Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992


Fall 1988

The Wal-Martization of Rural America and Other Things

by Gary Farley



I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in Kansas City and its environs. My folks, rural Missouri-raised, loved to vacation in the Ozarks. In the early summer, it was fishing trips to Lake of the Ozarks or Norfork. In the fall, it was a foliage pilgrimage to Branson. In between were church camps at Hollis-ter and Mount Vernon. In time, my parents moved to Cassville to start a business and teach school. In time, I married a girl from Yellville.

Among my memories from the post-World War II period was the time our family first observed the motto on an auto license plate proclaiming Arkansas to be the "Land of Opportunity." I believe it was my Dad's brother who rejoined, "Opportunity to starve to death !"

Now, a quarter of a century removed from the region, I continue to "keep watch on the Ozarks." I do it today as a rural sociologist working for the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. My tasks include monitoring change in rural America, change that will impact church and community. Let me share what I see.

But first, it must be obvious to you that I am not the nephew of a prophet. How wrong my Uncle David was. In Bentonville, Arkansas, Sam Walton has become the nation's richest man, ironically by retailing primarily in rural America, a region characterized by demographic and economic decline. Another retailer from Pine Ridge, Arkansas, has emblazoned his family name, Dillard, on malls across mid-America. In Springdale, Arkansas, the Tysons have put together the nation's most prosperous family farm operation. Nearby in Lowell, Arkansas, J. B. Hunt has become a major force in trucking. In Bella Vista, Arkansas, the Cooper family "invented" the most popular kind of community living environment for our affluent, active retirees. And religion and politics is being impacted by denominations based in Springfield, Missouri.

One cannot dispute that, for many, the Ozarks has become the "land of opportunity" through the second half of this century. So, given the track record of my family, you may want to take my observations with a liberal dose of salt. But, as I see it, change that will reshape the face of much of rural America, its communities and its churches, are emanating from the Ozarks. I will mention only five or six of these changes. From your vantage points, you may see others. I hope that you will take time to share your observations with me. Further, I will not attempt to critique these changes here. As you know, change may benefit some at the expense of others. Change at one level may be positive, but change in another level may be negative. Change is usually supported by or legitimated by values--values that typically are in conflict with those that legitimate the existing order. And when change is resisted, it is normally done in terms of other values. Consider for yourself the values involved in the changes I will present, and draw your own conclusions.

Wal-Martization. I shopped in my first Wal-Mart in 1.962 or 1963 in Harrison, Arkansas. That store has since been torn down and replaced. In fact, since then Wal-Mart has entered 1,100 rural-based markets. It has been successful in every one of them. It now employs almost 150,000 persons, and it proudly proclaims that it has created or saved an additional 25,000 jobs among its suppliers. It has made available to rural and small town Americans a broad variety of products at a more affordable price.

From my vantage point, I see other chains and franchises locating in those towns chosen by Wal-Mart. If Wal-Mart comes to town, can McDonalds, Revco, Pizza Hut, and the likes be far behind? In addition, I recognize something analogous to the 1880s and 1890s happening to rural towns. Then, as western America was settled, the town that got the railroad line prospered. The ones that didn't, died. As Wal-Mart selects a town, trade areas are redefined. Services, retail trade, and even industry is clustering in those towns. Wal-Mart towns typically are about 30 miles apart, closer if population and disposable income dictate.

Ozark Corners, Ozark, Christian County, Missouri. Some 26 businesses now occupy the northwest quadrant of highways 65 and 14. Wal-Mart and Consumers (grocery) built the first stores there less than 10 years ago.

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What will happen to those towns not chosen? What will happen to Main Street in those elected? My prophecy is that Wal-Mart towns will become the dominant towns across the Ozarks and on through rural America in the 1990s. And this development will impact the other towns in the expanded trade area, as well as community identity and the spirit of those persons living within the area, as community boundaries are redrawn.

The Mailing of America. Other social scientists have commented on the fact that most Americans now live less than an hour's drive from a major shopping mall. This is true in much of the Ozarks, and Dillards is playing a key role. In the mall one finds mostly national and regional chains. Merchandising has become both an art and a science.

In a sense, the WaI-Marting and the mailing of America need to be seen as a whole. They are part of the same retailing revolution. Each has become a major magnet, each has become a new Main Street.

Vertically integrated agriculture. Last spring I visited Barry County, Missouri. I thought that what I saw on Highway 37 near Butterfield was a huge, new, consolidated high school under construction. On closer observation, it turned out to be a chicken processing plant. Nearby was a field full of new broiler houses, capable of "producing'' several million birds each year.

Poultry seems to have revolutionized Ozarks agriculture for a second time. This time the "chicken ranchers" are raising birds on contracts from processors who provide the birds, the feed, and, of course, the market. Much of the risk is removed, but so is the potential for large profits. The Tyson farms have been a major player in this revolution.

Many students of agriculture believe that this approach of vertical integration will spread from poultry to other commodities. And they contend that by the turn of the century only a handful of multi-national agri-businesses will control most of the production and distribution of foodstuffs. Tyson may well be a player in this also.

Interstates in the states. The location of the Ozarks in the middle of America, coupled with Arkansas's rather lenient trucking laws, has made it the home base for many trucking firms. J. B. Hunt's line has been particularly significant and successful. In this half of the century, we have witnessed the shift from railroads to trucks as the prime mover of products--from rails to interstate roads.

The importance of the interstate system in this change would be hard to exaggerate. Ironically, the Ozarks got short-changed on interstates in spite of the concentration of trucking enterprises here. When one notes the importance of access to the interstates to the development of a town or a city, the growth of the Ozarks in the past two decades seems even more phenomenal

Perhaps it's been a blessing. If US 71 and 65 had been converted to interstates in the 1960s, Mountain Home may have been, by now, renamed "New Chicago" and Harrison would have become "Los Angeles--East."

Retirement/recreation new towns. The Coopers--first at Cherokee Village, then Bella Vista and Hot Springs Village--have been very successful in establishing new communities, neighborhoods that attract affluent, active retirees. This model, copied by others, is seen by social scientists as a paradigm for the future. Wisely, the Coopers have noted that towns are more than bricks and mortar, houses, stores, golf courses, restaurants, and churches. They have sought to develop a spirit, an elan, a culture. This is a real challenge when most of the residents are mature and drawn from several different regional and ethnic subcultures.

In my role, I have been particularly interested in understanding the process of establishing and growing a church in such a place. I see the lessons learned in such communities as important ones for the denominations and their church extension departments.

Super churches, charismatics, television evangelists, and the "New Right." Springfield, Missouri, as the home of the Assemblies of God and the Bible Baptist denominations, has had a tremendous impact on Christianity, not to mention politics, worldwide. Ozarks charismatic religions as carried by the Assemblies has impacted the Western Hemisphere profoundly, as has the biblical fundamentalism of the Baptist Bible Fellowship through their best-know spokesman, Jerry Falwell.

I will treat only one aspect of this impact here, and that is the emergence of the "super church" at the crossroads of the interstates in many American cities. These huge congregations have successfully cut across racial, socioeconomic, and cultural barriers. Undoubtedly, they will be a major model for urban church life for decades to come.

But this seems to be true in smaller cities as well. Case-in-point: the First Baptist churches in Springdale and Rogers, Arkansas. Fifteen or twenty years ago both were rather traditional, Main Street congregations. They initiated aggressive bus ministries. They grew and grew. They moved out to spacious new facilities on the edges of their towns. They employed high-tech programs. They have continued to grow and grow. Now they seem very much like urban "super churches."

My conclusion: many sociologists watch California and Florida as the shapers of urban trends. But as a sociologist trying to understand rural America, I keep my eyes on the Ozarks, the "land of opportunity," now more than ever.

Gary E. Farely
Gary Farley is the Associate Director of the Rural-Urban Missions Department, Home Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention. He is based in Atlanta.

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