Midwestern Small Towns, They Are A'changin'

by Mark Lucker
Staff Writer

Marshall may be a small town in the eyes of many, but not for many of the presenters at the conference on "The Midwestern Small Town," hosted on campus last week.

The conference was organized and conducted by the Southwest Minnesota State University Center for Rural and Regional Studies, the SMSU English Department, the Society for the Study of Local and Regional History and the Minnesota Humanities Commission. It began with a panel discussion involving the three authors of the recently published anthology "A Place Called Home." Joe Amato, professor emeritus of the CRRS led the opening session along with SMSU literature professor David Pichaske. Amato noted that the small towns the conference focused on included only "the true small towns, those of populations of 1,000 or less."

Amato spoke on the conference theme, "What has happened to my home, my small town?" He said that the study of one's hometown is not without pitfalls.

"The study of home is the study of self--some of what we hate most, and love most," Amato said. He also expressed a disappointment in the disregard for small towns in today's society.

"[We spend] millions of dollars on economic development, [but] we never study what the results are," Amato said.

The results can often be devastating to small communities.

David Pichaske echoed those themes as he spoke of some of the mythology of the Midwestern small town, as it has been portrayed throughout literature over the past century.

"[We] need to look at the sense of place and community that we tend to be losing in small towns," Pichaske said.

Pichaske challenged the audience with questions about what diversity really means to a small community. He said some of the popular notions of the "saving" of small towns by the migration of city dwellers looking for a simpler life are decidedly unrealistic.

"Small towns and what they are will not be saved by an influx of ex-urbanites," Pichaske said, adding that those transplants would impose their own ideas on small town life and change the towns fundamentally. These thoughts were echoed by many conference speakers.

Dr. Richard Davies of the University of Nevada-Reno and author of the critically acclaimed "Main Street Blues" also took his place on the afternoon panel. Davies grew up in a small town in Ohio that he left after high school. He eventually came home to find changes, and his observations inspired him to write Blues.

"Driving here yesterday I saw only one herd of cows...one herd," Davies said as an example. Davies said only two percent of Americans are currently employed in agriculture, due in part to larger corporate farming operations. In many regions, corporate farms are becoming the only feasible type of farms for economic survival.

"[Corporate farming affects family farms] in ways as great if not greater than the Wal-Marts of the world have had on mom and pop businesses," Davies said.

Other presenters at the conference included Professor John Miller of South Dakota State University in Brookings. He shared passages and thoughts on his book, "Finding History on Highway 14." Also, nationally prominent South Dakota author Linda Hasslestrom led an evening discussion based on her writings on small town and ranch life on the great plains.

The discussion ended with a brief question and answer period.

Amato encouraged many of the students attending the conference to look at the study of regional and local history as a possible field of study.

"Small town history is a subject whose time has come," Amato said.