Habits of the Heartland

Habits of the Heartland: Small-Town Life in Modern America

Lyn C. Macgregor
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Habits of the Heartland
    Book Description:

    Although most Americans no longer live in small towns, images of small-town life, and particularly of the mutual support and neighborliness to be found in such places, remain powerful in our culture. In Habits of the Heartland, Lyn C. Macgregor investigates how the residents of Viroqua, Wisconsin, population 4,355, create a small-town community together. Macgregor lived in Viroqua for nearly two years. During that time she gathered data in public places, attended meetings, volunteered for civic organizations, talked to residents in their workplaces and homes, and worked as a bartender at the local American Legion post.

    Viroqua has all the outward hallmarks of the idealized American town; the kind of place where local merchants still occupy the shops on Main Street and everyone knows everyone else. On closer examination, one finds that the town contains three largely separate social groups: Alternatives, Main Streeters, and Regulars. These categories are not based on race or ethnic origins. Rather, social distinctions in Viroqua are based ultimately on residents' ideas about what a community is and why it matters.

    These ideas both reflect and shape their choices as consumers, whether at the grocery store, as parents of school-age children, or in the voting booth. Living with-and listening to-the town's residents taught Macgregor that while traditional ideas about "community," especially as it was connected with living in a small town, still provided an important organizing logic for peoples' lives, there were a variety of ways to understand and create community.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5897-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Viroqua, population 4,335,¹ sits among the many hills and ridges of southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, so called because of the hills left in place when the last wave of Ice Age glaciers passed the area by. Viroqua is the seat of Vernon County, and it lies about twenty miles from the Mississippi River, directly east of the Iowa-Minnesota border on the river’s opposite shore. It is a two-hour drive northwest from Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital, and three hours from the Twin Cities in Minnesota, though residents advise allowing four hours if you are catching a flight at the St. Paul–...

  5. Part I. Cultures of Community

    • [Part I Introduction]
      (pp. 13-16)

      The first feature of Viroqua to make a deep impression on me was the larger-than-life fiberglass bull that stared sternly out over drivers on Highway 14 as they entered the town from the south. The bull advertised what was, at the time of my first visit in December 2000, a restaurant called Ricky’s. Passing the bull and heading into the downtown proper, I passed the VFW hall on the right, the Century 21 real estate office on the left and, shortly after that, the Latter-day Saints church, the optometry office, the Vernon County Historical Society Museum, and Vernon Memorial Hospital,...

    • 1 Three Halloweens, Three Viroquas
      (pp. 17-42)

      By three-thirty in the afternoon, it was nearly impossible to walk down Main Street without being poked by a witch’s broomstick or swatted with a fairy’s magic wand. Small Spider-Men darted among ghosts wearing plastic Scary Movie masks with flashing red lights. A giggling chain of Snow Whites and Cinderellas snaked out of Felix’s clothing store holding hands and ran (as fast as possible considering the crowds) up the sidewalk to the next store on the block. The sidewalks were swarming with children of all ages, including some teenagers. It was a scene of unmitigated collective glee.

      The kids did...

    • 2 The Alternatives: A Kinder, Gentler Counterculture
      (pp. 43-72)

      Brie parked her minivan on the side of the gravel county highway at the end of a row of similarly parked vehicles. Brie, her friend Susan Townsley, and I alighted and trekked past the rest of the parked cars and up a driveway toward a lone house in a field atop a ridge. The January night was frigid and clear. The woman who greeted us at the door was wearing a dark red empire-style dress embellished with embroidered flowers. “Come in,” she said. “We’re just about to start the ceremony.” Stacia, as she introduced herself, was hosting her annual Goddess...

    • 3 The Main Streeters: The Busiest People in Town
      (pp. 73-100)

      “Is that all the butter you’re going to use?” the woman serving the pancakes asked me incredulously. I was sitting at the end of a long table in the basement of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church at the annual Fat Tuesday Pancake Supper fund-raiser. The woman, whose attire included an apron and several strands of plastic Mardi Gras beads, was holding two more heavy-looking plates of pancakes destined for other diners, but she was waiting for a response. The pat of butter on my blueberry pancakes seemed pretty generous to me, but I added more. The woman smiled and, apparently satisfied,...

    • 4 The Regulars: Keeping Things Simple
      (pp. 101-128)

      The faces at the bar during happy hour were almost always the same—the only difference from day to day was who took a day off from visiting the Legion. Standing behind the bar, I could usually predict who would sit in which seats: starting on the side of the bar to my right, it was usually Steve and Sandy, Fred and Sheryl, Darlene, Lucy, Vicki, sometimes Diane, “Squeaks” (Jerry), and occasionally Eric, and in the center, any combination of Terry, Tony, the other Tony, Brad and the other Lucy, Brad’s sister and mother, Jerry and his wife Vicky, Kim...

    • 5 Playing in the Same Sandbox?
      (pp. 129-146)

      What did the existence of these three groups of people and their distinctive styles of community making mean for life in Viroqua? How permeable were these group boundaries? Could members of these groups get along well enough to get things done together if they needed to? In this chapter I examine how Viroquans’ tastes for different cultures of community played out in their interactions with one another. In general, these cultures of community did not hamper forming cross-group ties as individuals, but it sometimes made it hard for Viroquans to get things done together as groups.

      Of course the boundaries...

  6. Part II. Commerce, Consumption, and Community in Viroqua

    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 147-152)

      On one of my first visits to Viroqua, I conducted a small experiment to see how many basic material needs could be met in the three blocks that made up the bulk of its downtown. While I did not have to leave Main Street to find a pound of drywall screws, a toothbrush, or a gallon of milk, I could not find women’s underwear.¹ Underwear for men and children, as well as thermal underwear for the whole family, were available downtown, however. With the exception of the underwear, I had choices about where to purchase these basic items without leaving...

    • 6 Beneficent Enterprise and Viroquan Exceptionalism
      (pp. 153-173)

      In their classic study of small-town life in the 1950s, Vidich and Bensman discovered that in the face of increasing competition from larger retailers, the local businessmen of “Springdale, New York,” attempted to remain solvent by ratcheting up their individual performances. The way to stay in business, they believed, was to work harder. In so doing, Springdale’s small-business owners became fiercely competitive with one another, increasingly unwilling to attempt innovations that seemed at all risky, and increasingly isolated from the community as a whole:

      In their relations with each other, [Springdale’s] businessmen are highly suspicious and distrustful. They scrutinize each...

    • 7 Retail Morality
      (pp. 174-200)

      “Well, it’s not what I would have picked,” said the young woman, staring crestfallen at the emerald green bridesmaid’s gown that had been ordered for her. “But it’s not my wedding.”

      Maridene Olson, owner of Bonnie’s Wedding Center smiled sympathetically, but said only, “Let’s get you back and try it on. Did you bring your shoes so we can mark the hem?” As she said this, Maridene gathered up the offending dress and its garment bag, and led the reluctant bridesmaid toward the dressing room. As she walked past the chair she had provided for me to sit in to...

    • 8 Consumption and Belonging in Viroqua
      (pp. 201-226)

      Depending on whom one asked, my 1994 Volkswagen Golf was either a hot item or a joke. According to Alternatives in Viroqua, my car was highly desirable. Several Alternative acquaintances commented on what a nice car it was and what “great shape” it was in for its age. Strangers commented on it too. One afternoon, I stopped at the Landmark Center to use the gym. I parked across the street from the main entrance to the Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School and saw a woman in her late thirties or early forties exiting the school with a young boy. The woman...

  7. Epilogue and Conclusion
    (pp. 227-236)

    By 2009 many things had changed in Viroqua, though much was the same as well. The locally owned pharmacies closed after the arrival of a Walgreens. The Macasaet family transformed the Clark/Peterson building into an indoor “European style” market in which a number of local entrepreneurs opened new businesses. The Blue Diamond Café closed, and the building was reopened as a Mexican restaurant. Controversy was stirred by the proposal of an Illinois company to place a high-density dairy operation on sites relatively close to residences and smaller farms near Viroqua’s border with Westby.

    After Common Ground coffee shop closed, the...

  8. Appendix: Study Methods
    (pp. 237-252)
  9. References
    (pp. 253-260)
  10. Index
    (pp. 261-270)