People on the Land: Small-Town Car Craze

Across Illinois, communities are organizing “car gatherings” to pull people into town. The events satisfy Americans' obsession with the automobile and offer hopes of cash-register receipts for local businesses.

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Monmouth, Illinois, has a long Main Street and 9,444 residents, give or take a few.

Once a year, Main Street is closed, turning into an island of maybe 1,500 antique and classic cars and trucks, including scads of hotrods surrounded by shifting sea of 15,000 people, give or take a few thousand.

It’s summer, time for the Maple City Machines Cruise Night. The event, which goes back 20 years or so, happened on July 31. The same weekend, there was a car show in nearby LaHarpe, and another, much smaller cruise in on the Courthouse Square in Macomb, both on Saturday.

Car shows, cruise ins, and cruises are different. Car shows offer trophies and prizes. Some may be combined with sales. Cruise ins are park, look, and talk events. Cruises are just that, driving events.

Timothy Collins
A 1950 Chevrolet from Iowa has only about 9,000 original miles, according to the sign.
Car gatherings are fairly common in small towns around here during the warmer months from May to October. Small or large, these gatherings have character. Sometimes they are fundraisers. Sometimes they are just for fun, a pleasant way to socialize on a warm evening. Events in most rural towns don’t match the scale of Monmouth. Some are held at restaurants or on town squares. They always have some interesting cars and offer the chance to meet—or watch—intriguing people.

Monmouth’s show is part of a strategy to draw people to its historic downtown. It is a huge volunteer effort, complete with food booths, a stage with entertainment, drawings for prizes, and a radio-station remote broadcast.

Sadly—and understandably—you don’t see many pre-World War II vehicles anymore. It’s easy to get parts for some of the more common cars of that time, such as Fords, but they are slower and bring out high levels of impatience in modern drivers. Interest in post-World War II cars is high, especially from the 1960s on.

I live in both the pre-war and post-war world of cars. There’s Silas, my 1928 Ford Model A sports coupe that is in the middle of an engine overhaul, and Merlin, my 1998 Mustang convertible and daily driver, what I like to call a rising classic.

I am not alone in my fascination—my son would call it a form of depravity—with cars. The carcruiselist.com website has had more than 91,000 visitors, including more than 34,000 during the 2014 season. According to the site, at least 240 events were held in North Central Illinois last summer.

Illinois is particularly fertile ground for auto buffs who like to cruise alone or in groups. Its historic position as the transportation center of the rural Midwest translates into the romance and beauty of roads remembered:

  • Route 66, from Chicago to California.
  • The Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway.
  • The National Road, U.S. 40, started in the early 1800s to link the East Coast with rich agricultural lands west of the Appalachians.
  • The Great River Road along the Mississippi River.
  • The Ohio River Scenic Drive.
  • And the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway.
Timothy Collins

The Monmouth, Illinois, Maple City Machines Cruise Night is a volunteer effort that needs help from local businesses and national sponsors. The town’s square is a focal point for activities.

America’s automobile fascination is a curious love affair with machines that met people’s needs. Effective automobile marketing stimulated—and still stimulates for many—a sense of restless freedom and individual empowerment as we are transported by a powerful, sleek, and beautiful machine (preferably a convertible for me) into the romance of the open road. I’m not into the power thing. But I love the idea of driving a small piece of history on the backroads, even if that history is so knotty.

Our human-machine relationships encounter hard and contradictory realities. Automobiles did enhance individuals’ freedom, but they also brought a mixed bag of permanent changes to families, communities, the nation, and our natural environment.

The coming of the automobile industry fostered a huge cluster of related industries, including steel, oil, rubber, and the highway construction industry, plus more localized services such as auto repair, restaurants and lodging. This translated into millions of jobs.

Impacts from automobile traffic rippled across the countryside, aiding outmigration, urbanization, suburbanization, access to recreation, loss of farmland and natural spaces, environmental overload and economic disruption, especially in small towns bypassed by the major highways.

Timothy Collins
A 1940 Ford captures the rays of the setting sun.  
The environmental evangelist in me cringes when I think about fuel use, fumes, and other sorts of pollution that result from our automobile culture. I cringe even more at the connections to global warming.

The conundrum of automobiles is obvious to some, but many ignore it. Cars are part of us, part of our personalities, part of our relationships, part of our geography, an asset and a debit. We benefit. But we also use them at great risk to ourselves and all life on Earth.

We celebrate cars, perhaps as a sign of our genius. Or is it madness? For smaller towns, car gatherings are important social events where enthusiasts can show off their skills at mechanics, bodywork, and painting. While I prefer unmolested older cars, I must admit I admire the creativity of some hotrodders. Like it or not, hotrods are part of the tangled automobile history in America.

Then again, the softness of twilight on a cool summer night in Monmouth, Illinois, borders on magical, with thousands of people wandering the old Main Street in the midst of machines that are so much a part of their restorers and designers.

It is curious to be a participant-observer in the ebb and flow of intriguing people—spectators and car owners—who are, for whatever reasons, caught up in something that seems so right, so good for the community, so quintessentially American.

The scene is alluring, if only because a lot of folks in the town put in a lot of volunteer effort so other folks could have an evening of fun.

Or is it all that simple? Our relationship with these machines is practical, mystical, and mythical—practical in the now, but awesome in their cultural power and environmental impacts that really do govern our lives.

Perhaps my son has a point. I might not be depraved, but I do suffer from a pre-retirement euphoria of life-is-too-short-decadence that tie me into the car thing.

As we drive home with the rising blue moon of July, I am thinking clearly. The environmental evangelist within me was in an uneasy truce. I knew it would return when I am wrote this piece, and it has.

For that moment, though, the darkened sky and broad highway brought simple thoughts, sublime memories of classic chrome and shiny paint glistening in the pure golden light of sunset.

It was fun.

Timothy Collins has been writing about community development for the Daily Yonder since 2008. He is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.

 

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