Rural Palimpsests: Amity, Missouri

October 24, 2013 § 9 Comments

DSC01146Amity is a blink-and-you-miss it tiny town on Route J in northwestern Missouri.  The last census put its population at 54, though it has since shrunk to 47 (though, in the stupidity of American metropolitan areas, it is apart of the St. Joseph MO-KS Metropolitan Statistical Area, despite the fact that there is 30 miles of relatively empty farmland between St. Joseph and Amity).  It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a dying town.  Amity was founded in 1872, but when the Chicago and Rock Island Railway was completed in 1885, the townsite moved about a mile north to straddle the tracks.  In its new location, Amity thrived, as general stores, hotels, banks, schools, and churches popped up as the town became an important stop on the railway.  A stockyard for the Rock developed and the town became a waystation and loading zone for agricultural products from DeKalb County onto the railway.  Similarly, consumer items were unloaded in Amity for the stores there and for DeKalb County in general.  The town’s population rose to a high of 225 in the 1920s.

But Amity was a victim of circumstances, as it lived with the Rock, it also died with it.  The Chicago Rock Island and Pacific (as it was eventually called) was a notoriously poorly-run and inefficient railway.  By the 1970s, the gig was up.  It had been run into the ground, and it pulled out of Amity in 1975.  But the Rock (and Amity) were the victims of more than just poor management.  Deindustrialisation was also central to the story here.  As factories shut down in the major cities of the MidWest, from Chicago to Kansas City and beyond, the railways became increasingly less important to the heartland of the United States.  And Amitysuffered.  Even before the railway pulled out, the stores were suffering, the schools and churches were closing.

The former site of the Chicago Rock Island Pacific Railway through Amity

The former site of the Chicago Rock Island Pacific Railway through Amity

Today, Amity is barely hanging on. During our cross-country trip in August, we stayed with friends in Amity, Sam and Monica.  To my city eyes, Amity was a piece of rural paradise.  But Sam and I got talking about the history of the town.  Sam is a native of Amity and Monica is from nearby Maysville.  The longer we talked, the more fascinated with Amity’s past and present I became.  I have written before on the changing rural landscape in North America (Hawley, Massachusetts, Phoenix, British Columbia, and Sainte-Sylvestre, Québec), but in talking with Sam I began to think about the costs of deindustrialisation in North America.

Abandoned home, Amity

Abandoned home, Amity

Reams of work has been done on deindustrialisation in major cities (Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Hamilton), and my own work has looked at the cost of deindustrialisation on Griffintown, Montréal.  But there was a real trickle-down effect at work here.  The landscape of the MidWest (to say nothing of the rest of the continent) is cluttered with Amitys, places that were once important waystations on the railways, or homes to factories themselves (Monica’s mother worked at a Quaker Oats plant packaging instant oatmeal for two decades before it closed down).  But their stories are in danger of being lost through little more than negligence.

As a culture, we don’t pay attention to these forgotten places, hell, we don’t even pay attention to the MidWest, at least outside of Chicago.  For the life of me, I cannot call to mind a single TV show or movie set in a Midwestern city that’s not Chicago in the past quarter century.  No wonder the people of the MidWest feel left out.

2nd Street, Amity, looking north towards where the railway used to be

2nd Street, Amity, looking north towards where the railway used to be

But there is history here (I realise that sounds like a dead obvious statement) and the stories from places like Amity are important, as they speak to the human and cultural cost of deindustrialisation in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s just as much as those stories that arise out of Buffalo and Hamilton and Milwaukee.  They place a human cost on the depopulation of rural areas of North America, and they place a cost on the loss of culture.  The four of us (my wife, Margo, and I, Sam and Monica) are barely into our 40s, but we have lived through a series of cultural revolutions, from politics to technology.  We are a transitional generation between the old ways of doing things and the (post)modern, post-industrial culture that we live in today.  We remember rotary telephones and a world before the internet.  Hard to imagine.  But we’re also glued to our iPhones and lost without the internet when it goes down.  Sam’s work as an artist seeks to preserve what he calls “obscure” technologies, printmaking and pottery.  And I am an historian, my entire professional life is centred on the past.  As a public historian, my work is centred on how we remember that past.

I am currently working on a research project that looks at the relationship between the far right of American politics and its relationship to history.  But once that wraps up, hopefully in the next 6-8 months, I am going to begin work on my next project, which will be based on Amity and DeKalb County, looking at the cost of deindustrialisation on these rural spaces in the MidWest.


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§ 9 Responses to Rural Palimpsests: Amity, Missouri

  • ejensen says:

    I can think of three movies/TV shows: Sweet Home Alabama, Smallville, United States of Tara.
    Sounds like a really interesting project, though. I’m all for shining light on overlooked things. Also, do you think you could e-mail or tweet me Sam’s business website, if he has one? I love pottery, and would like to have a look.

  • Brian Bixby says:

    Seeing you’ve also looked at Hawley, have you peeked into Hal Barron’s “Those who stayed behind” about late 19th century rural depopulation in Vermont?

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      I poked through it one day, but I didn’t actually read it. Been meaning to for some time, though.

  • Michael Kruse says:

    Enjoyed your article. My great great grandparents were among the original settlers of Amity. William Cotton Holmes and Louisa (Pierce) Holmes. William came with a group of men from Massachusetts in 1870. They lived in lean-tos as the split trees for fences and built Homes. My great grandmother was born there in December of 1870. They lived there until about 1892, when they moved to the Chicago area so the youngest child, a son, could get a better education. My great grandmother and her sisters went to high school in Plymouth, MA, living with grandparents. The Holmes had the acreage at the SE corner of McCartney and Frank Ross. Would love to know if you have ever published more about Amity.

    • Thanks for reading! I haven’t yet completed the Amity Project, but I am working on it, slowly. I can’t remember if I mentioned that our friends live there or not in this article. At any rate, I’d be interested in talking to you more about Amity, if you know more of course. As for Plymouth, I love that part of Massachusetts; we lived on the North Shore in Salem for a few years.

  • cathie wagers moran says:

    This place has lots of memories for me. I lived there as a baby, which I don’t remember, but do have fond memories of going back in my childhood to see my grandparents and other family that still lived there. I loved watching the train ride through past my grandparents house, which was at one time our house and my great grandparents house. My grandfather used to walk us up into the town to the general store, which at the time was run by the Files Family. It’s a special place from a special time. I remember the population was about 84 when I was little. Thanks fo sharing about my special place. Our family name is Wagers

    • Thank you so much for this! This project has been very slow to get up off the ground, I’m sorry to say, but I love this story of Old Amity, and I’m sure my partner-in-crime there, Sam Perkins would too.

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