Throughout the summer, we posted Dispatches from Ryan Kim’s remarkable cross-country rail tour of small towns in the U.S. Now that he’s back at Middlebury, we caught up with Ryan and asked him a few questions about what prompted him to make such an ambitious journey. Here’s what he had to tell us:
The eighth installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
There is no downtown in Wells, Maine: life in this tourist town is stretched out in long strips that run parallel to the three miles of beautiful sandy beach. The road that most closely resembles a core artery is the narrow-shouldered, sidewalk-less Route 1, which in mid-August sits thicker than a lobster bisque, clogged with traffic. According to the US Census, Wells had a 2010 population of 9,589. But, various permanent residents estimate that Wells’ population booms during the summer to anywhere between 20,000-50,000, with Town Planner Mike Livingston’s estimate at about 30,000. Regardless the actual number, the summer swell of Bostonians and French Canadians, the latter whom have arrived in greater numbers since the exchange rate moved in their favor in 2009, is staggering and significant. Almost all cultural and economic activity revolves around the tourist season, which peaks between June and mid-October, but continues year-round due to Wells’ proximity to two ski resorts, which are both within a thirty-minute drive away.
Naturally endowed with a safe harbor, navigable rivers, waterpower, forests, and marshes, Wells was founded in the 1640’s by European families who arrived to build sawmills. The town’s early settlers struggled with both violent conflicts with the local Indians and being “subjugated” under the Puritan rule of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1653-1820. Yet, Wells’ prospered through shipbuilding (outdated by trains in the 1880’s), lumbering, ice harvesting, lobster fishing, and tourism. For decades, Wells merchants participated in a triangular trade system that traded lumber and fish for sugar in the Caribbean islands, which was then traded in England for manufactured goods that were delivered back to Maine. Though Wells still has an industrial park and a handful of manufacturers, its economy today can be captured by its status as a “vacation mecca”, according to Joe of the Historical Museum.
Evidence of the town’s existence as a visitor’s destination is ubiquitous. The cars in the overflowing beach parking lots mostly bear Massachusetts and Quebec license plates, and conversations on the public $1-ride trolleys are often held in more French than English. Vast neighborhoods of small second-homes and vacation trailers blanket the landscape. The town boasts a community college and an expansive antique auto museum but no daily paper, and a Wal-Mart lurks about seven miles away. However, the influence of any of these is hardly felt and practically invisible to the ephemeral eyes that head from myriad motels to the beaches and back, arms full of folding chairs, hands clutching lobster rolls and bags of saltwater taffy. At night, Wells stays busy with its restaurants and snack shacks staying open until ten-thirty or eleven throughout the week. There is no local sales tax beyond the state’s 6 percent, and property taxes are among the lowest in the state, at a rate of .86 percent. Visitors love it so much, they don’t just come once, but habitually. Some come so often that they’ve named their getaway beach houses in the tradition of ship owners: Second Wind, Canonicus.
The seventh installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
The present day struggles of Malvern, Arkansas, hometown of actor Billy Bob Thornton, tell a precautionary tale of the economic forces that have dramatically altered life in American small towns in the past few decades. Malvern was founded around the railroad industry in the 1870’s, which was developed in the area to service the therapeutic hot springs in modern day Hot Springs. Just a decade or so later, Malvernites discovered large deposits of local clay suitable for brick making. This became such a big local industry, peaking in the 1920’s, that the town has proclaimed itself the “Brick Capital of the World” and hosts a festival every summer called Brickfest. According to multiple residents, Malvern enjoyed a terrific post-world war crescendo in industrial activity that reached its zenith in the 1970’s, but has since been parched and drained to a fragment of its former self. Unfortunately, Malvern has become the sort of city where visitors are referred to fast food franchises to eat, (with the exception of one boutique bakery that few residents know exist) the closest non-franchised eatery to downtown is over a half-mile away, Main Street segues into a wide and unwalkable road and is always roaring with traffic, and travelers are warned, “You won’t find beautiful girls here; you’ll find crack heads.”
As County Judge and former Malvern Mayor Bill Scrimshaw and his colleagues recount, Malvern’s economy has been battered by a series of crippling events. Coinciding with global recession of the early 1980’s, many of Malvern’s largest employers cut jobs or closed shop. One of the most calamitous exits occurred in 1985, when Reynolds Aluminum shuttered an enormous plant eliminating 1,400 well-paying jobs in this town of ten thousand. Amidst the job exodus, Wal-Mart entered, exacerbating Malvern’s economic insecurity by cleaning out local businesses downtown. Testament to Wal-Mart’s irresistible magnetism, Burger King recently boarded up and literally moved a half-mile closer to the Super Center, located just off the interstate. A shopping plaza on the other side of town where Wal-Mart was previously located is now a vast, desolate, and marginally occupied plot of gray pavement. Though the few businesses surviving on Malvern’s Main Street have grown increasingly lonely, jobs have slowly returned to Malvern, spurred by the recent relocation of a call center, which employs almost five hundred people.
Many Malvernites describe their town as a less-than-ideal place to live. A young African-American mother notes that citizens don’t mix, sticking to their own small circles. A female bank executive believes that the people of this dry town (no alcohol) tend to settle any differences through religious means: “Nobody can get along and when they have a conflict, they just split and form a new church.” Mark Bivens, editor of the Malvern Daily Record, estimates there are 72 churches within the immediate area. Furthermore, the community’s leaders are astoundingly inaccessible, and are occasionally referred to with a snicker for their absenteeism. Several individuals corroborate that, contrary to what the US Census found, Malvern’s population fell over the last decade; the discrepancy is explained by a prison built five years ago. A Chamber of Commerce representative lists only four tourist attractions: kayaking behind the Wal-Mart, a walking path by the kayaking area, the historical museum, and the movie “thee-ay-ter”. Darrell, owner of a local diner, remarks, “They keep saying it’s going to be a tourist town, but if I was a tourist I wouldn’t come here. There’s nothing to see but old empty buildings.”
The sixth installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
Fort Madison, Iowa
Situated exactly 235 miles from Chicago by rail and stretched out alongside one of the few east-west sections of the Mississippi River lies the pleasant town of Fort Madison, Iowa, established in 1808 when Thomas Jefferson ordered thirty-six soldiers to build a fort there to serve as a “trading factory.”
The director of the Fort Museum, describes the structure as a “Wal-Mart of the frontier” where Americans could trade with the local Indians, providing high quality manufactured goods at cheap prices. The outpost served as a lever for “economic imperialism”: the Americans used trade deficits to put the Indians into debt, which they would then be freed of only by relinquishing land rights. Yet the fort, named after President James Madison, was burned and abandoned by its occupants during the War of 1812 when the British and their own Indian allies attacked it in the summer of 1813. The site remained untouched until its excavation in 1965.
Fort Madison was eventually reestablished as an industrial town when Wisconsin built its territorial prison here in 1838 and employed the prisoners to manufacture export goods. (Later, when Iowa attained statehood in 1842, the town had to purchase the prison from Wisconsin for $125,000.) Beyond this, Historical Museum Director Andy Andrews informs me that Fort Madison has enjoyed a diversity of industry that developed beginning the 1850’s, peaked in the 1950’s when the town had nearly 16,000 residents, and still continues in strength today. The variety of industry Fort Madison has hosted include lumbering, a hospital, agriculture, Sheaffer Pen, DuPont, Chevron Chemical Company, and an eclectic assortment of manufacturing (trailers, “beanie weenie” sausages, airplane de-icer, 151-foot wind blades for turbines, etc.). Andy and his co-workers claim that many of these companies are hiring but have had difficulty filling their industrial positions because welfare dependency, drug testing at companies, and a “brain drain” of talented youth to the big Midwestern cities.
Fort Madison’s condition is captured well by the similar states of its downtown and its local government: getting by but with room for improvement. The main street, Avenue G, hosts many quaint boutique stores (because Wal-Mart has sandwiched the town twenty miles to the north and south in neighboring cities), but seems perpetually deserted of shoppers. In an effort to enliven Avenue G, a longtime business owner and active Main Street program organizer has helped initiate the “First Friday” program, where merchants extend their hours on the first Friday of each month. It hasn’t caught on yet, but is only two months old and needs time to be cultivated. In Town Hall, there is a dearth of candidates for government positions. Point in case: the current mayor is a full-time dentist twenty miles away in Burlington. Despite the meager interest in public service, this solidly democratic Iowan town persists as a healthy community. The public library is in a new and clean facility, residents take weekend refuge from the summer heat at the community pool, and business owners I talked to feel the local schools are good enough to send their kids to without worry. If and when the new Amtrak station is finally built, its citizens take more ownership of their government, and foot-traffic downtown picks up a bit, Fort Madison will be a happening place.
The fifth installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
Trinidad, described by some as “The Sex Change Capital of the World” on account of a former Trinidadian doctor who pioneered this field of surgery in the 1960’s, started as a trail campsite near the Purgatoire River that became very heavily trafficked in the 1820’s after Spain annexed Mexico, opening up trade between the Mexicans and Americans. The region got its first Western establishment in 1833, when traders established Brent’s Fort, an adobe trading post that served as a staging area for the 1846 Mexican-American War. Trinidad’s first five permanent settlers were actually farmers who started growing crops for passing travelers in 1861, but much of its economy later developed around livestock raising and coal mining. The town was largely constructed by Italian stonemasons and German carpenters, and reached its economic peak around the turn of the century with as many as 35,000 citizens.
Trinidad is no longer a boomtown and much of the old industry has left. The community now suffers the common small-town ailments of weak volunteerism and widespread social service dependency. However, Trinidad is blessed with a many, many strengths including quaint brick streets laid in 1888, a charming Main Street (if sadly half empty), a new train platform used exclusively by Amtrak (while all the noisy and dangerous freight trains skirt around the town’s edge), a location halfway between Denver and Santa Fe, five museums, a free trolley tour of the city provided by the Visitor’s Bureau, the well kept Cimino (chih-MEE-no) Park where a weekly farmers market is held, a clean and welcoming walking path along the river, and outstandingly friendly citizens who go out of their way to greet me or offer rides. Yet, there has been an ongoing and increasing social tension that seems to have distracted many Trinidadians’ attention to their town’s incredible resources.
Many individuals attribute the tension to the convergence of outsiders and deep-rooted native families, sometimes referred to as the “old boy’s club.” It seems non-natives have been attracted to Trinidad for a couple of reasons. Jane, a Houston-native B&B owner, believes that “people from out of town have money, a fresh perspective, and a better appreciation of the architecture.” The former mayor’s wife attributes the 1996 Amendment 17, which raised the potential arrival of gambling to town, to attracting speculators. The effects of outsiders’ arrival over the past two decades is quite visible: much of the downtown is owned by folks from California, Montana, Texas, and even England. Trinidad’s old-versus-new friction has exploded into turmoil in the public sector as well. Just last week, the mayor resigned after citizens petitioned to vote for a recall. In the past year, forty-two teachers have left the public schools, largely in protest of the superintendent’s perceived bad intentions. Divisive and personal bickering has obstructed progress at City Hall and at the public schools, and it seems the citizens have lost the forest for the trees.
Trinidad is at a crossroads, poised for a dramatic leap upwards or an embarrassing stumble and deterioration. In my mind, because of its myriad aforementioned strengths, the town is only a few steps away from small town greatness. The community needs to rally behind a strong and less controversial leader, to refurbish its deeply historic downtown, and to continue support for their local businesses (staving off box-stores as long as possible despite the attempts of the misinformed economic development director). As this happens, I believe, Trinidad can become a truly magnificent place to live and to visit.