More Talk in Vandalia
[imgbelt img=vandalialyfordcover221.jpg]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.
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.”
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.
[imgcontainer left] [img:vandalialyfordcover221.jpg] Joseph P. Lyford’s book was published 50 years ago. There’s one circulating copy in the Vandalia library.
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.