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

13 thoughts on “The rise and fall (and rise?) of Batavia, New York

  1. Nicely written,

    Under the impression you grew up on Prospect Avenue?

    Strangely, I fled the town, and it was a fight to leave. I was not “groomed” to leave, in fact, you could argue the opposite, or if you were the betting type, you’d wager on me likely to stay, it was a battle and long time to get out.

    Part of my job requires image research, using the internet, searching for reference photos and this is the second time I have stumbled on these historical Batavia photos. Many of these, especially the main street photos, are of the “hey day” of the town. I have seen a few of the Richmond Hotel where my parents met, and I can imagine more clearly the place where they grew up and worked. It seems apparent that it was an entirely different place from where I grew up, was it even the same town?

    Of course, all of that is sadly long gone now, I was just old enough to vaguely remember old main street’s last breath. All those old storefronts gone, they leveled the place to put up that horrid mall structure, an epic failure from the day they held the grand opening parade (I remember that). What was the city counsel thinking? Looking back it seems like they should have been rounded up and ..well that’s going too far.

    The 30 year decline you speak of was the time frame I grew up there with my friends, so we tended to see a very bad image of the place that only got worse. Now similar towns, even new suburbs try to imitate the character of that old turn of the century architecture with fake facades. If we tend to gravitate towards those silhouettes so much so that we will build fake imitations, there has to be something there that we are drawn to, we’ll go that far to trigger home town memories and mental images.

    I don’t know if I am alone but seeing some of those photos makes me feel even worse in a way, what a cool looking place that I never experienced, only heard stories of, maybe I would have stayed? I don’t’ know, we grew up in a declining and very unconnected desolate town, located between two rust belt cities that were/are fairing no better just on a different scale it seems. You have to drive to Toronto (Canada again) to see some evidence of a healthy city. BTW from the older historic photos it’s easy to see why Batavia has the “city” name in its title, it truly did look and feel like a small city.

    A mixture of feelings I suppose, the global forces and a declining town that seemed to leave you with few choices, more or less drove people like me out and it wasn’t easy. The amount of effort it takes to leave sometimes is over whelming to think about. By coincidence I work with several co-workers all from small towns or cities near areas like Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Akron. We are a collection of “escape artists” not really “groomed” to leave those places and a long road for all of us to get where we are. We sometimes have conversations about the towns we grew up without many positive words, much trepidation, and a common over-riding conclusion:

    we’re never going back….

    Jeff

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  3. HA! I’ve lifted the curtain and gotten in again.
    Forget all this talk of never going back, I’m planning on keeping my feet in both worlds by retaining my city house in DC and going back to kill the current owner of my childhood farm dwelling so I can reclaim it as mine.
    I’m practical like that

  4. Also, I should point out here that no one ever groomed me for a successful life in a big city far away so I should probably assume they just wanted my ass gone and breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the back of my head moving into the distance.

  5. Nice piece. My parents grew up in Batavia, my parents’ parents grew up in Batavia and growing up in the 80’s I thought I’d return there and have the same friends I grew up with as all our families knew each other going back as many generations. But, by the time I left for college I knew I wouldn’t return. “Groomed” to leave is a fair interpretation, we were told to go to college, to achieve, to use our skills to the best of our ability and there was no need for that in Batavia, so that meant we had to go elsewhere. It will be sad when my folks have to sell the house I grew up in that they’ve owned for over 50 years now, but my sister and brother left for Buffalo, I left for DC and later farther places. None of us has any opportunity to return. I’m not old enough to remember the old Main St. but I miss it just the same.

    • TJ,
      Welcome to the diaspora of Batavians. If I ever get a chance, I’d gladly buy you a pint of Guinness at O’Lacy’s. Thanks for visiting.
      Tom

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  7. A sad story, however so common for upstate NY. I grew up in Batavia in the 1950s and left after college in the early 60s. It was a good place to be a kid.
    We went everywhere, on our bikes, and were almost always unsupervised by adults. We never even thought that life could be dangerous. There would be 200 bikes parked in front of the move show on Saturday morning and not one would have a lock on it. John Wayne was our hero and from who we learned what was fair and honarable. He is gone and it’s not so easy for the kids today to find their way.
    My parents both worked at low paying jobs, however, as kids, we never felt that we were deprived of anything. Batavia had little class separation then.
    Two generation are buried in Batavia. There will be no more. Looking back is both good and sad. Thanks for the memories.

  8. Thanks for an interesting story. Another piece of the economic history of upstate small cities is the decline of mainstreet retailing following the opening of discount stores (K marts initially) just outside the city limits and then other big box retailers . The decline of industry and commerce in these cities also had a long term impact on city government finances. With the decline in commerce and industry, more of the tax burden shifted to residential property taxpayers, and the decline also meant that revenues did not grow while inflation gradually grew the cost of providing services.

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