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.

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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