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The view from Vandalia
A half century on, a much-studied small city has lessons to teach
THOUGH heavy with history and slow to change, the city of Vandalia, Illinois, is quick to spot an opportunity. Take Abraham Lincoln, whose career began there during the city’s brief stint as the state capital. Sticklers note that Lincoln loathed Vandalia, helping to move the capital to Springfield. No matter. Lincoln sells, so signs bearing his name lure tourists from a nearby interstate highway to the porticoed capitol building where he served. The old statehouse (across the street from Lincoln Park) recently acquired a $5,000 Lincoln mannequin. “He couldn’t wait to leave,” grins a guide, giving Abe a pat. “Now we’ve brought him back.”
For many Americans, rural spots such as Vandalia are increasingly mysterious, drifting further and further away from larger cities in their values, politics and economics. Vandalia offers a unique viewing point. Like lots of Midwestern towns it is ringed by farms, has a fine, brick-built main street, and boasts a single high school and many churches (Vandalia has 18, or one church for every 300 permanent residents). But it stands out for its role in a sociological experiment of half a century ago, when its inner workings were studied by the writer Joseph Lyford. His book-length report, “The Talk in Vandalia”, prompted a local stink, admiring national headlines and a television film. Fifty years on, it offers a chance to trace the long-term forces buffeting such places.
A whiff of corporatism rises from Lyford’s pages. A clutch of businessmen essentially ran Vandalia via the Chamber of Commerce. Competition for jobs was not global, but with other American towns and cities. Repeatedly, city fathers, banks and locals wooed employers with free land, buildings and grants. A shoemaker threatening to leave was bribed with $12,000 for a new plant, from workers who docked themselves two hours’ pay a week. Yet bribed firms could and did fail, or leave. The most stable employer, a mechanical seals maker, arrived without subsidy.
Paternalism left little room for partisan politics. Vandalians split equally between Republicans and Democrats. Local offices were mostly won by reputation, not party. A Democratic house painter running for county sheriff campaigned on a single issue: a vow to repaint the local jail. Vandalia was quiet—a two-man police patrol kept it safe at night. It was a bit suffocating, too. A bid to stage an amateur “Messiah” ran foul of church elders worrying that singers might damage a new carpet. A group of schoolteachers were reported for “laughing noisily” in a restaurant.
Bleak notes intrude. A Presbyterian minister is quoted asking his flock why fewer than ten blacks live in Fayette County, of which Vandalia is the seat. “You know the answer,” he told them: an unwritten law that at sundown blacks had “best be on their way” out of town, or face the consequences. Lyford found family farmers, squeezed between rising land values and falling crop prices, frightened for their futures. Youngsters who made it to college seldom returned. The town’s survival seemed in doubt.
But what is Vandalia for?
Fifty years on, its population has held steady, and farms are thriving. Locals describe a place that is more democratic, open and connected to the world. Ten high school teachers are native Vandalians who came back. At the same time, leading citizens—among them the mayor, high school principal, county sheriff, newspaper publisher, state senator and hospital CEO—yearn to be less dependent on state and federal governments.
Life is peaceful compared with big cities, says the sheriff, Aaron Lay, Vandalia born and raised. But standards have still fallen. The rural scourge of methamphetamine triggers hundreds of drug arrests each year, county-wide. Race relations have evolved, Mr Lay says: one of his officers is black, hired on merit alone. That said, Vandalia remains overwhelmingly white (unless inmates at the state prison on the edge of town are counted).
Open debate led by an energetic mayor, Rick Gottman, has replaced cosy deals by businessmen, says Mary Truitt, a city historian. Vandalia values self-reliance: locals raised much of the money for new community-college buildings. But when Illinois threatened to close the jail, she says, “You could feel the fear.”
The prison is Vandalia’s largest employer. The county hospital is the second-largest. And though local farmers are more bullish than 50 years ago, thanks to advances in agricultural science and a recent run of bumper years, federally backed crop insurance still saved several from ruin during 2012’s harsh drought, says Ron Marshall of the county farm bureau.
Dependence has not made locals love government. Today Vandalia and outlying districts send Republican representatives to Springfield and Washington with two-thirds majorities. As in many rural districts, President Barack Obama’s vote collapsed in Fayette County between 2008 and 2012, dropping 28%.
Private-sector jobs remain hard to keep: a plastics plant is about to shut, laying off more than 100. Many Vandalians blame the dysfunctional finances and politics of Illinois, a state dominated by Democratic voters in and around Chicago. They lament that firms are driven away by taxes and regulations that are less business-friendly than those in Missouri or Indiana, conservative states next door. Rural values and priorities differ from the vision Mr Obama has for America, says Dave Bell, publisher of the Leader-Union. Rural America has the edge on territory. But in Illinois (indeed nationally) populous places have the votes.
The rural dilemma has changed. Vandalia is not about to vanish, thanks to crop insurance and other state safety nets. It could yet become a quaint dormitory: some already commute to jobs an hour or more away. Instead, Vandalia wishes to remain a living, risk-taking community, with a voice in big political fights of the day. Fifty years on the fight is not for survival, but relevance.
Reprinted with permission from Dec. 22, 2012, issue of The Economist Newspaper Ltd., London.