ELLISTON, Ohio — One neighbor recalled hearing her sing in the garage as a kid back when he lived next door to her dad. A teen from one town over went to see her sing at a bar when she herself was barely in middle school. Some saw her at the Apple Festival and others have known her family for years and always suspected she'd make it big someday.
What they all have in common is that they packed into Trinity United Church of Christ in Crystal Bowersox's hometown of Elliston, Ohio, on Wednesday night to grab some pot luck, proudly display their red T-shirts emblazoned with a peace sign and the words "Crystal Bowersox Our Idol!" and cross their fingers that their town's favorite daughter would make it through to the top four on "American Idol."
In place of the typical inspirational passage on the marquee sign outside the church was the exhortation, "Crystal, may God bless you on your singing journey."
Elliston only has 75 residents and about 30 houses, but more than 300 fans showed up for the weekly ritual. They came from around the corner and more than an hour away, carrying brownies and babies, and pushing walkers to watch the show in the church's fellowship room, where three flat-screen TVs were set up underneath the basketball hoop and rows of tables were packed with a sea of red MamaSox shirts.
"I think it gives everyone hope to know that someone from such a small town is able to make their dream come true," said Kaylee Smith, 13, who was standing near a wall covered with dozens of local and national newspaper clippings about Bowersox. Her friend, Brenna Frank, also 13, recently watched a video of Bowersox performing in a seventh-grade talent competition at Oak Harbor Middle School, which both girls currently attend. "It's really cool because every day at school they tell us that she used to sit at these desks and it makes us want to go and be something that good some day," Frank said.
Just last week, a local airbrush artist cooked up the first-ever town sign for Elliston, which now proudly sits at the outskirts and reads, "Elliston, Est. 1867, Home of Crystal Bowersox."
It's an understatement to call Crystal's hometown small. More than once over the past few days, locals have made the joke that if you sneeze while driving through Elliston, you'll miss the whole thing. They weren't kidding. Downtown consists of a few dozen houses, a pair of churches and ... well, that's about it.
There are some train tracks, which seemed long-abandoned until a lone locomotive engine steamed slowly through around noon on Wednesday. And there's what looks like an old filling station, with a vintage gas pump scarred by a cracked glass display whose dials are rusted stuck on $0.00.
A stone's throw from Trinity Church is the house Crystal lives in, a modest clapboard two-story with a picnic table in front and, like many neighboring houses, a cozy-looking couch on the front porch. Look around and the only thing you can see for miles is farmland, Trinity's steeple and a grain elevator down the road.
Just before the show started Wednesday night, the crowd chanted "Crystal rocks!" in unison, then settled in to wait for the introductions. When the top five sang "The Lady Is a Tramp" and Bowersox made her dramatic entrance one verse in, a roar erupted and quickly died down as everyone strained to hear her vocals, not wanting to miss even a single note.
That amped-up level of excitement has gripped the entire area around Elliston. A short drive away in neighboring Oak Harbor, just about every window in the quaint downtown is painted with signs of encouragement for Crystal. The colorful messages went up last weekend courtesy of the cheerleaders from Bowersox's old middle school.
"Go Crystal! The Next 'Idol!'," "Crystal Rocks Our Sox" and "Go Momma Sox!" were among the primary-colored announcements on the panes of the Happy Hour Inn, Class "A" Dance Studio, Illusions Hair and Liberty Tax service. "You Go Crystal!" read the banner hanging from the weather-beaten facade of Skip & Barb's Place tavern, one of the last storefronts in the two-stoplight downtown district.
By the time Lee Dewyze was asked to choose which of the two groups of two he thought made up the bottom vote-getters, a loud "Aww" welled up from the Trinity crowd as they both feared the worst and felt the pain of being asked to make such a tough call. But when Crystal was saved for another week just a few moments later, all the tension and fear was immediately released as moms and dads jumped up and clapped, kids sitting on the floor waved their homemade signs in glee, and teenagers doled out fist bumps and hugs at the good news.
"We had our arms crossed, our fingers crossed, my heart was racing. It's just a really exciting time," said Kendra Hetrick, 20, about waiting for the results and the feeling of watching Crystal advance to the next round. It was Hetrick's first visit to the Wednesday-night rallies, which have been taking place for six weeks.
Hetrick's parents are close friends of Crystal's dad, her brothers were pals with the singer, and she also attended the same nearby middle school as Bowersox.
"Everyone was clapping, jumping up and down, I think a couple people might have fallen out of their seats, all the babies were in the air, raising them up," added her friend Ami Shearon, 20, whose parents would take her to see Bowersox perform in local bars when Ami was just barely a teenager. "It's amazing that such great talent could come from such a small little place," Hetrick said.
Bowersox's grandmother, Alice, who lives just a few doors down, broke out into a contented, quiet grin as the realization sunk in that the improbable Hollywood dream of the determined, strong-willed girl from a town that's barely on the map will continue. For at least another week, anyway.
"It's kinda crazy, I can't believe it," Grandma Bowersox said about the amount of support from the faithful who gather at the church every week and at bars and homes all around the Toledo area. "We always knew she could do this ... nobody is going to make her over. She has her own mind."
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