Can an All American Town Survive the President?
He grew up in a small dairy-farming town, the stranger did, and though he has lived in cities of a million or more for the past decade, he still liked to think of himself as a bit of a hick. He was headed toward a small town in the Pennsylvania Appalachians — the heart of Nixon country, so he had been told — and he assumed it would be very much like the small town where he collected salamanders as a boy and chased cows with a cap pistol. He remembered fishing in the lakes, and cruising East Avenue with the Coasters blaring out of the car radio. And there had been a time — now long gone — when he admired Ayn Rand and thought of himself as Classic Liberal, which as nearly as he could remember translated out into a political position somewhere between Barry Goldwater and an ACLU lawyer.
So there was a distant empathy. Conservatives he could talk to. Small town folk he liked. But Nixon supporters… in the spring of 1974? He was at a dead honest loss as to what that was all about. There were certain elements to work with, of course. Stuffy righteousness, pious decency, tax talk, bowling, bombs…. No, the pieces wouldn’t fit together. It was going to be a very strange week, he concluded, in Lewistown, Pennsylvania.
The stranger rented a car in New York, outside the ratbag 42nd Street hotel where he had been holed up, writing, for the last few weeks. The junkies, the prostitutes, the sleazy peep shows… the stranger had a bad case of urban dread. A trip to Lewistown would be a healthy, mind-clearing dose of decency. The plan was to see how folks in a small, prosperous town feel about the goings on in Washington. Lewistown is a Republican stronghold that went 2.5 to one for Richard Nixon in 1972.
But the stranger had picked Lewistown from all the nation’s similar small towns for another and very specific reason. The small central Pennsylvania borough (pop. 11,098) had been chosen an All American city by the National Municipal League, an organization whose purpose has been to “recognize citizen accomplishment” since 1949. The borough had been one of the ten 1973-74 winners, and the stranger felt its story was by far the most inspiring of the ten.
In late June of 1972, Lewistown and the entire central Pennsylvania region had been devastated by the most damaging flood in its history. The deluge had been a $250-million disaster, but Lewistown rebuilt. Less than three weeks after the waters subsided, another and more far-reaching catastrophe hit the town. The American Viscose Company, the borough’s main — indeed almost its sole — employer closed its doors.
The Viscose manufactured rayon, and Lewistown was a borough that rayon built. Even during the Depression, Lewistown folk worked at the Viscose, and the town prospered in comparison to nearby towns dependent on the railroad. With the bankruptcy of the Penn Central, other central Pennsylvania towns deteriorated while Lewistown sat on its middling successful status quo.
In the middle and late Sixties, demand for rayon fell to alarmingly low levels, and the factory management, hit by stringent antipollution measures yet to be implemented, used flood damage as an excuse to close its doors. Two thousand people, nearly ten percent of the county’s work force, were thrown out of work. Most of the 2000 had never worked for another employer.
And yet, Lewistowners being the people they are, and necessity being the mother that she is, the town reared up on its hind legs and changed. Fast. The day after the Viscose closed, labor organizations, state and local officials banded together to form the Area Industrial Recovery Committee, which produced a film and a nationwide ad campaign inviting industry to settle in Lewistown.
Most impressive (and this from John Connelly, president of a local bank), the people of Lewistown “showed their pride by getting jobs in areas as far as 80 miles away, but they retained their residence in Lewistown. An anticipated increase in the welfare rolls failed to materialize…. People helped each other…. Fifteen thousand people, organizations and businesses contributed $250,000 to the United Fund.” Such a figure had never been reached before.