Broken towns

Art Cullen

The old man sat alongside the highway in his rusted chair, drinking beer and watching hog trailers chug west full of squealing, and back east empty and silent but for the dualies belching diesel. He thought of a time and place that maybe was, when this village of 300 souls had a bank and a grocery store and a hot beef sandwich at noontime, and a good time on Saturday night.

That’s all gone now. The school closed. The newspaper folded. Even the gun shop went dark. The old man died.

Todd Partridge wrote a song about it: “Broken Town.”

Feels like everything is falling down around us

And everyone is leaving that has somewhere else to go.

Partridge, 54, strummed the tune in what used to be the woodshop of the Auburn Public School. It is three stories of grand dark brick, with a Masonic cornerstone, that was closed in 1959 — just three years after the Auburn girls won the state basketball championship.

“This was the hub of the town, but it was displaced,” Partridge mused.

The 1923 building served as a community center for awhile, but who could keep that up? It went vacant until Partridge bought it for a dollar. The school is now his recording studio, his residence and the office site of one of his family’s three transportation businesses.

Partridge could have had someplace to go, but he has this prosperous logistics enterprise with 30 employees in Auburn and nearby Breda (pop. 500) to manage. He dug in and served eight years on the city council and tried to help fix what was broken around town. They razed the abandoned grain elevator and vacant houses, spruced up Main Street and reeled in a couple businesses. A coffee shop replaced the gun store. There’s a convenience store on the highway. And churches. You can almost get what you need, but never quite.

If you are looking for the frustrated while male, stuck in time and place, Partridge knows him. Sac County always has been reliably red Farm Bureau territory, the home of Rep. Steve King. Partridge is of these people; he sings about the guy challenged to pull his tooth out with a pliers drawn from his overalls. True story from Lohrville, about the same size as Auburn down the highway where the hog trailers roll.

Some of those “deplorables” are his neighbors, old school chums from Wall Lake View-Auburn, and even fans of his band “The King of the Tramps” that plays around western Iowa.

His protagonist is “unhappy like us all,” whose place used to be self-sufficient like him. Now he’s working for Con Agra or Monsanto or Tyson. His job is 15 to 30 miles away and half the homes in town are rented, owned mainly by just a couple landlords.

Many of the storyteller’s friends voted for King or Trump despite their outrageous behavior, which is odd for such an unassuming place. “They think everything is rigged. They hear the stories of the good old days and think they got screwed. My vote doesn’t count. Apathy wins the day, and nostalgia kills progress,” Partridge says. “Technology goes on.”

You barely even know who lives in town anymore. They come and go. The old ones you knew die, the young renters move in. That’s a better fate than most towns lost along a blacktop where not even the bar could survive.

People look for an answer to decline, and are led to believe you can find it in the way things used to be.

He hears the talking points repeated. “It’s like osmosis You become who you eat with. This is the culture. They don’t want to drive to Des Moines.”

They think that immigrants are keeping their wages at $16 per hour. But no immigrants live in Auburn. They’re over in Denison at the packinghouse, or at the one up in Storm Lake. They don’t like the government, a gun is handy when a badger is in your basement, and you do wonder what you get for your taxes. Hwy. 175 is in pretty tough shape.

But the city is building a recreational trail. The ballfield next to the school is perfectly kept. Janelle King served on the council for years with Partridge, like her dad before her. He was a welder and a volunteer fireman, a tradition carried on by her son Tanner. Auburn carries on, if not self-sufficient. Crime is the tweaker in the abandoned house outside town.

The Raccoon River that runs past town toward Des Moines is filthy with ag chemicals. When the chemicals came on hard following World War II, corn yields nearly doubled while the number of farms dropped in half. Then the huge hog confinements came in to gobble up all that corn, and drink the underground aquifers dry. You can smell them in the dew of a still summer morning.

“We’re pimping ourselves for $16 an hour as hog confinement janitors so we can send our profits to China, which owns the hogs,” Partridge laments.

You put up with it. You mind your own business. Economies that slowly eat at the heart of rural places — endowed with natural abundance and wealth —appear to be too daunting to fix. The people are told that government is the problem. And that abortion is murder — it’s preached all over the region every Sunday.

Still, it is easy to be here. You can be left alone. Nobody ever heard of you or even noticed, until you do something that should be entirely predictable: tell the world to take a flying leap, because we are going to Make America Great Again.

And you can bury me upside down so you can kiss my … Partridge sings.

The absentee estates that own all the farmland around the town won’t sell for lots, so Auburn is stuck at the juncture of two highways and 140 houses, farmland-locked. It’s a bedroom town with a median household income of $40,000 and dreams held close to the vest. Yet it remains a place that, Partridge believes, will pass time with you like the old man in the chair, wondering where it went.

 

 

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