Sam Burnham, Curator
To me the Chesapeake has always seemed exotic and distant. I was that kid in school who bemoaned not spending more time on certain areas of the textbook, particularly in history and geography. There was always more I wanted to learn about this body of water and the land that surrounds it. As I flipped the pages on my own, I looked over the maps, read and re-read the passages on the natives and the English settlers.
In my youth I met an old man who grew up on these shores. He told me a funny story of the day that he and a friend decided to try to row across the Chesapeake in their small rowboat. He said they actually got pretty far and, once they were found safe, it was the most trouble he ever got in growing up.
Then there were stories about crab fishing and also the sportsmen who gave the world the Chesapeake Bay retriever. Fishing, crabbing, hunting, sailing, rowing - all of it is found throughout these waters.
As I write this, I’m sitting on a bench beneath the bridges at Lynn Haven Inlet as the waves on the Chesapeake lap at the sandy shore in front of me. Ships come and go, there’s highway noise above me and a few concrete condominium buildings stand on each side of the inlet. But this is a modern-natural interface. This bay cannot be developed, it cannot be mechanized, it cannot be tamed. Sure, we could poison these waters, we can kill all the life in them but they cannot be controlled. They were here before us, they’ll be here when we are gone. Storm surge and wind could topple every structure here but the bay, however shifted, would remain.
The Chesapeake never really seemed to be truly Southern to me...until today. This is where the Jamestown settlers first saw the New World. This is where The South, as we know it, was born and, therefore, where America, as we know it, was born.
This bay brought settlement. It brought fishing. It brought shipping. It brought the Navy. It brought tourism. As modern and developed as this area might get, this body of water will always dictate the health and vitality of this region. As goes the Chesapeake, so goes the eastern shores of Virginia.
That dependence on the landscape, be it water or land, that entwined relationship between work, leisure, life, and nature, that’s where this area becomes Agrarian. That connection to the past, to Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown, that’s what makes it uniquely Southern.
There’s too much city here for this to ever be home. But there is too much Chesapeake here for it to ever be anathema. It’s delightful and I do hope the folks zipping up and down I-64 are not overlooking the wonder and beauty that lie just below their noses.
A friend directed me to an article in Esquire about some comments made recently to reporters by former governor Sonny Perdue. The statements were made after Perdue addressed a group of small dairy farmers in Wisconsin.
In the article, writer Charles P. Pierce quotes the Washington Post:
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters following an appearance at the World Dairy Expo in Madison that it’s getting harder for farmers to get by on milking smaller herds. “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said. “I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”
Pierce goes on to reveal his own agenda. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an opinion piece and opinion pieces have agendas. This article is an opinion piece and has an agenda.
Pierce closes out his article: “I'd like to think this will have some effect on the way people in the dairy counties of Wisconsin will vote a year from now...” The agenda in his article is to get people to vote Democratic. His pitch is that somehow his party will be better for small businesses and farms even though that was far from the case under Obama, Clinton, and Carter. Before we hoot and holler too much, it hasn’t been the case under Trump or the Bush administrations either.
Let’s face it, what Sonny said sounds troubling. It sounds hopeless. It sounds defeated. But where is the lie? Our economy is built for Wall Street, not Main Street. Big businesses have grown rapidly in this economy. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Walmart. Small businesses have to have some unique niche, something only they are doing, if they want to survive. The groundwork was laid for the modern agricultural sector by then Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz in the 1970’s. His philosophy of “get big or die” led to the huge factory farms and agribusiness that we have today. Once huge corporations moved into farming, it was a matter of time until the little guys started getting bullied out of the market. Perdue uses a lot of the same terminology in the cited quote that Butz used in his speeches and policies. But the essence of the two differ. Butz was saying that is how the market should work while Perdue is just pointing to the reality of how the market dies work.
Should Perdue and the Trump administration as a whole be working to end this travesty? Of course. Are they? Not particularly. But we must also remember it has taken decades of corruption to build this over centralized economy. It’s not going anywhere quietly.
Big business and big government are two heads of the same monster. Businesses lobby Washington (both parties) with millions and millions of dollars. In return, Washington espouses policies that benefit the big businesses. Think regulation is the answer? Think again. The big businesses are the ones who can afford the lawyers who find the loopholes in regulations, or even write the loopholes into the regulations. Then regulations only apply to the small businesses and they suffer as a result.
The good news is that our market is still the freest in the world. Opportunity does still exist. And we have to remember that Walmart started as a 5-and-dime in a small town in Arkansas. The competition was less brutal then. The market was different then. But there’s still hope.
The Waycross Journal-Herald folded up and the New York Times endures. The answer is the same for small business. Do business with them. Pay for their services. Buy their products. Choose them over the big box. Yes, you’re going to pay a little more but you’re also going to get a better product, receive better customer service, and you’re going to help level the playing field for your neighbors as they stare down the giants.
Fixing this problem isn’t going to come from a ballot box. It’s going to come from our pocket books.
Sam Burnham, Curator
Today will be the last edition of the Waycross Journal-Herald. It’s a sad end for a local and independently-owned publication that has been reporting in southeast Georgia for 105 years and has been owned by the same family since 1916. I learned of this story from another local publication in southeast Georgia, The Brunswick News. I found the link to that story from yet another local news outlet, Hometown Headlines, located in Rome. That’s local press spreading news from other local presses.
It has only been a few weeks since we shared the news about the closure of The Vindicator, the longtime paper of Youngstown, Ohio. There are some parallels. Both towns have suffered economically, both papers had been owned by the same families, respectively, for decades, both were the predominant news source for their respective towns.
The shuttering of the Journal-Herald comes at a bad time for the town. A combination of stories are developing in area and now have no local outlet. With strip mining proposed near the Okefenokee, a regional economic engine could be under a serious threat. There is also the reports that the town is a “cancer cluster,” having an above average number of diagnoses of rare cancers, possibly linked to local industry.
The mining issue will still receive scrutiny. It’s a more regional threat and papers in Brunswick, St. Marys, and other towns are covering the developments. (And they’ll continue that coverage as long as they survive.) The swamp is also famous enough to get the Atlanta based outlets involved.
The cancer cluster issue is another story. There were a few mentions of it from a few outlets. But recently the discovery of the possibility that potentially harmful substances are being emitted from the Sterigenics plant in Cobb County has eliminated any and all statewide mention of the confirmed diagnoses of rare cancers in children in Waycross. My complaints to Georgia Public Broadcasting on this phenomenon were answered with one link to one segment of one show in their lineup. GPB is a reliable source for news you won’t hear from large commercial outlets and even they have only one segment they can point to. Conversely, their coverage of the Sterigenics story has been ubiquitous. Poor kids in southeast Georgia who have confirmed cancer aren’t as newsworthy as wealthy kids in Smyrna, Vinings, and Buckhead who might be potentially somewhat exposed to something that might be harmful. That’s not acceptable. Waycross deserves better. Georgia deserves better.
Local news outlets, specifically independent newspapers, are where stories get their start. These publications initially find the stories that the national outlets cover. Once these reports are made, larger outlets, and even other small presses, pick them up. If there is no local outlet to dig up the story, there’s no way that the New York Times or Washington Post will ever find them. They couldn’t find Waycross on a map of Ware County. Even ABG relies on these presses for stories that we share. We need boots on the ground, reporters who know the landscape, who have local interest, who are part of the community. As is the case with everything, over-centralized news outlets are less effective. We need voices close to home.
The only way to reverse the troubling trend of local independent news outlets going belly up, is for us to support those outlets in our communities. These are the entities that watch our local governments and businesses and keep them honest. These are the sources of all news. Think of it as the numerous and distant outstretched roots that are needed to hold up one of our majestic live oaks. If the tree of journalism is to survive, we have to be mindful to water and fertilize those outstretched roots. We have to support our local press.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire