Sam Burnham, Curator
At ABG our perspective is Southern. That’s because most of the people who have contributed here are Southerners. We take our stand among the live oaks, the peanut fields, and meandering rivers of The South. But the ideas we love and support aren’t always uniquely Southern.
In their Statement of Principles, the 12 Southerners of I’ll Take My Stand added this thought:
”But there are many other minority communities opposed to industriaism, and wanting a much simpler economy to live by. The communities and private persons sharing the agrarian tastes are to be found widely within the Union. Proper living is a matter of the intelligence and the will, does not depend on the local climate or geography, and is capable of a definition which is general and not Southern at all. Southerners have a filial duty to discharge to their own section. But their cause is precarious and they must seek alliances with sympathetic communities everywhere. The members of the present group would be happy to be counted as members of a national agrarian movement.”
So when we speak about a need for unity in this country we have to look for common ground. We have to find things that unite us rather than divide us. That’s something that has come up in our travels and stories. I’d like to take a look at some.
In 2014 I traveled to Maine. My goal was to visit the bedside of my Grandpa, to say goodbye. But my experience there shed light on the plight of non-coastal Mainers. Maine, like Georgia, is two states. The cities, which are coastal, hold political sway over the rest of the state, which is mountainous.
The political issue at that moment was a ballot initiative that would put an end to hunting and trapping practices regarding black bears. The city people found the practices “cruel.” The state wildlife biologists (read: “settled science”) argued that the practices were essential for maintaining healthy populations of bears and for minimizing human-bear interactions. The rural people, whose values, practices, and beliefs belong in the articles of this website, fought to preserve hunting and trapping. The proposal was defeated by about 40,000 votes but the threat of coastal tyranny remains in Maine.
Out in Oregon I have a friend who recently discovered he has a gift in the visual arts. His family has deep roots in those woods.
His father was a logging road inspector who started in forestry at the age of 16. He put in 42 years of service before retiring. Now his son has a pile of stories from riding shotgun in the forestry truck with dad. Deep in those woods stands the memory of a burned train trestle that spanned a huge canyon. “ It’s something nobody else but someone that drove back that deep would ever see or knew existed.”
He also has the stories from his great-grandmother who went out on the Oregon Trail. “ She lived to 105 and used to tell us kids about coming over on the wagon train as a little girl and the history of that area.”
”My family is tied to the woods here. Sadly, they’re burning now.”
That sorrow isn’t just from the environmental or economic damage the fires are creating. It’s from a real attachment to the land. It’s the knowledge that those trees, mountains, rivers, that land is where generations of his family took their stand. That love comes through in some of his art which appears here, linked to his artist page.
We could tell these stories forever. They could come from every region of the country. Those proud Texans, Kansas Jayhawks, and Indiana Hoosiers could all make an argument on why their plot of dirt is the best place on Earth, whether you agree or not. We even see this phenomenon in the troubled communities deep in our cities. For a person of this mentality, home is home. It’s not just where you hang your hat, it’s where you take your stand.
For a man or woman this connected to home, they’ll fight to protect that spot. They’ll work to make it better. They’ll ward off gentrification, they’ll support local businesses, they’ll look out for their neighbors.
The problems we face as a country aren’t going to be solved in Washington. It does not matter which party has control. It will only get better when this mindset takes root in all the little places no one thinks about. When folks love a place enough to make it better, that’s when we’ll see true greatness return. Mentoring school kids, picking up litter, just loving a place - thinking local, acting local - that’s where the difference is made. That’s where, although divided by space, we become united in mission.
Where’s your spot? What do you love?
Sam Burnham, Curator
At ABG we pride ourselves on our support of the small. Family owned. Home grown. Community oriented. Decentralized.
So when I stumbled over a particular article this weekend I was left shaking my head. Natalie Escobar of NPR’s Code Switch was tossing softball questions to Vicky Osterweil who recently published a book trying to justify, even glorify the violent and chaotic riots that have destroyed large swaths of major US cities. I was disgusted by a particular quote even more than the constant droning of Marxism that filled the interview:
“It's actually a Republican myth that has, over the last 20 years, really crawled into even leftist discourse: that the small business owner must be respected, that the small business owner creates jobs and is part of the community. But that's actually a right-wing myth.“
The first article linked in the quote is one of the faulty and incomplete arguments that Osterweil uses to justify violent mobs destroying the property and livelihoods of people unfortunate enough to find themselves in the path of advancing terror. The second linked article is a more scientific sounding argument from MIT citing figures and statistics downplaying the importance of small enterprise as a job creator in America. The gist of Osterwell's abhorrent claims is that looting and rioting is justified because the small businesses really don't matter to the economy. Osterweil claims the property being stolen by rioters is a just compensation because Osterweil believes that small businesses are all built on a foundation of racism.
The idea that someone's livelihood, their slice of the American Dream is irrelevant and therefore welcome fodder for looting is a ridiculous instance of a bizarre elitism.
But let's take a look at one of the claims from the MIT article:
“Perhaps the biggest indictment of the small-is-beautiful view when it comes to jobs is the simple fact that in the United States small firms’ share of output and employment over time have been declining for decades.”
So if we see "small-is-beautiful" as some sort of conspiracy theory and that medium-sized and large businesses are the real job creators, what do we do with entire towns that are shuttered by the death of small businesses? While MIT argues that small business have declined over the last few decades, a 2018 article by the Pew Research Center shows that the average US worker has seen no measurable increase in wages in that same time period. You don't have to spend much time poking around on the web to find out that corporate outsourcing, restructuring, and downsizing have not been kind to US job markets. As I am writing this, Georgia economic mainstay Coca-Cola, which has the most recognizable trademark on Earth, has announced a massive reorganization that is going to cost thousands of people their jobs.
If we look at the efforts of the federal government under Bush, Obama, and Trump, we see multiple bailouts of the auto industry, financial institutions, and any other business deemed "too big to fail." While it is statistically true that small enterprise is in decline, it is also true that these businesses always perform without a net. No one is going to bail them out. If they fail, they fail. While the cited articles talk about the Small Business Administration and the programs available to "help" entrepreneurs, reality remains Lee Iacocca sitting before Congress with his hat in his hand. the TARP program, and "Cash for Clunkers."
However, the biggest fault in this argument is that it ignores that economic web of a healthy small community. We constantly discuss the economic principles of this web. It can be a powerful engine but we see how fragile it is when someone drops a Walmart or a Home Depot out on the bypass around town. Walmart, that started in Bentonville, Arkansas as a small five-and-dime is now one of the largest retailers in the world. It also pays its employees just enough that they can work 40 hours a week and keep a roof over their heads if they supplement their income with food stamps and Medicaid.
Walmart isn't the only villain here. Most large corporations expend substantial resources to determine how few people they can utilize and how little they can pay them and still operate. They drop a retailer in a small town and the majority of the income generated leaves the store in an armored truck, never to be seen in the community again. Profits go to corporate headquarters far away and the small wages paid to workers usually wind up in that armored truck as employees purchase the goods they need from the only game in town.
But the problem isn't just retailers. A local bank gets bought out by a large one. Suddenly a small business loan that was previously based on a relationship and a handshake now requires a phone call to Charlotte. The local newspaper, journalism's boots-on-the-ground, gets bought out by some conglomerate in New York or Chicago and restructured. The local radio station with local personalities who once broadcast local high school football gets bought out by Clear Channel and immediately automated and now only offers corporate music or syndicated political talk. People who once manufactured textiles, steel, automobiles, appliances, furniture, shoes, and machiery have seen their jobs sent overseas.
So why do the people behind these articles see consolidation, centralization, and homogenization as beneficial? At the very least, how can they not see the decline of small business as highly problematic? While these businesses are in such a state, now can Osterweil justify, even celebrate the burning and looting of these businesses?
Far from being irrelevant, small businesses can be the way forward for troubled communities. I found two claims in reading the two cited articles that I agreed with. The first is that one promise of small business is the possibility that it can become big business. I mentioned Walmart above as an example. But in juxtaposition we see the points that half of all small business owners didn't start their businesses principally to make money and that roughly 75% of small business owners have no intention of ever having more than a few employees. This is where a difference in philosophy comes into play. While big city, big government, and big college minds see dollar signs when they think of business, many small business owners are interested in being part of their community and finding personal fulfillment in their work.
If these philosophies as well as the resources needed for startup find their way into troubled communities. Specifically, black-owned banks and businesses can become an economic and cultural engine that could improve local finances as well as protect people from exploitation at the hands of corporate giants. This scenario provides jobs, builds community pride, provides generational wealth, and fends off gentrification. Walmart and Wells Fargo can't, correction, won't do that. None of this is going to happen so long as people are encouraged to go to small businesses, kick in the door, steal everything that isn't bolted down, and then set the place on fire. On the other hand, if small business owners are respected, if their livelihoods are honored, and if their businesses are patronized, they have a real chance to create jobs, especially if more and more people start more and more small businesses. Such a trend could come from an honest and positive portrayal of small business.
Essentially, the three articles I'm talking about have this one thread linking them all together: big government and big business built the modern world. The question is, is that really a good thing? Don't get me wrong, I appreciate electricity and indoor plumbing as much as the next guy, but there is a lot to the modern world that is less than desirable. For example, so long as our economy is measured in money alone, we can expect large corporations, medium sized businesses, and big government to scratch each other’s backs and leave small businesses and local governments out in the rain. Of course small businesses are struggling to keep up. Welcome to that modern world.
Back in 1930 John Crow Ransom wrote “Industrialism is rightfully a menial, of almost miraculous cunning but no intelligence; it needs to be strongly guarded or it will destroy the (moral) economy of the household.” Some 90 years later industrialism has largely run its course and the economy of the household is all but dead. Ransom’s words were tragically prophetic.
We need to restart our economies. I say that plural because I’m not just talking about money. Money is certainly part of the picture but without the economy of the household, the economy of place, the economy of people, a plan for healthy and sustainable growth, a holistic view of prosperity, and the determination to rein in “progress” we can expect to be stuck in the same rut we’ve been in for decades. We have to think small. We have to think local. We have to revive all these economies. You say small businesses aren’t an economic engine? I say that’s a symptom, not a cause.
Sam Burnham, Curator
If you aren’t familiar with Cartersville, Georgia or if your familiarity is a recent development, you probably wouldn’t imagine a sleepy little town of mostly miners and farmers. In the 1980s Cartersville was still a quiet little town, so if we go back to the 1940s, mentally, it will help set the stage for this story. This one is a legend passed to us as fact. The source is reputable so we’ll take it as fact until convinced otherwise.
This story begins in 1931. Herbert Hoover was President. A man named Fred Garrison set up shop, slinging burgers at the corner of Main Street and Gilmer Street in Downtown Cartersville. It seems an unlikely time to be opening a small business in a sleepy small town of miners and farmers. But 89 years later, 4-Way Lunch is still slinging burgers. In all that time they’ve never had a telephone.
Sometime in the 1930s, 4-Way hired a young man named Butter Ross. I don’t think his mama named him “Butter” but I don’t ask Superman what his real name is so I’m not asking for Butter’s birth certificate either.
Shortly thereafter the entire world went to war and Butter Ross went went with it. He did his duty and served his country. He fought honorably against the Axis powers. He returned to Cartersville as a hero with a dream. He wanted to open his own diner, sling his own burgers, be his own man. He wanted to hang his own name over his own door. So he announced his intentions to open his own place just around the corner.
In 2020, Cartersville is becoming a happening place. They have two world class museums and a Kroger with a bar in it but it’s still a relatively small town. In 1946 Cartersville was barely on the map. The idea of two diners operating less than the length of Weinman Stadium apart was unthinkable. The competition would be brutal. This town just wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
The management at the 4-Way begged Butter not to do it. They even warned him, “you’re gonna start a war!” But Butter was determined. “It won’t be my first war. And I ain’t never lost.” True to his words, Butter didn’t lose. In fact, his diner is still open as well. For both places to survive 74 years in such proximity in a small town is astonishing. The biggest takeaway is that they both had to be on top of their game every day. A bad day for one could mean its demise.
Today you can find a dozen or so places to eat within walking distance of this metaphorical battlefield. Regionally recognized chains and excellent local choices have added serious competition for the lunch crowd. There are more comfortable options with much larger menus. Despite the added pressure, the original two belligerents are still going strong.
The 4-Way boasts 10 diner stools at the bar in the main room. The back room, a remnant of segregation days, can hold two or three customers. No one cares what color you are now, all seats are first come, first serve. The only color that matters is green, as in cash. Your card is worthless here. They don’t even have a phone, much less a card reader. With so few seats the menu is small. All meals are made to order, meaning they make it, you order it, they immediately place it in front of you. No waiting. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Enjoy it but get to eating because someone is probably waiting on your seat. A gravy burger with chili cheese fries and a sweet tea is a fine meal.
Over at Ross Diner the setting is a bit more relaxed. With at least twice the seating things aren’t quite as rushed. Everyone sits around a u-shaped bar while the waitresses work through the middle. There’s a full kitchen in the back as opposed to just cooking everything right behind the bar like they do at 4-Way. It takes longer to get your food but it is made fresh. A fried pie with ice cream is an excellent choice and give you a chance to eat at both diners on the same visit to town.
So ABG has now given you a tip on how to get lunch and desert at two places but only using one parking space. You can add in some great shopping as well as enjoying the fantastic architecture of historic downtown. You’ll also be doing your part, serving honorably in the Great Cartersville Diner War, 74 years and still going strong.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire