MAKING AND BREAKING A COUNTRY

by Bob Wheeler

Early settler's home, Steuben County, NY

Early settler’s home, Steuben County, NY

    I live in a rural area in northern Pennsylvania not far from the New York State line. This area was first settled at the beginning of the 19th Century, and when you drive around it today you can still see many reminders of the past.

    The local histories tell us something of what life was like for the early settlers. They came from New England, eastern New York State, and from New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. When they first arrived here they were greeted by a vast unbroken forest of pine and hemlock. There were few roads to speak of. With axe in hand they cleared the land one tree at a time. They built primitive log cabins, and shot wild game for food. In spring they broke the ground with horse-drawn plows, removing the numerous rocks and stones by hand. It was backbreaking work, but eventually a harvest was the result. . “The wilderness was reclaimed, hamlets, villages and towns came into being and comfortable farm houses had taken the place of log huts. Broad fields of grain and pasture land and granaries rich in stores of golden corn were the result of a few years’ toil and perseverance” (History of Tioga County, p. 32).

    The story was repeated all across America as the frontier moved steadily westward. Road and canals were built, railroads were laid across the continent, and vast swaths of land were brought under cultivation. Factories were built, and American became one of the leading industrial nations of the world, enjoying unprecedented prosperity.

    This prosperity was made possible partially because the country was rich in natural resources. But it was also possible because of the hard work and enterprising spirit of the hardy pioneers and settlers who did the actual work of clearing the forests, breaking the ground, and building infrastructure. It should be noted, however, that this labor and toil was directed toward a single overriding goal: the creation of wealth. The farmers, miners, lumbermen, construction workers and manufacturers took raw materials and made them into finished products which had real market value. Their combined efforts increased the wealth of the country.

    How different it is today. What took our ancestors a century and a half or more to build up, we have torn down in a matter of a few decades. Our factories have gone overseas, and the bulk of our workforce is employed in the service industry, working for low wages in low skilled jobs. The middle class is disappearing, and a growing class of the “working poor” is struggling to survive.

    The recent Great Recession has taken its toll. But it is becoming increasingly evident that many of the jobs that were lost are not coming back. There are disturbing signs that we are looking at the “new normal.”

    The American Dream has largely disappeared. And it has disappeared because we did not have the sense to realize what makes for real prosperity. Instead of producing tangible wealth on Main Street, we have settled for producing paper profits on Wall Street. And in an economy in which the masses of people are deprived of disposable income business ultimately succumbs. A business needs customers to survive and prosper.

    We are currently living off the wealth created by our ancestors. It will not last forever.