Reflections on Small Town America
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.
Government was to be well run, but to be kept small and local. Taxes were to be criticized but paid in full. Swedishness was revered, but not to the point of chauvinism. America was deified. (My grandfather fought in the 91st Division in some terrible battles; my namesake was killed with the 6th Marine Division on Okinawa (65 years ago today on Sugar Loaf Hill with the 29th Marines); and my father flew on 39 B-29 missions, the vast majority over Japan. I heard very little triumphalism -- my grandfather liking the Germans ["good young boys” and “fine old men”] he took prisoner; my father was still saddened about the loss of “Thumper” and other 29s that blew up over Tokyo, and so often he seemed confused that the bravest and most audacious in his war above Japan were often the most ill-suited to prosper in peace, as if their wartime skills did not merely not translate into “success” but perhaps were antithetical to it, being singular and predicated on risk and a sort of fearlessness that came as second nature.)
I recall two caricatures of the Kingsburg Swedes -- “dour” and “dumb.” But I think both pejoratives, in truth, were not really so pejorative. “Dour” is perhaps shorthand for “the tragic view.” The Kingsburg Swedes understood that no one gets out alive, and that we must brace and endure with dignity the premature death of the good, the unforeseen hail at harvest that ruins the ingenious farmer and misses his less adept counterpart, the market collapse that ensures failure for the otherwise perfect harvest. This is not fatalism, but rather a gallantry in accepting our all too brief existences, rather than raging against the unfairness of it all and expecting “them” to “make it better -- or else.”
“Dumb” also was a misnomer. So was “naïve.” Mostly, I heard that Swedes did not go into packing, brokerage, real estate, buying and selling. They sold their crops when they could have gotten more with tougher bargaining, and bought too high when they might have worn down the seller. They paid their taxes, when write offs were to be had. In other words, they never got rich, and assumed that their own amazing capability for hard work might give them leeway, some margin in which they might not otherwise have to be so brutal to others to survive. I remember my rather poor Swedish grandfather (he broke horses for a living and had a small dairy of about five or six cows) once berated as being “dumb” for selling a horse to someone who the next day sold it for nearly twice as much. My non-Swedish mother much later asked her father-in-law about that rumor -- “I don’t care much for all that, Pauline. The price to me was fair, and that fellow was honest enough, and what he does with that well-broke horse is his business not mine.” She liked that. So did I (I think that’s why I just blew up a photo and mounted it in the kitchen, one I just found of him at 77, square-jawed atop a huge painted horse).
I go on too much here in efforts to fathom why Kingsburg is still different from the other small towns in the Fresno-Visalia corridor. The streets, as I said, are quite unusual -- more like boulevards than of the usual small town type. The houses seem better kept; the downtown appears European, in the sense of small cafes, some with outdoor tables. In politically-incorrect terms, there is not an edge-city outside of Kingsburg, nor the level of dependency and entitlement that one sees in my hometown or a nearby Parlier or Sanger.
In other words, some 130-40 years after a handful of Swedes arrived in the middle of nowhere, the fumes of their achievement linger even when their names in the cemetery are now known to almost no one.
Long may they run. And it was an honor to be among them last Saturday, both their descendants and the spirits still in the wind.