me on the shoulder and asked me: ‘Are you little Indiana?’ The group I was with let out a collective gasp as if I were a celebrity.”
You’re getting there.
“My mom knows who you are. She reads your column all the time.”
Did she mispronounce my last name as if it were spelled “Mainz”?
I’ve been called Mainz my whole life.
“That’s like Nunemaker or Holobowski. There’s a book that tells you how to look up the background of your name. So if you have a name that’s strange or difficult to pronounce and want to go by a stage name that has the same meaning as your real name, you can change it. I looked up my name hoping it would translate into something like Hall or Jones.”
“Castrater of pigs.”
Getting back to little Indiana. How did you get from having your own website and blogging to television?
“In June of last year, I got an email from a woman who said she was a PBS producer. She had been following my blog and thought it would be a great segment.”
What station airs your program?
“WTIU out of Bloomington. I give her a list of places and usually do a big chunk at a time. Like, I’ve done 11, one right after the other, and then I write a script for each one. I’ll include the information I want the videographer to capture.
“Right now, PBS has no budget. They would love to give me my own show, but there’s no money. I do an introduction in front of the camera and they also do a fade away with my voice-over at the end. They’re trying to find a sponsor for me.”
Tell me more.
“I focus on businesses a lot. If go to a small town, what would you want to know about it? Where are you going to eat? Is there somewhere to stay?”
How long is each segment?
“About three or four minutes. Slowly but surely, my scripts are getting a little longer. My dream is to have a 30-minute show. There is so much cool stuff to write about in these small towns.
“We’ve been to places that don’t even show up when you Google them. People think they have to travel out of state or overseas for neat things to see and do. Small town travel is memorable and affordable; it’s an experience.”
Name a few neat places or events you written about.
“Oh, my. Everything from exploring caves to eating duck.”
“That was in a town of 142 — Perkinsville. The restaurant is called Bonge’s Tavern. We were looking for the place and couldn’t find it with the GPS. Finally, we see this little sign with an arrow way up high on a telephone pole that said, ‘Bonge’s Tavern.’
“It was so packed, we had a two-hour wait. It’s a bedroom community and the only business in town. The guy had been a chef in some very exclusive places. Now, it’s a father-daughter chef team. The restaurant used to be a general store more than 100 year ago.”
“Everyone knows there’s going to be a wait, so they tailgate in the parking lot. They even have a porta-pottie out there.”
Where is Perkinsville?
“North of Noblesville.”
Another interesting “little Indiana” haunt or tidbit?
“Rensselaer should not be called Rensselaer. It should be named Yeoman. Back in the day, a man named Yeoman had a land claim in this area although he didn’t have it registered officially. Well, this guy from New York — Van Rensselaer — comes to this area. It was horrible weather conditions so Yeoman invited Van Rensselaer to spend the winter in his cabin.”
“That spring, Van Rensselaer went to the courthouse and purchased the property. He had Yeoman kicked out of his cabin and off the land.”
Stinkin’ New Yorker. Probably a Yankee fan.
Nunemaker told me that she would go for car rides with her dad when she was a girl. She said he would always frequent or at least point out all the mom-and-pop restaurants and shops, saying: “Those are the salt-of-the-earth people right there.”
Good for Mr. Holobowski.
And, today, it’s quite obvious the apple of daddy’s eye didn’t fall far from the tree.