Go West, young man, and grow up with the country
At 24-years old I was a budding photographer who found beauty in the fading barns and farms that were a holdover from the golden-age of small farms and the legacy of an agrarian society that in 200 years had gone from a landscape of 90% of the population working the land, to less than 3% of the population doing so.I started photographing what was the farms that were being replaced as the urban-rural divide made it way f
urther out of Chicago farms were left to ruin as they waited for the next subdivision or strip mall to take their place.
Then one spring break, just like the Illinois farmer in the Oregon Trail game, I set off on a much easier path to photograph Western rural America.
In 1854 Horace Greeley, a New York newspaper editor, utter his famous line “Go West Young man, and grow up, with the country.” That advice was to Josiah B. Grinnell, who would founded Grinnell, Iowa, not far from where the photo above was probably taken.
My road trip would take me through Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming, before heading south where I continued to take photos through Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and a return home through Louisiana, Mississippi.
My view of what America looked like changed and I would tell anyone who would listen that their next vacation should be a road trip through what most considered Fly-over country, and not the beaches & resorts my college friends had opted for that spring. I was convinced that the vastness and open land out there would soon be filled up, much like it was supposed to as the westward expansion that the Oregon Trail was part of. It was only a matter of time.
As time would go on and I made other trips across the country, it became clear that these areas would not be overpopulated anytime soon and that the exact opposite was happening. The 1990s had marked the last days of small towns in rural America, but not because an increasing populace would start to move there, but because there was very few reasons to stay if you weren’t one of the few working the land.
So Much Has Changed in 25 Years
While 25 years doesn’t seem so long ago, but the places I used to find seem few and far between. Each year the odds of finding some of the older buildings I used to photograph get lower and lower. Progress hasn’t taken them down, time has. Grain elevators long since useful and store fronts that looked like a movie set from Tombstone, have come down as towns of less than a thousand people continue to shrink.
Some of these locations, if it wasn’t for my photos I’d feel like I’m gaslighting myself, because there’s almost no sign some ever existed.
Did you like this trip down memory lane?
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