Saturday, September 14, 2013

This Midwest is Really the Old West

©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard
Wednesday September 11 – Worthington, Minnesota-Pierre South Dakota
South Dakota Sunrise

My next destination is Pierre (peer), the capitol of South Dakota. It is a long haul, 240 miles on I-90 and another 30 on two-lane highway but there aren’t many decent-sized cities in North Dakota (state pop. 833,354 in 2012) and there is good camping nearby. I also like to visit state capitols; I still haven’t given up on interviewing a governor or two.

While the U.S. Census considers The Dakotas part of the Midwest, the rest of us – even the Dakotans – think of it as part of The Old West. The billboards along the way confirm that. In fact, I’ve never seen so many billboards. For miles on end there is one nearly every hundred yards and most of them tout some tourist attraction, souvenir shop or hotel with a Western theme. There are farms sprinkled along the way but they are few and far between; I rarely see a barn or house but the hay is rolled and ready to be hauled away.
Wherever I see an American flag today it is flying at half-staff in memory of those who lost their lives on that tragic 9/11/2001. It is my generation’s Pearl Harbor; we will never forget where we were when we first heard of the attacks.
Then, all of a sudden, appearing out of nowhere I am in baseball player heaven, acre after acre, and row after row of tall sunflowers. I can almost see the shells being spit out in dugouts from Little League to the Majors.
At last I leave I-90 about 30 miles south of my destination and there is nothing but wide-open prairie all around. I pass through the smaller town of Ft. Pierre and cross the Missouri River to enter Pierre, which is a mild geographic surprise. I did not know the Missouri flowed through here.
The river is not the only thing that separates the two towns. Pierre is in the Central Time Zone while Ft. Pierre is Mountain Time. If you commute to work from Ft. Pierre to Pierre you have to get up an hour earlier. That’s a long commute.

Thursday September 12 – Pierre, SD-Rapid City, SD
Thirty-five percent of the work force in Pierre is either city, state or federal government so I’m guessing while there may have been some cuts, Pierre didn’t suffer during the recession as much as other cities.
It is early morning and I am breakfasting in Pier 347, home to the city’s only operating espresso machine and free Wi Fi. Sitting at the table next to me is a small group and one man starts talking about legislative sessions. My ears perk up. He is a tall, distinguished looking white-haired gentleman and as he stands to leave I ask, “Excuse me sir, are you a member of the legislature?”
“No,” he replies, “but I direct the legislative staff. I’m Jim” That’s good enough for me. I explain my project and he is a fount of helpful information.
“The legislature meets only in the winter,” he explains, “so there aren’t many of us around.”
“What about the governor?” I ask hopefully.
“He might be around. We are probably the most open state government in the country. Just walk on in to his office and ask to see Stacy, his scheduler. If he’s there she can probably get you in for a few minutes.”
Buoyed by this news I finish my espresso and head straight for South Dakota’s magnificent state capitol building (Aren’t they all?).
Inside, the capitol building, with all its marble, gilded ceilings and shiny wooden trim, it’s like a giant mausoleum; there is nobody in the lobby or under the rotunda, not even a State Trooper. I find the governor’s office and two receptionists with warm smiling faces greet me. There is no formal, authoritarian self-importance here. After explaining my mission, one of the young ladies offers, “Have a seat and I’ll go get Stacy.” Jim was right.
In just a minute or two a smiling Stacy comes out with sincere apologies, “I’m sorry, the governor is in D.C. through tomorrow but come with me. Let’s go see if the Lt. Governor is in.” Just like that. Unfortunately, the Lt. Governor is likewise out of town but I am nonetheless impressed with the helpful friendliness of the staff. I will later find out that just about everyone else in Pierre is “not in.” I spend the next 90-minutes patrolling a virtually empty downtown with nary a useful interview to be had. I make an executive decision to leave town.
Google Maps tells me Rapid City, South Dakota’s second largest city (pop. 69,854 in 2012) is only 145 miles away – and, only 25 miles from Mt. Rushmore (on my agenda!). There is plenty of camping in the area. Oh boy!
I head west on U.S. 14, across rolling hills, the broad expanse of the South Dakota prairie and many more sunflower farms. I will only have a short hop on I-90 and into Rapid City. In the meantime I am entering, oops, leaving the town of Cotton (pop. 12!).
I get on I-90 and the hills become a little bigger, their edges a little sharper. I am entering the Black Hills Country. I can’t explain why but I’m not really looking forward to Rapid City. Maybe it’s the name, if not boring, it sounds fictitious. I will learn quickly; Rapid City is anything but boring.

Friday September 13 – Rapid City, SD
Sunset in The Black Hills
The 1874 cry of, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” led indirectly to the founding of Rapid City as a White man’s settlement. Of course, The Lakota Sioux inhabited the land long before Western Culture arrived. The Lakota call Rapid City “Fast Water Mni Luzahan” for nearby Rapid Creek.
A group of disappointed but entrepreneurial miners founded the city in 1876, originally calling it “Hay Camp.” With its location on the eastern slopes of the hills, they marketed it as “Gateway to the Black Hills. According to Wikipedia:
“Although the Black Hills became a popular tourist destination in the late 1890s, it was a combination of local efforts, the popularity of the automobile, and construction of improved highways that brought tourists to the Black Hills in large numbers after World War I, Gutzon Borglum, already a famous sculptor, began work on Mount Rushmore in 1927 and his son, Lincoln Borglum, continued the carving of the presidents' faces in rock following his father's death in 1941. The work was halted due to pressures leading to the US entry into World War II and the massive sculpture was declared complete in 1941. Although tourism sustained the city throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, the gasoline rationing of World War II had a devastating effect on the tourist industry in the town, but this was more than made up for by the war-related growth.”
Farming, of course, was always part of the local economy. Later came Ellsworth Air Force Base and the population almost doubled. In the early 21st Century the Black Hills region was enjoying a manufacturing boom. The Great Recession un-boomed the area but did not kill it. Two major factories closed their doors during the recession and put several hundred people out of work. It more than doubled the ridiculously low unemployment rate to a little more than four percent, hence the relatively minor impact on the area. This is where I came to like and respect the people and the city, despite its contribution to the deterioration of the Sioux Nation. More on that in a moment.
Destination Rapid City, a very involved and active private downtown development group, refused to roll over. Dan Seftner is president of Destination Rapid City. He displays a can-do attitude that breeds success. He points out other times such as when the big box stores were sucking the life out of downtowns around America. “It’s no different today. If you were heavily leveraged to begin with and could not take a setback then you were in trouble. If you weren’t, you could take advantage of things and make them work for you on the other side of the coin.”
That is not just Seftner’s theory; it is a truism taught in Economics 101 and the results are evident everywhere in downtown Rapid City. Virtually every place I’ve visited so far has had its share of closed and empty downtown stores. There is not one empty store here that I can see. It is a vibrant downtown. “I’d say we are at least 95 percent leased in the downtown area,” says Seftner.
The mid-morning streets are spotlessly clean and crowded with locals and tourists. There are numerous cafes and 
John Adams
restaurants with sidewalk seating, countless Western-themed shops, art galleries, native crafts stores and amazing public art, much of it privately funded. For example, there are all those presidents.  
Thomas Jefferson
About 15-years ago a group of businessmen decided to use Rapid City’s proximity to Mt. Rushmore for an ambitious project; they would seek private funding to create bronze statues of every U.S. president and place them on downtown street corners. Thus, Rapid City became the City of Presidents. The statues, either life-size or about two-thirds scale, are remarkable likenesses of our nation’s leaders and the tourists love ‘em. Throughout the morning I see families taking photos of themselves next to their favorites.
James Madison
Now, let’s talk about the Native Americans in and around Rapid City. I spoke with a local NPR news producer who told me the presidential statues initially created quite a controversy because there was nothing to honor the great Lakota Chiefs. “We are currently standing on Sioux Treaty Land,” he points out. Indeed, the only thing I saw even close to honoring the Sioux was an unlabeled statue of a Lakota woman and her child. Can you say “tokenism?”
Lakota Mother & Daughter
And, as with the Latinos of Worthington, MN, the few Native Americans I see downtown have no interest in speaking to a scruffy-looking White guy in a white Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad baseball cap.
Aside from the slights and tokenism to the Lakota, there is much to like here. For one thing, there are many Starbucks, always a factor for moi and, I just love Rapid City’s downtown. In addition to the busy streets, restaurants, shops and presidents’ statues there is an abundance of other public art, most of it pleasing to the eye. You can almost feel the heart of this city thumping.

Sidebar: Joisey and Coney Island in Rapid City?
And, finally, there are unique individuals to be met – to me, they add color to the fabric of a vibrant city.
There’s “thirty something” Susan Ricci from Wayne, New Jersey of all places, owning and operating a small downtown museum dedicated to the American Bison. Not only that, for a while she owned a bison ranch. Really?
This Italian/Jewish Jersey Girl has been in Rapid City for 16-years. “I moved out here because I wanted to work with the Native American Tribes,” she says, “and I got hired by, of all things, a tribal bison preservation organization. They work with tribes all across the country to restore the herds on their land.
“They hired me to do office work but their development director quit and they just told me I was the new development director. Then, I met and fell in love with a buffalo herd manager from Montana and we had a little buffalo ranch here in South Dakota.”
“Oy vey,” I think to myself, “her mother must’ve plotzed; It’s a shonda (a shame in Yiddush)!!!!”
Okay, it’s one thing to meet a bison-lovin’ Jersey Girl in South Dakota but how about a street cart vendor selling Nathan’s Famous (of Coney Island) Hot Dogs on a street corner? There he was a 25-year young chap joyfully pushing the tube steaks.
“This used to be a part time thing for me,” says Doug Christiansen, “but I made some bad choices at my other job and they let me go so I started doing this full time. Best decision I ever made!”
I’m astounded. “How the hell did a 25-year old Rapid City boy end up selling Nathan’s Hot Dogs here on a street corner?”
“I saw a guy selling ‘em on a street corner and asked him if he wanted another guy selling ‘em on another street corner. Now I’m the only guy selling hot dogs on a street corner. We roll this thing around during the day to different locations and we’re doing great.”
“But how did he come by Nathan’s?” I press. “I know they’ve become a chain but they are usually associated with Coney Island and New York.”
“I know and I’ve never been out of Rapid City but everyone knows Nathan’s as a brand now,” he sagely explains.
Ironically, when I hit the local Safeway to stock up for the next week, I see a whole section of refrigerated Nathan’s Hot Dogs in the deli section. Without hesitation I buy a couple of packages.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Me Llamo Worthington, MN

Monday September 9 – Caledonia, Minnesota-Worthington, Minnesota
As I break camp this morning it is cloudy and cool, the temperature is in the 60s. I am surprised then when I walk into Elsie’s Bar and Grill, my Caledonia headquarters, and hear people talking about a forecast of record breaking temps around 100°.
There are Elsie’s kinds of places in almost every small town I’ve visited, even the dying towns. It’s the place where the ol’ boys go for a sunrise breakfast, hot coffee and to talk   the weather, tractors and hog prices. You can get two over medium, bacon, hash browns and coffee for $3.95, biscuits and gravy $4.95.
If you’re in a hurry, you can sit at the counter. The skinny bleached blonde waitress in jeans way too tight for her age, a face heavily made-up to hide the hard lifelines and a cigarette raspy voice will take your order and call you honey. The bar is in the back and later in the morning the older ol’ boys will filter in and start playing poker. I love Elsie’s! By the time I leave after eating and writing an hour and a half later the sun is blazing and I know the forecast is correct.
I’ll have to travel almost 150 miles on I-90 west today to Worthington at the other end of the state but first I’ll enjoy about 80 miles on mostly county and state roads. I am surprised at the condition of Minnesota’s state highways; they are in terrible disrepair, by far the worst I’ve seen. There are cracks and bumps in the surfaces, providing a jarring ride I usually experience on the county roads. More surprising, I see little or no roadwork along the way.
These roads are twisty and rolling with plenty of farmland still around me. After awhile, the road straightens and the land flattens. The crops are mostly corn and soybean in fact; I’m seeing some of the largest cornfields ever. I am also seeing more wind farms than I’ve seen any place else. At one point these giant windmills on either side of the road stand as far as the eye can see. The wind power production industry has definitely taken hold across America. Am I the only one just realizing that?
 I stop for gas on the outskirts of Worthington and I’m struck by a sign in the convenience store window, “Welcome to Worthington, MN, Turkey Capital (sic) of the World!” Being the wiseass that I am, even to myself, I wonder, “Are they talking about birds or people?”

Tuesday September 10 – Worthington, MN
This is the second time on my journey I am staying in a city park campground and, again, it is a delight. The rate is great – $18.00 a night – and the location fabulous. Not only is it convenient to downtown, the park, as well as the city, sits on Lake Okabena. It is a small natural lake, one-point-two square miles, located entirely within the city.
Lake Okabena and the surrounding area were first mapped in 1841 by French explorer Joseph Nicollet. He dubbed the area Sisseton Country in honor of the local band of the Dakota Sioux. He named the lake using the Sioux word for “home of the heron.” The City of Worthington would be incorporated about 30-years later and it has a curious history. Take the town’s name for example.
Many locations are named for heroes, leaders, royalty, founders, explorers, local native tribes and chiefs; Washington, Lafayette, New York, Pennsylvania, Pikes Peak, Seattle and Georgia, for example. One of Worthington’s founders went an entirely different direction; he took for the town’s designation his mother-in-law’s maiden name. Go figure.
From the beginning Worthington was a railroad town. It was originally called The Okabena Railway Station because that was the locale’s original purpose, to serve as a way station between the two termini of the St. Paul & Sioux City Railway. That same year, 1871, Professor Ransom Humiston of Cleveland and Toledo Blade editor Dr. A.P. Miller formed a company to locate a colony of settlers along the new rail line. They chose the Okabena Station as their location and it was Dr. Miller who changed the name to honor his M-I-L. Go figure. The rail yards in Worthington are still active today.

I learned of another, more curious piece of local – and more recent – history after I arrived in town. The second thing I noticed after the Turkey Capital of the World sign was the number of bodega’s (three) and Mexican restaurants (two) along the three or four blocks of Worthington’s main drag. This is a town of about 13,000 people and that seems like a lot of Hispanic commerce. So I am mildly shocked to learn that a little more than a third of Worthington’s population is Hispanic. So, even the Anglo businesses must serve their entire community.
One-third is not a very big number if you compare it to cities like Laredo, TX where more than 90 percent of the people are Hispanic. Laredo is on the Mexican border; THIS is Minnesota, on the Canadian border. Curious.
The answer is economics, pure economics – and pigs not turkeys. In the mid-1980s a farm crisis nearly killed Worthington and the population began to rapidly decline. There were only about 100 Hispanics here in the mid 80s. At the same time, the town’s largest employer, a pork processing plant changed hands (today it is owned by Swift). The new owners added a shift and dramatically cut wages. As word of this spread, hundreds of lower income minorities began to arrive, primarily Hispanics. Today, more than 2,000 people work at the plant.
It’s been a mixed blessing for Worthington. On the one hand, JBS Swift & Co[1], the plant’s official name, helped shield the area from the worst of The Great Recession. Worthington’s unemployment rate “peaked” at five-point-five percent in 2010-11 and sits somewhere in the fours now. But the immigrant inflow brought the attendant problems that come along with such a dramatic demographic shift.
Ryan McGaughy is Managing Editor for the Worthington Daily Globe. He’s been with the newspaper for 12 years, first as a sports reporter, moving over to the news side and eventually to the Big Desk in 2006. He says the inflow of immigrants initially caused the predictable division within the town between those who thought it would ruin the city and those who saw it as a positive thing. There’s a little bit of truth on both sides.
“You might notice there’s a lot of construction going on,” he tells me. We built a new hospital, a brand new event center and a new supermarket. But our biggest challenge as a community is housing. Many of the lower wage workers are buying the older homes and they have multiple occupants because there just isn’t enough housing stock for them.”
“It’s going to take a major combined effort to address the challenge. You have the city and the county – even the state has gotten involved to an extent. JBS is also at the table because they realize their people need housing. It will take that kind of joint effort because Joe Schmoe local developer isn’t going to go investing in housing here.”
I then turned to McGaughy’s personal story. He is, after all, in an industry that was all but dying before the recession began. “I don’t want to say we’re closing our doors; we’re certainly not,” he explains, “but revenue has been harder to come by, that’s for sure and it accelerated during the recession.”
“Do you fear for your job?” I ask.
“I don’t think my job is threatened, per se but I do fear that one day I’ll come in and someone will tell me they’re going to centralize and say, for example, do the layout for the paper in Fargo where our company headquarters is located.”
Finally, I can’t help myself and ask McCaughy, “So, why are you the turkey capitol and not the pig capitol of the world?”
He laughs, “Oh that’s from the 20s and 30s when we had a real turkey industry. Today there isn’t a turkey plant in Worthington.”
But, the town does celebrate its turkey heritage every September with Turkey Days, complete with turkey races. The participating turkeys are ringers, though; they have to be imported for the event.
Afternote: You might be asking yourself, "Why didn't he interview any of the Hispanics in Worthington?" Lord knows I tried.

I walked into one of the restaurants, one of the bodega's and stopped several folks on the street. Nada.

Maybe they didn't trust a scruffy gringo in a straw fedora or maybe, just maybe, they are still gun shy after the 2006 raid.

[1] In 2006, the Worthington plant was one of several Swift facilities around the country raided by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for employing undocumented immigrants. More than 200 illegal workers were arrested in Worthington.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Life Along the Mississippi, cont'd

©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard
Saturday September 7 – Keokuk, Iowa-Caledonia, Minnesota
With the exception of some high speed U.S. Highway driving today, I will be mostly on county and state roads running parallel to, but several miles away from, the Mississippi River. This is still Iowa and, except for the occasional “corn fed” beef on the hoof, it is again cornfield after cornfield, interrupted by the occasional cornfield. I still prefer it to freeway/interstate driving.
As I near the Minnesota state line the straight roads and cornfields begin to give way to more S-curves, hills, thick stands of trees and then forest. The occasional farm always a presence as well.

Sunday September 8 – Caledonia, Minnesota-La Crosse, Wisconsin
My plan for today doesn’t include a trip back across the Mississippi River to La Crosse, WI but as I survey downtown Caledonia, MN this morning it dawns on me that I’ve seen and written about too many Caledonia’s; towns with populations of 1,500-2,500. Farms surround them; many of which are doing well while the downtowns are deathly quiet with For Rent signs in empty stores all along their main Streets. La Crosse here I come.
In this neck of the woods La Crosse is THE big city with a 2012 population of 51,647. It has a long history, beginning with French fur traders who traveled the Mississippi in the late 17th Century. There is no formal written record of any visits to the area until Zebulon Pike – yes, that Pike – explored this part of the Mississippi under the American Flag in 1805. Pike wouldn't reach his Peak until 1806.
And, guess what! According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Pike actually named the location for a game he noticed the natives playing. The sticks with which they were catching and tossing a small ball resembled a bishop’s crozier or, in French, a La Crosse. The first White settlement in 1841was a fur trading post. La Crosse became a city in 1856. The city’s thriving Historic Downtown began to grow from that point in time.
My research shows La Crosse is one of those places that weathered The Great Recession better than most. One reason is the fact that the two largest employers are the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center and The Mayo Clinic Health System. The city also is home to three regional colleges and universities. Several major corporations have their international headquarters here as well, including:

  • Trane, the air conditioning company now owned by Ingersoll Rand
  • City Brewing Co., formally Heileman.
  • Kwik Trip, regional gas and convenience stores (believe me, they are all over the midwest)
  • Logistics Health, Inc., health care solutions for government and commercial customers.
Other indicators also show La Crosse’s endurance. Home sales remain steady, running mostly between 600-700 over the past five years although new home construction permits are half of their peak 49 in 2004.
In 2010 the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families studied the recession’s impact on La Crosse County. While unemployment was up, it was still nearly 4 percent below the national average. The loss of jobs, ironically, meant a loss of health insurance in this health-care-centric city.
Still, I hear some intriguing stories as I enjoy a latte sitting outside of a small downtown espresso house (Only one Starbuck’s shows up in my La Crosse search!). The most interesting tales come from two young sisters headed for lunch at a nearby restaurant. They look like students and, while there are some stories worth telling in this group, there are also so many who hardly have a clue about the recession or its affects.
Twenty-two year old Kelsey is a recent college grad who holds a part time job running an after school child care program. “It took probably more than a year of relentless searching before I could find this job,” she tells me.
Kelsey’s employer is a non-profit organization and, while she runs an after-school program, the organization relies primarily on federal grants for its funding and, “The day school education programs we can offer are diminished. The purse strings are tighter, cuts in staff, cuts in programs and cuts in benefits.”
“Luckily I don’t need many of those benefits right now because I’m young enough where I can still mooch off my parents insurance and, my husband recently left the military and he still has some benefits.”
“Still,” she continues, “my husband is a full time student now and we are living pay check to pay check. It’s rough.”
“Do you have any kids?” I ask.
As she begins to answer, Kelsey looks up as if the realization just strikes her. “No,” she starts slowly, “and I probably couldn’t afford it if I wanted to.”
Younger sister Brook displays a savvy maturity that belies her 19-years. “I’m still a full-time student,” she says, “and I am working as a server in a restaurant to pay my entire way through. I even worked my way through high school.”
“So,” I observe, “the recession began while you were in high school; probably didn’t affect you.”
Brook spears me with laser eyes as if I just fell off the turnip truck, “Are you kidding? It was almost impossible to find a job. People much older who were losing their higher paying jobs were going down to take the jobs that high school kids would normally take.”
“I didn’t work my entire freshman year (at Brigham Young University) because I couldn’t find a job. I had to use my own savings to pay for school. I’m lucky; most students paying their way through school didn’t have savings. I spent probably $5,000 a semester.”
This determined young woman reminds me of something I’m seeing all around the country; we are strong and resilient. As The Great Recession continues to blow through The Real America, we will bend in the wind but we will not break.