A view of North Main Street on a gray Midwestern day in the small town of Hubbard, Ohio.
“Well I was born in a small town, And I can breathe in a small town”
— John Mellencamp
“There is only one good thing about small town, You know that you want to get out”
— Lou Reed
America is a vast landscape, both in its geographic expanse and its demographic diversity. But if there’s one place in which, culturally speaking, the signifying torch of “America” still burns brightest, it’s in the small town. Not a single small town, of course, but the thousands upon thousands of Mayberrys that dot the American landscape — from the oldest New England settlements, to the Midwestern corn baskets, to the Southern white-picket fence farmsteads, to the West-Coast logging villages.
If you grew up in a heathen-infested big city like New York, Boston, or (gasp!) San Francisco, then you likely can’t appreciate the potent brew of aw-shucks Americanness that supposedly streams in the blood of every red-white-and-blue hayseed. Being from a small town is like being born with microscopic Lee Greenwood midichlorians in your circulatory system; it’s an instant indicator of authentic Americana. In much of the popular imagination, a small-town provenance means you’re from — in the infamous words of a former red-state governor and notorious airhead — the “Real America.”
Or so goes the popular myth. But if small-town America is the “Real America,” then Real America is in serious decline. The American small town ain’t what it used to be, and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
A pickup truck rolls through the town square in Kinsman, Ohio.
Trumbull County, Ohio is one of those quaint little patches in the American quilt. Located in the Mahoning Valley, on the far northeastern edge of the Buckeye state, Trumbull borders Pennsylvania and serves as a microcosm of Ohio itself, with a mixture of Rust Belt decline, Appalachian culture, small cities, rural hamlets, and lots of corn fields. The county’s combination of redneck charm and economic anxiety have made it a go-to stop for vote-craving politicos, who barnstorm Trumbull’s many barns every election season promising an imminent return to a mystic Mayberrian past of small-town fuzziness and industrial might embodied by the now-defunct Republic Steel blast furnace in the county seat of Warren.
With a rich history of organized labor, Trumbull (along with neighboring Mahoning County, home to the former “Steel City” of Youngstown) has long been a stronghold for the Democratic Party. In fact, the last time Trumbull voted Republican was for Richard Nixon in 1972. That is, until the county balked tradition and supported Donald Trump for president in 2016. Trumbull County is now Trump country thanks to a fear of death — a death brought on by economic stagnation, declining public health, the opiate epidemic, and the impression that America has been lying comatose in an open grave for too long.
A map depicting the pollution stretch index of each of the Great Lakes. Via Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic.
A long time ago, Jesus and Ronald Reagan took some time off from cracking the skulls of petulant Berkeley protestors to write the Christian Bible. After receiving divine inspiration from the prophets in the oil, gas, and coal industries, Reagan wrote the now famous verse in Genesis 1:26: “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.”
Ever since that sacred meeting between The Gipper and Hey-Zeus, the unofficial Republican platform has loosely revolved around the Dominion Mandate, which supposedly gives man (and maybe woman, if she asks politely and still has supper ready) the right to exercise dominion over the earth and plunder its natural resources at will for the glory of God and Exxon Mobile. Of course, not all Christians subscribe to this hollow interpretation of Scripture, and not everyone who wants to defile the natural world is a Christian. Consider President (“I got 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton”) Trump.
Union Army Civil War Reenactors Prepare an Infantry Assault at Argus Park, Canfield, Ohio
A few years back — I think it was 2009 — I took a summer trip back home to the Youngstown, Ohio area after having endured my first few months of graduate school in Calgary, Alberta. While back home, I went to a biannual local event, the kind that attracts a certain breed of generally harmless miscreants: a Civil War reenactment. Granted, there are lamer ways to spend your time, but not many, and since I’m a historian who focuses on the Civil War era, viewing one of the more popular modern manifestations of the war in contemporary culture seemed like a good way to spend an afternoon.
A Republican Party activist sports a Rebel flag license plate in Pennsylvania, a state that did not secede from the Union in 1860-61.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m crazy about music. Music made by people who care about making good music. So I couldn’t resist combining some good music in this entry with a bit o’ southern history. If you haven’t heard of the Drive-By Truckers before, you need to remedy such an obvious personal cultural deficiency and get some of their albums NOW. That said, the Truckers are, in my not-so-humble opinion, one of the finest American rock and roll bands of this or any other generation.
Hailing from Alabama, they often get tagged under the unfortunate banner of “Southern Rock.” While they do focus on the South in much of their recorded output, and make no bones about being proud of their Dixie heritage, their music goes much deeper than the mere Rebel-flag wavin,’ backwoods lifestyle pimpin,’ Murica’ lovin,’ jingoistic slop that Nashville is currently spewing out like a ruptured hernia. Indeed, the Truckers make uncompromising American, not southern, music, and they speak to a broader issue in American history that is well-worth addressing.