While visiting the small (1,500 pop) Illinois farm town in which I spent the first 18 years of my life, I was reminded the importance of economic development. Earlville was a thriving Midwest farm town in the 1950-60’s. Located 75 miles west of Chicago, the city prospered because of the rich farm land and the factory that made electric furnace motors. The family farms of that grew to 300-600 acres supported the immigrants who settled them in the early 1800’s and then supported the large families that worked the land.
On the main line of the Burlington Northern, it also supported the all-imported grain elevator, feed store, two car dealers, clothing store, drug store, two grocery stores, malt shop, three restaurants, doctor and dentist offices, drive-in movie, high school, grade school, five churches, three bars, a bowling alley, law office, plumbing shop, barber shop, newspaper, bank, post office, library, and four gas stations.
Around the 1970’s things began to change. The factory, a branch plant, moved its production to Mexico, laying off all 300 workers. The 80’s and 90’s saw the demise of the family farm with farming being taken over by corporate famers. Local businesses began to close followed by many of the shops and restaurants that catered to the locals.
Earlville now has five bars, two gas stations, a yoga center, a post office, a library, a small grade school, a small high school, five churches, and a bank (3% of assets loaned out). Most homes have now become cheap rentals houses.
Two businesses that are prospering is my brother’s salvage yard and recycling center where he gathers up the remnants of abandoned farm machinery, cars, and other scrap.
So, from an economic perspective, what happened? The economic engine that drove the community farming and manufacturing died. No one helped the community make the transition to a new economic reason to exist or created the basic income generator that brings capital in from outside the community. Its economic reason ceased to exist.
Those with dreams, energy, and most importantly, education, have left, leaving behind the under-educated, those who commute 50 miles to work at the big box distribution centers, and temporary on-call construction workers.
The lesson for me in all this was a reminder of how important the work is that many of you do day to day. What you do matters. It changes and improves people’s lives. It gives them hope for a better day and an economic opportunity to contribute their skills and energy. Thank you for what you do to make the world a better place.