Galesburg- 1937 and 2007


by Terry Hogan



In 1937, Earnest Elmo Calkins described Galesburg as he saw it.  In that description, he also described many other Midwestern towns evolution to that point.  As I'm not much of a futurist and am, by nature, a pessimist, I will not attempt to look at the future of Galesburg.  Instead I will attempt to summarize the changes that Calkins had seen by 1937 and let the reader compare Galesburg of '37 with Galesburg of  '07, a remarkable amount of change in 70 years.


By 1937, the tourist no longer saw Galesburg's backyards and Galesburg's industries as he came into town by train.  The automobile and "hard-top" roads changed that.  By 1937, according to Calkins, "he drives boldly through on Main Street, savoring the town more fully and more slowly, but even to him there appears to be a certain sameness to the monotonous succession of cities". 


"Galesburg may be approached in several ways.  The Burlington train from Chicago follows the route of the covered wagons that brought the Yankee pioneers, and lands one at the yellow brick station two blocks from Main Street.  The Santa Fe deposits the traveler at its sandstone station the other side of Main Street a block from the public square.  Or one can motor over as straight, smooth and level concrete roads as found anywhere in American and enter the town from any of the four points of the compass, driving past outposts of red and yellow gas pumps and cogged-wheel announcements of Rotary luncheons, direct to the public square, the center, but not the heart of the town."


In 2007, much of this description rings hollow.  Probably the driver will pass Main Street and the Square entirely, only touching Galesburg as he speeds along  I-74 or taking the 34 bypass. If the driver does enter Main Street, he will see a collection of beautiful old architecture, where still standing, that was full of promise and hope for the city. Galesburg in 1937 was the largest town in a 50 mile radius.  Friday nights and railroad paydays found Main Street clogged with shoppers both driving and walking.  It was a booming town where money was earned locally and spent locally. 


In 1937, Calkins notes that the public square was the center of the town.  This has even changed.  Galesburg has grown east and north faster than south and west.  The interstate and the bypass have drawn Galesburg to them, much like the railroads once drew the towns to the tracks.  Galesburg's business is now done on far East Main and North Henderson and it is generally done in chain stores, often non-flatteringly referred to as "big box stores".  Money earned locally is often still spent locally, but it doesn't stay locally.  The international marketplace has replaced the isolated, independent marketplace of prairie towns of 1937. 


Today, the international marketplace is leveling world economies. Asian and Mexican cheap labor has caused these economies to boom, while Midwestern industries close up, leaving only "brownfields" behind.  It is not just a Galesburg problem.  It is an American problem. Good paying jobs disappear, being replaced by service sector jobs that pay at or slightly above minimum wage.   America is becoming a two class society, as  the middle class erodes away.  A few, the lucky, become wealthy.  The rest go the other direction with the loss of jobs and promised retirement plans.


Once Galesburg's trains hauled local goods to and from Galesburg or carried American made cars. Next time you spend a half an hour waiting for the train to pass, look at what is being hauled.  It is either low-sulfur western coal from Wyoming that displaced coal mining in the Midwest, or it is overseas containers with Chinese names. 


Even the Internet is having an effect on Main Streets of mid-America.  Once the home-bred stores died on Main Street or moved to the malls on the perimeters, antique malls opened up in the old downtown stores.  But now e-Bay and its clones are killing off the antique stores.  Nearly zero overhead and a world-wide market offered by cyberspace beats sitting by the cash register day after day wondering if money for the rent will be raised.


Calkins writes that a Saturday evening in 1937 Galesburg "…has all the air of a carnival, with people sitting in the closely parked cars, like boxes at a theatre, watching the parade on the sidewalks, partaking of sundaes from the drug stores, and doing the family shopping." 


A Saturday evening in 2007 Galesburg Main Street shows that the carnival has left town.  Unfortunately, this isn't limited to Galesburg or even to Illinois.  Similar sized towns throughout the Midwest also fit the description.  The loss of the family farm; the loss of the local economy; the loss of local industry; and the loss of local well-paying jobs take their toll. 


It is probably no accident that Barack Obama often specifically refers to Galesburg as an example of the economic plight facing America.- "One way or another, American companies became leaner and meaner- with old-line manufacturing workers and towns like Galesburg bearing the brunt of this transformation."  (Page 156, The Audacity of Hope, 2006).


As a strictly personal observation, it is my belief that one of the great inventions of America was the creation of an educated, middle class.  The middle class has been the great stabilizing influence in America.  The middle class has enough that it wants to hold on to and hopes that through hard work, education, and a little luck, it may have more. Thus, the middle class has a self-interest in not having major shifts in governmental policies.  The poor have little to protect and little to lose and little hope that tomorrow will be any better.  A country full of  the poor, and ruled by a small minority of the very rich, is a dangerous country.  We don't all need to have the same size piece of the pie.  But we do need to have a piece and a hope that we can get more through our own lawful efforts - reward for work- whatever shape that work takes. 


Such are my personal observations.  Perhaps in 70 years some writer will find a paper or electronic copy of this article and can have a good laugh at my parochial naiveté. As they say, time will tell. 




Calkins, Earnest Elmo. 1937. They Broke the Prairie. Charles Scribner's Sons. New York.

Obama, Barack. 2006. The Audacity of Hope.  Crown Publishers. New York.