Ten Years in Missouri
by Michael Bouman
I grew up outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Trenton, New Jersey. My "people" were rural folks in central New Jersey, the "Garden State," with brown topsoil so rich in some areas that there was a place near my home town named "Cream Ridge" to celebrate the soil. My grandfather was descended from a line of Feasters that traced back to an impoverished farm hand named Rulof Feaster in 1829, but no farther back. Had Rulof descended from Swiss "Pfisters?" When did the name become Feaster? We have no idea. He was a Feaster in 1829. Whether he was an immigrant or the son of an immigrant, I can't say.
My grandfather was born in horse-and-buggy days and became a celebrated veterinarian in his small world. He had a head for figures and was blessed with shrewd business sense. He started a trucking company to move fresh produce from the New Jersey farms to the city markets. He vacationed in Florida every winter and realized that if he picked up starts of tomato plants in the south, he could supply the plants to New Jersey farmers and give them a head start on their tomato crops. He then bought the best of their crop, had people carefully clean and pack the tomatoes in special boxes, and delivered them to upscale restaurants in New York City. He trucked tin cans in to the cranberry bogs and trucked canned cranberries back out to market.
All this was in the distant past when I came into his life as the only male offspring of his only child, a daughter. I knew "Pop-Pop" as a home gardener with a very dry sense of humor and a small arsenal of hunting guns which he never showed any interest in teaching me to use. I spent my first eight years in this small town within a short drive of Trenton, and my next ten years in the huge non-community of Levittown, a post-war housing miracle that erased the farming face of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
It was exciting to become "a Pennsylvanian" when I was ten. Pennsylvania meant "American Revolution" to me. We lived a short distance from where George Washington had crossed the Deleware and taken Trenton by surprise that Christmas night long ago. I felt "Pennsylvanian" until I went to Penn State for six years. The immense university was situated dead center in "the middle of nowhere," it seemed to everyone except the locals, an eternity of driving (four-hours) from Levittown. There I met people from regions that had nothing in common with mine, from mysterious places with names like Jersey Shore, Beaver, Wind Gap, Juniata, Latrobe, Centre Furnace, Bellefonte.
After a few years there I realized that I could not form a distinct idea of "Pennsylvania," it was so vast and its regions so different from one another. The experience of growing up in Erie must have been fundamentally different from growing up in the suburbs of Philly. Growing up in Trout Run, a hamlet far north of Harrisburg, had to be different from growing up in Bryn Mawr. I had to admit, when I left Pennsylvania, that I had no functional idea of my home state. Pennsylvania was just a name. "It" didn't really exist. What existed for all Pennsylvanians was what the local newspapers everywhere called "The Tri-County Area." Depending on where you lived, this area included different counties, different attitudes, different expectations about life.
If you've never visited Pennsylvania, maybe you have an idea of it, and maybe the Liberty Bell is in that idea, or the rusty steel mills of Pittsburgh or Allentown. Or maybe the endless woods and mountains. First day of hunting season is a day for school closing in the towns where hunting is part of the culture.
I moved into New England thirty years ago. I had an idea of it, but the idea vanished like sand running through an hour glass once I lived there. I see that idea of New England from time to time when I talk to people in Missouri who've never been there. They imagine a homogenous population, all thinking alike, all "Kennedy liberals" with Boston accents. I arrive into their stereotype of New England and, if we talk about the place, burst the bubble of their illusion. I tell about how Vermont, which did not exist in 1777 except as an area of new land grants west of New Hampshire, declared independence from Great Britain, wrote an anti-slavery constitution, and functioned as an independent republic after independence was won. Congress would not approve Vermont's petition to become a state because the State of New Hampshire and the State of New York both claimed ownership of those lands. Not until the new State of Kentucky was about to be admitted as a slave-holding state did Vermont win its own statehood in 1791. Vermont came in to balance Kentucky. I'll bet you thought that Texas had been the only independent republic to become a state, right?
This is a long way of saying that I brought illusion into Missouri when I came here in 1995. Missouri was a place I had driven through twice, once on the way to a job in Colorado, and once on the way from Santa Fe to a job in Vermont. I had heard about the closure of the town of Times Beach, and I'd seen something or other about an aspiring country singer (not Sheryl Crow) from somewhere in eastern Missouri. I'd followed the news of the flood of 1993. That's it. When I applied for a job with the Missouri Humanities Council I wondered if I would suffer instant culture shock in a place where everyone owned a pickup and line-danced.
Someone told me, as soon as I moved to St. Louis, "welcome to The South." Someone in Doniphan, who ate what seemed to me like "Southern food" and who sounded Southern, asserted that he was a Midwesterner. I learned that The South spread itself across the face of Missouri, but that German culture had made a huge impression on parts of the state. I learned about the legacy of Jim Crow.
I met many, many people whose lives reminded me powerfully of my folks in farm country back in New Jersey, or my neighbors up in rural Vermont. I met people who recalled my years in the West or my youth in the suburbs of Trenton and Philly. I had lived in a small town for a long while. Small town life has a quality that knows no political boundaries. I had seen a lot of house museums and local historical societies. What distinguishes them is not necessarily the tangible property or objects, but how people think to interpret them. I'm a little strange, admittedly, in that I tend to see through the things to the ways the curators or trustees think about the stories that are inherently in their care, or carelessness.
Mine is a field of caring. A person whose work is education is a steward of people. Changed people are the product of my labors, not changed things. The story is everything, not the thing in the case, not the house that may be cinders tomorrow. Stories engage the interest of people. Stories shape people's ideas of what is possible. People who learn to participate with a story have a capacity to rewrite it. People who understand that their lives are scripted can take out their pens and change the script, but only if they know.