A Chicago journalist set out to study an "average" small town in Illinois by listening to residents fifty years ago. An anthropologist hears echoes of those conversations today.
Joseph Lyford went to Vandalia, Illinois, to learn something about how America was changing. The think tank he worked for, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, saw the year 1960 as an auspicious moment to take stock of where the nation was headed. For Lyford, a journalist by trade, this meant returning to his home state to listen in on some of the conversations taking place in a small Midwestern town.
In a sense, Lyford chose Vandalia for being unexceptional: neither growing rapidly nor steeply declining and having a diverse economic base, one not dominated by any single industry. He showed up in Vandalia with little more than a tape recorder and a set of notebooks, and through a searching series of interviews with the townspeople, he produced a sensitive portrait of a farm community in transition.
Lyford’s report, The Talk in Vandalia, was published in 1962 and quickly gained national attention. Newspapers editorialized about it, two reprints followed, and NBC dispatched camera crews to cover the town meeting where Vandalia residents responded to Lyford about his findings. Yet today, some fifty years later, the book is all but forgotten, long out of print. I ran across a reference to it in an article by anthropologist Sonya Salamon, herself an astute observer of the rural Midwest. So driving back to Texas earlier this year, I decided to spend a day in Vandalia, hoping to see how the book was remembered, if at all, and whether the insights it contained had left any impact on the town and its subsequent development.
There’s a funny moment at the beginning of The Talk in Vandalia, when Lyford meets with Robert Hasler, president of the Chamber of Commerce. Hasler reaches for a typewritten economic profile of the town and rattles off a set of statistics about its labor force. Lyford notices that the statistics are two years old, but Hasler dismisses his concern: “Things around here don’t change very much from one year to another.”
Taken out of context, the quote might sound like the punchline to a condescending rube joke. But, during my own visit, I couldn’t help thinking that it shed light on the real points of continuity between Lyford’s Vandalia and the one I was seeing. Hasler’s successor at the Chamber, Bridget Lash, told me that “young people go off to college, they study computers or Web design. But there isn’t much work like that around here, if you’re doing something specialized.” Lash’s reflections on youth outmigration and the perils of specialization echo those of Lyford’s informants, almost word for word.
Some things, of course, never do change: the high school principal’s fretting over male students who neglect their classes in favor of cars and girlfriends, or the city-born newcomer’s sense of having surrendered any modicum of privacy. On a deeper level, though, Lyford’s basic diagnosis of the challenges facing Vandalia remains accurate: the shrinking of the farm population has left factories without a reserve labor supply and whittled away at the population base needed to keep retail establishments and public services afloat.
Lyford is, by turns, wry and grave about the restructuring of agriculture in the region: he gently pokes fun at the sanctification of the family farmer, but he also unflinchingly reports one man’s account of a friend who was forced to sell his operation: “He looked all over town for some kind of job. They wouldn’t even talk to him. Finally he bought a filling station. What a hell of a way that is for a man to die.”
Interestingly, average farm size in Fayette County, Illinois, isn’t dramatically larger than it was when The Talk in Vandalia was written: 268 acres now, up from 231. The starker change has been the evaporation of industrial employment, including the closing of the Graham Packaging plant last May, at the cost of more than 130 jobs. Four factories operated in Vandalia during Lyford’s research, each lured to the town by some combination of public and private subsidy. Today, the largest employer is the Vandalia Correctional Center, currently under investigation for allegations of overcrowding and prisoner mistreatment. Gov. Rod Blagojevich proposed closing the facility in 2004, but locals lobbied hard to keep the doors open, citing the decision’s projected economic impact. In a recent piece for the Daily Yonder, Dee Davis described a similar situation in Kentucky as “the kind of crummy choice rural communities often get.”
This isn’t to say that everything is grim in Vandalia. The State House where a young Abraham Lincoln served his first years in the Illinois legislature has been restored to its former splendor, and a local entrepreneur has opened a string of new retail stores along Gallatin Street.
No preparations appeared to be underway to mark the 50th anniversary of Lyford’s book, but the public library’s one circulating copy of The Talk in Vandalia had been checked out just six months before. So perhaps the book has stood the test of time, even as its limitations are apparent to a contemporary reader. Lyford presents many more male voices than female ones, and he sniffs that “the majority of Vandalian housewives, particularly the older women, are quite satisfied to play bridge and pinochle and chat about local matters.” Then again, Lyford’s preoccupation with official public forums for democratic deliberation leads him to turn a blind eye to less formal settings for community decision-making: he spills considerable ink over a frankly farcical civil defense meeting, while ignoring the ways in which a pinochle game or a coffee social can also be a crucible for the forging of collective beliefs and values.
In the end, what endures about The Talk in Vandalia may be Lyford’s commitment to patient, on-the-ground research in rural communities, a method that reveals complexities which are invisible at a distance. “At least when they are pressed,” Lyford notes, “Vandalians express self-criticism and lively dissent, and anyone who expects to hear them talk like the people of Sinclair Lewis’s Sauk Center will either have to ignore half of what he hears or take charge of the conversations and drive them in the direction he believes they ought to take.”
As promising initiatives like the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska get underway, my hope is that they will strike a balance between the number-crunching of economists and demographers and the more interpretive insights of writers like Joseph Lyford. For within rural communities, as Lyford observes in the closing paragraph of his book, “there are stirrings and there are contradictions. Judge Burnside says nobody pays any attention to the railroads. On the other hand, in his church by the railroad, Mr. Smith has to stop in the middle of his Sunday sermon when he hears the Spirit of St. Louis coming down the tracks.”
Marcel LaFlamme is a graduate student of the Department of Anthropology at Rice University in Houston.