In the summer of 2014, my brother, Jack, and I were simply driving to visit my grandmother in Connersville, Indiana. It was something we had done dozens of times before but construction interrupted our normal route and we were directed through the withering downtown of Connersville. Large windows, empty storefronts, crumbled buildings greeted us as I drove this new direction to our grandmother’s house. In my twenty-two years of coming to Connersville – for birthdays, Christmas, visits, weddings, the fair, any number of reasons – I had never truly seen Connersville. The echoes and shadows of what used to be a thriving small, industrial city in a predominately rural part of Indiana screamed at me as we drove to spend the afternoon in a home my family had lived in for decades.
I am very connected with Connersville and I’m finding the more time I spend there, the deeper those connections are becoming. My grandmother and grandfather grew up there, married there, raised their family there, and had jobs there. My father and his sister went to Catholic school and played sports for the local schools. My father still works in Connersville at the same company his father worked at for 50 years. My family has deep roots in the community and I realized that summer that I didn’t really know anything about the town where my family is from.
The question for me became: how do you write a history about a city and society that has been left out of the historical record? What can a historian use beyond the traditional documentary and physical sources to tell the story of a community?
This is where oral history comes in. Allowing me to gather personal and collective testimonies, oral history interviews permit those who experienced life in Connersville to tell their own stories, share their memories, and teach others about their history. Isn’t their story as important and relevant as that of Gary or Phoenix or Pittsburgh? What happened to small-town Middle America when industry left and then people flocked to the cities?
These are the stories of real people – some of whom were close to me before this project and some I have grown closer to throughout my work – and their lives, jobs, families, and experiences in Connersville. Each recalled the former glory and life that they had lived through, and reminisced on what Connersville once was. Some even expressed hopes for what their community might be in the future. Their stories tell a personal, collective account of the people left behind during deindustrialization.
My project focuses on the opening of a vocational school in Connersville. Using Connersville as a case study, I argue that the relationship between education and business, particularly in a small Midwestern industrial community, is a reciprocal one in which each party influences and shapes the actions, decisions, and future of the other. Previously, scholars have studied the influence of business on vocational education, but have not looked at the consequences of vocational education. This project will take the next step toward examining the outcome of education in the Connersville community. By looking at job placement of past students, advertising in The Connersville News Examiner, and hiring trends in businesses like Stant Corporation, Roots Blower Company, or Riedman Motors, I will determine how the new program positively affected the economy, business, and community in Connersville.
There are several questions I address as I explore the relevance of industrial influence in Connersville. How did industry affect education, especially vocational education, in Connersville? What has been the role of the vocational school in Connersville? How did the community deal with the vocational school after the industry left? What does this tell us about the role of private enterprise in rural and small town spaces? These questions will help me to connect vocational education, industry, and ultimately deindustrialization into a narrative representative of other communities.