Voices from Taylorville, Illinois

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Journalists are supposed to be balanced, to view a story from all perspectives, but it's hard to find Trump voters who are willing to take the risk of "coming out of the closet" in a village like Oak Park where four years ago 85 percent of the voters cast their ballots for Hillary.

So this reporter spent three days at the end of September in Taylorville, smack dab in the center of Illinois, where Trump yard signs outnumber those for Biden 4-1, Blacks comprise just 1 percent of the population. I visited because longtime Oak Park resident Al Corzine grew up there on a 300 acre farm and the town's chief of police lived in Oak Park and worked in Maywood 10 years ago.

"Living on the farm in the mid-20th century was like living in an extended family," Corzine related. "Everyone in the neighborhood helped one another. The farmers often gathered to bail hay, thresh wheat, or plant corn and soybeans. The wives arrived at the host's house with food dishes and to help prepare the noon meal. Whole families came, so there were kids to play with. It was in this vast prairie, where it seemed I could see forever, that I grew to manhood." 

Lots of things have changed in that town of 11,000 souls, a reality that provides part of the back story of how they look at life. The prairie is still vast. Corn and soybean fields stretch out to the horizon, but now, according to Taylorville Mayor Bruce Barry, a person has to farm at least 1,000 acres in order to make a living. The biggest operations, he said, have up to 30,000 acres. Gone is the small family farm. These days you need to invest millions of dollars to farm. Farm land around Taylorville sells for $11,000 an acre, and a high-end tractor at the Case dealership costs $500,000.

Politics there have changed as well. A teacher named Gary said that before he moved to town 24 years ago, Christian County, in which Taylorville is the county seat, voted Democratic, because the blue collar workers in the coal mines and the big Firestone plant all belonged to unions. When the mines closed and the manufacturing plants left the area, so did the good jobs, and locals decided that the Republican Party understood their needs better than the Democrats.

But it's more complex than that. Mayor Barry said that Rodney Davis, who represents Taylorville in Congress, is a Republican but the person representing his town in the state senate, Andy Manar, is a Democrat, so he nurtures relationships with both. Gary, the teacher, said he has never voted a straight ticket in his life.

It seems the residents of that small town vote for the candidate more than for the ideology a party promotes. Mayor Barry said the issues important to him are jobs and roads. Challenges like climate change are not on his constituents' priority list, not because they don't believe it's real but because they don't feel its effect in their everyday life.

Kim, who works in the mental health field, put it this way: "To be honest, I don't think the president influences much that goes on in Taylorville."

Abortion was not mentioned even once as an issue in the three days I was there. Guns, however, were. Mayor Barry explained, "I myself don't own any guns, and as far as I know hardly anyone around here owns an assault rifle. What is big in Christian County is hunting, and many people here really believe that the Democrats want to take away their shotguns and deer hunting rifles."

Corzine, who says he understands the disillusionment his former neighbors feel with the Democratic Party, laments the disappearance of the way of life that was so good to him. 

 "Saturday afternoon and evening," he remembers, "were for shopping and visiting. Families came to town to buy groceries, wander the stores looking for bargains, do their banking at First Trust, catch a movie, and eat at one of the many restaurants on the square. The sidewalks were teaming with people searching for friends and neighbors to exchange gossip and catch up on the latest news about one another."

"Blighted" is not too strong a word to describe the present condition of the downtown businesses around the square which was a bustling hub for the county when Corzine was growing up. Now most of the economic action has moved out to the northwest edge of town with corporate franchises like Walmart and Wendy's replacing retailers on the square.

Zillow reports the median home value is just $90,000, and Owen Laswell, the editor of the local daily newspaper, said that 55 percent of the children in the Taylorville schools qualify for free or reduced cost lunches.

Laswell argues that although part of economic stagnation is due to forces beyond the control of folks in the community, the county's resistance to new businesses like wind farms and a large dairy operation is also responsible for the lack of progress. 

Laswell, however, used the word "progressive" to describe Taylorville on social issues. For example, following the murder of George Floyd, roughly a thousand people demonstrated for Black Lives Matter in front of the courthouse on the square.

When seven members of the Methodist Church gathered to talk about their community after the Sunday worship service, Kim, the woman who works in the mental health field, shared her story. "When my [same sex] partner and I arrived in Taylorville 27 years ago, we would come to church and sit by ourselves, but the associate pastor broke the ice by introducing himself and from day one we have been accepted. Two years later, we adopted our first child from Guatemala, and he turned out to be autistic. A member of the church hooked us up with services and our son just graduated with honors from high school.

"I have been offered promotions in my field and we could have moved, but we said absolutely not because of our church, our schools, and this community. We have been accepted in every way possible." 

As it turns out, Dwayne Wheeler, the police chief in Taylorville, previously lived in Oak Park while working with the gangs and drugs unit in the Maywood Police Department. When asked why he chose to move from the Chicago Metro Area to a small town in the middle of corn and soybean fields, he replied first as a professional, saying that police work is largely the same in a small town as it was in Maywood, except for there being no gun violence in Taylorville, and that people in this small town respect the police and call when they see something suspicious.

Regarding the issue of defunding the police, he said he'd love to have a full-time social worker if he could find the $70,000 a year to pay for one, because Taylorville, like Maywood, has issues like domestic health and mental illness to deal with.

And he gave similar personal reasons for moving here that Kim shared. Relationships in a small community and the schools and sports. By "sports," Chief Wheeler meant high school sports. What residents seem to value is not paying a hundred bucks to watch the best athletes in the world, but along with their friends and neighbors they watch their children and grandchildren.

Over and over, people mentioned that relationships, not high paying jobs or climbing the corporate ladder, are what keeps them in Taylorville. Many do commute to work in Springfield or Decatur, so in that sense they have the best of both worlds. 

School and church are the two focal points around which life in this small central Illinois town revolve. Friday night the "whole town" attends the high school football game and Sunday morning they go to church.

Steven Ward, the 41-year-old director of the Taylorville Library added two more reasons why he and so many of his fellow residents love the town. "I'm a huge nature person," he explained. "I don't want to live in a concrete jungle. I'm not a hunter and don't own a gun, but I can drive five miles from where I live, sit somewhere in the woods and not see anyone for hours."

And in Taylorville he can be a big fish, as they say, in a small pond rather than a small fish in a big pond. "I was a professor and librarian at MacMurray College," he said, "but I felt like my impact was stifled. What drew me here is that I can have a bigger impact on this community."

Ward summarized much of what I experienced during my visit when he said the town had a lot of diversity. He acknowledged that the town was almost all white, but that doesn't mean it's a monoculture like a corn field where every plant is identical to the one next to it. 

Randy Miller offered a metaphor for Taylorville's diversity. Out of one small studio on the main drag he runs five radio stations: WTIM, news, talk and agriculture; WMKR, mainstream country music; WSVC '60s oldies; WRAN, classic oldies; and FM 101.1, new country music.

Ward added, "I see and hear people every day and it's a mixture of different thoughts and perspectives. Sometimes it can be perceived [as a monolithic culture] from the outside, but from the inside it's not like that at all."

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