Rural Ruins Junkies was the working title for a book on small Midwestern towns that we did a cover for, but never finished. We made half a dozen trips to western Missouri and eastern Kansas taking photographs of villages that were a faded memory of what they once had been. Visiting these declining small towns brought back fading memories of how some twenty years earlier we made a living “liberating” antiques from rural inhabitants. On this present junket we were able to accomplish some research for our book Damming the Osage: The Conflicted Story of Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir, but other than confirming that small towns were in decline we gained no insights.
The following few paragraphs are remembrances of these capitalistic forays of long ago.
NOTES MADE AFTER A TRIP THROUGH SOME SMALL TOWNS OF MISSOURI AND KANSAS, AUGUST 30-SEPTEMBER 2, 2009:
The summer of 2009 was cool and wet, at least in the Midwest. In a rented white Nissan Altima we leave Springfield, Missouri and head west. On the upper Neosho and Verdigris rivers we will search for places where the Osage Indians had villages after losing Missouri by treaty and before selling their Kansas lands and buying their present reservation from the Cherokees in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). There will be little indication of these sites. With the cessation of fires set by the Indians, ragged lines of trees crisscross the former prairies along fencerows and roads. Nevertheless we will photograph the landscapes and nearby waterways where books locate – often vaguely – mid-nineteenth century Osage towns.
There had been in southeast Kansas squatters, like Laura Ingalls family, before the red men had been bought out. A few scattered little houses on the prairie, but no proper communities – only trading posts. Soon after the chiefs put their mark on paper, railroads slammed down their rails and began delivering thousands of land-hungry sodbusters. Towns sprang up along the tracks to ship agricultural products out and bring manufactured products in. Few of the earliest balloon-frame wood businesses have survived, but there is a surplus of brick and stone structures from the turn of the nineteenth century. We are not unfamiliar with such places.
Driving down brick streets lined with vacant buildings in various stages of disrepair, we become uneasy. Possibly a couple of fifth century Visigoths visiting Rome for the second time might have had this feeling. Things are not the same. Today we take photographs. Once we took old tin advertising signs and ornate quarter-sawn oak display cabinets from now boarded-up storefronts. Decades back Crystal liberated thousands of hand-pieced quilts from such Midwestern village residences and surrounding farmhouses.
Selling pictures has never been easy – and today the market is impossibly flooded. The old stuff we used to buy on our safaris we could turn in ten days, doubling our money. When we turned that plunder, we’d run out and score again. Motoring on to the next distressed little town, we would confess regrets but get no absolution. Some might say pillagers like us are incapable of guilt and undeserving of forgiveness.
In our defense, we were benevolent vandals. We paid for our booty. Still, our rapacious ways drew outrage from, of all people, an independent Hollywood movie producer, an Army artillery officer who did two tours in Vietnam, and a multi-millionaire Kansas City grain trader. Institutional capitalism is more socially sanctioned than the naked individual pursuit of profit. Such chastisements revealed unfamiliarity with country people’s awareness of what things were worth. Admittedly we exploited our advantages of having cash, current price information and mobility. But our sanctimonious critics showed ignorance and condescension believing rural people to be easy to fleece.
We will not need to haggle over the price of a Marx tin toy or a double weave coverlet and be reminded that small town antique dealers were the descendants of horse traders and land speculators. There are almost no antique stores left. The few dealers that haven’t given up the ghost or gone to eBay aren’t able to stock a whole shop with vintage items. Pickers like us have picked these places clean.
Even the women we bought antique textiles from often negotiated. To our moralizing acquaintances it seemed unethical for us to buy 1930s never used Wedding Ring or Dresden Plate hand pieced, hand quilted bedcovers for $90 and then sell them on the phone to a San Francisco shop for $175 plus UPS. The widows who sold them knew the nieces who would inherit them might let them go at a garage sale for $20. Elderly rural folks are surprisingly well traveled. At Silver Dollar City or antique shows or shops they learned pretty well what retail prices were. Farmers’ wives knew wheat at a grain elevator or cattle on the hoof brought less than bread or steaks.
This isn’t to say that walking away from a little white farmhouse with a black trash bag containing three generations of heirloom quilts that would soon decorate the bed of a Long Island stockbroker or a Santa Barbara divorce lawyer wasn’t heartbreaking.
Seeing these little Kansas towns falling further into disrepair gave us pause. When we looted such villages thirty years ago they showed their age. Today their portable and marketable contents long gone and their roofs leaking we realize that time is short to record their appearance. Perhaps we can deal realistically with our unresolved and conflicted feelings about America and our place in it.
Or is our country junket just the self-medication of rural ruins junkies?
Gallery of Small Towns by Leland Payton. Click on any image to start slideshow.