Monthly Archives: January 2016

How progress and big money destroys small communities

Paul Krugman had an interesting post up on his blog last May concerning the impact of gentrification on neighborhoods in large cities. And by the way, if you’re not regularly reading Krugman’s blog you’re missing out on some very sharp economic and social analysis.

According to Krugman, when big money begins moving into newly popular urban neighborhoods, substantial numbers of vacant storefronts start appearing. Krugman admits he’s just started looking into the phenomenon, but he suggests it’s “part of a broader story of big money moving into desirable neighborhoods, and in the process destroying what makes them desirable.”

The situation is different than before, when vacant storefronts were a sign of white flight to the suburbs, he contends: “…we’re now arguably looking at something new, as the really wealthy — domestic malefactors of great wealth, but also oligarchs, princelings, and sheiks — buy up prime real estate and leave it vacant, creating luxury-shopping wastelands at best…expensive ghost districts at worst.”

“Malefactors of great wealth” have been wreaking havoc, not only on city neighborhoods, but also on small town America for decades now, with the Walton family and their Walmart chain being one of the greatest malefactors of all. That havoc, combined with advances in farming technology, have dealt a death blow to small towns all across the Midwest, and probably beyond.

What Cheer

What Cheer, Iowa in Keokuk County was once a thriving farm market town with a high school, a dairy, and vigorous business district. The depopulation of rural Iowa has left it a shadow of its former self. Photo by Joseph Vavak.

You’d think that advances in farming technology would be a good thing, and they have certainly led to keeping food prices far lower in the U.S. than in other countries. But the ability of one 21st Century farmer to do the work of dozens of 19th Century farmers has caused many once-thriving farming communities to shrivel. Drive through, say, the Iowa countryside, through small, though once fairly prosperous, towns from Delta to What Cheer to Buchanan, and you’ll find little but economic wreckage.

According to 1987’s The Fact Book of Agriculture, published by the USDA, it took 344 working hours to produce 100 bushels of corn in 1800; 108 working hours in the mid and late 1930s; 20 working hours in the mid and late 1950s and just 3 working hours by the early 1980s.

Boosted by economies of scale and technological progress, the ability of one farmer to farm ever more land has only accelerated. Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming (USDA Economic Research Report 152, 2013), reports that in 1970, a farmer working 12 hours a day with available equipment could harvest 4,000 bushels of corn. By 2010, the amount one farmer could harvest during the same 12 hour day had jumped to an astonishing 50,000 bushels thanks to farm equipment evolution.

Since the amount of farmland has been relatively static for many decades, that one modern farmer could do the work of more than 10 just 40 years ago shows that a small fraction of yesterday’s farmers are required to produce ever higher crop yields.

It is that increasing productivity and the resultant consolidation of farms and the loss of farming jobs that has been a major contributing factor to the death of so many small farming communities. Fewer farmers mean fewer stores needed to serve the remaining families, and with the loss of business goes the small town tax base that finances everything from streets to street lights. And the resulting loss of population also causes the evaporation of local schools, churches, and civic organizations.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, just as small communities found themselves in the throes of declining population, along came Walmart to locate stores in those communities that were still managing to survive, undercutting the remaining local merchants.

In addition—and, as a retired weekly newspaper editor, this is the reason I seldom, if ever shop at the Walton family’s stores—when Walmart began this small town invasion strategy, they decided to rely on direct mail advertising instead of advertising in local newspapers. So as Walmart drove small mom and pop drygoods, grocery, and drug stores out of business and local weekly papers lost their advertising bases, there was no replacement revenue from Walmart. Since advertising, not subscriptions, is newspapers’ lifeblood (subscriptions just about cover the cost of newsprint and ink), the local papers that were, along with schools and churches, the glue holding small communities together, disappeared, too.

So thanks to better farming technology and followed by a swift economic kick by the Waltons, just about everything that held small towns together dried up and blew away. Schools closed as enrollment declined, church congregations dissolved, and communities lost the sources of local news communities relied upon.

Granted, this isn’t exactly what Krugman suggested was happening in upward trending neighborhoods in big cities like New York, but the resulting destruction of existing communities, rural and urban, is as real in New York City as it is in the rural Midwest.



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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, History, Local History, Newspapers, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized

When surviving winter meant fur and firewood

It’s definitely been an atypical Illinois winter so far. Surprisingly warm weather—the warmest Christmas for 30 years or so—has been punctuated by sub-zero windy weather that literally makes it a pain to go outside.

Living in northern Illinois and surviving both the scorching, humid summers and the cold, windy, (and up until recently, anyway) snowy winters has been a challenge ever since the first settlers arrived following giant herds of woolly mammoths and giant bison and elk during the last Ice Age.


Northern Illinois’ first inhabitants probably arrived following the giant Ice Age mammals they relied on for food, such as mammoths and giant rhinoceroses. Hinting had to continue year round.

Back in those times, the politically correct notion that it’s bad to wear furs was a few hundred centuries away from being dreamed up. Furs, in fact, were required garb during the cold months unless frostbite was the desired result. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what those first Paleo hunters wore because none of their clothing has survived. But we can speculate that they wore moccasins made from thick elk hide, probably lined with mouse nest filling or dried grasses. Animal skin clothing, with the fur on the inside, was also probably very popular with the fashionistas of the era.

In fact, the winter clothing of American Indians didn’t change a whole lot for a few thousand years. When weaving was invented in North America, narrow strips of rabbit skin, tanned with the fur left on, were made into blankets and capes that were warm, and soft besides. Moccasins stuffed with grass were favored right up until shoes and boots were introduced by the Europeans, and sometimes afterwards by both whites and Indians living on the northern frontier.

Snowshoes were required to get around in deep snow, with most Native Americans from this region favoring the smaller and more maneuverable oval “bear paw” design.

When the first settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they didn‘t live all that much differently from the Native Americans they displaced, with the exception of their homes. Instead of loaf-shaped bark-covered lodges, American settlers built log cabins with wooden gabled split shake roofs.

Nevertheless, winter was as much a problem for the settlers as it was for the Indians. Log cabins were drafty and cold, and the earliest fireplaces actually had wooden chimneys. Although thickly lined with clay, wooden chimneys often burst into flame. Needless to say, stone or brick chimneys replaced the wooden variety as soon as possible.

The roads the first settlers encountered were no more than faint dirt tracks across the prairie, running from one ford across a creek or river to another. It was actually a bit easier to travel in the winter because the dirt tracks were frozen solid. Spring was the bad time because dirt roadways turned into virtually bottomless quagmires.


Horse-drawn bobsleds are still used on farms and ranches during the winter to haul forage and feed to livestock, and they’re also sometimes still used by small logging operations in New England and elsewhere.

Sleds and sleighs were used for winter transport for people and freight alike. During the winter months, animals were slaughtered and then the frozen carcasses were hauled to market in Chicago on bobsleds, usually pulled by ox teams. Early on, both pork and beef were transported from the countryside to Chicago in this manner, where the carcasses were salted or smoked, to be shipped east via the Great Lakes or used for food by the residents of the growing city. Real change in that process had to wait a couple decades before railroads reached Chicago.

The only heat available in those earliest of log cabins was firewood. And it took a LOT of wood to heat even a small cabin. Pioneers generally chopped about 30 cords a winter, a cord being a tight stack of wood measuring four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. Firewood was so valuable, in fact, that several of the county’s groves were subdivided into woodlots owned by farmers in the surrounding prairie. Wood, it was said then, warmed you twice, once when cut and split, and again when burned.

Meanwhile, down at the local mill dam, the millers had to work hard to keep the ice from damaging their machinery. Periodically, ice had to be broken away from the millraces and sluice gates that powered the turbine-style mill wheels. While the activity was going on, there was always a danger that a worker would fall through the ice and drown.

After rail lines began running along the Fox River in later years, the ice itself was turned into a commercial product. Each winter, the thick ice that formed behind the mill dams at Yorkville and Oswego and other Fox Valley towns was harvested using horse-drawn ice plows and hand ice saws. The blocks were hauled to shore by teams of horses, and stored in huge ice houses along the river bank. During the summer, the ice was transported to Aurora and Chicago via rail car, where it was used to keep food from spoiling through the use of iceboxes.

It wasn’t until the advent of the automobile that roads had to be kept reasonably clear of snow. Unlike horse-drawn sleighs, autos could not travel overland across the frozen fields, but had to keep to the roadways.

Dashing through the snow

A one-horse open sleigh dashing through the snow was a common sight in town and country alike until the first couple decades of the 20th Century.

Nowadays, we expect the snowplows to head out at the first sign of snow, and demand that salt, sand, or both be spread on icy streets and roads as soon as possible. The idea of hitching up old Dobbin to a sleigh and heading off across country is only remembered when we sing a few choruses of “Jingle Bells,” and even then I suspect a lot of folks don’t understand what the song’s words mean. For instance, what are “jingle bells” and why would they “make spirits bright”?

Granted, things are a lot more complicated these days, but they are also a lot more comfortable. It’s doubtful folks would tolerate packing their moccasins with dried grass each morning before heading off to work in a one-horse open sleigh. Instead, we sit in our warm autos wrapped in goose down coats and listen to weather reports detailing the wind chill factor and predicting weather based on satellite photos and Doppler radar.

Once in a while I muse about what it would be like to go back to the good old days of Model T’s with side curtains, horse drawn open sleighs, and fireplace heated homes. But not for very long.



Filed under Environment, Food, History, Illinois History, Local History, Technology

Once you could get it all at Sears…

Back in 1992, just as the world was on the cusp of the Internet revolution, Sears, Roebuck and Company announced the elimination of their “Big Book” catalog as a cost saving measure. It was a decision that perfectly illustrated the shortsightedness of big business.

A stylish Yuppie lady graced the cover of the very last Big Book in 1992 in the days when Sears sold everything for everybody.

A stylish Yuppie lady graced the cover of the very last Big Book in 1992 in the days when Sears sold everything for everybody.

Not only did they leave the business of selling everything to everyone just as the Internet was giving that particular business model new life, but also, with that announcement, a living link to the nation’s past died.

The Sears catalog was a godsend to farm families and pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether they lived on the desolate plains of Nebraska and Kansas or in the prosperous farming communities of Illinois and Indiana, rural families could buy just about anything else rural life required from the Sears catalog.

Gradually, the breadth of items included in the catalog was trimmed, and special catalogs were introduced. For instance, the Farm and Ranch catalog of 1992 included a lot of stuff that used to be included in the Big Book.

Financial analysts complained the Big Book had no focus. Unlike L.L. Bean (clothes) or Cabella’s (sporting goods), the Big Book offered a bit of everything for almost everyone. And that breadth of offerings apparently made the bean counters nervous.

Of course there was no ‘focus!’ The Big Book was the place you looked when you couldn’t find something anywhere else. Need a water heater? How about home nursing equipment? Need a swing set or bikes for the kids (or yourself)? Swimming pool? Auto parts? Furnace? The Big Book had it all and then some.

No earth tones or insouciance on the cover in 1900! The colorful Sears catalog, and consumers guide, too, with copy written by Sears himself invited everyone to buy something.

No earth tones or insouciance on the cover in 1900! The colorful Sears catalog, and consumers guide, too, with copy written by Sears himself invited everyone to buy something.

In the fall of 1900, Sears published such a wildly comprehensive selection that many of the items are prohibited by law these days. For instance, in the drug section, Sears promised to cure—not just treat—morphine and opium addiction (there were apparently quite a few folks who couldn’t “Just Say No” 116 years ago, either), asthma (called catarrh back then), alcoholism (“Our 50 Cent Liquor Habit Cure”), Dr. Echols’ Australian cure for heart trouble, and my favorite, their all-purpose “60-Cent Nerve and Brain Pills” which were guaranteed to cure you if you felt “generally miserable.”

What great stuff! Today, the Food and Drug Administration or some other such wet blanket would rule the medicines (1) had no curative values at all, and (2) they would probably cause more problems than they would help. Maybe so, but wouldn’t it be great to be able to buy something that guaranteed a cure, even if you just felt “generally miserable? ”

You could buy (young freckled ladies, please note) “Lily White Face Wash” for 40 cents. And you could not only buy watches of all prices, but you could buy an amazing 166 watchmaking tools in case you wanted to build one yourself.

There were rings, and silverware, and excellent clocks of all shapes and sizes.

It is unclear why there was a heavy demand for bayonet revolvers, but Sears was ready to fill orders for them.

It is unclear why there was a heavy demand for bayonet revolvers, but Sears was ready to fill orders for them.

And guns. Boy, could you buy guns in 1900. There were lever-action Winchesters like the Rifleman used on TV, fine L.C. Smith double barreled shotguns, and three pages of handguns, ranging from .22 to .38 caliber. Our modern fascination with military-style weapons is nothing new—the catalog included a Harrington and Richardson “Automatic Bayonet Revolver,” which was included that year, the copywriter explained, because of the “many inquiries for a bayonet revolver” the company had received.

You could buy handcuffs or a beekeeper’s hat and net and smoker or fishing equipment, or a complete darkroom and camera outfit. And for just $54, you could purchase a complete stereopticon magic lantern show on the Spanish-American War.

And, of course, there were the clothes. Oh, the outerwear was popular (in fact, it’s amazing how much a man’s suit from 1900 looks like one from the 1960s Beatle era), but it’s no secret that the boys of that day and age used the Sears catalog to find out just what women looked like under all those clothes they wore. There on page 572 are a bevy of fetching young women dressed in (gasp!) tight- fitting Union suits! And on page 682 is the ever-popular display of summer corsets.

Not exactly sure how this appliance would have worked, but it looks painful just sitting there on the page. Sears was ready to fill the need—whatever the heck it might be.

Not exactly sure how this appliance would have worked, but it looks painful just sitting there on the page. Sears was ready to fill the need—whatever the heck it might be.

There were chests of tools, tombstones, iceboxes, cast iron stoves, horsedrawn carriages and harnesses—you name it.

In fact, Sears became the world’s largest retailer not by having a ‘focus’ but by offering things people needed and wanted—strangely enough, Sears’ focus was their customers. What a concept! And the ad copy was cleverly written to make sure everyone ended up wanting something.

By the last winter it was published, the Big Book had grown to 1,640 pages from 1900’s 1,120 pages and a Yuppy lady on the front of 1992’s fall-winter Big Book replaced the stylized barefoot lady with flowing robes on the 1900 book. But the 1992 Big Book still contained an awesome collection of clothing, appliances, tools, and just plain neat stuff.

The “New Home Cabinet Organ” of 1900 had given way to 1992’s electronic keyboards and “The Optigraph or Moving Picture Machine” had made way for the video camera. But the bicycles were still there (starting on page 1444), as were the women’s corsets (called “Support Garments” in 1992 and starting on page 205), although young fellows can see a lot more skin nowadays on daytime soap operas than in Big Book ad copy.

The company, I believe, began its slow decline when the accountants took control of the business from salesmen. After all, Richard Warren Sears started out in 1886 by selling watches no one else wanted, while Alvah Curtis Roebuck began by repairing watches for Sears. By 1891, the pair were publishing a catalog (with all the ad copy written by Sears) and by 1894, Sears and Roebuck had become the nation’s shopkeeper. Their success was driven both by the sales genius of Sears, helped along by the U.S. Government’s institution of Rural Free Delivery. With the introduction of RFD, mail orders were delivered right to the mailbox out in front of every farmhouse in America instead of to the post office where customers had to go pick them up. It’s an eerily similar situation to the success on-line retailers like Amazon have realized making use of the Internet, another government developed and encouraged communications innovation.

R.W. Sears made millions not by watching the bottom line, but by giving people what they wanted or what they thought they wanted. With the guys from the business end now in charge, Sears has been in financial trouble for years. The company’s destructive corporate culture has already nearly eliminated Kmart as a viable company and seems well on its way to destroying R.W. Sears’ brainchild.


Filed under Business, History, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Ice skating and other winter memories…

For some reason, I got to thinking this morning about ice skating on the Fox when I was a kid

So decided to, as one of my blogging heroes Brad DeLong puts it, hoist a January 2013 post from the archives about when we used to skate on the Fox.

This year, with December’s heavy rains, the Fox is nearly at flood stage so even if global climate change and development hadn’t ruined the river for skating, the high water would have precluded freezing anyway. The best years for skating featured dry autumn weather so that the water level and the current were both at low ebb, which encouraged freezing the river solid.

I recently went through bunches of family photos, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any photos of us ice skating. But we do have a few ice skating-related photos in the collections of the Little White School Museum, some of which are in this post.

Here it is…enjoy!

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Science stuff