Blogs > Jim Loewen > Coming of Age in the Heartland

Mar 19, 2018

Coming of Age in the Heartland

tags: Decatur

Postcard image of the A. E. Staley Co. c.1940,  showing its characteristic soybean plume.

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

            I was born in Decatur, an industrial city in the middle of Illinois. I didn't know it then, because it wasn't true then, but Decatur is also in the middle of what we now call "flyover country," a term suggesting one merely wants to get past it, not stop and experience it. For those few readers who want to spend a few moments with me in the Midwest, I offer this little memoir. It is history, I suppose, but definitely not History. It might help humanize red flyover people for blue coastal people, a little bit.

            When I was growing up in the '40s and '50s, flyover country was called "Middle America," a more positive term implying some centrality to American life, even some importance. Chicago was clearly America's "second city," as its theatrical troupe of that name still claims, partly because people had to change trains there, simply to get from one coast to the other.[1] Even though O'Hare is still a busy airport, it's just not the same.

            When I was a lad, Decatur had train service. The Wabash Cannonball connected it to St. Louis and Detroit and the Wabash Banner Blue and other trains provided the fastest train service between St. Louis and Chicago. Now of course, like most U.S. cities, Decatur has no train service.

            The combination of Interstate Highways and increased air service replaced train service in most towns, but they barely reached Decatur. When Pres. Eisenhower announced the Interstate Highway System, Decatur was the second largest city in the United States not to be on it. Later, Decatur did get added, via a spur from Champaign/Urbana, but the damage was done. Now Decatur seemed somehow to lag behind its competitors in central Illinois — Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington/Normal, and Champaign/Urbana.

            When I was a lad, Decatur also had an airport. Ozark Airlines provided fairly frequent service to St. Louis, its hub, and to Chicago. Ozark then verged on bankruptcy and got taken over by TWA, whose hub was also St. Louis. Today, Ozark's Wikipedia entry lists all known Ozark destinations – except somehow Decatur. Then TWA went bankrupt (three times!) and got taken over by American. Again, TWA's Wikipedia entry lists all known destinations for TWA and its feeder airlines, but somehow not Decatur. Trying to avoid bankruptcy, American Airlines cut its legacy Decatur service down to just two flights a day, both to St. Louis. Later it eliminated its St. Louis hub altogether, along with all service to Decatur, but alas, it went bankrupt anyway. USAir took it over, retaining the larger company's name. Hoping to avoid financial problems, the "new" American has avoided Decatur ever since.

            For a while, no airline served Decatur. However, last month the government came to Decatur's rescue.[2] A federal boondoggle called Essential Air Service pays Cape Air, an airline centered on Cape Cod (!), to fly nine-passenger Cessnas to St. Louis and Chicago four times a day. The government will pay the airline about $100/passenger, by my calculation, to subsidize this service.

            Decatur has come down in some other ways too. It used to be known as "the fly-swatter capital of the world," because of a factory that made fly-swatters, and it housed the Hi-Flier Kite Co., America's only mass producer of kites. These kites, made of tissue paper and strips of balsa wood, sold in thin rolled-up form for just a dime. Nevertheless, some Asian company, first Japanese and later probably Chinese, undersold Decatur, and now Decatur makes neither fly-swatters nor kites.

            When I was growing up, Decatur also claimed to be "the soybean capital of the world." Even its radio station was WSOY. Much of the year, the entire eastern half of the city enjoys (endures?) the distinct smell of soybeans cooking. The A. E. Staley Co. made all kinds of things out of soybeans, even one (experimental) sailboat. They gave it to an employee, Mr. Boyer, for testing. His son Bill and I were friends, so I got to be his crew. It was a Thistle, as I recall, a popular class of sailboat. Thistle owners held races on Lake Decatur.

            The one time Bill and I entered a race, we were in third place when suddenly we capsized. I don't know why — I was only the crew. I only know that there we were, running with the wind, gaining on the leaders, and suddenly we were upside down, with our mast stuck in the many feet of silt that made up the bottom of Lake Decatur. Indeed, the silt went all the way up to the surface; the line between lake and bottom was indefinite, like that between good and evil here in DC. Of Lake Decatur, we said, "too thick to swim in, too thin to plow."

            Bill and I had met in the Boy Scouts. Decatur posed a problem to would-be Boy Scouts, however. Boy Scouts go on hikes, you see, and in Central Illinois these proved to be truly boring hikes. The topography around Decatur, except the Sangamon River valley, is totally flat – much flatter even than Kansas. Indeed, residents of Decatur consider Kansas to be mountainous. As a result, no matter how long the Boy Scout hike – 5 miles, 16 miles, even one of 23 miles – we could always see our destination when we set forth ... it just slowly grew bigger.

            Until recently, ADM, the Archer Daniels Midland Co., competitor to Staley's, maintained its corporate headquarters in Decatur. To do this, ADM had to create its own air service, of course. ADM also provided Decatur with one of its few brushes with fame: its participation in a notorious commodities price-fixing scandal. This led to the movie “The Informant,” starring Matt Damon, which was actually (gasp!) filmed in Decatur. In 2014, ADM gave up and moved its headquarters to Chicago.

            Besides ADM's, Decatur housed one other important corporate scandal. Its Firestone Tire and Rubber plant made tires that became notorious for tread separation and bursting. Firestone blamed owners for under-inflating its tires, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration uncovered a company email in which an executive wrote, "We are making an inferior quality radial tire which will subject us to belt-edge separation at high mileage." Later, these tires got blamed for rollover problems with Ford's huge Explorer SUVs. Partly owing to its shattered reputation -- shattered by products made in Decatur -- Firestone got acquired by the Japanese company Bridgestone.

            About 15 years ago, Illinois held a contest to name the "most boring city," and Decatur came in second.

            What an outrage!

            We Decaturites (Decatureans?) knew that such a vote had to have been rigged. In any fair contest, Decatur would have won. Instead, Rockford won.

            You can tell from the name alone that Rockford is more interesting. It has a rock, for example. Decatur has no rock. And it has a ford, which implies it has a river that flows. Decatur does have a river, but it does not flow. So on the face of it, Rockford could never possibly beat Decatur in any fair contest. Indeed, Decatur is the smallest city of its size in the United States!

            Decatur does have Decatur jokes, however. They take the form of the familiar "You Might Be From ____ If...." Here is just a sampling. Some of the references will be obscure to most of you, but that just goes to show that Decatur, like, say, Venice, has its own culture, complete with terminology.

You Might Be From Decatur If ....

  You have never met a celebrity.

  You think Chicago is a completely different state from Illinois.

  You refer to a toasted cheese sandwich as a "cheese toastie"

  Your school classes were canceled because of cold.

  Your school classes were ever canceled because of heat.

  You know what's "knee high by the Fourth of July," but it's much taller than that.

  Detasseling was your first job.

  Your idea of a traffic jam is eight cars waiting for a freight train on Eldorado St.

  You have no problem spelling or pronouncing "Mowequa."

  You have ever "warshed" your car.

  You see people wearing bib overalls at funerals.

  You can locate Decatur on the map of the United States.

  You wore your favorite white t-shirt while swimming in Lake Decatur; now it is your favorite brown t-shirt.

  You can hold your breath for more than 5 minutes, having practiced while driving over the Staley viaduct.

  You've rushed to the golf course when it snowed.

  You know the real home of the Chicago Bears, and the real name, too.

  You've used the air conditioning and heater in your car, both on the same day.

  You've used the air conditioning and furnace in your house, both on the same day.

            Although they never recorded any Decatur jokes, social scientists and historians have repeatedly studied Decatur. C. Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite, wrote a well-known paper, "The Middle Classes in Middle-Sized Cities," while doing field research in Decatur for Katz and Lazarsfeld's Personal Influence, a study of opinion leadership in Decatur.[3] Criminal Justice in Middle America is about Decatur, as is the sad book about the decline of organized labor, Three Strikes.

            Some years ago, I was the keynote speaker for the second annual Decatur Writers Conference, because I am the third-best-selling author from Decatur. For the first conference, they engaged Richard Peck, the celebrated author of 'such tween and 'teen novels as Father Figure and Lost in Cyberspace. So far as I can tell, none took place in Decatur, including two that are said to have been set there. Nevertheless, or perhaps therefore, his books have sold maybe twenty million copies, and he certainly deserved to keynote the first Decatur Writers Conference.

            For the second annual Decatur Writers Conference, I wondered why the organizers had not engaged the second best-selling writer from Decatur -- none other than Stephen Ambrose, the famous historian! (And this was before he died, and before his plagiarism scandal.) So I asked my host.

            "Well, we can tell you the answer to that question," came the reply. "Stephen Ambrose charges $40,000, plus a private jet both ways."

            "Gee," I said, "I saved you more than $36,000!"

            "Yes, you did!"

            Nevertheless, I had a fine time. Mr. Ambrose missed out.

            Nowadays, fewer and fewer people are visiting Decatur. According to a Wall St. Journal story, unemployment is down in Decatur, but solely because unemployed people have been moving away, not because they have been finding work.

            Who can blame them? I moved away, partly for work, partly because I had learned that other places weren’t so flat. The Decatur Staleys, our original National Football League team, moved to Chicago almost a century ago and renamed themselves the Bears. We don’t think they’re ever coming back.

            Sadly, people leave Decatur today not just for work but because it is too black for them. Decatur is only 20% black. These racist white people flee to dinky little sundown towns like Oreana, Forsyth, and Mt. Zion, sometimes “for the children.” As if homogeneity is what children need.

            Sociologically, however, Decatur was a good place to grow up. The working class was not then as depressed as it is now, in Decatur and elsewhere. Working class Democrats sometimes won political office. As well, Decatur was able to bus white children from the Mound School attendance zone to French Elementary School, just southeast of the business district, to relieve overcrowding at Mound while also preventing French from going majority black. (Busing of white kids to mixed or black neighborhoods was almost unheard-of in the 1950s, and this without any court order.) There was racism, to be sure. African Americans couldn't get regular jobs at places like Staley's and ADM — they could only be janitors and part-time summer workers. The teaching staff was all-white (except for two Japanese Americans).[4] Still, many of us grew up thinking that people were basically equal, as it said in the Declaration of Independence, and as Abraham Lincoln (who had lived nearby) had pointed out. We drove American cars. Some of us still do. We didn't want to be sophisticated. Some of us still don't. We dated and even married across social class lines, although not racial lines.

            I admit, I’d rather be from Decatur than in Decatur. Nevertheless, it’s still a good place to be from.

    [1]Interestingly, no trains went all the way across the country. (At times cars did, but almost everyone changed in Chicago (or St. Louis or New Orleans).

    [2]Actually, it awarded a new contract last month; the rescue, with another airline, came a few years back.

    [3]Personal Influence basically failed, owing to the lack of today's computing power that might have made sense of their data.

    [4]It took steps to change that after I graduated, including trying to recruit teachers at Tougaloo College around 1970.

 Copyright James W. Loewen

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