Having grown up on the East Coast, I never thought too much about Ohio. It was just another of those big Midwestern farm states that you have to drive through to get across the country.
Even after living in western New York for 30 years I still didn’t think much about Ohio except to wonder why some people would drive all the way out to Cleveland to see a football game. All that changed two years ago when my son decided to go to college at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.
In the past two years I’ve been to Ohio 8 times: Two college tours, four sporting events, once as an election volunteer for John McCain, and one camping trip. Along the way, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for a state that is truly a microcosm of America. It’s not for nothing that two of the last three national elections have been decided in Ohio.
This past weekend’s four day trip to Ohio, was part pleasure and part business. For the pleasure part, my son and I attended the first two rounds of the NCAA March Madness in Dayton. That was a total of 6 mostly great basketball games played on Friday and Sunday, including the early-Saturday-morning, double-overtime victory of little Siena College over giant Ohio State, much to the chagrin of Buckeye fans.
On the off day, Saturday, I took care of my business by traveling about 100 miles north of Springfield to pick up a piece of farm equipment from the Buckeye Tractor Co. in tiny Columbus Grove, Ohio. The piece I was after is a bed shaper which I hope will make my somewhat heavy and damp soils here on the home farm more manageable.
Bed shapers are a very specialized piece of equipment that vegetable and flower growers use, and they are hard to find hereabouts. It was only because of Buckeye Tractor’s excellent web site that I discovered their line of tools. I was impressed by the thoroughness and the quality of the writing on the site which was a big cut above what you normally find.
My first phone conversation with owner Lynn Graham left me with the feeling that I would be dealing with a business I could trust, and I was probably most impressed when he told me that my out-of-state personal check would be just fine for me to pick up and cart off a $2,000 machine. There aren’t many who still do business like that!
Since I was in no particular hurry Saturday, I got off the Interstates and took a leisurely route through the small towns and countryside of north central Ohio. The area looks a lot like western New York except flatter and it has (or had) a lot more manufacturing. Every little burg seemed to have a little industrial park on one or both ends of town, although a lot of the businesses were closed.
Accordingly, the once proud small towns themselves were suffering as well. There were many vacant storefronts on Main Streets, many houses for sale, and most of the homes looked like they hadn’t seen a fresh coat of paint in over 20 years.
A great part of this is no doubt due to the area’s dependence on the automotive industry. When we think autos we usually think just about Detroit and Michigan, but as shown on this map, the real rust belt actually takes in a large swath of northern Ohio and Indiana as well. Hint: To really see this, click on the filter on the left side of the map that shows manufacturing centers. (Shoutout: Thanks to my FB Buddy Ben DeGeorge for the link!)
Despite all the doom and gloom in the auto industry, however, business is booming at the Buckeye Tractor Co. The growing Back to the Land for local food movement is helping a lot. From the professional look of the web site, you might expect to find a bustling corporate factory with hundreds of workers, but in fact, Buckeye is a small family operation based on a farm with only about a dozen employees.
Being a quiet Saturday, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the owner in a far-ranging conversation on the state of the world. Four hours later I realized that I better get the implement loaded and head back to Springfield or I would miss buying dinner for my son and his college friends. Without that obligation, I probably could have talked another four hours!
Over dinner, I told some of the Ohio kids about my growing respect for the Heartland. In the Heartland you can still feel the greatness of America. And Ohio, more than any other state, except possibly Texas, seems like a country of its own.
From it’s sprawling farms to the gleaming office parks and commercial palaces that line the Beltways around Cleveland, the state seems to have everything. But most importantly, it still has the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of little Buckeye Tractor Co. figuring out how to make a product right here in America, good enough and priced right so that somebody would drive across two states to get it and leave happy!
There is still hope in America, but it’s not coming out of Washington, D.C..