A QUIET RURAL CATASTROPHE
I grew up in a rural community in southern Indiana and this photograph shows a place that I rode by on my bicycle on almost a daily basis when I was a youth. In the late 1950's this place was part of vibrant small town that had a paper mill, feed mill, active railroad station, brick factory, pharmacy, tavern, hardware store, canning factory, insurance agency, as well as other small businesses. My Uncle Poky owned the tavern, so I was partial to that business.
A lot has changed in that community, and in rural communities across America, since the late 1950's. Of course, change is something we can count on, but change can be for the better, or for the worse. In my opinion, there is a quiet rural catastrophe that is overtaking rural America, much like a storm surge from a hurricane.
Let me tell you a bit about what it was like in the late 1950's in this small community. The paper mill was owned by the Kieffer family, and they provided a solid living for men and women in this community for decades. I worked at Kieffer Paper Mill when I was in high school, and there was a lot of wisdom about life I learned at that place. Mr. Kieffer was a benevolent man and what he did for the community should never be forgotten. I met so many characters during my job at Kieffer's: Jim Judd, Howard Durham, Pappy Goble, Elmer "Tack" Stidam, Gene Scott, Glen Hauck, and many others. Glen Hauck literally saved my life one night, and it was one of those silent stories that typically never left the building. I was working on a large paper-making machine, where pulp is turned into paper. I was 16 years old, and as it is when you are that age, you are immortal in your mind. In the blink of an eye, I caught my sleeve in a huge cog that was about three feet in diameter. The cog began to slowly pull me in. It happened so fast, yet the scene seemed to unfold in slow motion. I instantly realized I had no way out and that I was about to be pulled into a cog that would crush me to death. I could only see the huge cog, feel the immense power of it pulling me into its grip, and I instantly imagined that I was about to die, and wondered how horrible of a death it would be. As in a dream, I tried to scream for help, but my voice was so weak I thought no one heard. But Glen Hauck heard, and with literally only inches remaining until I was crushed, he hit the "stop" button. Glen cut my shirt sleeve from the cog, pulled me away, and hugged me in his arms. He was a friend of my Grandfather Hanners, a Masonic Lodge buddy, and there we stood in the heat of a scalding hot July night in 1968. The event went virtually unnoticed and no one ever spoke to me about it. It's the way things happened back then. Caring for one another was simply a part of life and no fanfare was expected. Years later, Glen passed away and this moment was likely never mentioned. It was the way it was.
Just on the other side of the B&O Railroad tracks, the Robertson family had owned their feed mill since the late 1800's. The feed mill provided jobs for many local citizens in the community, just like the paper mill. Generation after generation of the Robertson family emerged as community leaders and like the Kieffer family, they made the lives of many people far better than they would been without the Robertson Feed Mill.
Jimmy Spurgeon owned an insurance agency, and he was active in politics -- I remember that he was a political lobbyist in Indianapolis -- it seemed to be such a remarkable thing. Likewise, he was deeply invested in the community.
The hardware store is hard for me to talk about -- as history would have it, a man broke into that hardware store, stole a shotgun, and used it to kill my mother when she was only 31 years old and I was only 9 years old. But it was a classic hardware store, with oiled-wood floors and shelves full of every imaginable item one might need.
The Butt family owned a pharmacy and it also was the place where we bought our school books when I was in elementary school. "Red" Butt was the father figure and his son "Jim Bill" Butt was in high school when I was in elementary school. I can still remember the smell of those new books, and the thrill I got when we walked into that place. Jim Bill was left-handed and played first base on the high school baseball team and I remember watching him through the diamond-shaped openings in the chain link fence at the local ball diamond. Like the Kieffer's, the Robertson's, and Jimmy Spurgeon, the Butt Family made the lives of countless citizens so much better.
And then there was my Uncle Poky. He was part of the Robison family, and they were truly special. They didn't have the money or the prestige that other families had, but they made a difference in the community. And in retrospect, I have great respect for the way they did exactly that -- with little resources comparatively speaking, they took what they had, and made the community a better place. George Robison hauled the citizen's trash away in his trucks for decades. His sons and daughters all were of the mindset of making a difference in the community. Bob Robison became a school teacher. Raymond "Friday" Robison was a farmer and passionate supporter of the Jackson County Fair. Clair "Poky" Robison, my uncle, spent his life making the park system a better place. He sponsored a fast-pitch softball team, of which I was the batboy, and he owned Poky's Tavern. Between being bat boy for the fast-pitch softball team and sneaking into his tavern, I probably learned more than I should at an earlier age than I should, but the memories are priceless and precious.
That was then, and now is now. The changes came slowly and incrementally to small communities like my hometown. But the pace began to quicken and the changes became more significant. Industrial changes put the Kieffer Paper Mill, Robertson Feed Mill, the brick factory, and the canning factory out of business. Amazingly, the Spurgeon Insurance agency and the Butt Family are still in business and providing great service to the community. My Uncle Poky and his tavern are long gone. So is the hardware store. With the advent of retail, and big-box stores like Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe's, small town retail has virtually disappeared. So have the small gasoline stations like Watson's Union 76. So much of the fabric of rural communities has disappeared.
As jobs disappeared, unemployment was inevitable, and the insidious drug trade moved in. Drug addiction has become a huge problem in rural America. Less than 30 minutes from my hometown, the town of Austin, Indiana made national news as a hotbed of drug addiction. NPR spent weeks in the tiny town of Austin, and the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia moved in to help stem the incredible wave of drug addiction and death. In small rural towns throughout America, storefronts are empty, buildings are falling into disrepair, junk cars are left littering the landscape, weeds grow between the cracks in the sidewalk, and as time passes, there is an increasing out-migration from rural areas to urban areas. It remains a quiet, rural catastrophe that few want to acknowledge or discuss. And I get it -- the solutions are difficult to find and it is hard to face.
Besides being a documentary photographer, I've worked as civil engineer for over 40 years, trying to make communities a better place to live. In the past five years, I helped five different rural communities win around $100 million, in an effort to transform their quality of life. Virtually all of that was spent on "brick and mortar" improvements, which indeed created a much better environment in those five communities -- but money and bricks and mortar can't do what people can do. It takes the Kieffer's, the Robertson's, the Spurgeon's, the Butt's, the Robison's, and the Glen Hauck's to make life what it should be.
The whispers of a quiet, rural catastrophe are in my ears and on my mind. Only we can change that, and time is running short, I am afraid.