Saturday, March 19, 2011

Detroit and the Mythical West.

It is not by accident that a family such as mine, born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, found a home in the America West. My dad grew up reading authors of the American West in the early twentieth century like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. When I was a child in the 1950s and 60s, family time was around the T.V. watching The Lone Ranger, Sky King, Roy Rogers, Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, etc.

The American West, and the characters, whether fictional or non-fictional, who sought adventure and “tamed” the western wilderness, represented to my dad, my family and a great number of fans around the world a since of adventure, and a belief that good guys win in the end; an important concept in the era of World War Two and the Cold War.

Today the western genre is on life supports. In the troubled times of the 1960s, historians concerned with civil rights, Vietnam, and other social and political issues began to revise how historians of the previous generation interpreted American history, especially the role of Women, Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics. The West I grew up on was now called the "Mythic West.” The new histories took our western heroes, as portrayed by numerous western writers, and such actors as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, and did their best to tear down rugged individualism and the concept of good and evil.

My dad did not care about historians’ revisionist histories. In the mind of the farm boy from Indiana, who found a job making diesel engines at General Motors at the beginning of World War Two, the fictional West was where he would escape.

What he read in his books about the American West allowed him to dream and plan for another life; a life far away from the drudgery of his work as supervisor on the line at G.M. Diesel, a place he worked for 33 years.

The Call of the West was so strong in my dad that when possible our family vacations in the 1950s were road trips to Montana, where my dad spent several summers in the early 1930s working on a road crew in the Yellowstone.

My dad fishing in the Yellowstone, 1933

My brother caught the “west fever” and left for Montana when he was 18, he has lived there ever since. My parents retired to Montana in 1971.

On his eleven acres at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains, my dad had his dream “ranch”, where he kept quarter horses and enjoyed western living; all before Montana drew new immigrants who wanted to live in Norman MacLean’s land of “A River Runs Through It.”
Two of Dad's horses, very proud of Cindy the new colt.

I’m not writing this to beat the western historian over the head for trying to destroy, perhaps inadvertently, the western dream; I am a western historian and I understand the need to write inclusive histories. But, I also understand the importance the western genre had and still has in portraying a Place called the West that represented the values that have been part of America since the American Revolution. They are values of hard work, self-reliance, morality, sense of mission; values that have defined us as Americans. I have to wonder why these values are now thought to be inherent only to the Mythical West.

And, as for Detroit. I’m sure if my dad was a live today he would be more disheartened than my brother and I, and my family and friends who once lived in Detroit, to see what has become of the City. Like all industrial cities, Detroit had its good and bad points. As a kid, I remember the good. I felt safe riding the Schoolcraft bus from the suburbs to downtown to shop with friends. In the winter, I enjoyed Ice Skating on the River Rough Parkway ice rink. I loved Greenfield Village, where Henry Ford had created an historical village that depicted early American life including Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory.
Pioneer General store, Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan

Edison's Menlo Park, N.J. Lab at Greenfield Village.

I even found touring Ford’s River Rouge plant interesting, walking on the catwalks high above the furnaces where steel was melted down and poured into frames.

I assumed that all industrial cities had their own unique charm, as Detroit did. But, today, by most accounts, Detroit is a dying city. It remains to be seen if the City will survive. If it does, I suspect it will become a much different city than the industrial city of my youth.
Abandoned Dentist office, Detroit.

Abandoned East Side Detroit Methodist Church

St Christopher House.

Abandoned building with ballroom.

Abandoned Detroit Theater
Abandoned House, one of too many in bombed-out looking neighborhoods.

I’m so glad that my dad bought into the “Mythic West.” If he had not, he probably would have never left Detroit. But he did, and he found a new home where the air was crisp and smelled of pine trees, where from every window in his house that he built he could see the snow capped mountains, and where life was full of the work he wanted to do-- cleaning his barn, tending his horses, and talking to neighbors who were born and raised in his beloved West.
In in front yard of his Montana "ranch."

Dad with Grandkids on one of his horses.

Like Detroit, I believe the western genre will too survive, and the stories will continue to offer readers the same adventure and excitement about a place that so caught the imagination of my dad’s generation. Thanks to all of you who continue to write about the American west.