The Pride of the Prairie: How America Went Wrong

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What one Midwestern city can tell us about American progress and prosperity.

Part One: “You have to keep the people and the businesses”

The Prairie School of architecture — of which Frank Lloyd Wright was the most famous member — is known for houses with horizontal lines evoking the flat landscape of the Midwest. Prairie Style houses are meticulous, and exhibit a sense of order and function. Indeed, it was Wright’s mentor Louis Sullivan who coined the famous maxim that “form follows function.” In addition to their clean, external lines and gently sloping roofs, Prairie Style houses often include interior elements — such as built-in benches with storage compartments — meant to maximize interior space and order. Prairie Style architecture acts as a bulwark against the jumble of life.

Elevation of Wright’s Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, IL

Like the architecture it inspired, the landscape surrounding Decatur, Illinois — where there are a number of Prairie Style homes, including one designed by Wright — is anything but jumbled. The land around Decatur, also known as “The Pride of the Prairie,” is a mostly flat patchwork of fields, almost entirely corn and soy, all carefully ordered and meticulously tended. The farms surrounding Decatur are more like outdoor factories than stereotypical pastoral farms; they have much in common with the earliest root of “farm”: per the word’s etymology, the earliest definition of “farm” — rent or payment — comes the old French ferme for “lease.” Farming in Illinois is a commercial affair.

Regardless, the drive to Decatur from Chicago — which I did most recently in June — is as soothing (or least mesmerizing) as a three-hour highway drive can be. Because the land is largely flat, one can see for miles, and most everything appears groomed. What hills there are undulate softly, and the highways are bordered by green: now a tall wall of corn, now a vast field of low soy leaves. Central Illinois’s landscape resembles a green, tamed sea.

So when I was in Decatur it was jarring that life felt so very disordered. My week in Decatur was overcast by the news that our government had been cruelly separating migrant children from their parents (many of them are still separated); my time in the otherwise orderly, quiet city was infected with the derangement and chaos emanating from Washington, which Decatur, like so much of the country, is at least partly responsible for inflicting on itself. But why?

In the 2016 election, Macon County, Illinois, of which Decatur is the seat, voted for Trump. 56% of the Macon County vote, 26,866 votes in all, went to Trump, versus Clinton’s 18,343. (To be fair, much of the actual city of Decatur went for Clinton). And while the 2016 result was hardly unexpected, it is striking, given Decatur’s history. Since the 1980 presidential election, Macon County has gone for Republicans five times and Democrats five times, and since Illinois’s most recent redistricting in 2013, it has been represented by Rodney “I am an unabashed supporter of our Second Amendment rights” Davis.

Founded in 1829, Decatur experienced booming growth for much of its history; between 1900 and 1920, for example, its population more than doubled. Lincoln gave his first political speech in Decatur, and the city was the original home of the Chicago Bears. Decatur was — and remains — a major center of agricultural industry. One of Caterpillar’s largest plants is in Decatur; food processing giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) employs more than four thousand people in the city. And Decatur’s Tate & Lyle (formerly A.E. Staley) plant is one of the biggest producers of high fructose corn syrup in the country.

But Decatur has seen its fortunes reverse. Since it peaked in 1980, Decatur’s population has been steadily declining; the 2017 estimate of Decatur’s population is about 23% less than the 1980 number. Adjusted for inflation, Decatur’s median income has gone down since 2010. Its unemployment rate is currently 5.2%, versus the national rate of 3.7%. And the percentage of people and families in Decatur whose income was below the poverty level in 2016 was a stunning 20.1%.

Then along comes a twice-divorced television personality from New York with a vague-but-loud message about “winning.” Say what you will about Trump, but his sense of timing, and his ability to amplify and use his voters’ grievances, is impressive. Though hardly intentional on either party’s part, Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, a mere month after Decatur and Macon County announced their “Limitless” branding campaign that, per Decatur’s Herald & Review, “seeks to remove boundaries and convey a place with abundant opportunities.”

So it’s no surprise that a place responsible for a pro-growth campaign about being “limitless” might be attracted to a political candidate who promised doing “some things that are gonna be amazing,” as Trump said in a 2016 campaign speech in nearby Bloomington:

“You have your industry moving out — Illinois is a big example of it — you know how badly things are, I mean, you are a great example if you really think about it, your taxes are through the roof, your companies are leaving you, you’ve got nothing going!”

But the trust Decatur and Macon County placed in Trump is an example of placing trust in a corporate, profit-driven system that has repeatedly (and increasingly) failed it; at the risk of making too fine a point, this is the story of America.

Like so many places in America, Decatur has been a company town almost since its inception: as the fortunes of the companies that run the city have gone, so have the city’s fortunes. And Decatur’s history underscores that while corporate interests may drive a place, they do not necessarily sustain that place. Put another way, “market forces and capitalism by themselves aren’t sufficient to ensure the common good and to limit the concentration of wealth at levels that are compatible with democratic ideals,” as Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, told CBS.

To wit, per the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, corporate profits are up: they increased $65.0 billion and $26.7 billion in the first and second quarters of 2018. Yet economic inequality — particularly among races — across the country has also been growing. Where 31.1 percent of whites made $200,000 and over in 2017, only 16.2 percent of blacks made more than $200,000 in 2017, according to Census income data. And while 9.1 percent of whites made less than $15,000 in 2017, in the same year 19.6 percent of black households made less than $15,000. In fact, in 2017 nearly 60% of black households had incomes under $50,000.

Despite the hardships it has faced, Decatur has rarely bitten the hand that feeds. The last major labor strikes in the city (against Bridgestone/Firestone, A.E. Staley, and Caterpillar) were in the 1990s. But workers in Decatur and Macon County are hardly alone in rarely striking — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of annual labor-related work stoppages in the US has decreased dramatically over the last seventy years, from a high of 470 in 1952 to just seven strikes in 2017.

The sway Decatur’s major employers have held over the place, and how aspects of the city’s history have been driven by corporate interests, really is amazing. For example, in addition to owning the Decatur Staleys — the football team that eventually became the Chicago Bears — the corn processing company A.E. Staley was responsible for the creation of the enormous, man-made Lake Decatur, which dominates much of the city’s landscape; the lake was created in 1920 to provide the Staley factory with a constant source of water.

Even Decatur’s most beautiful home, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed 2 Millikin Place, owes its existence to a concentration on capital. The house was commissioned in 1909 by a former Decatur titan, Edward Peek Irving. Irving ran several large firms in Decatur — including the Faries Manufacturing Company, the Walrus Manufacturing Company, and Decatur’s Citizens National Bank; he was also president of Decatur’s Water Supply Service Company, director of the country club, and secretary of the Decatur and Macon County Hospital Association — and, per his obituary, he was known for a “close application to business” before he died at age fifty-nine. As Frank Lloyd Wright himself said, “Give me the luxuries in life, and I will willingly do without the necessities.”

The good news is that there are organizations in Decatur and Macon County working to improve things for residents. The Obesity Prevention Coalition (“Macon’ Our County Healthier”) aims to prevent obesity in children and adults across Macon County, while the Good Samaritan Inn has been serving noon meals and job training since 1982. And the nonprofit Dove, Inc. offers a number of programs, from those designed to reduce domestic violence, to homelessness support.

“We have a poverty issue here, locally,” said Dove’s Rev. Christine Gregory in “Forgotten Illinois: Decatur,” a film about Decatur put out by Illinois Policy. “But we see more of the issues with not being able to maintain employment, not being able to find employment that’s suited to the education of that person … A Decatur that thinks big stops losing people. You have to keep the people and the businesses in order for that to grow.”

Part Two: “Life is weather. Life is meals.”

The most American, most beautiful, greasiest, most economical, most traditional, truest, best restaurant in Decatur is not fancy.

A Krekel’s chicken car

It is famous for its chicken cars, Cadillacs decorated with large chicken tails and heads on their trunks and roofs. The restaurant only serves a handful of things, and of that handful you should only order a core number. It is not an ideal place for vegetarians. When you leave, you will smell like french fries for hours afterward.

Founded in 1949, Krekel’s Custard may be America’s greatest burger chain. But because all of its locations are in central Illinois — including several in Decatur, one in next-door Mt. Zion, one in Springfield, and now one in Champaign — it is not as widely known as other geography-specific burger chains, like Culver’s (which calls Wisconsin home) or the West-focused In-N-Out Burger, which is based in Irvine, California and which has certainly benefited from being in America’s second-largest media market.

Regardless, Krekel’s to a great extent is Decatur; going to Krekel’s frequently, sometimes multiple times a week, for their thin fried hamburgers wrapped in wax paper and a milkshake in a styrofoam cup is synonymous with life in the town. Decatur and Macon County wouldn’t be what they are without Krekel’s. After all, life — to quote James Salter’s 1975 book Light Years — “is meals.” As Salter writes early on in the book:

Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.

Light Years is set in the Northeast, and though Salter meant this passage to be universal (which of course it is; it is also tremendous), it seems particularly relevant to a discussion of any place centered on agriculture, where life really does depend on the weather — and the meals that the weather does or does not provide. Decatur is almost wholly an agricultural town; the vast, orderly fields of corn and soy that surround the city for miles in every direction are its raison d’etre. Indeed, without those fields Macon County wouldn’t be as populated with grain silos as it is, not to mention the enormous, landscape-dominating factories of ADM and Tate & Lyle; on many days, Decatur smells of roasting soybeans, a peculiarly sharp smell that lingers in the nose.

According to the Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture (the 2017 report has yet to be released), Macon County ranks among the top agricultural counties in the country by crop sales. Per the 2012 Census, it was ranked 73rd out of 3,079 counties nationally for corn for grain sales, and 114th for soybeans sales. By state, Illinois is only second in the nation for corn and soybean sales, after Iowa. And as noted previously, Decatur is home to several major agricultural concerns: Archer Daniels Midland is number 324 on the Forbes Global 2000 list of the world’s largest public companies, while Tate & Lyle is 1,654, and the heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, headquartered in Peoria but with a facility in Decatur, is ranked 166th.

Though Macon County is a major center of American agricultural production, ironically, the area’s health doesn’t reflect its importance to nutrition and food in America. Macon County’s health is worse than the US’s as a whole, and life expectancy in Macon County — 78.01 years — is lower than the US average of seventy-nine. Diabetes, hypertension, and obesity are all more prevalent in Macon County than the nation at large. Indeed, some grocery stores in Decatur include diabetic health aisles, and there are approximately 10 fast food restaurants per 10,000 people in Decatur.

Health and too much fast food aside — all fast food isn’t created equal, as Krekel’s proves — the fact remains that life in Decatur and Macon County is driven by agriculture. One might think that people living in agriculture centers would be single-issue voters, a bloc that elects to protect their agricultural way of life from threats like climate change or international relations’ effect on crop prices. Yet many agricultural centers, including Macon County and Illinois’ Iroquois County, which led the nation in corn sales in 2012, voted for Trump, a noted (if typically muddled) climate change skeptic. Trump has falsely claimed “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese,” and during the 2016 election told The Washington Post, “I am not a great believer in man-made climate change.”

While climate change might be dismissed as something to worry about in the future, tariffs — and their effect on prices — are now. The Trump administration has brought tariffs in the form of import taxes on commodities like solar panels and steel, and retaliatory tariffs from trading partners (particularly China) on US goods such as whiskey, poultry, and soybeans. These tariffs are hardly unexpected: during the 2016 election Trump explicitly promised their use, telling a crowd in Tampa:

“I’m going to use every lawful presidential power to remedy the trade disputes, including the application of tariffs. And I’ll tell you, we’re going to probably have to at least use them in some cases because they have to understand, we’re not playing games any longer, folks. We’re not playing games.”

Though the USDA has already introduced $12 billion worth of programs designed to offset the impact of tariffs on American farmers, soybean prices are sharply down. And as Colorado State University’s Amanda M. Countryman notes in Pacific Standard,

If American agricultural producers can’t increase exports to other countries to make up for lost sales to China, farm incomes would most certainly fall. And even if they do manage to find new markets, perhaps with the help of the new government aid package, it’ll be hard to make up for the world’s largest market for food imports.

To return to the driving question: why would Macon County inflict this on itself, via a vote for Trump? Certainly they didn’t want tariffs, they don’t want inaction in the fact of climate change, they don’t want poor health. So why did residents seemingly vote against their own self-interests?

Per Iowa reporter Robert Leonard’s 2017 New York Times opinion piece, “Why Rural America Voted for Trump,” perhaps one answer is pride.

In state capitols across America, lawmakers spend billions of dollars to take a few seconds off a city dweller’s commute to his office, while rural counties’ farm-to-market roads fall into disrepair. Some of the paved roads in my region are no longer maintained and are reverting to gravel. For a couple of generations now, services that were once scattered across rural areas have increasingly been consolidated in urban areas, and rural towns die. It’s all done in the name of efficiency.

Leonard goes on to note (emphasis mine) that “many towns with a rich history and strong community pride are already dead; their citizens just don’t know it yet.”

This seems to be the crux of why so many towns and rural areas went for Trump: a vote for Trump, for making America great again, regardless of the price involved and regardless of whether Trump would in fact make their place great, was a rejection of the view that their homes might be dead. A vote for Trump was in effect a vote for themselves, and for their pride in themselves.

Decatur is certainly worthy of pride. In addition to its long, rich history, the city is beautiful, from the Transfer House in downtown Decatur built in 1896, to the Oglesby Mansion and the wide, tree-lined streets in Decatur’s West End. Decatur’s post office is decorated with several stunning Works Progress Administration-era murals, and the city boasts as classic a main street shopping district as you’ll find anywhere in America. Macon County also, perhaps not coincidentally, lays claim to a high proportion of veterans per capita — about 751 per 10,000 residents, and boasts an impressively extensive system of parks. Last but certainly, certainly not least, the city is home to Krekel’s, a place that serves “heaven in a little brown bag.”

Of course Decatur takes pride in itself. Even in the face of its troubles, it is, after all, “The Pride of the Prairie.”

Lead image: Pictorial map of Decatur, IL (1878). Inset image 1: Elevation of Wright’s Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, IL, via Wikimedia Commons. Inset image 2: Chickenmobile.