Katy Rossing

Smothered: American Nostalgia and the Small Wisconsin Town


ISSUE 12 | HOME AND PAIN | JAN 2012

“No one wants this town to die, but no one wants it to change, either.” – Gary M., Argyle, Wisconsin

There is a simple formula for writing about the Midwest. Here it is:

  1. Begin with a loquacious description of the Euclidean-flat homogeneity of the landscape. This place looks boring. It looks like there’s nothing here worth thinking about. Example: “The sins of the Midwest: flatness, emptiness, a necessary acceptance of the familiar. Where is the romance in being buried alive? In growing old?” (Stewart O’Nan, Songs for the Missing).
  2. In fact, it seems no one has really thought about it before, they all write. What IS the Midwest? The West, South, and East all have clear stories; stories that are told and retold in regionally-interested textbooks, novels, movies. The Midwest? It’s a humorously ingenuous, blank foil for another region. Example: Fargo, Annie Hall.
  3. But wait a minute, the writers tell you, it turns out this place isn’t empty at all! They spend the remainder of the article crouched in a defensive posture. The Midwest’s history is simply different, they say, a neurotic tic in their eye–it’s smaller, less flashy, but (possessed, the righteous postmodern relativism glows like hot coals in their eyes) it’s just as important! Its history is small, but just as relevant! Just as interesting! They are saviors, lifting the delicate region gently from the muck of obscurity. Example: “Ninety-nine point nine to the ninth percentile of what has ever happened here isn’t in my book. Its two thousand words are my nutshell.” William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth.

* * *

Since you already know the trade secrets, I won’t bore you with the usual jab-punch-hook of the Introduction to Writing About the Midwest—though I’m terribly tempted to do so—not only because it’s fun to write in such bombastic terms about flatness, but also because it allows the author to enjoy a serious thrill of righteousness. (Seriously. Give it a try.)

In 1903, the Iowa Historical Society’s newsletter, the Annals of Iowa, ran an editorial asking if their subject was “worthwhile.” They noted that a callous observer might mistake the state’s history as boring, a straw anxiety followed by a swift rejoinder. The editors chided their contemporaries: “The spectacular, the war-like, the lurid, the mysterious, the terrible,” they wrote, chests full of corn-fed indignation, “[these] are not the only things in history.” Why can’t we find Iowans’ settled thriftiness as compelling as the Western cowboy, or Lewis and Clark?

* * *

Rural Midwestern history is etched in the finest grain possible, and ideally qualified by personal experience or connections. Family trees are a topic of frequent discussion; most people here are extraordinarily savvy genealogists, able to casually trace their ancestry to the nuanced degree of third-cousin, thrice removed, with characteristic precision, even after four or five beers. This isn’t to say that there is ignorance of the big stories of history (like wars, the moon landing, and so on), but there is a special importance attached to small history here; history that can be understood in personal terms, sketched in local colors.

The presence of small history can be read everywhere in the visual landscape. The often-described image of the Midwest as “flyover country” means a vast green (or brown-white, depending on the time of year) quilt designed in the sole service of practicality and efficiency by the Jeffersonian grid system of 1785. Small towns dot the landscape with a similar efficiency, their spatial regularity once necessary for the day-to-day business and trade of pre-automobile society. In fact, the distribution of towns in the Upper Midwest, specifically Wisconsin, is so regular and hierarchical that it has become the poster region for geographer Walter Christaller’s Central Place Theory, which is based on a hierarchical geometry of hexagons. Nearly every town wages its own tiny war against insignificance, its own effort to pull itself from the muck of obscurity, seeming to heed the call of the Annals of Iowa editorial. Attendant to this effort is a kind of boosterism that seems quaint and perhaps unrefined, substituting a simple moral axis and lack of metacritical instinct for the trimmings of responsible postmodernity.

Most small towns post brightly-painted welcome signs at their entrances. These signs almost universally eschew long-ago dates of benchmarks in their development or participation in state or national history. Instead, the welcome signs feature lists of the local high school’s accomplishments or dates of annual events. Argyle, the town I live in, has two main entrances, from the east and west. The eastern side advertises the annual fish fry, a benefit for the fire department. The western sign reminds you that you are entering the “Home of the Argyle Orioles” (this is our mascot), and lists football and basketball championship titles going back to the 1960s. These signs aren’t interested in fitting Argyle into a broad and far-reaching regional narrative–perhaps because there isn’t one there. Instead, their focus is small, recent history–history that can be identified on a personal basis.

The common Legion Memorial Park, erected by local veterans organizations, is another example of this type of localization history. Like the welcome signs, these spaces are also defensive, aggressively asserting the town’s significance and supreme patriotism. These parks often feature souvenir fighter planes or tanks, the leftover machinery from past wars. This monument is accompanied by a plaque listing its service record, along with lists of the names of local men and women who served. Despite their flavor of nationalism, these parks do not function as a participation in a broad regional narrative. They do testify to an apple-pie All-Americanness, a common attribute of the Midwest, but their main function is a reflective one that serves the town itself. The list of names, most of them familiar to a town resident—if not found in their family tree–provides a personal specificity unavailable in large communities. As a counterpoint, consider the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, where the presentation of individual names is chiefly important insofar as it is graphically subsumed by the monolithic wall; the tragedy is felt in the impossibility of grieving each element. In these Legion parks, the specificity of the names themselves emerge as the dominant effect, and the tragedy is located in the intimacy of each individual.

The practice of identifying “centennial farms” is yet another example of the Midwestern landscape presenting and preserving small history. Such farms have been owned and operated by the same family for more than 100 years. Again, we see history set on a very small scale, so localized that its significance extends only to the borders of its county—if that. Again, the micro-focus of history affirms belonging and identity. This history is a service to the local community. A motorist passing between Philadelphia and Seattle likely doesn’t care.

An extensive repertoire of local history and geography is a point of pride here, with a friendly kind of competition over knowledge of genealogy, weather patterns, or topography. The annual hunt for morels requires an intimate knowledge of the landscape, since the mushrooms only grow beneath dead ash trees. Vernacular names and landmarks signal a grassroots claim on identity, with residents’ rejection of official names for streets, ridges, or highways. (It’s not Milwaukee Street but “Main Hill Road.”) These names are unmarked on maps–an implicit geography that both excludes outsiders and asserts a right to self-determination.

Though these aliases eschew formal impositions, they are not irreverent; rather, they are respectfully maintained through generations–often with total disregard for the problem of misinformation. My parents recently bought a house here. It was built in 1952 by the Vinger family, which occupied it for the next 58 years. Though my parents have owned it for nearly a year, they continue to refer to it as “the Vinger House.” My dad commissioned a bronze plaque to hang next to the door bell reading “The Lawrence and Bertha Vinger House.” It lists the names and expertise of each contractor who helped build it, the name of the woods where its lumber was harvested, and the local architectural firm that drew up its utterly utilitarian blueprints. This attachment to hyper-local history defines the region’s identity as a whole. Garrison Keillor’s stories are riddled with this aesthetic of intimacy and specificity, peppered with vernacular placenames and mini-anecdotes that flow naturally through the stories as if we knew the people and places of which he speaks. He is mimicking the storytelling style of the rural Midwest.

Big history, like a monolith, asks you to either throw yourself against it or wrap around it like a foil. The pervasive narrative of the West, South, or Northeast is inescapable; it is told and retold in monuments, T-shirt slogans, textbooks, and documentary films. As its denizen, you are compelled to navigate it either through embrace or rejection. In Bess Streeter Aldritch’s novel, The Rim of the Prairie, Mr. Rineland, an elderly farmer, expresses a deep distaste for such a relationship between region and individual:

“A great wrath rises in me, when I read the stuff from onlookers telling their opinions of my mid-west from the house-tops. It makes me angry all through. […] For it is my mid-west, Warner. I helped to make it. […] I curried Judge Baldwin’s horses when he was spoken of as a ‘rising young lawyer.’ […] It is a part of me. It is myself.”

Is this small history what makes the Midwest so dear to us as Americans? It presents the tantalizing possibility of simultaneously experiencing affirmations of individual significance while belonging in a meaningful way to a close-knit community. Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon monologues are written in an aesthetic of detail and familiarity. Many have questioned the appeal of Keillor’s style (including Homer Simpson, who once attacked his television when it displayed a Keillor monologue, shouting “Be more funny!”), but it relies on something beyond humor. It allows us to relax for a moment under the promise of the golden innocence of a small American town, allowing us to accept or ignore the subtle irony according to our mood. Small towns promise belonging, reassuring limitations, and personal significance. These promises form a port in the late capitalist storm of rootless individuals and teeming, anonymous mega-metropolises.

* * *

Argyle is a small town in southwestern Wisconsin. The population is 888. Across the street from my house is a cornfield, and beyond that you can see several dairy farms, pretty red barns, and white-capped silos surrounded by a halo of cows.

The two-block-long main street hosts about ten businesses. Of these, two are taverns. One is a knick-knack shop advertising “Country Crafts” (mostly manufactured in China). Next door is Irma’s Kitchen, locally famous for pie. Often, Irma herself–84 years old, a mouse of a woman–can still be seen hunched over the oil-spitting griddle, flipping pancakes the size of dinner plates.

On the corner is Rossing’s Fine Foods, a grocery store founded by my grandfather. It once employed a dozen people; now, one of my aunts is its proprietor and sole employee. Next door, you can look in the huge picture windows of the largest and perhaps most beautiful building in Argyle, the L.A. Rossing department store. Founded in the late nineteenth century, it has sat empty since 1999, since which time the lettering on its large “FOR SALE” sign has faded from red to pink. Across the street is the Norseman, a once-elegant supper club that everyone tells me is a dim shadow of its former self. Although they still serve fancy dishes like frog legs on Saturday nights, there are no more linen napkins, and the dining room is rarely more than two-thirds full. Around the corner is Phillipson’s garage, which shut down just last year. Up the hill, there is the Argyle Industries building–closed in 2001, another concession to the Rust Belt. With its tiny population, my town is lucky to retain its own school district, having avoided consolidation efforts in the mid-1990s.

“It’s just a tragedy. A tragedy,” one of my aunts often says—a touch dramatically, as is her manner. (Retired, she still works part-time at the Cenex Am-Pride in order to stay abreast of local gossip.) “I remember when there were three grocery stores here. Three grocery stores and four gas stations. This is a dying town.” People often talk about a time when the town had three grocery stores, four gas stations, and a small hotel. This is very difficult to imagine.

I sat down recently with the editor of the local newspaper, who, unsurprisingly, is the brother of one of my father’s childhood friends. His office walls were covered in old promotional calendars given out by the town bank, snapshots of local residents, and heavily-annotated posters of the Argyle Orioles’ sports schedules (50% of the paper is coverage of high school sports teams, and another quarter of the pages are devoted to pictures of residents attending Norwegian dinners, fish fries, and similar events). We discussed an article I planned to write on the town’s employment statistics. The conversation soon veered into the grim. “No one wants this town to die,” he said at one point, staring at his crowded walls, “but no one wants it to change, either.”

* * *

This reluctance to change is the crux of the challenge for small towns. There is a deeply felt desire to perpetuate the past, which is sainted as a golden era of free-range childhoods, uncomplicated politics, and general prosperity. Since small history functions as a kind of mirror, the fascination between itself and its subject is both mutual and infinite. Small towns like my own are able to attach themselves to their history because of its smallness, its affirmation, its immediacy. When every little town on the prairie thought it might become a Chicago, St. Louis, or St. Paul, the fine-grained history and overblown claims of boosterism were aimed at attracting speculators. Once clear regional leaders had emerged, however, the boosterism didn’t stop–instead, it became an essential component of the town’s identity and self-esteem, perhaps steeling it against being swallowed up by the landscape’s specter of endlessness. Today, outsiders might recognize these claims as a quaint unworldliness. Garrison Keillor is poking fun at such rhetoric in his Lake Wobegon skits with the town’s tagline: “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Once history is articulated, it calls for preservation. Big history gets retold in lyrics, grade-school curricula, and documentaries. But because of its narrow relevance, small history is in constant peril of being forgotten. Much of it is passed on through storytelling, and so residents must tell it, and keep telling it, continuously. To keep telling it and enacting it is to keep the past alive in the present. There is a constant vigilance against obscurity. There is no mandate to know anything at all about small history; instead, it requires self-motivation and personal interest.

The fierce protectionism around history and the past is compounded by the economic depression crippling many upper Midwestern towns. Residents face the daily challenge of living in a locus of obvious decline. Recalling lived history, a main street flush with three grocery stores and four gas stations, can function as a palliative.

This past Christmas was an opportunity to watch old home movies with one of the last remaining family members from my grandparents’ generation. My great-grandfather Victor was an avid gardener, and much of the footage dwelled on long-dead rose gardens. I sat on the floor taking notes–page after page of the Steno notebook filled with names, places, and dates that no one would ever really need or perhaps want to know, and yet I was filled with a threatening sense of urgency, of the past slipping water-like through our fingers no matter how tightly we tried to cup our hands around it. As the ranks of the generation who steered small towns like mine through their fat midcentury years begin to thin, there is a race to preserve their memories. The local historic society has begun a major oral history project. I volunteered to help collect them. I sit down in the lace-curtained living rooms with the subject and a digital recorder, wondering if they can feel my morbid sense of urgency. I ask some questions and listen to them for several hours, the green light of the recording device a welcome beacon of hope between us. In it glows perpetuity.

***

Cities are allowed to change. In fact, it is demanded of them. We go to cities to be awed by the innovations of technology, architecture, and art on a global scale. Small towns feel the opposite pressure. In Lindsborg, Kansas, an ordinance was passed banning neon lights in an attempt to preserve the town’s old-fashioned aesthetic. The town hoped to attract tourist dollars with its “picturesque” Main Street. The Midwest and its small towns have dedicated themselves to preserving a living image of an America that no longer exists.

The Midwestern small town is a collective spatial fantasy for America. Its small history and social structure promise a simultaneous sensation of individual recognition and community belonging. Their attachment to the past makes them an ideal locus for projection of this fantasy life—a place where the Norman Rockwell dream has not yet been extinguished. Adding to this perception of the rural Midwest is its equation with unadulterated Americana–a place where one can venture to experience the “truest” version of American culture, supposedly least altered by recent immigration, globalization, and postmodern nihilism. The Heartland. Not interested in asserting a distinctive regional narrative, the Midwest is often seen as the control region for American cultural innovation. This perception of blankness may have contributed to the intensity of the Midwest’s felt need to inscribe its own highly specific cultural history in its landscape.

It is a commonplace that American culture has been corrupted by the modern era. Optimism has been shoved aside in favor of a cynical take on the future that predicts airwaves overrun by profit-driven, Vocoded pop culture huffed like glue by a nation of slack-jawed, Ritalin-addled, Type II diabetics whose primary mode of communication is text messaging.

The small Midwestern town is glorified as an antidote to this cultural pessimism. Lake Wobegon is “the town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve.” Small towns’ tourist brochures are heavy on words like “simplicity,” “slower,” “old-fashioned,” and “real.” The Potosi Brewery (located in a 744-person town at the Wisconsin-Iowa border) asks you to come visit them in “a place where the air is clear, the birds still sing, and a cave doubles as a fine refrigerator.” Giving up on the dream of growth or industrial success, many towns have turned to exploiting their attachment to the past, promising a kind of temporal tourism that allows the weary New York or Los Angeles resident to achieve the ultimate comfort: a trip back up into the cultural womb of the pre-modern era. The past, it seems, has never really died here. It is “so suffused with the present that historic preservation attempts seem out of place, literally,” Kent Ryden comments in his book Sum of the Parts: The Mathematics and Politics of Region, Place, and Writing. This perception is crucial for the nostalgic pull of the Midwest; it promises a fascinating fusion of where we are and where we want to be.

The beginning of this essay discussed the rhetorical pattern of writing about the Midwest. It omitted a common but slightly less popular option–the homecoming narrative. These pieces are typically written by a native son or daughter who has moved to a major metropolis in order to escape the oppressive dullness of his or her hometown. The writer is skeptical about his homecoming, wondering if he could ever adjust to the slow simplicity after his fast-paced and complicated existence in New York City. But soon, the writer has an awakening, and describes the blissful sense of affirmation and belonging with the near-ecstasy of a born-again evangelical. He has an epiphany. He suddenly views both himself and his hometown in a rich palette of variegated colors, Wizard of Oz-style. Soon enough, the writer returns to his zeitgeist-defining coastal nest, but reports that his brush with the pure, unsullied vision of Main Street America has left him more grounded, moral, and happy. Ryden describes Lisa Knopp’s return to her hometown in Iowa, where she comes upon the triumphal observation: “I am historical!” At last, she can make sense of the confusing, rootless relativism of her modern urban existence. The rural Midwest has been pressed into service as a kind of cultural therapy for corrupt, baseless urban dwellers. It reminds the rat race of what really matters.

A coastal American might derive comfort even without visiting the rural fantasyscape of the Midwest. It is enough merely to know that it is there, chewing on venison landjaegers and piloting International Harvesters across fertile fields. This is the same comfort we find in jaguar preserves or the Louvre–preservation means never having to say goodbye.

Nostalgia that is invested in a physical landscape offers the illusion of the impossible: the chimeric experience of time-travel back to a strait-shooting past of good-hearted Americana. But of course, we can’t, really. Yet the widespread desire to do so, coupled with a period of economic decline, has increased the pressure on small Midwestern towns to provide this Disneyland-esque experience. This forces them to deny their own evolution, hiding or forbidding the modern trappings of neon signs or midcentury architecture. This pressure has accumulated to the point of having a smothering effect on these towns. They are burdened with the task of keeping the historic American ideal alive in the present, no matter how disadvantageous this position is to their prospects for their future.

Driving through the region’s historic two-lane highways, it’s easy to be seduced by the idea that you are traveling back in time. But the silos are empty and the classic John Deere tractors are either the playthings of hobby farmers or lawn ornaments. The apparent verdant fertility of the hills and fields is, in reality, a highly-engineered and corporate-owned operation made possible by sterile seeds that have been genetically spliced with fish DNA and floated along on boatloads of pesticides. If you slow down, you can observe the challenges and decline: the little plastic Monsanto signs tacked to every other fencepost; barns buckling in utter disrepair; once-busy cheese factories converted into private residences as centralization and conglomeration roll forth; the Wal-Mart signs on the edge of town, perched high in the sky like debased preachers–promising a thriftier life while they expertly undermine the local economy. Without laying claim to identity, the Midwest allows you to see what you like: a golden oldie, or a place in decline that faces backwards only because the future seems so bleak.

In his essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson identifies a modern weakness for nostalgia, suggesting that our preoccupation with the past is the result of living in a society in which nothing meaningful occurs. Major capital has stricken the cities of purpose and meaning at the same time that it has sucked the marrow from the small towns and their supporting communities of farmers. This mode of existence, Jameson argues, encourages a fixation on authenticity. This is often situated in the past. We are eager to perpetuate the fantasy of returning, intensifying the pressure on the Midwest to preserve a bygone era of American life.

The Midwest is a salve to the despair of the late capitalist, its hyperlocal history reminding us that there are still real stories to tell (not just ironic pastiche). Small history and small towns allow us to forget Jameson’s claim that unique individuality has in fact evaporated–here, where each person is recognized and affirmed as a vital link in the community. Here, the past is persistently and insistently near, evidenced in everything from the town welcome sign to centennial farms. As more towns realize they can no longer sustain their local economies, they adopt the role of cultural therapist, fashioning themselves as soothing escapes from modern life. This requires an active resistance in the face of evolution.

Residents feel the pressure of this responsibility. You can see it in their homes. They are stuffed to the gills with Precious Moments figurines and collectible plates depicting early-twentieth-century pastoral scenes of threshing, sleigh-rides, and the like. One lady I know here, Maxine, is in her mid-80s. She has accumulated so many of these things that she must rely on the help of her friends to maintain her collection, hosting monthly cleaning parties in order to properly dust them all. They line the walls of homes like lead, proofing it against an advancing glacier of contemporary demands for change. The collectability of these tchotchkes signals their continual reproduction, ensuring that the past is not dead; rather, it is always being envisioned anew, and anyone can purchase stock in this recreation.