Farm Towns and Mill Towns

One of things I miss most about Texas is the small towns.  Whenever we traveled around the state, which seemed like every weekend, we would take back roads.  Going a little slower you could watch the land change and get a sense of the places you were passing through.  Wide avenues with quaint old homes, the courthouse square, cafes with great food.  From the salt grass prairie to the Panhandle you could count down your progress meal by meal.  Breakfast in Bellville, lunch in Comanche, dinner at the edge of the Llano in Post.

But even when I was young I noticed that East Texas seemed different.  A lot of the towns didn’t have the same feel you’d get elsewhere.  I didn’t understand then, but in Southern life there are two kinds of places on the map – Farm Towns and Mill Towns.  The differences between them and the way we regard each says a lot of Southern politics right into our time.

Farm towns grew up to serve agricultural communities.  They were surrounded by country families who owned their own land and were largely independent.  You would go there to buy equipment and supplies, visit a doctor, a lawyer, or a shop or church.  The farm town was dominated by professionals, merchants, and small businessmen.  Atticus Finch lived there.

Mill towns were built around an industry.  Early in East Texas that was mostly timber, but often these towns were built by railroad companies.  They would usually rise in places that were hard to farm, like the Piney Woods.  They were commonly dominated by a single major entrepreneur or a company.  You went to the mill town to trade labor for money, a disreputable bargain in my great-grandfather’s world.

You landed in the mill town when things went terribly wrong; you lost your farm or your husband, or when you had done something bad and needed to escape scrutiny.  A lot of Faulkner’s characters lived there.  The mill towns were not quaint or picturesque.  They did not evoke sentimentality.  They existed because they couldn’t be easily prevented.  Little effort was wasted on prettiness or pride.  No one lived there for the scenery.

I’ve talked about the difference in our politics between Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s competing visions of American life.  In the contrast between farm and mill you can see Southerners’ decisive preference for Jefferson’s values.  Hardly anyone remembers the farm or the mill anymore.  No one remembers why Lufkin is so different from Tyler.  But the same preferences and biases sit inside us and they say a lot about our politics.

Deep inside we are still suspicious of Hamilton’s capitalism; his big cities and banks and central government.  Given the choice we lean toward the the simplicity and independence of Jeffersonian life.  But that world is behind us.  Urban life doesn’t support the kind of radical individualism that so many of us cherish.  I think that the only way to make sense of modern fundamentalism, the Tea Party Movement, and other extreme forms of extreme politics is to see them as a reaction to being dragged, kicking and screaming, from Jefferson’s dream into Hamilton’s reality.

It should come as no surprise that Texas has the highest rural population in the country.  But even here change is coming.

We need to find a way to make peace with the demands of global capitalism.  The world has no mercy for those who fall behind.  An urban environment requires more cooperation, more rules, more interconnectedness than most of us were raised to embrace.  But life in a mill town doesn’t have to be grim.

When we have settled from this bizarre spasm we may discover that the new global urbanism does not bring the end of liberty.  In fact it delivers far more personal independence, in the form of privacy, than anyone ever enjoyed in the farm towns.  There is much to like about the future if we have the vision to see it.

Finally, as an exercise, Houston and/or Dallas – farm town or mill town?

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