Deindustrialisation in the Rural Heartland

September 22, 2014 § 8 Comments

The Macon County Fair in Decatur, Il, was cancelled this year.  The fair has been a going concern for 158 years, but it also survives through funding from the state of Illinois.  Illinois, of course, is a particularly cash-strapped state, which is saying something.  It has the lowest bond rating from Moody’s of all 50 states of these United States of America.  So funding for county fairs in Illinois has dropped drastically since the turn of the century, from $8.16 million to $5.07 million.  Meanwhile, Macon County’s population has been in steady decline since the 1980s, falling from 131,375 to 109,278 today.

We were in Decatur last summer, in our drive across the continent to my sister’s wedding in Portland, OR.  It was a pretty, but sleepy town in Central Illinois. It remains a central component of the industrial/agricultural heartland of the United States.  It is also the birthplace of the Chicago Bears, the franchise known as the Decatur Staleys, after its original owner, a food-processing magnate.

But Decatur is in trouble, its population also in steady decline since the 1980s.  And this decline is reflected in the trouble the Macon County Fair has encountered, as the organisation that puts on the fair is carrying a $300,000 debt, and its headquarters was damaged by heavy rains in July.

What is happening in Macon County is not unique, it is symptomatic of most rural areas in the United States (and Canada) today, as corporate farming becomes further and further entrenched, in the wake of deindustrialisation.  Oportunities in these areas dry up, people are left with no choice but to move away, most of them to big cities, both in the MidWest, but also Chicago and coastal cities.  Most Midwestern cities continue to grow, though St. Louis seems to be bucking this trend, its population in free-fall since the mid-20th century.

The story of deindustrialisation in North America is one that has been largely limited to big coastal cities, most notably in the northeast, and the so-called “Rust Belt” that stretches around the Great Lakes on both sides of the border (for an excellent treatment of deindustrialisation in the Rust Belt, check out Steve High’s book, Industrial Sunset).  Left out of this story is the affect of deindustrialisation on the rural areas across the Heartland.

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§ 8 Responses to Deindustrialisation in the Rural Heartland

  • Brian Bixby says:

    You know Hal Barron’s “Those Who Stayed Behind,” discussing later 19th century rural decline in Vermont? Similar consequences: the adoption of sheep farming, while profitable, sharply limited the economic opportunities in Vermont and similar areas. If you weren’t heir to a sheep farm, there was nothing for you to do in town.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever read that, but a similar argument could be applied a bit to the north and east, in the Chaudière-Applaches region of Québec, where there was no new land, and marginally profitable farms to start with, but there were no economic opportunities, so starting in the mid-19th century, young men, 2nd and 3rd sons, had a choice to make: move to Québec City, Trois-Rivières, or Montréal, or cross the border. Some of them went as far as Michigan.

      • Brian Bixby says:

        Sounds very similar. The hill towns to the west and east of where you’re teaching midweek saw similar developments. Many of them peaked in population before 1860 and then went into a slow decline that wasn’t reversed until suburban expansion after 1960. For some, like the Quabbin towns or places like Hawley and Savoy that are mostly state forest, there will never be a return to their pre-Civil War population.

  • Yeah, Western Mass. It would be impossible for Hawley or Savoy, or the towns around the Quabbin, to recover like that, the land is too rocky for farming, and farming doesn’t really happen anymore. But, those folk usually moved onto brighter spots.

    At any rate, we’re talking about places with horrible farm land, in the Chaudière-Appalaches and Western Mass, Vermont, Illinois, on the other hand, have excellent agricultural land. But more to the point, what I find interesting isn’t so much the farm and agricultural economy, but the industrial economy. Take DeKalb County in Missouri, for example, or Macon County, for that matter. DeKalb used to have industry, there was a Quaker Oats plant, amongst other things. Macon still has food-processing, but what existed in DeKalb is long gone, and what is in Macon County is in danger of going.

    I’m interested in the process of de-industrialisation in rural areas, things that seem to never enter the popular consciousness, nor even history books.

  • I find this concept intriguing. I have thought a little about this in terms of India. Now, when our Prime Minister has been inviting other countries to ‘Come, make in India’ I find myself wondering where he plans to send all the industrial waste. I sometimes wish we could stay strictly agrarian (and de-industrialised, something which the British allegedly did to us).
    When I visited the Hoover Dam two years ago we passed all these mining towns, some named after people who were locally important a century ago. Like William – I think that was the name of one town. I couldn’t imagine what the people there did, now that there didn’t seem to be any mining going on.
    Remember, I once told you about a place called Come by Chance in Newfoundland? A few months ago I read that the refinery was shutting down. There’s only fishing and the oil refinery there, two industries. If CBC is de-industrialised what happens to its people? Their kids will migrate to cities and the village will cease to exist?
    Apparently, over time everybody will live in cities. Then farming will be taken over entirely by some corporate set-up – actually I’m glad I won’t be around to see that day.

  • […] The story of deindustrialisation in North America is one that has been largely limited to big coastal cities, most notably in the northeast, and the so-called “Rust Belt” that stretches around the Great Lakes on both sides of the … Article by deindustrialisation – Google Blog Search. Read entire story here. […]

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