Like every intellectual project, there are certain autobiographical tendencies in Global Heartland. I was raised in the midwest, and although I have lived in other parts of the US and have traveled to other parts of the world, I have spent most of my 40 years very close to the Great Lakes. The Lakes and the world that has grown up around them are my cultural home, and my spiritual anchor.
In less than a year, I will move far away from all of this to take a job in the History Department of a certain public university in Southern California. So this blog is a last chance to document my impressions of the midwestern landscape and culture before we move away, and inevitably it will be something of a nostalgia trip. Although I promise to keep the nostalgia level down, I don’t think I can do this blog without periodic doses of personal history. So to keep it real, I will try to connect the personal to the global as much as possible, and so am introducing a posting category: everyday artifacts of globalization.
I spent about 10 summers in northern Michigan at a YMCA summer camp, first as a camper and then as an employee leading wilderness trips. As it happens, this camp was pretty close to East Jordan, Michigan, and I recall driving by the foundry there several times. So when I moved to Champaign, Illinois, in the early 1990s I immediately noticed that most of the storm drains were stamped “EAST JORDAN IRON WORKS,” and it made me feel a little more at home.
Later, when I was writing my dissertation, I discovered that the sociologist who wrote the seminal work on transient workers, Nels Anderson, grew up near East Jordan, and his immigrant father worked in the foundry to supplement the income from the family’s farm. The iron works was established in 1883, when northern Michigan’s white pine forests were being clear cut by a largely immigrant workforce to supply the nation with telegraph poles and construction timber.
East Jordan was not a big town then, and it’s probably smaller now. So I was very surprised to discover that the East Jordan Iron Works is a multinational corporation with foundries in Ireland, France, Brazil, and Asia, as well as in the American South. It found a market niche for cast iron–storm drains, meter boxes, etc.–and bucked the trend of the US steel industry, all the while maintaining its headquarters in a decidely out-of-the-way place.
All of this is to say that artifacts of globalizations past and present are literally right under our feet. More later.