Sunday, January 22, 2012

Just Another Sad Tale of Small Town America

Back during the 2008 presidential campaign, Veep candidate Sarah Palin got a lot of mileage by hyping up "small town values," and insinuating that people who live in the rural areas of the country are somehow more American that those who reside in and around the big cities. As someone who grew up in a small town and have lived most of my adult life in urban areas, I found that line of reasoning particularly daffy. Beyond the offensiveness of questioning the patriotism of people just because of where they live, it was also incredibly dumb from a politics standpoint. For there is no quicker way to consign yourself to the dustbin of history as a politician than purporting to stand up for a constituency that is rapidly dying out.

Unless they are lucky enough to be located in or near a big tourist destination, America's small towns and cities have been slowly decaying for a couple of generations now. My own hometown of Freeport, Illinois, reached peak population in the 1970 census and has been slowly losing ground since then as college educated young people like me have deserted the place because there were few good jobs to be had. I often wonder what my life would have been like had I been able to secure a decent job back home after college. As much as I have enjoyed the excitement of residing first in Chicago and then just outside of DC, and having the opportunity to travel to more than two dozen foreign countries, the long dead ideal of small town living does still hold some appeal for me.

As a result, the recent article below from a local television station in my home state struck a particular chord with me:
There was a time when the general store was the beating heart of the rural American town. Friday, another town lost its heart. Huebotter's Store closed for good.

Now many are wondering how they can pump life back into their town.

Things are done the old-fashioned way at Huebotter's.

"I'm noticing that small-town America seems like it's drying up," said Guy Inman.

People here buy just what they need.

"We kept holding off, praying that we would not have to close," said Candace Ellis.

For years, Ellis helped her mother-in-law Joyce order groceries for the store. Joyce's father Paul Huebotter opened the store back in 1928.

What's inside shows all the history there, pieces of a simpler time, a different life. And for those here, Huebotter's is their community.

"The store is viable. It made a living. But there's nobody here to take it and put their heart and soul in it and run it," said Robert Inman.

Inman is a local farmer. He said he will soon have to drive about 30 miles to the nearest store, making small-town living a thing of the past.

The decision to close came about three weeks ago but the concerns had been around for a while.

The store wasn't making the money to stay open.

"Joyce has been here literally her whole life, ever since she was born and her father started it," said Ellis.

With a heavy heart Joyce Ellis sat, watching the time tick by, unable to talk about the doors closing Friday.
Just to recap, this store survived the Great Depression, World War Two, the Cold War, the oil shocks of the 1970s and well into the Internet age. And now it's gone, along with the traditional American small town lifestyle in general.

But beyond just my own stuffy nostalgia, a question that needs to be asked is what are people who will now have to drive 30 miles just to get their groceries (and perhaps their mail when the post office closes) going to do when gasoline becomes unaffordable in a few years? As I wrote back on January 13th in my post, "Riding the School Bus May Be About to Become a Thing of the Past, Part 2," those who live the farthest from the main centers of population and government services are the ones who need to do a crash course on becoming self-sufficient. Because the day is soon coming when they are simply not going to have any other choice.

Bonus: Sorry John, but that world doesn't exist anymore


  1. It's impossible to predict what will happen in our volatile future but I kind of see it the opposite way. Where are people in the cities going to get their food when agriculture collapses (from a combination of peak oil, peak fertilizer, extreme weather, pollution, rampant insect infestations, animal disease epidemics, etc), and what's left can't be trucked hundreds of miles anymore? What's going to happen when the lights go out in the cities?

    It seems to me that mayhem will occur and people will be flooding out of cities, streaming past suburbia, hunting for arable land around those rural small towns.

    Of course if the social structure collapses and there is no one to enforce property rights, it will resemble The Road pretty quickly. Not a pretty picture either way.

    1. We'll likely see a boomerang migration. Towards the cities as thing continue to deteriorate and then a sharp reversal when collapse finally accelerates. Nope, not a pretty picture either way.

  2. It's certainly frustrating watching these small towns disintegrate. I live in an area much like described and hell, I can look out in the distance and see rolling, still usable land and enough cattle to keep everyone (in this area at least) in heart attacks for the duration. But there has been that insidious switch to commodity agriculture (soy and corn) in these areas, though. There is a potential for self sufficiency that has been traded away to become part of the "global marketplace". In an economic sense it's all been traded in, the economics of supporting only big boxes resembles the folly of support for political oppressors-it all comes around and traps you down the road.

    In much the way small town, rural America traded in its populism for the "what's the matter with Kansas" politics- The areas traded in the ability to sustain themselves- a self defeating embrace. Oh, but now they are involved in high finance and their wares are traded on the Chicago Board of Trade.

    When all turns into a commodity crop, be it people or frankenfood, even nations with oil etc--it's just a slow death.


    1. Kathleen - yep, that's pretty much what has happened to the farm land around my hometown. My dad was just lamenting the other night when I called him to talk about the latest factory closing back home that most of the family farms around there have been sold off to big agricultural conglomerates. So you have a huge unemployed population who can't even go back to the land and grow their own food as they did during the Great Depression.

  3. That's why I like the chances of small to medium-sized cities that are surrounded by arable farm land. For instance, Salem, Oregon, or Yakima, Washington.

  4. This is just sad.

    It seems to me that the concept of 'transition towns' needs to get a greater hold and places like this could be saved perhaps?

    I wonder if it is possible for the store to become a co-op and if that concept was even investigated. I know locally the co-op option to save stores like this seems to be working.

    Sobering isn't it.

    1. I've never visited the town in the story, but if it is anything like my hometown, the people are so insular that very few have likely ever even HEARD of the idea of a local co-op. Plus, as I mentioned in my response to Kathleen above, around my hometown most of the farms were consolidated by agribusiness conglomerates during the past few decades.

      It is a hard concept to wrap the mind around, but in so many parts of this country the overwhelming majority of the population do not even realize that there are other ways of doing things that are not so destructive to their livelihoods.

  5. Younger Greeks, educated on the back of the hard work of their family on their land are now moving back to that ancestral land in order to now simply survive.
    Trouble is, how many American families still hold any land?

    1. I saw that story. I guess most of the farms in Greece haven't been bought up by big business.

  6. 25 years ago I visited a tiny hamlet called Norcater, Kansas. (A friend's west coast theater company had purchased the local abandoned high school to use as a rehearsal hall.) The town, about 200 people then, had lost all of its businesses even back then, but had pooled its resources to keep the local cafe open for breakfast each day, just so they would have someplace to go. A co-op coffee and egg shop. I've wondered over the years how that little town fared ... the few people who were still there were pretty old back then.

  7. general stores bled dry forcing residents to drive 60 miles round trip to get staples as energy supplies nose dive. a complete waste of resources and further transfer of wealth from real people to romney-esque parasites. total positive feedback is now in the system. this is the essence of the downward spiral, is it not?

    i am working on a project that is a direct counter to this action. it may seem idealistic and unnatainable, but in my mind it is inevitable and just a matter of time. details at

    i don't intend this to be spam... i am trying to build a network and your site seems like it would have kindred spirits looking for alternatives. if you don't wish to post, i understand.

    regards, gregg

    p.s. just learned about the 2009 bill hicks doc. and watched it last night. as bill says, shame the good ones die young while the evil bastards just keep going forever. c'est la vie.