Making the rounds on the internet is an old film that someone dug up out of the state archives. The eye-opening video is a 35-minute promotional film about Wilkes County made in 1948. It portrays a chamber-of-commerce dream world that proclaims just how great everything was.
The film shows plenty of happy people working and shopping in great businesses and living in great homes with great neighbors and great kids. Everything is just great. It makes you want to go back in time and live in 1948.
Meanwhile, the video stands in sharp contrast to a sharp critique of Wilkes offered by North Wilkesboro lawyer Michael Cooper. In a column last month in “U.S. News & World Report” – at one time an important, glossy, weekly news magazine but these days just an internet site — Cooper alarmingly recounts just how bad everything is today. The economy is bad. Poverty is bad. The politics is bad.
Cooper makes you want to move to another country.
He makes some grim points that can shake the confidence of us here in the hometown border territory. We’re victims of a half-century of economic and cultural decline, Cooper said.
With manufacturing jobs cut nearly in half during the 21st Century, Wilkes is second in the nation in income lost, Cooper said, and third in drug overdoses. He pointed to such things as a 23-percent poverty rate and 25 percent of us not finishing high school.
So how could we have fallen so far so fast from 1948, when the streets were bustling with postwar prosperity and activity, and everybody was so darn happy?
“There is a booming, prosperous county named Wilkes,” said the film, titled “This is Progressive Wilkes County.” “Yes, Wilkes County is one of the best rounded in the state. …
“With such advantages in a county, it is understandable how a vigorous community would feed from this natural wealth and grow into one of the leading business towns of its size in the nation.”
Of course you and I know that things were not that great in 1948.
Though homes did have electricity by that time, a number still did not have indoor plumbing. The social and economic toll from alcoholism and bootlegging were a plague. Racial segregation required of African Americans a second-class life. There are no black faces to be seen in “Progressive Wilkes County.”
It’s true that the big manufacturing plants of that time were humming and employed hundreds if not thousands at each site. Those aging, large mills were not replaced and started shutting down in the late 1980s. Also, people no longer farm as they did in 1948.
But changes in the economy does not equate to a decline in the economy. We’ve moved from an industrial economy in 1948 to a post-industrial economy today. People now are more spread out and work in a much wider variety of occupations and for a much wider variety of employers.
Modern shoppers would be appalled at being confined to a small, centralized downtown retail district with limited choices and higher prices, as in 1948. With only a few landline telephones and absolutely no TVs, computers or internet, people then had limited access to communication and lived largely in ignorance of the wider world.
Ditto for medical services, transportation, educational opportunity. A modern person would hang his or her head in despair if somehow plopped down into 1948 and forced to live then.
We moderns do have our problems. We must examine our problems and strive to overcome them and to make things better for us, our children and our grandchildren.
But the truth is that we have it so much better today. And the reason is the happy folks in 1948 tackled their problems and strove to overcome them and thus made things better for us — their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Now let’s do the same and make the good folks in 2048 think that these are the good ol’ days. Because they are.
Stephen Harris, a Wilkes county native and resident, returned home to live in State Road.