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Tuesday, May 24, 2016
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home : considered comment : rochester, once the model small town of the midwest May 24, 2016

Fortune's conclusion is generous to Rochester

9th in a 9-part series

While the women gather at dessert suppers, the men are at home reading the papers or at the Rochester Bowling Alley, or at the Masonic Temple over the First National Bank, playing bridge or billiards, smoking, talking about basketball, golf, fishing, politics and business. There are many lodges in town, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Moose, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, but the rooms of the Masons come closest to being a social gathering place. Here the merchants can meet and talk and play, and the same friendly town-boosting spirit prevails that is so evident at the Wednesday luncheon meetings of the Kiwanis Club.

They are not boosters in the loud Babbitt sense of the word. They may even complain - about taxes and the cost of municipal heat as supplied by the Northern Indiana Power Co., and the hardness of the water pumped from the city wells, and the lack of industry. But deep underneath is a real love of their town and the country that surrounds it, the winding Tippecanoe River with its border of elms and sycamores, the river road where cars are parked on a summer night, and the rolling wooded hills beyond. They are conscious of their surroundings and their land and their history and their families and their neighbors as no city dweller can be. Almost unconsciously conscious. They do not realize these things by the reasoning effort of thought, but by close, inevitable proximity and association.

They have lived here in Rochester all their lives and even those who would like a chance to get away (and many of them would) never miss a chance to point out the beauty of the trees along the streets, the size of the Methodist Church, the evergreens in the old cemetery, the hospital, the high school, the 65,000 ducks at the Armour farm, and the oil painting of the woodland scene in the library.

They like to joke about Shelton's dray horse, Billy, the only horse in town, and to say that "Rochester is a one-horse town." They are used to being called hicks and Hoosiers and Main Streeters and they don't care.If anybody wants to laugh at them, let him laugh. They are proud to live in Indiana, proud to live in Fulton County, proud to live on the quiet, shaded streets of Rochester.

Thus ends the final installment of Fortune Magazine's 9,000-word article that has immortalized Rochester as the typical Midwestern small town of mid-Depression 1936, a time when the outside world had not yet intruded on American life.

Its conclusion is, on the whole, generous to Rochester's citizens and to

their lifestyle even if there is a hint that some disaffection exists. If you have followed these installments, you now can make your own evaluation of the article.

Did it condescend? At times, perhaps. I once thought its tone was supremely patronizing but now I am inclined to a more tolerant judgment. Certainly the article is a relic as from a time capsule and one must remember how different Rochester life is today than it was 65 years ago. The city population has doubled and there are diverse industries, a prosperous economy based on a dollar inflated 12 times its 1936 value, a much more sophisticated citizenry enjoying consumer comforts undreamed of in 1936.

One also must be reminded that Fortune's reporter was dispatched to Rochester to examine an American small town warts and all, not to glamorize it. Given this directive, it is not surprising that the narrative at times may veer to the supercilious. I found it curious that the effects of the Depression were only touched upon, nor were any conversations with the city's working people reported. It is possible, of course, that these topics were among that half of the submittted manuscript cut by editors for space requirements.

Even if the writer did sniff at some local customs and mention some others not usually discussed, it seems to me that the account of that innocent, somnolent time in our history is one of admiration, however reluctant, for the small-town lifestyle.

That also was the conclusion of a metropolitan journalist from the Indianapolis Times, who considered the article truthful to portraying the rewards of small-town living and who offered further testimony to the matter:

"I know an insurance man in a small town who makes a good living for his family and has time to go fishing now and then, take a trip to a metropolis occasionally, have luncheon with his family daily and generally lives a leisurely life the year around. I know a banker who has plenty of time to get around and have hearty conversations with people he likes, who never has eaten his luncheon in 15 minutes, who knows only by foreign experience the curtness of people big corporations hire."

That still can stand as an accurate explanation for why we live here today.

Published April 3, 2001

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