By: Tommy Druen
Rabbit holes, they abound in this digital age, with depts that Lewis Carroll himself could not have fathomed. On restless nights when my insomnia grips me, I often venture into these interconnected tunnels that the internet offers, often questioning how in the world I made it to whatever is before me.
During one of these late-night escapades, I stumbled upon a captivating treasure. The Scott County Public Library might as well have placed a huge “DRINK ME” label on the link to where they have digitized and made available local newspapers spanning from 1816 through the 1980s. Like Alice, I couldn’t help myself and soon found myself in the wee hours, navigating a historical roadmap of Georgetown.
Akin to taking a core sample, I sifted through papers from each decade, witnessing the shifting sands of time. While all were interesting, the 1950s had a unique charm. It was far enough back to be slightly foreign, but still new enough that I felt as though I could cope if I was magically transported back to that era. Maybe that’s just because I’ve watched Back to the Future a few too many times, though.
Poring through these newspapers, I came across articles that were amusing or astounding to our modern tastes. There was an account of a peeping tom being arrested, as well as a front-page story about a flying saucer sighting. Articles detailed community drives to combat polio, fundraisers for victims of infantile paralysis and peculiar recipes that I wouldn’t even serve my dog (pineapple and cheese sandwiches, anyone?). The newspaper also offered an exhaustive record of who was visiting and dining with whom, a level of detail that even the most adept town gossip might struggle to match. All of this and more could be yours, 52 times a year, for an annual subscription rate of $1.50. Not a bad deal!
What truly captivated me, though, were the numerous organizations reporting on their meetings and activities. There were the civic-minded, such as the Kiwanis, Rotary and Ruritan clubs. Agricultural organizations like the Farm Bureau and Southern States had their place, as did the Chamber of Commerce, Jaycees and specialized business associations. Military groups like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars stood alongside the Women’s Club, Garden Club, Masonic lodges, Knights of Columbus, Knights Templar, book clubs and a vast multitude of homemakers and church organizations. Considering the county had a population of only 15,000 at the time, it’s staggering to see that level of community involvement.
Curious, I ventured to the website of the Metcalfe County Public Library to look at digitized copies of my hometown paper. Despite the county’s smaller population of approximately 9,000, many of those same organizations, as well as others, were featured prominently.
I recognize that we now inhabit a vastly different world than the one I am referencing. In 1955, the average family owned only 1.2 vehicles, and the interstate system was still in its infancy, keeping people closer to home. Just half of American households had a television, with a limited choice of channels – only three in the entire state. Additionally, prior to extensive school consolidation, athletic teams had a wide array of local opponents, and “travel ball” was a concept yet to be born.
The point here is that these community organizations were more than meets the eye. They served as social hubs, offering opportunities beyond their stated purpose. They allowed people to interact, stay updated on news and share a bit of gossip. But their significance likely ran even deeper.
Every reputable organization that assesses civic literacy reports a troubling decline in Americans’ performance. We didn’t need a study to demonstrate that though. We all encounter the diatribes of ignorance almost daily, and there are various theories that explain why. We lament the absence of civics education in public schools, criticize the 24-hour news cycle for fueling conspiracy theories, and blame social media for spreading misinformation quicker than a virus. While I wouldn’t disagree with any of those, I would also suggest that Americans’ reduced involvement in community organizations could be another contributing factor.
I serve as one of the moderators for my church, overseeing the monthly business meetings. After my first one, a friend politely complimented my use of parliamentary procedure, attributing it to my work in state government. While I appreciated the compliment, I knew that the reality was that I learned the basics at an early age, from attending church meetings where my dad served as clerk. I suspect that I’m not alone in that experience and that many individuals learned the basics of government, knowingly or not, through completely unrelated organizations.
Perhaps the key to building a stronger nation lies in the foundation set at a much smaller level. It might be time to take a page from past generations and engage in community organizations that are bigger than one’s own self. The clichéd bumper sticker slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally” may hold the key to revitalizing our civic lives.
Just please . . . don’t bring the pineapple and cheese sandwiches to the meetings!