From The Archive
David Mulcahey
No. 7  June 1995

Screw Capital of the World

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Rooting Out the Reds

On the afternoon of January 2, 1920, police detectives, sheriff’s deputies, army intelligence operatives, and federal agents swept through the factories, union halls, and homes of Rockford, Illinois, to conduct the largest mass arrest in the city’s history. The hunt yielded 180 men and women, almost all of them foreign-born, who were suspected of belonging to communist labor associations. This was one of dozens of “Palmer raids” (so-named for Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer) carried out across the country to rid America of what the Rockford Morning Star called “the menace of alien radicals.”

In Rockford, cops and G-men pulled dozens, mostly women, from an afternoon meeting at a communist union hall on the city’s working-class southwest side and then raided neighboring taverns and pool halls, arresting patrons and proprietors alike. The zero-hour for the raid had originally been planned for later in the evening. But as the cops had jumped the gun in a similar raid in Chicago the day before, it was feared that the Rockford reds had been tipped off, giving them time to destroy incriminating documents and to go into hiding. So the lawmen decided to net whomever they could at the city’s factories at 4 o’clock as they were preparing to leave work.

“Kill me if you will, but the Soviet lives forever!”

The first day of raids met with great success. The city’s police department didn’t have enough paddy wagons to haul the arrested, so taxi cabs were commandeered. The following day, the Rockford Daily Republic ecstatically reported that truckloads of equipment, documents, and “blood-red literature” had been seized in addition to the scores of dangerous aliens. As if to underscore the fanatical peril from which Palmer’s goons had delivered the city and the nation, the paper quoted the sinister defiance of the local communist “king bee,” Misha Shinkerenko: “I support the Soviet government both in Russia and in America. Kill me if you will, but the Soviet lives forever!” Shinkerenko, the papers revealed, was a ringleader of “an elaborate plot of the Russian Bolshevist government” that employed a bogus Society of Russian Agricultural Instructors as a front for subversive activities. The Republic even allowed itself a bit of perverse civic pride: Rockford, it crowed, had been the very center of red conspiracy, “a veritable breeding place for those who plot the overthrow of the United States by force.”

In the days following the raids the city newspapers listed the names and addresses, along with occasional thumbnail biographical information, of 136 of those taken in the sweeps, including those released after questioning. The entries, though brief, adumbrate their tragically summary fates:

Herman Johnson, 620 East Street. Here 12 years, declarant. Sang “Red” songs at meetings. Authorities to act to revoke first papers and deport.

Edwin Johnson, 1329 Seventh Avenue. Here five years, alien. Most friends, he says, are I.W.W.s or Communists. Expecting deportation, as he refused to register for the draft and spent some time at Bridewell. Married and 24 years. Held for deportation.

Stanislavas Dyokas, 607 Union Street, communist three years. He and his wife have a two year old child. The wife is as radical as Dyokas and will be looked after as soon as the disposition of the child is decided upon.

Several dozen of the arrested were Swedes, and the rest were Lithuanians and Slavs. In total, fifty-eight of those netted in the raids were deported and twelve were tried for sedition; of these twelve, one, a Swedish glazier, was successfully defended by Clarence Darrow, and the other eleven were subsequently acquitted. As months passed, alarm over the red menace gave way to scandal-mongering, as local newspapers followed the trials of a former alderman and a free-thinking society scion. The raids’ chief result was to end the brief influence in city politics of the Swedish Socialist Workers Club, then Rockford’s most influential radical organization.

History does not record the revolutionary designs, much less the particular motivations and grievances, of Shinkerenko and his mob, their “blood-red literature” having disappeared without a trace. And that is hardly surprising. Rockford’s Palmer raids seem parodically insignificant in comparison with such postwar social-industrial crises as the police strike in Boston or the general strike in Seattle, themselves events barely remembered and little examined in the official narratives of the American Century.

Smiling Screw Town

Rockford has always been a factory town, but with a difference: working class culture has always borne the stamp of the skilled elite. Situated one hundred miles northwest of Chicago, the city was almost from the start an industrial center, home to a number of enterprising tool makers and to a large reaper factory that for a while competed successfully with McCormick’s. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century the city became a major center for furniture manufacture, an industry which resisted large-scale mechanization until well into the twentieth century and relied on larger than usual numbers of highly skilled craftsmen—in Rockford’s case, almost exclusively Swedish immigrants. The workers were anything but typically proletarian: during the early period of Rockford’s capital formation, skilled furniture workers were fairly likely to own the means of production. By 1893 there were twenty-six major furniture factories in the city, twenty-one of which were cooperatives owned by large groups of workers who had pooled their money together. These business ventures were easily started and often quick to expand, but they survived financial panics and recessions only with great difficulty. Suffering acutely from lack of deep or liquid capital reserves, most were eventually driven by the vicissitudes of the business cycle to resort to the assistance and ultimately the control of the city’s richer industrial barons.

Adding to Rockford’s high concentration of skilled labor was the parallel development of the tool-making industry. Although the pioneer tool-making factories remained large and dominant, the same pattern of cooperative ventures seen in the furniture industry broadened the playing field and bolstered the city’s prosperity for most of the twentieth century. Demand for heavy machinery created by the First World War made giants out of the modest start-ups, so that on the eve of the Depression Rockford was the nation’s second largest machine tool manufacturer. World War II took the industry to a higher level still, with orders from defense contractors quadrupling local tool production in its first year. After 1945 production continued its pace, thanks largely to the Korean War, a booming domestic economy, and the weakness of European and Asian competition. Fastener manufacture, another industry that had been established locally to supply the furniture makers, grew and prospered with the postwar housing boom to such an extent that Rockfordians styled their city the “Screw Capital of the World.”

Songs of Innocence and Abundance

Oddly enough, Rockford’s rise to industrial significance coincided with the decline of its erstwhile bellwether industry, furniture manufacture. In a turn of events that would presage the city’s economic fate at the end of the century, local furniture makers had by 1950 been all but driven out of business, unable to compete with the cheap labor and mechanized factories in the South. But its new industries were more than adequately taking up the slack, drawing large migrations of workers from other parts of the country. By mid-century Rockford had become one of the fifty largest cities in America.

What Trillin failed to mention, however, was that Rockford’s prosperity had largely been established by intense, prolonged government defense spending.

At its high-water mark after WWII, Rockford had even become a showcase for American prosperity and sound social order: it was one of three models for University of Chicago sociologist W. Lloyd Warner’s composite “Jonestown” in his Social Class in America, exemplifying the prosperous, middle American city. Following his lead, Life magazine profiled Rockford in a 1949 photo essay on class in the United States. “The phenomenon of social mobility,” Life assured its readers, “is the distinguishing character of U.S. democracy and the thing for which it is famous and envied throughout the world.” As if to prove the point, the essay presented the biographies of carefully picked representatives of six classes (two tiers each of lower, middle, and upper classes) in ascending order. Between the extremes of poverty and wealth—a casual laborer with few prospects, on the one hand, and the heir to one of Rockford’s original industrial fortunes on the other—Life proffered four variants of the American archetype, the common man on his way up: the poor immigrant who found work as a machinist, bought a home and raised a family; the former A&P stockboy who bought his own grocery; the man who worked his way through college and became an accountant; the bookkeeper who became president of the the company. Rockford’s example proved, Life cheerily explained, that American democracy is a ladder anyone can climb. Of course, no mention is made of falling off the ladder, or indeed of having those on the higher rungs pull the ladder up after them, such reflections being strictly beyond the pale at Luce publications.

For a Rockford native with the benefit of half a century of hindsight, it is amusing—and more than a little sad—to see the great promise with which Life viewed Rockford, to read its postwar version of the myth of the Midwest as Arcadia, the sentimental heartland and lifeblood of the American spirit. At the core of this myth was an earlier agrarian idealism, a narrative of pragmatic, self-reliant immigrants subduing nature through hard work and ingenuity. But whereas the earlier idealism was fiercely regionalist and anti-corporate, the happy citizens Life portrayed were more subdued and clung to an upright, quiescent morality suited to the industrial order; the ideal of living by the fruits of one’s labor was transformed into “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” In an era of a rapidly expanding economy, that wasn’t such a bad conclusion.

By the time Calvin Trillin visited Rockford for a New Yorker essay in 1976, the children (and grandchildren) of the Rockfordians featured in Life’s profile were preparing to begin their working lives, and the Arcadian myth of the Midwest still colored all thinking about the city’s past. Trillin came to cover the debate over funding for Rockford’s public schools, but his story revealed far more about the city. Rockford, he wrote, exemplified a class of medium-sized midwestern cities where the ills of the big cities were thankfully absent, a place which “does not suffer greatly from poverty or the drain of suburbanization or the turmoil that often accompanies drastic shifts in racial composition.” Trillin could hardly have guessed it then, but within a decade all of these “big city” problems—and many more—would overwhelm Rockford.

Trillin also noted something anomalous about Rockford: it was a blue-collar Republican town. The people there, whether business owners or workers, he observed, clung to an old-fashioned individualism and suspicion of the intrusions of big government. What Trillin failed to mention, however, was that Rockford’s prosperity had largely been established by intense, prolonged government defense spending. Moreover, Rockford’s industrial exporters, like those of the rest of the nation, had enjoyed a rather charmed post-war life, relatively free from foreign competition. This anomaly, the blue-collar Republican town, so proud of its work ethic, had been built along the lines of a war-time economy. As the Cold War wound down, it became clear that the feast would end. Trillin left town a few years before the bill arrived.

Had Trillin returned to Rockford five years later, in 1981, he would have found general pessimism and despair among Rockford’s industrial workers, skilled and unskilled alike. Had he returned ten years later, in 1986, he would have found those unemployed skilled laborers had blown town for better prospects elsewhere. He’d have found the unskilled exactly where he left them—fighting to bring home an ever-shrinking wage. He would also have noticed a greater social cleavage between the unskilled and skilled laborers, managers and technicians lucky enough to be working. That cleavage is evident in the “ills of big cities.” And make no mistake: these are now structural problems that show no sign of being abated, much less of being addressed.

Et In Arcadia Ego

For Rockfordians, the eighties were ill-starred from the first. Hometown congressman John B. Anderson made perhaps the last stand for moderate Midwestern Republicanism in an admirable, if pathetic, third-party run for the presidency. He went down in flames: Reagan aimed straight for the vanity and fears that had made Rockford a Republican stronghold to begin with, and trounced him. In Reagan’s first three years, Rockford changed forever. Like any industrial town, Rockford was used to bumps in the business cycle; during the post-oil embargo recession of 1975, for example, one in ten workers was thrown out of work. The nearby town of Belvedere, considered to be part of the Rockford metro area, intermittently saw its unemployment rate touch double digits during the slow periods for its largest employer, a Chrysler assembly plant. So in November 1980, when unemployment surged to 13 percent, people were concerned, but not necessarily alarmed.

Then the bottom fell out. In November 1981 Chrysler again laid workers off, spiking unemployment rates to 15 percent, the highest level in almost two generations. As the recession deepened, orders to Rockford’s tool manufacturers ground to a halt, spurring more layoffs. Unemployment rates over the next year ratcheted upwards, so that Rockford led the nation in joblessness by July with 19.3 percent. By November 1982, only a year after the second spike of layoffs commenced, 26.3 percent of Rockford was out of work, nearly matching the figures seen at the low ebb of the Depression.

Only two types of job-hunters show much prospect for demand: low-wage, low-skill workers and those possessing advanced technical training.

Meanwhile, average individual and family income, wealth distribution, and poverty rates grew worse every year. Rockford’s increasing reliance on lower-paying service jobs had serious consequences for the overall standard of living in the area. According to a report released in 1986 for the United Way, Rockford’s per-capita income ranking among the 305 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. slipped from forty-fourth in 1979 to 131st in 1983. Even Rockford’s labor aristocracy, the employees of the area’s three solid defense contractors, shed some workers for the first time in their seventy year history. The final indignity came in 1993, when Money magazine rated Rockford the worst place to live among the three hundred largest U.S. cities, citing poor employment prospects, widespread poverty, and a surging crime rate.

Like much of the Rust Belt, Rockford is now said to have “recovered.” Midwestern manufacturing has returned, in aggregate, to the levels it reached in the boom years before the recession of the early eighties. In the bloodless vernacular of policyspeak the economy has been “restructured.” Those firms that could do so invested heavily in labor-saving technology, enabling them to cut their costs significantly. Those that could not avail themselves of technology, or that could only partially do so, resorted to other means to attack the wage: increased overtime or the use of the “contingent workforce” of subcontractors, temporary or part-time laborers. The net result has been a general downward pressure on the wage. As the economy struggles to “restructure” according to the imperative of productivity, labor markets ebb and flow in sometimes unpredictable ways, shakeouts migrating from industry to industry and region to region. But only two types of job-hunters show much prospect for demand: low-wage, low-skill workers and those possessing advanced technical training.

In this single sense, then, Rockford has recovered. But in every other sense Rockford has not recovered, nor will it ever. The human cost of economic shifts in the 1980s can be expressed in a variety of statistical ways, but perhaps they are best understood in terms of the sheer degradation of an underclass that inhabits my hometown. Trillin’s assessment of what ails Rockford has been stood on its head: Rockford’s problems are big city problems. Its more prosperous citizens, including a core of the working class whose jobs have been secured by government fiat, are abandoning the west half of the city for suburban developments, leaving in their wake high concentrations of gang crime, poverty, deindustrialization, and racial polarization.

Rooting Out the Memory of Rooting Out the Reds

The economic shock of the Midwestern depression is in a sense over. An accounting has been made: Those hit hardest have either moved on or acclimated themselves to a future of lower expectations and struggle. The psychological dislocation will linger for a long time to come, but those who remain are perhaps further than ever before from making sense of their plight. Consider the following warning issued in a newsletter published by the Rockford Institute, a conservative think-tank that stands, sadly, as the city’s only intellectual institution of any stature:

[T]he forces of radical change, although once numerically insignificant, have multiplied and have come to exercise such a strong anti-capitalistic influence upon the beliefs and the priorities of … citizens that the whole private enterprise system is being jeopardized.

In 1978, the year those words found print, it is likely they sent shivers down the odd Rotarian’s spine. Today it is difficult to imagine them being met with anything but derision. Yet the Institute, funded by the city’s antediluvian industrial elite, has evolved only slightly from the paranoia of its 100-Percent American forebears, shedding its cold-war rhetoric in favor of “family values” atavism and racist defenses of “American civilization.”

In any rational political calculus, an upheaval like the one experienced in the Rust Belt in the 1980s should have forced the likes of such reactionaries into the hills. Ironically, the reverse happened. In the face of a palpable assault on the wage, ordinary Americans cast their lot with the “free market.” At a time when the demands of work were putting unprecedented strains on the life-world of the nuclear family, they clamored as never before for the return to the repressive norms of “family values.” And at the hour they needed it most—at the time when their livelihoods and those of their children depended on it most—they repudiated the role of big government.

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