Seventy years ago, Peoria, Oregon, was a quiet village in the Willamette Valley, on River Road a few miles south of Corvallis.
Three public institutions served the people in this little place: a general store, a public school with 21 pupils and one teacher in grades one through eight, and a protestant church.
During the year that my family lived nearby, I attended the fourth grade, memorizing poems by Longfellow as I walked back and forth. I walked to the store to buy groceries my mother needed for supper, with a quarter buying bread, milk, and hamburger for our family of five. On Sundays I attended Sunday School at the little Christian Church, walking there barefoot in the summer.
In Peoria, as in little places all over the country, the institutions of business, government, and religion were bound together in a balanced union in which each part had its space and all worked together in harmony. Despite poverty, ameliorated a little by the New Deal, these were “the years of peace,” to use a phrase from a book by Harvey Jacobs.
Then came World War II and when people came back from the scenes of battle, the stability of the 1930s was broken open.
Even before the war, horse-powered farming had nearly disappeared, but after the war it vanished as did the subsistence way of life where farm families could grow their own food and live on $50 a month cash income. The village store could no longer satisfy local folks who now could drive to town faster than they formerly had been able to reach the little store that once had satisfied their needs.
One- and two-room schools were consolidated into larger districts and yellow school buses could be seen morning and afternoon.
And what remains as carrier of the community’s memory, as gathering place for the people who remain, as sign of hope for the years to come?
A few days ago, I bicycled over River Road from Corvallis to Harrisburg, and my question was answered for little Peoria. The shanty where we lived, and the gigantic maple trees that stood in the front yard have disappeared, the site now part of a recently combined wheat field. The places where the store and school once stood are empty plots of land overgrown with brush and jumbles of junk.
Although I know nothing about the vitality or pattern of activity at the Riverside Christian Fellowship, I am grateful that something survives from a time when this village provided the systems of life that nourished me as a nine-year-old boy in a farm worker’s family.
I understand that the culture-cohering role of churches can no longer be sustained in the interfaith age that now has come into being. The intertwining of Christianity, government, and economic life that Americans have taken for granted can no longer be sustained intellectually or politically. Something new, maybe better but that we cannot now know, is coming into being.
I’m sentimentalizing the past. Even in 1940, not all was well in the unified and peaceful life of little places. But that one year in Peoria shaped my life and helped prepare me for the world that was coming to be.
Yes, there were tears when I stood in front of the church. A little joy and much sadness intermingled.