I was born in a small town near the middle of Ohio along the I-75 corridor, north of Dayton, south of Toledo, called Piqua. My parents, and their parents, and grandparents, and further on back in their genealogy lived in Piqua. Most who immigrated here from Germany, or Ireland, or England, settled in Piqua and established homes and families. Many are buried in Forest Hill Cemetery along the river in the north section of town.
In March of 2011, I wrote about my memories of growing up in Piqua.
Even back in the 1950s, it wasn’t easy to find a job in a small town. When my dad returned from the service in the mid-1950s, he started working for NCR in Dayton, Ohio, about an hour’s drive away. In the 60’s my parents packed up our bags and moved us there. Neither my mom or dad really wanted to go. My mom didn’t work outside the home. All her family and friends were in Piqua. Over the years, my dad made no secret of the fact that he always missed Piqua. My parents had conversations about moving back “home” during their retirement years. They finally made it back in January of 2013, when they were both buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.
I understand the allure of small town life.
So, this morning, as I watched a CNN report on Beattyville, a small town in Kentucky where people are struggling to get by, it brought me to tears. I am a small-town girl at heart.
But sometimes you have to move. Times change. Opportunities shift. Throughout history we can find example after example of towns and cities that once prospered but then failed. The Dust Bowl comes to mind (probably because I just watched the documentary on Netflix). Sometimes we see cities that came through a rough patch and are beginning to thrive again. Buffalo, NY, is a good example. Buffalo was a rich city at one point during the height of waterway commerce. Then other forms of transportation developed and Buffalo was left with empty grain silos decomposing along its riverfront. The good news is that Buffalo is finding a way to reinvent itself. It is finding a way to thrive in the country and world as it is today.
My husband, Mark, and I visited Bakum, Germany last summer. It’s a small agricultural town in northern Germany about a half-hour’s drive south from Bremen. We’ve traced Mark’s ancestors back to Bakum from 1530 until 1850, when they emigrated to Amerika. In some ways, you could argue that Bakum is Mark’s family’s “hometown.” Certainly it was his great-grandfather’s.
In the early 1800s, the population in Bakum grew at a fast rate and the farming communities became over-crowded. People were living in barns, sheds, bake houses, in any available structure they could find. There was no food to eat. Parents struggled to provide shoes for their children. Poverty was rampant. Mark’s ancestor, Bernard Dominicus Grote, lived in the farming community of Elmelage and worked as a hired hand on land owned by the Knese family. Dominicus’ brothers all lived nearby on other farms. They all went to St. John the Baptist, the small church in town. I’m sure they did not wish to leave their family, their hometown and their homeland to come to a strange country with a language they couldn’t understand.
But they did. Like other ancestors of probably most, if not all of us.
I’m not talking about immigration right now. I’m talking about people following opportunity and doing what they need to do to survive. There is nothing new about this. It is the story of human survival from the beginning of time.
I truly hope our country can find a way to make things better for the folks in small towns who have lost their local industries and jobs. No one wants to see people suffer like that. But I also believe the way forward is exactly that, forward. Not back.