The tiny community of Banta is easy to miss.
A handful of houses are grouped around a single four-way stop. The old Banta General Store, with its distinctive sign, sits empty on the corner. A church welcomes people just up the road.
But for more than 80 years, the Banta Community Center has brought generations of people to the area and served as its historic heart. Residents gathered to cast their ballots on Election Day. People celebrated weddings inside its walls and hosted barbecues or pitch-ins on summer weekends, and farmers would meet at harvest time to sort their crops.
“It just has so much history in it,” said Mike Kelly, a member of the community center board. “It’s been so useful. People have used it so much over all of these years.”
Kelly hopes the heritage of the Banta landmark carries on for years to come, and is asking for help in ensuring it does. He and his wife, Shelley, are the only members of the community center board. Overseeing the facility is becoming too great for them to do alone, and they are looking for assistance from others to keep it going.
“I’ll be more than happy to entertain any help we can get,” Kelly said.
What would become the Banta Community Center came to Johnson County in 1940. The building had been part of the sprawling Fort Benjamin Harrison complex, a former barracks for soldiers at the base. Community leaders obtained the structure, and arranged to have it moved to Banta and sit on land donated by the Order of the Redmen, a local men’s organization.
The long, white building was brought by truck and set down in the middle of the community, while local residents helped settle it onto its foundation and served food to workers.
Since that time, the center has been used for all kinds of community events.
When tomatoes were an important crop for the people of Banta, everyone would meet with their harvest at the community center, sorting the best fruit to be sent to the canning factories.
As recently as 2000, it served as a polling place. The Banta United Methodist Church, located just around the corner, often hosts activities in the facility.
“The ladies auxiliary at the church would have smorgasbord dinners every Tuesday night, and kept everything going,” Kelly said.
Fundraising fish fries, held twice each year to help pay bills at the center, would bring hundreds of people, Kelly said. At the most recent one, organizers served more than 600 pounds of fish.
People have been fiercely supportive of the Banta Community Center over the years. When the structure fell into disrepair over time, people banded together to raise money to renovate the center’s kitchen, put in new flooring and plumbing and make other repairs.
Names of the dozens of contributors are still etched on the floorboards — a tribute to the efforts that kept the community center going.
The facility remains a popular place for baby showers, wedding receptions and other activities, Kelly said.
But the community center board has dwindled in size, with only the Kellys remaining available to handle maintenance and prepare the space for events.
“We used to have about 10 people on the board, but now everyone has gotten older. Some have passed away. It’s just my wife and I now, and we can’t do it all,” Kelly said.
They are hoping to find a few more people to come forward and help them by serving on the board. If they can’t find more people, control of the community center will go back to the Johnson County Community Foundation, Kelly said.
“If we don’t get another board in here, it’ll go back to them and they’ll liquidate it,” he said. “I’m afraid it’ll just be another empty building here, and I hate to see that after all of the hard work.”
Anyone interested in helping on the board can reach out to Kelly for more information.
How to help
The Banta Community Center is in need of board members to help oversee the facility. Anyone interested in helping is asked to contact Mike Kelly at 317-504-5838.