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Reflections on Small Town America

Last Saturday...

Kingsburg, California, is a sort of small town that modernism forgot, at least by the measure of the usual landscapes of the Central Valley. Its broad streets, Swedish building façades, good schools, neat homes, and downtown preservation don’t quite reflect the surrounding region’s 18% unemployment, brain drain to the coastal universities, ground-zero illegal immigration, tree-fruit and raisin depression, water cut-offs, general bankruptcy of California, and endemic gangs and their sometimes vicious crime. I was the town’s grand marshal last Saturday at the annual Swedish festival and had time to reflect on Kingsburg’s near century-and-a-half of existence -- and its present status as a sort of oasis on the 99 freeway.

An admission: I grew up 4 miles away in rural Selma, and in our teens we of the rougher town thought Kingburgers softer folk. But I had mixed sympathies about the rivalry, as my father’s grandparents were members of the original Swedish pioneers who founded Kingsburg Colony in the late 19th century. Their farm is now the site of the city park and a part of it is marked “Hanson Corner.” I faintly remember the late 1950s in downtown Kingsburg, when as a small boy visiting my grandfather and uncle, we could still hear Swedish as often as English. I remember my grandfather’s (gassed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and chronically short of breath) stories of his father’s generation, centered around Swedes taking the train (or riding?) to San Francisco to measure the width of Market Street to ensure their own Draper Street would be no narrower, or his mother Cecilia fundraising to ensure a wrought iron fence around the cemetery.

I’ve often wondered how a group of mostly poor Swedish immigrants could migrate en masse to an empty wasteland, form a colony, and within thirty years have created a humane community, impressive churches, banks, government buildings, wide streets, and an irrigated tree and vine agriculture.

Tough, they of course were, and without the technological advantages of our own age, much less the social services safety nets. My father told me his grandfather was directed by the local doc to drink a turpentine concoction to expel a large tape worm of several feet from his gut; he himself at 12 fell on a hay-rake, was impaled, and had half his liver removed (but remember the myth of Prometheus). Another uncle pushed the bellows of a stuck hand-sulfurer and burned out his eye. These were common rural experiences; and I have to assume that our modern ailments like allergies (I saw an ad yesterday for a medicine to address sweaty palms) were not quite considered ailments by the old breed. My point is not to suggest that they were Titans and we mere mortals, but simply to  suggest the streets, buildings, and culture we enjoy were all inherited from those who created them at a physical cost we often are clueless about.

They certainly did not have the oil wealth of Libya. There were not the picturesque coastline and islands of Greece. Little coal, bauxite, or any precious minerals were to be found. The land was arid, and mostly empty. Swedes are not generally associated with 100-degree summers. The answer in a word was quiet competence and work. Work for the sake of work, or in Hesiod’s parlance, “work on top of work on top of work”.

I also recall going to a funeral of a Swedish relative when a boy; the comments went “Ya, he worked hard. Ya, he did at that.” I don’t remember too many tears. Everyone stone-faced went back to the house for coffee, and there I heard more one-line assessments: “He worked, he did at that—up before dawn.” “Ya, in the vineyard at dark.”

There was more to it all than reticent pragmatism. Wealth was sought after but not coveted; the rich were neither envied nor parodied; the same with the working poor who were in turn neither pitied nor condemned. The middle, what the Greeks called “to meson,” was the ideal as I remember it, but it was an egalitarianism that came out of an equality of opportunity rather than enforced result. And there was little of the progressive activism one associates with the Swedes of Minnesota or Wisconsin -- or at least as one could determine a near century after the town’s founding. Maybe the weather was just too hot in central California, or the original Swedes missed out on the activism of the Farmer-Labor party, or the general conservatism (often manifested more through the Democratic than Republican Party) of the valley won them over.