North Manchester's Center for History tells the story of this corner of 21 Country with artifacts and photos and memories. But now the museum has broadened that story to include all of us living in rural America and how we got to be who we are.
“We aren't lost in the middle of nowhere we are the middle of everything here,” says museum director Laura Rager. “And we have progressed and been made better by all of the changes over time.”
North Manchester is one of just six towns in the entire state to host 'Welcome to Crossroads: Change in Rural America', a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution that explains how rural America evolved in the last two centuries, how early settlers cleared land and built towns. How city folks were enticed to move west by the railroad and how towns grew up along tracks and major roadways. In the late 19th Century main street became the center of commerce and social life in rural towns, though the late 20th Century would see main street nearly disappear.
“Just the change over time from the five and dime stores where Main Street was the hub of everything,” says Rager. “Everybody came to town and did their trade. And how it's still the center of everything.”
The Great Depression saw immense change in rural America. Franklin Roosevelt's 'New Deal' brought electricity and free mail delivery to farm country. Agricultural colleges educated farmers on new technology and farming techniques, created 4-H to train the next generation of growers. But it wasn't enough. Interstate highways bypassed many towns, shoppers abandoned main street for box stores and global manufacturing closed local factories. But after decades of decay rural America has turned a corner. Small towns realized preserving their past could guarantee their future. Main streets were revitalized and city folks now see rural life as simpler and healthier. The story of rural America is the story of America, its ingenuity, its optimism, its resilience. The story of who we are, where we came from and, maybe, where we're headed. A truly American story that continues to unfold in a place where hope springs eternal. This is Eric Olson reporting.