Viva la Vevay


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Josiah Leatherbury tips his hat to friends that attended Vevay's First Friday celebration at Tony and Peggy Catanzaro's house on Liberty Street. First Friday, a celebration held the first Friday of every month, was started as a way to bring the community closer together. This Friday however, serves another purpose. Joe is preparing to move to Daytona Beach with his wife Wanda. He's left Vevay "forever" five times before, and when asked if he'll be stay away for good this time , Joe vows that he'll return, "After all I’ve got to leave forever again." / Photo by Chet Strange

Home is a small-town in Southern Indiana. It’s a green-shuttered house on Liberty Street with metal and glass sculptures covering the yard. It’s a group of around 30 friends gathering the first Friday of every month to eat blocks of cheese and tell stories they’ve heard a million times. It’s Vevay — population 1,683.

Founded in the early 19th century, Vevay has a history of innovation. In 1826, John James Dufour, a Swiss immigrant, wrote The American Vine-Dresser’s Guide near Vevay and established the city as the preeminent wine growing locale in the new nation. Vevay was the site of the first commercial winery in the United States. Thomas Jefferson himself sampled the wine and declared it good. Maybe it’s in the wine, maybe it’s in the water, but something about Vevay makes it hard to leave.

There’s Joe and Theresa who have left Vevay forever, multiple times. There’s Brooklyn couple Peggy and Tony who stayed 36 years longer than they meant to. There’s Wanda, who met her match in Joe and stuck around. Everyone in Vevay came for a reason, but their reasons for staying are the same: they’re just the right brand of “crazy” to stick together.

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Peggy Cantazaro cuts apples and bakes flatbread in her two-story green-shuttered house on Liberty Street.

“It’s the best bread in the world,” her friend Teresa swears.

The two stand in a warm yellow kitchen covered in artwork with a picture of Mother Teresa sitting on the table.

“We’re into food,” Teresa says as she and Peggy lay out the spread for First Friday. “Can you tell?”

In Vevay, the first Friday of every month is a festival for the whole town. Businesses stay open late. Live musicians and even the high school’s flag core perform. For Peggy, this means a crowd of 30 friends spending time at her house for the night.

As Peggy and Teresa cook and lay out cream cheese-covered olives, crackers and vegetables on the table, a stream of women come in and out of the house, dropping off bits of food and bottles of wine, saying hello and leaving. It’s a ritual, a pandemonium of foods collecting on the table in red and white dishes. No matter who walks in, Peggy and Teresa remain in motion — moving food from the kitchen to the dining room.

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In the house’s backyard, Tony Catanzaro ’s “girlfriend,” an eight-foot-tall ballerina made of metal scraps, waits to be finished.

As a child, Tony dreamt of being a sculptor. In order to pay the bills, though, he studied engineering. Tony and Peggy came to Vevay in 1974. At the time Tony was an engineer for a Chicago-based company that helped to construct the Ghent Generating Station near Carrolton, Ky. — just across the Ohio River.

Tony Catanzaro smokes a cigarette with his "girlfriend", a larger-than-life ballerina sculpted from scrap metal outside his house in Vevay. Tony and his wife Peggy came to southern Indiana with plans to stay only one year. That was nearly 40 years ago, in 1974. / Photo by Chet Strange

They were supposed to stay in Vevay for one year. But many years and several jobs in Cincinnati and Louisville later, they still live in Vevay. When Tony became a victim of layoffs, he said he was devastated, at first.

“But, I said, ‘Hell, I’ll just sculpt.’”

Tony began sculpting full time and has since made hundreds of structures out of scrap materials and other junk found in the Ohio River. He sells some of them, but several populate the yard. Down the road in front of the Vevay Reveille newspaper, a metallic paperboy silently shouts and offers newspapers to passersby.

Tony’s father inspired his artistic flair. In the foyer of the Catanzaros’ house, Gus Cantazaro’s paintings cover the walls — some oils, some watercolors, some chalk, some pastel. The red living room and green kitchen, too, are covered with paintings.

And on the kitchen table sits one of Gus’s prints of Mother Theresa that Peggy is proud to boast was sent to the nun. “She sent him a letter back with a prayer on it,” she says, holding the picture in the air and flipping it around to show the hand written letter. “That was like getting a letter from God.”

After coming to Vevay, Peggy never wanted to leave. “For one year, we came here for one year,” she says in the thick Brooklyn accent that hasn’t left after 37 years. “It’s either New York or Vevay.”

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Another woman enters the kitchen, a stack of papers with a Florida address in her hand.

“Just put it on the table with all the other things,” Peggy says and goes back to baking.

The woman and Teresa gossip before the woman drops the papers off by the front door. “I’ll be back later,” she says.

“That’s Wanda,” Teresa says. “She’s married to Joe.”

“You have to meet Joe. Joe’s from here, and he travels. He’s a character. He’s such a character,” Peggy says.

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Joe Leatherbury left Vevay forever. Five different times.

“This is my home — everything else is just an adventure,” Joe says with his nasal voice and subtle southern drawl.

Born and raised in Vevay, Joe has created a mythology that is hard to separate from reality. He spins tales that recount his adventures gold panning in Montana, horse riding across Washington and outdrawing a police officer in Vevay.

But scraps of his stories ring true — a prime example is Tony’s barrel of a black lab Mighty Joe. “Mighty was born on Joe’s foot,” Tony says. “The mother just,” Tony waves his arms, “on his foot.”

“Everything he says that you think is false is true, and everything that sounds true is false,” says Wanda. “When I first met Joe, I thought he was the town character. Then I realized the whole town is full of characters.”

Joe and Wanda have lived in Vevay for the last 18 years. It was the longest Wanda, a Cape Cod native, ever lived in one place. But this past autumn, they departed for Daytona, Fla.

As a part of the move they had a farm auction. “Saddles, horses, buildings, teepees. It’s the soul of a person going,” Joe says. Some of Joe’s paintings sold for 500 dollars each.

Joe’s friends say he’s the last of the cowboys. Without him, Switzerland County will never be the same. “And neither will Daytona,” say Wanda.

But Joe vows to come back to Vevay. “After all I’ve got to leave forever again.”

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As first Friday gets underway, the whole town seems to show up at Tony and Peggy Catanzaro's house on Liberty Drive.  They stay up late, playing music, making bread and drinking wine. / Photo by Chet Strange

As first Friday gets underway, the whole town seems to show up at Tony and Peggy Catanzaro's house on Liberty Drive. They stay up late, playing music, making bread and drinking wine. / Photo by Chet Strange

Halfway into the First Friday gathering, the living room is dark except for a sleeping child occasionally lit by flashes of Scooby-Doo on the television. The only light in the house seems to come from the kitchen where Peggy cooks and chats and the warm yellow dining room where everyone gathers.

Roger Huron puts down his banjo. He and Cindy Sebaur have been playing music for the last hour, alternating bluegrass and folk songs. Sing-a-longs have started. Someone requests Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” The musicians discuss for a moment before Roger picks up a fiddle and begins the song.

As the music plays on, more people crowd into the dining room. Food piled on the table sits uneaten. With every chorus, the friends’ voices grow more riotous. “This land is your land, this land is my land.” Wanda sits at the table, clapping the beat, verse after verse. She closes her eyes, singing loudly, proudly.

“From the redwood forest. To the gulf stream waters.”

Tony plays along on his metal self-forged washtub bass. He walks the beat up and down. He has only been playing his creation for a few months, but he matches the tones of the guitar and fiddle.

“This land was made for you and me.”

As the song winds down, the enthusiasm of the crowd doesn’t let up. They continue to clap and sing.

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Teresa Bovard Lyons more than knows Vevay. Hell, she sells it – and has for 22 years.

How much she’s actually sold, though, is a mystery to her. “I haven’t a clue,” she says. “It’s hard to wrap my mind around.” She’s sold land to Enron, the local Casino, and the 35-bedroom Schneck Mansion, all within the boundaries of Switzerland County.

Teresa lived in Switzerland County her whole life. Her father, born in Ohio, and mother, from Switzerland County, settled down after World War II and built a house in Bennington, a few miles northwest of Vevay.

While her roots are in Southern Indiana, Teresa has traveled. In a different life, she worked with a rodeo, traveled around the country and even made it abroad. But compared to Vevay, no other place had the same luster.

“I love Paris, but I’d have to pick Vevay,” she laughs. “I liked Paris, but it was a different paced lifestyle.”

Small town life in Vevay is a good pace. It’s slower. Her family lives here. Everybody is a friend, and you went to school with a lot of them.

To Teresa, that’s pretty cool. “You can watch their kids grow up with your kids.”

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Nearing the end of First Friday, Roger struck the opening chords of “Love Letters in the Sand” as Joe leaned next to his wife’s chair.

Wanda stood in the dining room’s yellow light and placed her left hand on Joe’s back; her right hand grasped his on the table. She whispered in his ear, and Joe took her in his arms. They began to dance as their friends continued playing the song they knew by heart, continued eating the food they ate every First Friday, continued telling stories they’d heard a hundred times.

“On a day like today,
We passed the time away,
Writing love letters in the sand.”

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2 Responses to “Viva la Vevay”

  1. Denise Maguire
    February 4, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

    Me and Peggy grew up in Brooklyn together==went to High School=Brooklyn College=hung out at the Cave (candy store in B’klyn). Peggy moved to Vevay and I moved to California-Redondo Beach. She had to boys and so did I. But, working full-time and never really having enough time for holdiays we never connect with our kids. Than I was turning 50 and I said “I have to visit Peggy” So I took my 15 year old son and we did Vevay. I’ve been going back every summer. I love the town, the people, the culture.
    Peggy and Anthony are the most kind, caring wonderful people. Sometimes I feel like I’m on in a time warp when I visit her. That’s why I love Vevay………

  2. Sharon Hansel
    January 18, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    Thank you for a very nice article about our beautiful little town, Vevay, Indiana!