Today the sun will rise on the American Great Plains. Amber light will streak across the prairie, over the flat land and around the scarce hills. It will dart through the wind-swept wild grass and domesticated corn and wheat, glinting in the eyes of an antelope or jackrabbit. The sun will warm the land and raise the crops up from the soil and into the dusty wind. This same sun has charted this same path every morning for millions of years and today will be no different. Yet the people who live on this land they call the Great Plains may wake feeling quite a bit different than their ancestors who settled the prairie only a few centuries ago. They will turn on television sets that air the news of the world and radios that play mechanized music. Some of them will even log onto the Internet and experience modern technology at its fullest. Yet the land that they live on -- The Great Plains -- still sprawls outside the border of their cities or the confines of their back yard.
The population of the entire central Plains region is still equal to that of the relatively tiny island of Manhattan (Jones 6). Normally, one would assume that a population this spread out could be easily ignored by politicians; however, this is far from true. In 1948, presidential candidate Thomas Dewey ignored the plain states and was surprisingly upset by his opponent Harry Truman, who built his campaign on the hard-working American spirit - a message that was embraced heartily by the Midwest (Jones 12). I once spoke with a businessman during a career fair at my high school. He said that companies across the country recruit workers from the Midwest because of their work ethic. This made me wonder. First of all, I knew many Midwesterners who had no business being recruited by major East Coast companies -- People who have trouble finding their workplace let alone arriving there on time. Yet, according to this well dressed man, companies seemed to think that Midwesterners had an especially strong work ethic. This belief, along with more negative Midwestern stereotypes such as backwardness and ignorance, appears to be rooted in many national institutions. Yet, as with any stereotype, it is obviously not a catch-all.
I'm sure if you talk to a farmer who works longer hours than the pre-union factory worker you would agree that there is a strong, defining Midwestern work ethic. If you took a look at any small town on the Plains I would imagine you'd see many people who take on difficult, often back-breaking work with a strange sense of pleasure. Every once in a while you would run into the 60-year-old man who has been hauling feed into his family store for 42 years. But are the people of the Midwest indeed heartier and harder-working than their cosmopolitan neighbors to the east? Perhaps the answer lies in the history of the relationship between humans and the land itself.
From the Native Americans who first lived on the Plains to the Lewis and Clark expedition to the explosion of settlement in the 1800s, this land has shaped human culture. Though the Information Age is changing Midwestern culture once again by bringing the people closer to rest of the country, both technologically and socially, many elements of this original culture developed by the settlers of the 19th Century will remain for years to come.
Many say that the physical nature of the Great Plains influenced early American settlers, and correspondingly their descendents, just as much as they influenced it. Some have said (I hear it every day) that the harsh land produced a resilient people, stronger than the rest. These concepts are, of course, unprovable. But the land did create some untouchable entity. The land created a spirit - an unexplained essence that unifies the residents of the Great Plains, if not in individuals, at least in the environment in which those individuals live.
The rugged history of people on the plains.
The essence of midwesterners.
Monday, May 10 1999 10:37