Red Ribbon

Here’s Lil Miss 20 Prospect’s short story. She won a second place ribbon at the State Fair.

Yes, she is already a more successful writer than I am.

I’m such a proud Papa!

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The 1970’s – We put the “wretched” in “wretched excess”

It’s Friday, and my give a krep index is at an all time low. Sitting here at my desk in the fluorescent hum of my Dark Corporate Lair, I’m in no mood to be productive. So I think I will just sit here sipping coffee and listening to music because there’s no one around to stop me.

Take that shareholders.

Every morning on my drive to work, 89.3 The Current has a feature called “random vinyl” where the DJ’s bring in an obscure record from their collection and play something you wouldn’t expect. This morning’s feature was a truly awful song from Kiss’ first album.

As a child of the 70’s, I have a strange attraction/revulsion to 1970’s culture. Nowhere is this revulsion stronger than in the music of Kiss. Whether it was their schlocky, cliched guitar solos, the ridiculous platform shoes, or the clown make up

I

Just

Never

Got

it.

I was born old before my time. While the kids of the 70’s were indulging themselves in things like Kiss, and Disco, I was listening to my big bruddah’s Beatles Albums, and Neil Young. My musical tastes were formed by digging through his record collection and listening to anything and everything, and seeing what I liked.

Like – The Beatles, Pure Prairie League, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, Jackson Brown, Boston (embarrassed to admit that last one, but I was 10 people, cut me slack)

Meh – Grateful Dead, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Elton John, Earth Wind & Fire…

Later in the 70’s, my Bratty Big Sis’ even chipped in some…Cheap Trick (like), and Van Halen (dislike)

Now, his collection was far from complete. There was a lot of 70’s music that I just never heard until people started “re-discovering” it in the 80’s and 90’s and claiming it as the inspiration for punk and alternative music. That’s when I finally heard stuff like Big Star, Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople, Iggy Pop, Graham Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers…

From a distance of 20, 30, 40 years, it’s a lot easier to laugh off the ridiculous fashion, and “rawk star” excess that encrusted these albums like a bunch of glittery barnacles. I can look past the costumes and posing, and just listen to the music and enjoy it for what it is. Like sugary RC Cola, Pop Rocks, and Bubble Yum, it may be bad for you, but it still feels good.

Except for Kiss.

Still

Can’t

Stand

Them

Here’s some sparkly, itchy 70’s music for your weekend. Deal with it.

Yawn…

Another one of those mornings where I just can’t get my butt moving. It’s perfect out here on the front porch. Someone in International Falls opened the window yesterday and cool, clear Canadian air has come blowing through. After the sultry summer we’ve had 60 degrees feels like heaven.

In a few minutes Mrs. 20p will be home from her night shift and I will be off for another fluorescent day in the office. But for now its just me and the girls keeping watch on the neighborhood.

Lake Pepin

This past weekend, the 20 Prospect family paid homage to own of our ancestors favorite traditions. The aimless drive into the country. Yes, we upped our carbon footprint by 2 sizes, loaded the kids into the minivan and set out on a drive for no earthly good reason. As I’ve said before, this was the usual weekend activity around 20 Prospect when I was growing up. Depending on the season it was called “Going to get ice cream” (Summer), “Going to get apples” (Fall), or “Going to see the geese” (Spring), but it was always the same. An afternoon spent driving around Western New York.

This weekend we chose a direction on the compass that we seldom ever travel. We’re used to going East to the St. Croix valley to canoe, or Eau Claire to see family, trips North to sit by a lake, and even trips due south into Iowa, but we never go Southeast along the river. Mrs. 20 Prospect went to college in La Crosse, WI, so we’ve made a trip or two down along the river road during our child free years. We hadn’t done so for years, which is a shame really, because it is one of the prettiest parts of the state.

To folks that have never been here it’s hard to believe the varied landscape of Minnesota. We’ve got the arboreal forests, and lakes along the border with Canada, the majestic shore of Lake Superior, the northern bogs and pine woods dotted with lakes, the rolling farm country of Southern MN, and the flat prairie to the west of us. The Twin Cities sits right in the center of it all. Pick a different direction and you can have a vastly different weekend away from home.

The Mississippi River Valley that runs south and east from the cities is a geography unto itself. Limestone bluffs rise along the river, broken by coulees, where creeks and rivers flow down from the driftless (unglaciated) hills that flank the river. There are few more pastoral places in the United States than this little corner of the upper Midwest. The most surprising part of all though, is how relatively untrammeled it is. With such a large population center as the Twin Cities only an hour away, you’d think it would be overrun and loved to death, but it isn’t. The lure of the Northwood’s and North Shore seem to draw people in the opposite direction.

Lake Pepin

But I’m going to let you in on a secret. In my opinion, the trapezoid of land between Eau Claire, Black River Falls, La Crosse, and Prescott, Wisconsin is the most wonderful road biking country in the world. Being home to Dairy Farms the state of Wisconsin has paved a larger number of rural roads in this area, than on the MN side of the border. Dirt and gravel roads are few and far between. As is the traffic once you turn off of the river road. I’ve biked for hours in the hills south of Eau Claire and seen more deer than cars.
Throw in the beauty of the river valleys, and you’ve got a place that I wouldn’t mind retiring to someday. It’s got just about everything you could want. Good access to major metropolitan health care, and culture, quiet roads, great infrastructure, vineyards and orchards, and lots of places to get outdoors in all seasons, and the property prices are very cheap unless you are on a bluff top, or on the water. It’s a little paradise.

And if you like big water there’s Lake Pepin, a twenty mile stretch of the Mississippi where it widens out into a lake as wide as two miles across. That was our destination, and turning around point on Saturday. Stopping for dinner at a bar on the water in Pepin, WI I was amazed by the size of sailboats, and yachts in the marina.

Pepin Marina

We weren’t alone of course. There were plenty of others out for a ride on their motorcycles, or in their little convertibles, taking in the scenery, but it was far from crowded on the roads. I suppose that will change when the leaves are turning this autumn, but even then I’d say the traffic is far less than heading north on I-35, or I-94 on your average Friday afternoon.

We were only gone for an afternoon, but it felt like we traveled much farther than that. And as if that wasn’t enough, we saw the world’s biggest boot!

World's Largest Boot - Red Wing, MN

Minnesota.

I love this place.

The rise and fall (and rise?) of Batavia, New York

After reading Cheri Register’s wonderful memoir / history / creative non-fiction “Packinghouse Daughter”, an examination of her personal experiences, and those of her town of Albert Lea MN during the societal and economic changes of the late 50’s and 60’s, I have been thinking a lot about Batavia. I covered a lot of the same topics in this post from 2009, so I thought I would put it out there again, because if anything, her book reinforced a lot of my opinions on the past, present and future of small town America. I apologize for the post being a bit long and windy, but it’s worth the read (I hope).

After the physical hollowing of downtown

I’m currently reading “Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America” by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, two sociologists who spent a few years studying the path to adulthood for young residents of an anonymous small Iowa town. As books on social research go, it is wonderfully accessible and clearly written, making it a very easy and compelling read. For two people who did not grow up in a small town, and are obviously highly educated professionals, I am finding that their portrayal of small town America is remarkably clear eyed, and not prone to the polemic images of rural American’s typically presented by the media. Most stories you read portray rural people as either gun toting, small mined, bigots, or patriotic, “motherhood and apple pie”, pillars of the American dream. Having grown up in Batavia, I find their book to be very sensitive, and deftly written, allowing the residents of “Ellis”, Iowa to reveal themselves as the complex, thoughtful human beings they truly are. It is a much more reserved, and non-committal representation than I could ever produce, having lived the kind of life they studied, and being far too emotionally involved in the subject.

If you are one of the small town Diaspora who left never to return, or someone who left but boomeranged back, it is a very revealing read. Not only do they highlight the demographic, and economic trends effecting rural America, they also catch the subtle undercurrents of class that play a large role in determining the opportunities and futures of the young inhabitants.  At times it is also a painful book, pointing out the paradoxes that exist, and how small towns have hastened their own demise, by investing so much of their limited resources in developing their “best and brightest” and encouraging them to leave the community behind. The result is what Patrick Deneen has called the “strip mining” of young adults from rural areas, to feed the coastal, and Midwestern, urban population centers.

As one of the “Achievers” who was groomed to leave, I find myself emotionally conflicted about where I have ended up, and where I began. In some ways that was the main impetus for this blog, and was clearly the thought process behind the title I gave it. I grieve the loss of connection to community and the sense of place, while simultaneously realizing that I could never be happy going back again.  As much as I miss the connection to the community, I also revel in the anonymity, and freedom that Urban / Suburban life offers me. I can re-invent myself here, and maintain a privacy that would never be possible in a place where everyone knows my name.

As a parent of two small children, I also look ahead to the future and wonder what inheritance they are receiving as they grow into young adulthood, and look to someday leave for a life of their own. Will they have the same connection to our faceless suburban home, or will they be another rootless generation following the jobs somewhere else. It is when I think beyond my own experience, and look forward and backward at the histories of place, that I begin to see how the issues raised in “Hollowing out the Middle” are both new, and as old as time itself.

Batavia started life as a farming community, founded on a cross roads of Indian trails, where travelers would camp, and take advantage of the (once) clear water flowing down out of the hills. During the 1800’s, it became the local center of government and retail, supporting the surrounding countryside of small family farms. It developed it’s own professional class, and with the coming of the railroads in the later part of the 19th Century, began to experience Industrial growth  as factories sprung up to supply agricultural implements like harvesters, and plows to a rapidly growing country.

It was this dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Batavia that first began to change the character of the town, and introduce new demographics, and challenges. First came the Irish immigrants, and later the Sicilian, and Polish, to work the factories. This changed the dynamic of the city, and brought a diversity that does not exist in many small towns in the Midwest, like “Ellis”, Iowa, where German and Scandinavian roots still predominate. For this reason, Batavia developed many little quirks, that came to define the town, as Kauffman points out in his memoir. It is these little quirks that endear the place to me, and make me long for the odd mixture of solidity, and insanity of it’s inhabitants.

Batavia Carriage Wheel Company

As the 19th Century gave way to the 20th, Batavia, and most of Western New York, boomed. These were the years when Massey-Harris (formerly Johnston Harvester), Dohler-Jarvis, and other companies expanded, and the population grew with working class immigrant families. The years before, and after the Second World War were the high water mark for the town. As the 20th Century progressed, the town began to age. A colossally bad decision on the part of the City, to “renew” it’s core by tearing down the 19th Century buildings in downtown, and redeveloping the area into a less dense, suburban landscape of parking lots, and shopping malls changed the look of the place. A literal “hollowing out of the middle”. The disaster that ensued is well documented in Kauffman’s book, but what is often overlooked, is that this Urban Renewal coincided with larger economic trends that were relocating Industrial jobs from places like Batavia, to the Sun Belt, and which would ultimately have a far more lasting effect on the town.

The Johnston Harvester Company - 1896

That process began in 1953 when the Canadian company Ferguson, merged with Massey-Harris (also Canadian). By 1958, production had moved out of the 1883 built factory on Harvester Avenue. In retrospect, that was a harbinger of what was to come as smaller, locally owned Industrial companies combined, and merged into large multinational stock holder corporations all over North America. As the 20th century progressed, other manufacturers opened factories in Batavia, such as Sylvania, and Trojan Industries, and this helped slow the decline. However, during the 70’s and 80’s the same story was to repeat itself with industries consolidating, and the manufacturing plants closing and relocating in lower labor cost regions.

Dohler

Batavia was not alone, these trends hit hard all over the “Rust Belt”, and 1970’s stagflation, and the Oil crisis further exacerbated the problems in an already shaky industrial base. For all the pain that Batavia went through, it was better positioned than many towns in Upstate New York, and across the Northeast. Being 30 miles distant from both Buffalo and Rochester, Batavia took on a new life as a bedroom community, which at least allowed it to support a lower paying service industry. Many towns, like Schenectady, that lived and died on the fortunes of one large employer, saw their tax base collapse, and residents abandoning homes and moving away.

Main Street before it's "renewal"

What these larger trends meant for the young in Batavia, was that good paying blue collar work like their parents had raised their families on, were disappearing. What was left was a shrinking job pool of lower paying service sector jobs, and tougher competition for the fewer professional jobs. A high school graduate intent on pursuing a college education found that they had priced themselves out of the labor market, and had the choice of relocating to an urban area, or being under-employed in Batavia. These conditions were not the result of poor planning, or disastrous urban renewal at the local level. They were the result of much larger forces at work in the global economy.

Destroying the town to save it

So where does that leave places like Batavia and “Ellis”, Iowa? Have the last 100 years of economic history cast their fate in stone? Are they just passing boomtowns that have seen history render them irrelevant? Or have they already reached the bottom, after their 30 year long depression, and sit poised to reinvent themselves?

What the future looked like in the 1970's - Same location as previous 2 photos

Perhaps Batavia history can shed some light on the future. As I have described above, the Johnston Harvester Company was a bellwether for Batavia’s economy in the 19th and 20th Century. In many ways the events that played out on Harvester Avenue were indicative of where the national economy was headed. From it’s opening in 1868 after the Civil War, to takeover by a foreign company (Massey-Harris of Canada) in 1910, to it’s merger with Ferguson and closing of the plant in 1958, the factory on Harvester foreshadowed the future of American Industry. So it is interesting to consider what happened when the building fell vacant.

In the late 50’s and early 60’s the Chamber of Commerce sought out new tenants for the building. When they were unable to find a large manufacturing firm willing to relocate to Batavia the property was sold to city resident Joseph Mancuso.  Mancuso came up with the idea to rent portions of the building to smaller manufacturing firms until they were large enough to strike out on their own. He hoped that this type of arrangement would allow startup businesses to save money and resources until they grew enough to move out on their own.

As the legend goes, one of the first tenants to the Industrial Center was a chicken company. Mancuso was traveling around the U.S. looking for other potential tenants and, using the chicken company as an example, he started calling it an incubator. Some people credit Mancuso with inventing the world’s first business incubator, a concept that is often touted in post-industrial towns as one way to revive their economy.

But did it work? The last 30 years of Batavia history has shown that despite some promising tenants through the years, no company was able to sustain that economic growth and provide the type of jobs that the depression of the later 20th century took away. Some companies had success, but were unable to parlay that into longevity.

In my own family, my Mom went to work as the first U.S. employee of German heating and valve component manufacturer Braukmann Controls. I can still remember her picking me up at St. Joe’s, and taking me over to the Industrial Center on Harvester on her bicycle. The “office” where she worked was a cavernous warehouse space in the old Johnston Harvester factory, and one heck of a fascinating place for a 5 year old kid. To entertain me she let me play with the little company labels and stick them all over the bike. I can remember the excitement of watching the teletype machine rumbling to life with messages from Germany, and the dusty smell, and echoing emptiness of the place.

Braukmann expanded throughout the 70’s and relocated to the newly vacated Sylvania plant out on Ellicott Street. By the mid 80’s they had been sold to Honeywell, and had over 100 people working for them. Then history repeated itself, and during one of the late 80’s recessions, Honeywell closed the Batavia plant and moved the production to a plant in Ontario.

Damn Canadians! Why is it always Canadians that are the bane of Batavia? Since the day when Butler’s Rangers camped at the Great Bend of the Tonawanda during their raid into New York, those damn Canucks have been killing us. Is it any wonder they built a Tim Horton’s a mere 100 yards from their campsite? I think not! But I digress…

I am not sure what the answer is to the dilemma of towns like Batavia and “Ellis”. Surely the efforts of people like Mancuso, to re-establish a homegrown, entrepreneurial economic recovery are valiant attempts to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs. However, I think we need to be honest about the likelihood, and scale of such success. Lightning is unlikely to strike Batavia, and make it the birthplace of the “next Microsoft”, but building a diverse, human scaled economy is a worthy goal. Chasing the next Federal Penitentiary, Shiny New Industrial Plant, or Call Center, is merely running from one economic bubble to another.

What does any of this mean for the future of middle American youth in towns like Batavia and Ellis? Is there anything that will turn the tide of the rural “brain drain”, and convince the high achievers to stay behind in their hometowns?I see no current economic trend that gives me any hope that things will change. And as Carr and Kefalas point out in “Hollowing out the Middle” it will also take a fundemental change in the current education system, to stop encouraging so much investment of the educational resources into kids who are the least likely to live in the community. I can hear the educators howling already, should anyone suggest they focus on the underperforming students to better maximize the return on their investment, at the expense of the achievers.

In my opinion, until there are legitimate economic incentives to stay behind, those that can, will continue to leave. Who can fault them? Towns like Batavia and Ellis were founded less than 200 years ago by folks that also left behind their homes to seek out better lives.

Maybe the answer is to be found somewhere in our past. I just wonder how far back we will have to look to see the future.

Main Street Batavia - 1896

Moon of the falling acorns

Autumn came through the neighborhood last night. By the time we woke, it was gone again, but there was no mistaking the footprints it left behind. Setting out for a ride at 8 am the signs were subtle, but certain. Acorns lay like marbles in the gutters of the sleeping streets, and the cottonwood leaves scuttled like crabs across the pavement, leaving behind their fragrant scents. The cicada’s still cried summer, but you could hear the doubt begin to creep into their voices. How much longer will the green leaves sway in the buzzing of the afternoon sun, before they begin to burn around the edges, igniting in flames of orange and gold?

The State Fair is almost upon us, and school is looming in the distance. These are the final bittersweet days of summer. The lakes have been swum, the trees have been climbed, and the basepaths are worn into the backyard. What more is there left to do, but wait for fall to arrive?

It will come with a rush of wind out of the north, and the trees will bow before it. The great ghost of autumn arrives to reclaim its kingdom. There is no point in clinging to the summer. Better to turn towards the spirit, bend your knee, and speak its name. Its tendrils will slip through the waters of the lake, and slink along the shoreline. Sitting in the twilight of the front porch, we shiver at its touch. Drinking deep we taste the coolness of the air, and quench our summer thirst, then close our eyes against the memories that haunt us still.

The Paulding Light

The lake that we stay at every summer is just south of Watersmeet, Michigan. A simple little crossroads town in the middle of the woods. As activities go, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Watersmeet that doesn’t involve woods or water, which might explain my fondness for the place. The only things of significance are the local high school sports teams (The Nimrods), the nearby Indian casino, and the Paulding Mystery light.

What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of the Paulding Mystery Light? Well pull up a rocking chair, and let me tell you a story…

I first heard of the Paulding Mystery light as a kid, watching the old Ripley’s Believe it or Not TV show with Jack Palance. In the woods north of Watersmeet, Michigan along a stretch of Old highway 45, a ghostly light appears in the early evenings. This strange sphere of light hovers on the edge of the horizon, near a powerline right of way, and sometimes appears to move closer and change colors.

The Paulding Light

The Paulding Light


The lights have been captured on film many times, and many have tried to hike to the spot where the light appears. But each time when they get close they can no longer see the light, despite others claiming that the light is still very visible from a distance.

Many theories have been offered to the cause of the light. Some claim it is a reflection of highway lights from the nearby road, however the lights have allegedly been appearing since before the automobile was invented. Others have dismissed them as swamp gas, but the lights appear in the middle of winter when the woods are buried deep in snow.

Over the years various legends have developed concerning the lights. One myth explains the lights as the ghost of a railroad brakeman, while other say it is the ghost of an Indian dancing on the power lines, or the ghost of a miner trying to find his way home. Some claim that the lights start over Lake Superior and make their way inland.

USFS interpretive signs tend to take the scare out of mysteries...

USFS interpretive signs tend to take the scare out of mysteries...

The light itself does not do much, but shine. It has no unearthly connection to tragic events of great portent. It doesn’t make sound, or interact with anyway. As mysteries go it is somewhat dull. Despite all the theories the light remains what it is advertised as being. A mystery. Ultimately, it’s enigmatic nature is the thing that keeps people coming back to the end of this old dirt road.

SPOOKY

SPOOKY

This was our 4th year of coming to the U.P., and we pledged to finally get out and see the light for ourselves. So on Thursday evening we drove the 15 miles to the turnoff on Hwy 45, and down the dirt road through the tall dark tunnel of pines. There at the end of the road were 10 cars, and a group of about 30 or so people, standing in the dark, staring at the far horizon. And on the horizon? The ghostly glow of a mysterious light!

The kids were a little freaked out, but they’d have been scared even if there wasn’t a light. The northwoods are something out of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale to a 10 and 11 year old. We hung out for about 20 minutes, and watched the light come and go, and change from white to red. We chatted with some very earnest ghost hunter types from Milwaukee.

So I finally saw the light, and sadly I can now offer an opinion on it. They are car headlights and tail lights from the highway cresting a distant hill. Honestly, that was the first, and simplest explanation that sprang to mind when I saw them. If I hadn’t known they were a mystery before seeing them, I wouldn’t have even thought twice about it.

I was a bit bummed out, having hoped for more. Next year maybe we can go in search of the Michigan Dogman.