The View from the Middle of Everything
Dispatches From Flatville, Illinois
Flyover country. These two words convey a world of meaning. They imply that the American heartland is best regarded through an airplane window; there is really no reason to land, for the rural Midwest is a provincial wasteland in contrast to the cosmopolitan coasts. Cross‐country fliers have a lock on mobility; the people below are stuck on the ground, too rooted to soar through the sky. Flyover jokes fit with theories that link heightened perspectives to power. Like the colonial explorers, mapmakers, and military scouts who have positioned themselves on high to capture the landscapes below, fliers‐over can grasp entire communities from above. And this is what they see: a land of squares, nothing down there but Flatville. By mixing the cachet derived from mobility with the power of elevated place, the flyover slur packs a double whammy on the status enhancement front.
Yet despite such efforts to claim power and privilege, the view from the air misses much of what is happening on the ground. Even the massive engineering works that undergird the wet prairie evade detection from the air, buried as they are beneath those rectangular fields. The fliers‐over who turn Flatville into an insult fail to recognize it as a real place. They overlook the possibility that the people down there might have their own views on how they fit into the world, that they might regard airspace from their own particular perspectives. Such a possibility would demand a different term: flownover states, perhaps.
But how to capture the perspective from the ground, over a century ago? How can we get at the worldviews of people who rarely sat down to write about themselves in the larger scheme of things? What archival collection would even begin to disclose bottom‐up geographical imaginings?
The Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection, for starters. Developed by librarians at the University of Illinois, this collection contains well over a million pages of Illinois newspaper content. Among the papers scanned into this database is the Urbana Daily Courier, digitized from 1903 forward. Some issues are missing and some of the originals from which the scans were made are torn or otherwise faulty. Speckled text, uneven inking, worn type, variant spellings, line breaks, fading—it’s enough to keep a search engine up at night. And yet, keyword after keyword, the Courier yields glimmerings into aerial consciousness and so much more besides. It is both a source in itself and a generous provider of leads. The more I delved into it, the more it appeared that coastal areas had no edge on continental centers when it came to connectivity by air. Airspace has offered the heartland direct connections across long and otherwise insurmountable distances.
Flatville arose from the muck. Like the wet prairie more generally, its flatness inhibited drainage, contributing to swampy conditions. The firmer lands that had once supported buffalo enabled the first settler colonists to graze cattle, but the land in and around Champaign County was so boggy that in 1840, the area had fewer than two residents per square mile. In contrast to the arid West, where farmers struggled to bring more water to land, in the sodden prairies, farmers worked hard to remove the water from the land so as to enable the cultivation of crops. Health concerns factored into the drying campaign as well. Long before the discovery that mosquitoes carried malaria and yellow fever, the association between swampland and ague added to the desire to pull the plug on wetlands—including about 8.3 million acres in Illinois, or about a quarter of the state.
Thus began the still ongoing engineering project that has turned the wet prairies into some of the most productive agricultural land in the world. Step one was to dismantle the existing engineering works—the beaver dams that blocked the “smaller water‐courses.” In his 1905 history of Champaign, J. O. Cunningham reported that at first the beavers repaired their dams. But as hunters reduced their numbers, the animals abandoned their homes. The near total eradication of beavers culminated in grand euphemism: “finally the last of this interesting and intelligent animal, with his contemporary, the wild Indian, moved westward.”
Step two was to introduce new engineering works. To dry the “inundated lands” that were underwater for part of the year, farmers experimented with mole ditching (dragging a plow that would carve out a tunnel) and, when that proved unsuccessful, using cattle (up to 40 head together) to drag larger ditching apparatuses. An even more laborious method was to dig drainage ditches that fed into creeks and streams. This backbreaking work slowly began to yield results. Whereas a traveler who rode through Champaign County in 1873 characterized half the cornfields as being underwater, residents could have pointed out that the other half were not. By 1885, Illinois farmers were beginning to use steam‐powered dredging machines that opened canals and cleared the course of creeks. They also straightened these creeks, to speed the flow of water from their fields.
In addition to creating lateral drainage through ditching, farmers with sodden land invested in underdrainage. They dug up their fields to lay clay tiles beneath, four to five feet deep. Typically baked into tubular shapes, these tiles, when laid end to end, fast‐tracked the groundwater that seeped into them out of the fields. Reporting from Champaign in 1863, M. L. Dunlap claimed that tile draining had not caught on yet in the county, since the heavy tiles had to be hauled in from afar. By the 1880s, however, county maps show about 20 evenly distributed tile factories, which enabled their widespread adoption.
The expertise for these engineering projects came from Europe, either directly or via more eastern states such as New York, Ohio, and Indiana. 19th‐century agricultural writings often credited England—and particularly its eastern fen dwellers—for pioneering modern drainage techniques. They also acknowledged the roles of other European countries—among them France, Scotland, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy—in producing drainage engineers “of no mean ability and reputation.” Along with attributing drainage techniques to European inventiveness, agricultural writings cast better drainage as a means of laying the groundwork for European‐style agriculture, with European markets in mind. All that digging in the mud and dirt might suggest an entrenchment in place, but settler colonists dug trenches to move themselves closer to Europe.
Knowledge of drainage techniques arrived on immigrant ships as well as through published writings and scientific networks. The Frisian people, living on the coast of the North Sea (in what is now the Netherlands and abutting part of northwest Germany), had centuries of experience draining marshlands. From 1845 to 1895, over 40,000 eastern Frisians, known as Ostfrieslanders, came to the United States, fleeing hunger, poverty, and military conscription by the expanding Prussian state. They also came in search of opportunity. After landing in New York, Baltimore, or New Orleans, many headed for the Midwest, where they purchased the cheapest land on the market: marshy land, that is.
In the mid‐1860s, when land had become scarce around their first footholds, newcomers and those with dim inheritance prospects looked around Illinois for more. Champaign County caught their eye. Although settler‐colonists already owned title to most of the county, there were still bargain‐rate swamplands for sale in the north. Surveying reports describing the area as “level wet prairie unfit for cultivation” had dissuaded other would‐be settlers, but the Ostfrieslanders saw opportunities below the pond waters. At least there was no need for dikes to keep the ocean out. The earliest settlers moved in by night, so as to drive their wagons on the thinning March ice. They soon commenced the arduous process of digging ditches, laying tile, and sloping their fields.
Within a few years, the Ostfrieslanders of Champaign had established a German‐language school and a Lutheran church—led for a while by a Brazilian‐born and German‐educated pastor. The settlements that sprang up around these institutions became known as Flatville. In the early summers, scummy green water surrounded the settlements’ houses. The mosquitoes that bred in this soup had free access to their human blood supply through screenless windows. After a rain, it was possible to row from some of these houses five miles into the country—not a promising start. Yet by World War I, Flatville contained some of the most valuable agricultural land in the state. It had taken a generation, but swampland that had once sold for 25 cents an acre was fetching $250.17 Its increasingly flush farmers soon won a reputation for generosity in their annual missions fund‐raiser.
Draining produced a remarkable transformation beyond the “swamps” and “sloughs” of places like Flatville to “higher prairie lands” as well. By 1900, Illinois farmers had drained hundreds of thousands of acres. By 1930, the state had over ten thousand miles of drainage ditches and a 150,000 miles of tile: enough ditching, observed one commentator, to stretch from Chicago to Outer Mongolia, enough tiling to circle the earth six times. The noted success of Illinois farmers in turning wetlands into productive farms helps explain why real estate agents hawked the agricultural potential of Louisiana cypress swamps in the columns of Illinois newspapers. If anybody could turn a bayou into a cornfield, farmers from places like Flatville seemed to have the requisite know‐how.
Despite measurable successes in separating land from water, the rivulets from the past lingered, as seen in the experience of a tenant farmer in northern Illinois. According to the Courier, he awoke one morning to discover his entire field of corn stripped bare. Every leaf and stalk on the twenty acres had disappeared. From nine inches’ growth to nothing, overnight. There was no evidence of hogs or cattle, no broken fences or evidence of trespass. The farmer complained to the landowner, who consulted with Stephen Forbes, the state entomologist and a professor at the University of Illinois. Knowing that the ground had been recently claimed from the swamp, Forbes surmised that insects were not to blame. He had the farmer replant the field and set a watch. Sure enough, his suspicions were justified. One night, by the thousands, scritch‐scratching crayfish emerged from the soil to scour the field again.
Separating land from water enabled more than agricultural production—it also enabled transportation. Whereas 18th‐century accounts of the Champaign area describe horses being mired in bogs, so deep that they caused injury, at times “environed on all sides with morasses” so thick as to forbid an advance, by the end of the nineteenth century drained fields supported firmer roads.
Railroads, too, benefited from drier land. As they channeled more water into ditches, streams, and rivers, Illinois farmers pressed for improved river routes between the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Michigan. Having removed the water from their fields, they sought more removal of land from water, so as to float their crops “northward to the British possessions, south to the Gulf, to Mexico, the West Indies, and south America; and west to the Pacific; and on until the West becomes the East.”
By the dawn of the 20th century, the farmers of Illinois had wrung substantial connectivity from the land and wrested even more from water. Yet their roads and rivers continued to mean fixed routes. Air, in contrast, seemed qualitatively different in its infinite openness. Well before long‐range bombers, intercontinental missiles, radar installations, and fallout heightened aerial consciousness in the Midwest and the overlapping big sky country of the Great Plains, air brought to mind a vast array of long‐distance connections. If land and water were the matter of daily toil and set ways, air offered astounding imaginative flights.
From The Heartland: An American History. Used with permission of Penguin Press. Copyright © 2019 by Kristin L. Hoganson.