Letters from Flyover Country; Three American Towns in the Age of Trump
America woke on the morning after the presidential election feeling like a nation of strangers, as if we did not understand our countrymen, our neighbors, or even our relatives and friends.
In truth, this singularly divisive election was the culmination of years during which Americans pulled further away from each other, reducing one another to labels: Coastal elite. Small-town bigot. Radical Muslim. Illegal immigrant. Misogynist. Un-American.
Donald Trump’s America is profoundly divided: The America that supported Hillary Clinton, for example, according to a set of revealing maps in The New York Times, lives on just fifteen percent of the nation’s land mass yet comprises fifty-four percent of the population. These two Americas seldom mix. When they are not feeling an abiding hostility toward one another, citizens are left wondering just who lives in that other part of the country.
“The Promise” is the story of America in the Age of Trump. It is set in three small cities: Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Youngstown, Ohio; and McAllen, Texas.
Each of these places represents a facet of the new president’s promise — if not a literal promise then certainly an existential one about the America he envisions, one with a great wall rising along its southern border; with the return of vanished jobs that once made people proud; with a close eye kept on those he fears might threaten the nation’s safety simply because of their faith.
Cedar Rapids has one of the nation’s oldest Muslim communities, and a growing proportion of Muslim residents. A border wall with Mexico would rise on the outskirts of McAllen. Youngstown has endured one of the most precipitous population drops of any American city, as jobs simply left.
In The Promise, stories from these towns through the early days of this new American era will be told by men and women who live there and know them well: reporters from the local newspapers: the Youngstown Vindicator, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and the The Monitor of McAllen. They will take us into their towns and into the lives of the people who live there. Pull up a chair.
The idea is simple: Perhaps the best way for Americans to begin to know and understand each other better is to hear stories about who we are, what we do, what we want, who we love and hate, and what we dream.
Every October, South Texas is flooded with Monarch butterflies and there is something poetic about their annual journey south to Mexico. They arrive around the Day of the Dead, and local legend has it that the butterflies are the souls of departed loved ones returning for a holiday visit.
That, in essence, is South Texas: a rest stop on the way to a destination. And it is from this perch that the Rio Grande Valley has developed from a sleepy agricultural community to a burgeoning cross border gateway for cargo — both legal and illicit — animals, and that species whose DNA has kept it on the move for millennia: human beings.
South Texas is a region used to neglect. It is framed by the Rio Grande River to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the east. Nine out of ten people who live here are Hispanic and it is their culture that visitors notice when they arrive.
The Rio Grande Valley is dotted with towns — Harlingen and Brownsville, Rio Grande City, Roma, Mission, Pharr, San Juan, Edinburg, Weslacom. McAllen, the best-known, only has a population of 140,000.
NAFTA brought infrastructure to the valley, including a new interstate highway, I-69. But change has come slowly, and only in the last couple of years has a confluence of events delivered a promise of even greater economic vitality. There is the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and the legislature has approved a new and well-funded medical school. Elon Musk is planning to build a private SpaceX launch along the shores of Boca Chica Beach, near Brownsville, to compete with Cape Canaveral in Florida.
There is progress across the border, too. Mexico has deregulated its massive oil industry, allowing foreign exploration, and with it perhaps oil and gas companies will set up regional headquarters in the valley to direct exploration in Mexico. Mexico also completed a new superhighway, and produce that used to head north towards California and Arizona, now flows through the valley on its way to lucrative eastern markets in the United States.
Yet, with it all, dark clouds gather in the Rio Grande Valley. Trade has also been a boon to trans-national criminal organizations. Factions of the Gulf Cartel, which has controlled illegal drug trade in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas, have been waging war with a vicious upstart drug cartel known as Las Zetas — even as the Gulf Cartel wages war against itself.
There are fire fights in the streets of Reynosa, McAllen’s neighbor across the border. These battles between drug cartels resemble nothing like the drive-by shootings between American gangs. These can last for hours, with buses commandeered to prevent escape and factions collecting dead bodies so authorities have no clear picture of casualties.
The clouds extend further south, to Central America, especially El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — among the most violent places in the world — from which a stream of refugees, fleeing for their lives, heads inexorably toward the border, and McAllen.
To many people, “Youngstown” is best known as a name on a highway sign on the way to Cleveland or Pittsburgh. Or, worse, as a punch line to some endless tome about the “Rust Belt.”
Perhaps, even as a Bruce Springsteen song.
For travelers who catch a glimpse of the city, it’s often from Interstate 680, likely while on their way to or from somewhere else. A small cluster of high-rise towers poke up from a valley next to the highway as though the seed of a great East Coast city began sprouting but stopped midway through.
On the hill north of the towers is a university, easily recognized by its monolithic football stadium and a nearby cellular tower emblazoned with a large, red “Y”. Just below the interstate is the Covelli Centre arena, clearly newer than most of the city’s buildings, which has hosted Tony Bennett, John Mellencamp and Elton John, among others. Most travelers will never see this building, or know what it has to offer, unless they actually stop and visit Youngstown.
For those who do know of Youngstown as more than a road sign, it’s likely due to its ties to nefarious activities — organized crime, political corruption, car-bombs (locally known as the “Youngstown Tune-up”) — which are sometimes outlined in snarky list articles written by individuals who’ve never stepped foot in the city. Other times the city is used for ponderous profiles of “Real Americans” longing for the days of steel mills and the might of the United Steel Workers.
It is that latter narrative that is often revisited when Youngstown comes to prominence in the national eye.
Youngstown is a useful symbol for illustrating the decline of the status, wealth and hope of a Midwestern community and the workers who called it home. What’s left are the survivors who manage to coexist amid abandoned mills, shuttered factories, gutted labor unions, massive population loss, poverty and a heroin crisis.
Of course, the city has more to offer than its utility as a symbol. Over the last decade, revitalization efforts in downtown Youngstown have resulted in the birth of an arts and entertainment district, which in turn spurred the creation of a handful of downtown apartment buildings aimed at young professionals.
A business incubator — which was named the world’s best university-connected business incubator in 2014 — has attracted innovators in technology and business-related fields ranging from additive manufacturing to virtual reality video game publishing.
Depending on who is describing the city, Youngstown may either be characterized as a hub of innovation and community-led revitalization or as a cesspool, or even as a vestigial organ of America’s twentieth century war machine.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Call Cedar Rapids “flyover country” and locals might agree with you. They often lampoon the town’s official slogan, the City of Five Seasons, calling it the City of Five Smells. The town is home to major manufacturing plants, including a towering Quaker Oats plant that wafts the odor of oatmeal and Crunchberries over the downtown.
But the locals here will also want you to know their town is much more than a set of easily dismissed Midwestern tropes. Iowa’s second-largest city is a place trying to marry the benefits of Midwest living — low cost-of-living, quality schools, low crime rates — with access to trendy restaurants, summer festivals, and a thriving local business scene.
Like all of Iowa, the town is dependent on the state’s agricultural economy. Surrounded by cornfields and farmland, trucks and trains ferry crops into the large corn-processing plants near downtown. But the city of 130,000 is home to a major engineering company, Rockwell Collins, which designs avionics and weapons systems for the military. It is also home to factory workers and engineers, small-town transplants and young professionals, Midwesterners and immigrants. The median age is about thirty-six.
Linn County, in which Cedar Rapids is the largest city, voted Democratic in 2012 and 2016, but the town is surrounded by a sea of Trump voters; only six of the state’s ninety-nine counties went to the Democrat in 2016. And Linn County voters re-elected Chuck Grassley, their longtime Republican senator, by a wide margin.
In this town, the lives of liberals and conservatives have always been intertwined.
Cedar Rapids: The Twins and Their Worried Mother
The Elsheikh sisters, who are only just finding their political voices, say the 45th president has already changed their experience at Middle school. Ever since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and inauguration, the girls’ array of pink, leopard-print, and black-and-white patterned headscarves has seemed to draw a string of snide comments.
Just about every Friday, meanwhile, outside the big high school a few blocks from their house, where they plan to enter as freshmen soon, a group of older students park their pickup trucks in a row so that the beds of the trucks face the sidewalk, where students usually walk on their way into the building in the morning. They plant U.S. and Confederate flags there, leaving them to wave over the passing parade.
This began the week after the election, the day that Afnan — the twins’s older sister, who is seventeen and a senior — led a school demonstration. Dozens of students carried handmade signs declaring a stance against discrimination, and followed Afnan as she walked out of the school to march up the street.
In the parking lot, they were met by the boys in the trucks. The protesters walked a mile to a busy intersection and turned back, as the boys drove back and forth along their route. Afnan says she hasn’t done anything overtly political at school since then, but the boys still ride in every Friday to make their statement.
Rahma and Raafa have spent their academic lives in the Cedar Rapids public schools. Their four older siblings all attended public schools, too. But this year, as the girls inch closer to enrolling full time at Kennedy High School, their mother, Farida Osman, has tried to push her twins in a different direction. She’s tried to convince the girls to let her homeschool them.
The big high school on the northeast side of Cedar Rapids didn’t always make her worry. A few years ago, she wouldn’t have stressed over her twins enrolling at Kennedy. But back then, she wouldn’t have expected her older daughter, Afnan, to feel she should stage a protest walkout. “For adults, if you go straight forward you’ll be OK,” Farida says. “But kids don’t have mercy.” When Afnan started coming home with troubling stories, Farida’s arguments for homeschooling picked up again.
Rahma and Raafa are adamant, however. They like their school, they tell her. They want to be with their friends.
McAllen: The Nun the Migrants Seek
Sister Norma’s volunteers asked the man how his nearly month-long journey has been going.
That’s when the man opened up, with his son sitting nearby. That’s when he began telling a tale of boarding a bus in Mexico just north of the Guatemalan border, his son in tow, on their way to the United States. That’s when the man met two young women on a similar journey. And because of the shared venture, because of the shared homeland, the man, his son and the young women became fast travel companions as the bus droned north.
This is when the man begins to vainly hold back tears, Sister Norma, recounts, when the man tells of the bus suddenly stopping at a desolate road block in Mexico and of armed men boarding and ordering all the passengers off.
That’s when the man tells of being herded with his son and travel companions and a busload of other passengers into a remote building. Now the man cries openly, talking about the armed men grabbing his two young friends and dragging them to another room — and hearing their screams as they begin to be raped.
Then the man tells of other armed men approaching the horrified man and taking his ten-year-old from his clutches. Then the armed men hold a pistol up to his child and tell the man that, unless he calls relatives and gets money, the child will be shot.
And then through tears, the man tells of the gun going off and, miraculously, of seeing his child, scared but unharmed. By this time, the volunteers in Sister Norma’s respite center are quietly listening to the man sob. He believes God saved his son. As for his two female travelling companions? He never saw them again.
That’s Sister Norma’s life these days.
Youngstown: The Union Man
When I was in high school near Youngstown in the early 2000s, the buses would drop us off on the side of the building and we’d enter through a large set of double doors. On our way in, we would pass a group of students sitting or hanging around the steps. These students were the kids who were not going inside with the rest of us to attend English, social studies and math class. They were waiting for another bus, to take them to trade school, a path to the future very different than mine, or so I thought.
Whether the rest of us were intentionally paraded past them as an act of shaming, or whether it was simply a matter of school logistics, the message was the clear to us: we were destined for big things; they were the screw ups.
We knew them and their reputations: unintelligent trouble-makers who would never go to college. We thought of them as the ones who had already given up before the game had really started. We, on the other hand, were going on to college and after college to lucrative jobs that used our minds. We could not help but look down on them as they sat on the steps, waiting for the bus that was the first trip to a less promising future.
But here was the thing about Youngstown: it couldn’t exist without those kids and the trades they were learning. The city had long ago grown prosperous on the backs of steel workers, and when the mills shut down Youngstown somehow survived — even as so many people left — thanks to the work of those trade school kids, and their fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters in well-paying union jobs at the nearby GM Lordstown auto plant.
I dismissed them too quickly. I did go to college. But I didn’t last; I dropped out after my first semester. I was 19 years old and moved to Tijuana, Mexico to work at a mission. When I left the mission after two years and moved north of the border to San Diego, I had a wealth of life experience but little in the way of marketable skills. So I began to consider pursuing a trade so I could start making money without the high debt and hoop-jumping of pursuing a degree. I worked for a year and-a-half as a non-union construction laborer for $10 dollars an hour. A friend of mine, doing similar work, wrangled a union job and brought in well over $30 an hour. Eventually the company I worked for let most of us go and hired a slew of new workers under a contract that wouldn’t entitle them to health insurance after six months, as ours did. I worked at a bar, a fast food restaurant and as a freelance journalist before moving back to Youngstown to finally finish my degree, never finding that elusive union job.
Now I understood — as I hadn’t back in high school — that if you didn’t like school and you weren’t looking to join the military, the trades were the place to land. Youngstown made it easy, given our astoundingly low standard of living, to thrive on a union wage. A good friend once told me — after years of working at a local fast food restaurant — that he would love to work a good factory job, where he could do the same thing all day, talk to no one, and bring home a healthy paycheck.
That was how Carlton Ingram saw the world in 1973, on the day he graduated from South High School. That very night he joined the apprenticeship program with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local #66.
He’s been with the union ever since, working for 32 years as a heavy equipment operator, and the last 11 in the office, first as a dispatcher and now as a business representative. The union wasn’t Ingram’s last resort. It’s a cornerstone of his life. He raised three kids — all college graduates, all successful — because he had the chance to trade his work and loyalty for fair wages.
Cedar Rapids: The Imam
Mother Mosque, built on the northwest side of town in 1934, is one of the oldest and longest-standing mosques in North America, and it is still going. But the wooden structure became too small to hold its growing number of worshippers. So in 1971, the new Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids was built. The sprawling white building — with two bright blue qubba, or domes — contains a large prayer room with a rich red carpet, a common space with a kitchen, and a gym and classrooms for a small private school. Hundreds of Muslims — both Iowans and immigrants from the Middle East and parts of Asia, of all races — worship at the Islamic Center.
Their young imam is Hassan Selim, a man in motion these days. He is twenty-nine, slim, and straight in posture. He wears glasses and a short beard. Selim is the kind of person who weighs each word he says, yet is somehow warm and welcoming. And he has an intense resolve to explain the tenets of Islam. Like all the members of the Center, Selim knows that Islamophobia has been lurking in his city ever since 9/11, but he senses that the presidential campaign and the winning candidate’s actions since then have taken things up a notch.
The subject of this Saturday gathering was ostensibly how to help Muslim adolescents manage stress — both normal American-teenager-type stress, which can be more than enough for most young people, and the new and special breed of stress born of President Donald Trump’s January 29 executive order, which attempted to stop citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for 120 days. The order’s formal title is “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” Many know it as “the Muslim ban.”
The meeting wasn’t really all about the teenagers, though. While the younger kids were busy playing tag and the teens huddled and whispered at a table in the corner of the common room, the adults focused intently on a presentation about this new level of stress. In the last month, the parents had heard on the news that two Texas mosques had been burned to the ground. They had heard of how some American Muslims had been detained at airports because of the new president’s ban. They knew what one of Trump’s counselors, Kellyanne Conway, had said a few days earlier in an interview, that Iraqi refugees had been responsible for a “massacre” in Bowling Green, Kentucky, although there had been no such massacre.
For this evening’s discussion, Selim had asked a pair of psychology doctoral students who are studying at the University of Iowa to provide guidance. Ramsey Ali and Nikki Grunewald, both members of the Islamic Center, stood at the front of the large common room, pointing to the slides that illuminated a wall behind them.
Youngstown: The True Believer
The road to Republican Nirvana — and there, to Connie Spagnola, who wakes up every morning thanking Jesus for making Donald Trump president — begins in downtown Youngstown, along Market Street, through the South Side, the city’s crime hub. A dozen people have been murdered over the past few years near Market, which is cluttered with vacant properties, and pockets of vacant land. A company that runs halfway houses for criminals has taken the lead in purchasing abandoned buildings and demolishing them.
As you leave Youngstown and enter suburban Boardman, you begin to see businesses and things only get busier as you near U.S. Route 224. This is Mahoning County’s retail center. There are dozens and dozens of chain stores in retail plazas and the Southern Park Mall, the only mall in the county. You pass car dealerships, upscale restaurants, more chain stores and then, tucked away in a plaza, is the Mahoning County Republican Party headquarters.
There’s a large mounted wooden elephant head that sticks out about five feet from the wall, plenty of elephant furniture, several tables and a large-screen TV which is blasting President Trump’s latest rally speech.
Then there is 76-year-old Connie Spagnola. Her desk is right at the front door. She is wearing a white tee-shirt that reads “Pray for America” on top of an American flag design. When the office is open for business, you can usually find Spagnola, for whom the rise of Donald Trump is a source of great joy.
She tells me she can talk “about him all day. I love him.”
She praises his honesty and integrity.
Immigration reform? “He’s doing it the right way. We’re only going to get rid of the bad people: the drug dealers and sex offenders. We’re not throwing everyone out. It amazes me that people don’t understand that.”
The wall along the country’s southern border? “I can’t wait until that wall goes up. It will bring a lot of jobs to people.”
Targeting illegal immigrants? If a person has been living in this country for 10 to 15 years and never became a citizen, she says, it’s their fault if they find themselves in trouble for not being here legally.
Trump, she says, makes her feel so much safer than she’s ever felt before.
Youngstown: A Woman In Between
She tells me about a friend of hers, also a resident of the affluent suburb where Gulay lives, whose house was egged around the time of the election. The friend is an immigrant from Pakistan and a practicing Muslim who dresses in the traditional, conservative garb of her faith.
A few of the young women in the Muslim Student Association, nervous about the anti-Muslim rhetoric they were beginning to hear, asked her if they should stop wearing the hijab. She told them that she couldn’t tell them one way or the other — it was their choice. “You have to live your life the way you believe,” she told them. Gulay believes women should be free to choose. She recalls there was a time in Turkey when religious dress was forbidden in government buildings.
Friends are telling her they’re afraid to go to such places as the area’s shopping mall, nervous about the anti-Muslim backlash. Gulay doesn’t share that fear, telling me, “You can be safe or unsafe anywhere.”
Yet even as the Trump administration had begun taking a more aggressive approach to removing people who are living in the country illegally, Gulay was ambivalent about the crackdown. “If you’re illegal here, you can get deported. I can’t really blame anyone for that,” she said. “That’s why we have immigration laws in place. But then, coming from an immigrant family, people come here for a better living, so it’s really devastating to see people getting deported for any reason.”
Gulay had recently participated in a rally in downtown Youngstown opposing Trump’s restrictions on refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority countries. She was encouraged by what she saw that day: Muslims, Jews, and Christians joining together.
“It’s kind of nice to see the other religions unite in times of hardship,” she said. “It kind of gives me a lot of hope for humanity.” A talk at Youngstown State hosted by the Muslim Student Association drew a crowd of about 60 people. It also drew the support of top university officials, which Gulay also found encouraging.
There had been some initial concern about her husband’s green card renewal. But that abated and Gulay was encouraging her husband, Dursun, to apply for citizenship. The family is hoping to have all of that sorted out in time to visit Turkey this summer. They visit their home country every other year, spending about a month with relatives and letting their kids experience life there.
Gulay’s ties to her native country and to the United States tug at her. In Turkey, she relishes the country’s generous hospitality, something she brings back with her to the States. “When you have company you cook like ten different meals,” she said. “I try to raise my kids with the Turkish culture.”
But she is equal parts American: “When I’m not here, I’m more American, if that makes sense.”
When she travels abroad she feels a deep loyalty to her home of the last 25 years, and is quick to jump to its defense. In the United States, she said, “You’re kind of in the middle of both cultures.
“Even going to YSU as an adult now, it tells me so much about this country. You don’t really get that chance very easily in a third-world country. I love America so much.”
That’s why, Gulay says, it hurts when people act as if she doesn’t belong here.
The Vindicator has been telling the story of Youngstown since 1869. The Gazette has done the same for Cedar Rapids since 1883. The Monitor is a relative newbie — it’s been part of the life of McAllen only since 1909. They are as much a part of the town as city hall, the library, the high school, and the access roads to the business loop. Much more, really, because without them there is no record of the past — and by record I refer not to stenography but to narrative.
The Promise may be telling the stories of Youngstown, Cedar Rapids, and McAllen now, in real time. But each of those towns has a past, a complex past, that informs so much of what the towns — the living, breathing, changing, maddening, entities — have come to be. So, every few weeks, we’ll step back in time but not in place. We’ll take a journey to these towns through the pages of their newspapers, to understand how these three towns came to be the places they are, and how events of the present connect to the past. This chapter is set in the 19th century, in Youngtown and Cedar Rapids; McAllen’s Monitor was yet to be born.
They are joined at the hips, these towns and their papers. The towns lived their lives. The papers watched and took note for us to discover, all these years later.
Youngstown 1890: Bright Lights; Sin City
This is what you learned on Saturday evening February 1, 1890 for the two cents it cost for the four-page Youngstown Evening Vindicator (a dime of you subscribed weekly): that C.B. Folsom was “feeling somewhat better”; Lizzie Grogan had returned to Syracuse after a two-week visit with her parents on Thomas Street; Robert Woolsey would be interred at Oak Hill Cemetery; and Ralph Reynolds — “a colored barber” — had failed in his attempt to kill himself. Mayor Montgomery was expected to order him to leave town just the same.
The mayor, as Youngstown’s dispenser of justice, was a busy man; in the Vindicator’s telling the town was not short on sin. One morning alone he had brought before him John Stack, Jane Thomas, John Steinhouse, Patrick McGinnis, Orville E. Hogebone, and John S. Kennedy, all charged with drunkenness (punishment: a dollar fine); Grace O’DFay, Annie Gowan, Lizzie Williams, and Annie Dixon — all “inmates of a disorderly house,” which is exactly what you think it means; and William Woods, whom the Vindicator characterized as a “notorious character” and whom the mayor fined $20 and remanded to the Cleveland workhouse for twenty days for being a resident of “a disorderly house.”
But here was the thing: Men were spending money on liquor and they were spending money on women, which suggested that there was money to be made in Youngstown. The city, as captured in the pages of the Vindicator, was pulsing with life, and no story quite captured it better in the spring of 1890 than the misadventure of a coal operator named James Stover who, the Vindicator reported, came to town on May 28 “and proceeded to get gloriously drunk and take in the sights of Youngstown by electric light.” Stover began the evening with a princely $140 in his pocket and over the course of a debauched evening that took him first to “Daisy Marie’s resort” and then Mollie Darling’s establishment ended up without a dime. Though arrests soon followed, the theft — he reported fell in with a woman who called herself Sadie Phillips — was beside the point. Stover had money to blow and Youngstown was a place to blow it. At night, when the town was aglow with electric lights.
The place was a boom town, and about to become a bigger one. People were spending — or more precisely were being encouraged by the Vindicator’s advertisers to spend — on oysters at the “lunchroom” at 200 Federal Street; bespoke tailoring by J.B. Housteau, “the old reliable artistic tailor”; travel to Europe with booking by Ike K. Evans; a “novelty hot air furnace” available at James Squire’s shop; the new Leonard Refrigerator (“uses less ice”); and on real estate in the new development of Wick Stone Block, sold by the firm of Tayler and Walcott.
Youngstown had its own baseball team with a modest but growing following; an opera house which hosted productions of Ben-Hur, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and, wincingly “minstrel shows.” Gans the Druggist made the new import from Philadelphia, “ice cream sodas.” There was a combined music and bookstore, a new “wallpaper” store and, for $900, a young man could buy an acre of land and a house on it. The town bred winners, like William Beard, J.F. Williams, and Daniel Stiles who on April 3, 1890 were back in town — page-one news! — after a four-month journey to Central America, tanned, healthy (especially Stiles who reportedly gained 35 pounds), and in the case of Williams, itching to journey back south to make good on a gold claim.
The good times also drew to Youngstown the sort of people adept at taking advantage of winners, like Mrs. W.T. Hall, “a dashing widow,” who showed up claiming she was going open a large dry good store but instead incurred a good many debts from people who kept extending her credit as she presented a veneer of success by renting carriages so that she might be seen about town. “Some of these carriages are not yet paid for,” and likely never would be, given the Vindicator’s dispatch that she had fled town.
Youngstown was building a hotel and paving roads and still, in the view of the Vindicator, it had not fully seized the future. No longer could the town content itself with being “the Iron City of Ohio,” declared the Vindicator on September 23, 1889. “The iron age is soon to be followed ‘in the near future’ by that of steel, and Youngstown must and will be up with the times.”
Cedar Rapids 1896: Desperate Times. Desperate Measures
By comparison the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette of the 1890s was a far less salacious read. A little dull even: “College Notes — Interesting Miscellaneous Announcements” and “An Engagement of Marriage and Why It Was Broken.”
Which made the edition of March 14, 1896 all the more striking. For there, across three columns on the front page the sober Gazette issued an angry call for what it saw as dangerous times: “A Vigilance Committee and A Stone Quarry.”
If Youngstown — at least the Youngstown that paraded before Mayor Montgomery — had fallen prey to the one-dollar fine sins of lust and gluttony then Cedar Rapids had descended far deeper:
“A woman whose husband is at present and has for some time been in the penitentiary was relieved of all her clothing by men while she and they were drunk in her house…”
“Men beating their poor wives when they have become drunk upon the money which should have gone to the support of the wife and little hungry children…”
“An able-bodied but lazy loafer stopping during the day with a woman…and at night with another woman whose husband is dead…”
“So-called lawyers robbing every person possible…”
And with it all, asked the Gazette, “are the vigilantes not needed?”
The paper wanted one hundred men — “fearless patriotic men whose religion is honor and humanity….” Men who “could do more to cleanse this city, or any city, than can possibly be imagined.”
By cleanse, the editors did not envision firm but gentle encouragement:
“It would perhaps not be necessary to hang anybody, and yet a piece of rope might carry with it a great lesson….There are a number of characters engaged in villainous, nefarious work, and one of these might look pretty well at the end of a piece of hemp hanging from the Cedar River Bridge, or a tree of a lamp post.”
Not that it necessarily had to come to that. The sinners, it seemed to the Gazette, had for too long lived off the alms and handouts of the generous town fathers. The paper listed just how much money had been spent — presumably unwisely — for such generous institutions as the Home for the Friendless. But no longer; it was time these people were put to work. There was a quarry on the edge of town and in the quarry lay the stones that could be used to pave the roads of a growing city. Empty the jails, cried the Gazette, and send the laggards to the quarry, along with the beggars. “Everyone of these fellows should be put to work.”
The Gazette issued its call on a Saturday night. And that was it. On Monday the paper’s readers learned that Elizabeth McMillan had died unexpectedly, that Della Fox would be appearing in two weeks in her new operatic production, Fleur de Lis, and one hundred Knights of Pythias would be arriving on the afternoon train for an event that evening that “promises to be a great success.” The weather was expected to continue to be fair, with variable winds shifting to the south.