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home : considered comment : rochester, once the model small town of the midwest June 25, 2016

Revisiting Fortune's examination of the Rochester of 1936

1st in a 9-part series

By 1936 Fortune Magazine, six years after its founding in New York City, was established as what it remains today, the country's premier business journal, but was striving to be more. Specifically, its publisher Henry R. Luce wanted to bring to Fortune's sophisticated business and industry leaders an awareness of the country that existed outside their isolated boardrooms.

It was in this context, then, that in the spring of that year Fortune's editors sent a reporting team into the American heartland to examine mid-Thirties life in a typical small town. They chose Rochester for this big-time media exposure.

The August, 1936, issue of Fortune presented to its 400,000 readers a lengthy literary portrayal of the city and its people that was spread over 18 illustrated pages. Labeled "Small Town" in the table of contents, the article was headlined simply "Pop. 3,518," followed by: "Rochester, Indiana: Dawson's drugstore and $1 doctor fees and bridge suppers and the $1,420,000 bank deposits and Ike Wile's department store and the dances out to the lake."

Being only 12 years old at the time, I had no interest in reading the piece and did not do so until much later. I do know, however, that by and large Rochester folks basked in the national attention they received. For many years afterward they cited the Fortune article, somewhat pretentiously, as evidence that the city had been chosen as the model American small town.

Now that 65 years have passed perhaps a later generation should peek into ur city's long-gone and simpler lifestyle and make its own judgment about that claim. Therefore, in this and subsequent weeks the Fortune article will be presented in installments, each preceded by forgotten facts concerning its creation.

I recommend the article not only as a good read, but often a surprising one. Now for the beginning:

Down from South Bend, Indiana, runs U. S. Highway No. 31 in an almost imperceptibly westward-bulging curve, crossed at the section lines by gravel and dirt roads that divide the countryside into mile-square rectangles; south or 30 miles through the towns of Lakeville, Lapaz, Plymouth and Argos, hrough farmland that rises and falls in long gentle swells of fertile field and pasture.

Ten miles south of Argos it crosses the Tippecanoe River and eases along for a couple of miles between barbeque stands, tourist cabins, filling stations and billboards; past signs advertising gas and oil, fryers, broilers, hides and tankage, and singing canaries; until it leaves the open country for the outskirts of a town and bumps over the main-line tracks of the Erie Railroad. Once across the tracks Highway 31 becomes the main street of Rochester, Indiana.

To the roadsick tourist or the auto-race fan hurrying toward Indianapolis on Memorial Day the main street of Rochester is a 14-block-long irritation of parked cars and traffic lights (three of them) before the concrete stretches straight and open ahead of him once more. But to the citizen of Rochester the main street is Main Street. It is North Main - "tractors with lugs and roughshod horses prohibited" - where it comes in across the tracks past the Church of God, the old Opera House (now the lodge rooms of the Loyal Order of Moose), the cattle sales barn with the Saturday crowd of farmers, the busy, prosperous Ford and Chevrolet garages.

The street is just plain Main through the business district where the cars are parked thick, where farmers' wives stare into store windows, where bored salesmen sit behind the plate-glass windows of the Barrett Hotel, where igh school girls giggle over chocolate sodas in Ruh's or Dawson's drugstore; past the glaring, treeless, hot and almost empty courthouse square.

And it is South Main as it runs maple-shaded between the deep-set, comfortable, late Victorian, porte-cochered houses of the leading citizens, where women sit on the wide porches and watch cars go by, where boys in sport shirts and knee breeches ride their bikes, no hands, on the sidewalks; past the Baptist and Catholic churches, the tourist homes and antique shops - on out to the city limits, where the town suddenly and simply gives way again to pastureland and cornfield.

Rochester, county seat of Fulton County, is 14 blocks long and maybe eight wide, a ragged-edged rectangle laid flat on the level land, bounded on the north by the Erie tracks, cut into on the east by a branch of the Nickel Plate. It is small enough so that a man can walk the length of it, from Leiter's grain elevator to Mrs. Campell's antique shop, in 12 minutes; cross it in 10, from the City Park through the fashionable district of the west side and the modest east-side section to the slums called Iceburg across the Nickel Plate. The east-west streets are numbered beginning with First at the Erie tracks and the north-south streets are named - Fulton, Pontiac, Jefferson and (inevitable sequence) Main, Madison, Monroe, Franklin and Elm.

In the center of the town the gray-stone, red-roofed, mid-nineties courthouse stands in the bare square with 10 squatting, mildly-staring lions guarding its doors. There were trees around the courthouse in the old days, but their shade and the feet of the people who walked in their shade kept the grass from growing, so the county commissiones cut them down - and still resist the efforts of the D. A. R. and the Woman's Club to replace them.

On a summer morning garrulous old men and farmers waiting for plowpoints to be sharpened sit in the sun on the low stone fence around the edge of the square. A little boy cuts kitty-corner across by the Civil War cannon to avoid the wide cement walks burning hot under his bare feet. The sprinklers in the four corners of the lawn turn slowly and the drops of water are bright in the sun before they fall to the burning ground.

Published February 6, 2001

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