Sam’s Club and the Vanishing Ozarks

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This morning I attended the grand opening of the area's latest Sam's Club, Wal-Mart's membership-only warehouse store.  Down the road from Nixa in nearby Springfield, the brand new big box sits across from local favorite Andy's Frozen Custard  (see "My Ozarks Heart Attack") and the sprawling Library Center.  Since Nixa has no public library, residents often pay to use Springfield's showcase public facility.  Now they can shop for groceries after checking out books. The strains of the "Star-Spangled Banner" wafted over the parking lot as I approached the store.  An inflatable Michelin Man stood guard over the cars.  A crowd heard Mayor Jim O'Neal praise Wal-Mart's contribution to the local economy and a Chamber of Commerce representative tout Springfield's high ranking in Forbes magazine's list of the "Best Places For Business and Careers."  A regional Wal-Mart Vice President (who happened to be an African-American woman) promised that Sam's would be a "good corporate citizen." When I asked who the male master-of-ceremonies was, an elderly woman answered, "Some honcho from Bentonville." I joked that it couldn't be Sam Walton.  Her husband volunteered that things would be different with Sam, adding that the Wal-Mart founder wouldn't sell any "cheap Chinese crap." Such comments reflect the anxiety of many Ozarkers about the impact of globalization. The global expansion of Wal-Mart is part of the larger transformation of the Ozarks region.  In 1962 Sam Walton founded the first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, Arkansas.  Back then nobody imagined that the nation's largest corporation would have its headquarters in the Arkansas Ozarks, an area often stereotyped as backward and isolated.  Just as the missionary activities of the Springfield-based Assemblies of God reach halfway around the world, Wal-Mart connects the Ozarks to the global economy.  The story of Wal-Mart is intertwined with the culture of its Bible Belt locale.  In To Serve God and Wal-Mart, Bethany Moreton quotes Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed's advice that "if you want to reach [the Christian population] on Saturday, you do it in Wal-Mart." Such observations square with my own experience of the Evangelical Ozarks. At Springfield's Campbell United Methodist Church, our Sunday School class speaks warmly of the Bentonville retailer.  While one couple visits Wal-Mart every other Sunday, another friend calls it her "second church," noting that she always runs into people from Campbell there.  Although such comments are made in jest, they reflect real affection for the company and its family-friendly image.  Campbell's own Linda Merkling was on hand for the dedication of the Sam's Club.  Part of the ribbon cutting ceremony, Merkling is a sales manager for two local radio stations, including talk radio leader KSGF. After the ribbon cutting, I explored the warehouse club's cornucopia of consumer goods and edibles.  Along with some organic blackberries and socks, I purchased a copy of Peter Marshall and David Manuel's The Light and the Glory: 1492-1793, a work that describes "our nation's history as part of God's plan." I found it in the religion section, right next to the Bibles and multiple copies of The Shack and The Love DareMarshall has been in the news lately as an advisor to the Texas State Board of Education.  Along with Wall Builders founder David Barton, he has recommended eliminating Thurgood Marshall, Cesar Chavez, and Anne Hutchinson from Texas history textbooks (As a direct descendant of Hutchinson, I am not thrilled by such proposals).  Conservative shoppers can also pick up the latest from talk radio giants Mark Levin and Glenn Beck. As the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart cannot be described as either conservative or progressive.  Not far from Glenn Beck's Common Sense sit commemorative albums celebrating the lives of Barack and Michelle Obama.  The Springfield Sam's also sells copies of the August 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, which includes Todd Purdum's takedown of Sarah Palin ("It Came from Wasilla"). Nationally, Wal-Mart has adopted some surprising positions.  This summer the company announced it supported Obama's health care initiative.  More recently, it has embraced a new system of environmental labeling.  Charting such changes, the Wall Street Journal noted that Wal-Mart "has undergone a stunning metamorphisis," moving from "demon to darling" of the Democratic Party.  According to the Springfield News-Leader, Wal-Mart's green-friendly image was on display at the new Springfield Sam's, which includes "daylight-harvesting skylights" and LED lighting.  "Progressive" in a different way, Wal-Mart is a far cry from the traditional mode of retailing in the Ozarks: the country store.  As  Brooks Blevins notes in his celebrated history of the Arkansas Ozarks,  "Rural folks relied on the country store for ready-made clothing, dry goods, and food not raised on the farm." By the 1970s, "the most recognized victim of rural modernization" had been replaced by chain stores, with Wal-Mart "providing a final blow." Back in 1992, Dale Freeman asked, "What becomes of the crossroad country store?" pointing to the growth of the "inevitable Wal-Marts." This summer the Harlin Museum in West Plains, Missouri sponsored "Vanishing Ozarks 2009: Country Stores and Schoolhouses." It highlighted "some of the features of the Ozarks cultural history that are in danger of disappearing." Like the country store, the little red schoolhouse has gone the way of the dodo bird.  According to Wayne Fuller's One-Room Schools of the Middle West, the number of Missouri one-room schools fell from 7,296 in 1931-32 to 2,694 in 1953-54, the victim of school consolidation.  In Nixa's Evangelical Epicenter, the country school has been replaced by a host of educational institutions, including the sparkling new campus of Ozarks Technical College.  Located between Nixa and Ozark near the site of a one-room school, it stands to benefit from the Obama administration's $11 billion proposal to strengthen community colleges.  Sepia-toned pictures of the country schoolhouse decorate the basement hallway of the Richwood Valley campus.  Included in the historical display is a roster of students from 1908 that boasts such locally prominent names as Grubaugh and Wasson (John Grubaugh currently serves as a Christian County Commissioner, while Representative Jay Wasson serves in the Missouri legislature). One hundred years later, the Ozarks region is a far different place.  In the fastest-growing county in Missouri, residents want big screen televisions and patio furniture.  They also want marketable job skills.  While the country store and the one-room school are gone for good, Ozarkers can follow their dreams at the Sam's Club and the community college.  In the current economic climate, both institutions seem to be growing, buoyed by the Obama administration's big spending and the American consumer's relentless quest for a good deal.