On Common Ground: The Vanishing Farms and Small Towns of the Ohio Valley

On Common Ground: The Vanishing Farms and Small Towns of the Ohio Valley

On Common Ground: The Vanishing Farms and Small Towns of the Ohio Valley

On Common Ground: The Vanishing Farms and Small Towns of the Ohio Valley


"This new collection finds photographer James Jeffrey Higgins exploring the fading farms and small towns of the Ohio Valley. His photographs capture the beauty and majesty of the landscape and the spirit of the people who remain in a region beset by economic losses. While recording the everpresent signs of hard times, Mr. Higgins also captures a powerful sense of place, a victory of the spirit." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


In the spring of 1987, a friend of mine suggested we take a day trip from Youngstown south to East Liverpool, Ohio. Until then, I had never taken the time to see the Ohio Valley, so this was my first exposure to the soft rolling hills, lush woods, and serene valleys of southern Ohio. the landscape, which reminded me of a Thomas Cole painting, etched itself on my memory. Drawn to the quiet beauty of the region, I found myself making the same trip the very next week. I never dreamed that something so breathtaking could be just a forty-minute drive from my home.

Later, while I was working on compiling the photographs for my first book, Images of the Rust Belt, I spent hours in the Ohio Valley taking pictures of our industrial Midwest. Though my camera was focused on rusted-out steel mills, abandoned rail yards, and collapsed smokestacks —forlorn remnants of our industrial past—I couldn’t help but look beyond the viewfinder and see the struggle going on within the Valley’s rural towns and on its small family farms. Like my own northeastern Ohio home, this region had been ravaged by the collapse of the local economy. Steel mills and foundries had closed, leaving these communities without any source of employment. Folks left the area to live and work elsewhere, leaving the beauty shops, diners, and hardware stores to falter, and sometimes fail.

The small farmer was losing ground as well, at an alarming rate of about sixteen farms a month. This was a national—not just statewide— trend, but this part of Ohio, with its tradition of dairy and wheat farming, was hit especially hard. Large-scale corporate farming pressured smaller farms to use their property as collateral in order to expand production and compete in the market. But with the vagaries of weather (harsh winters, flooding, tornadoes, drought), crop failure, and unexpected shifts and turns in the market, many farmers lost this gamble … and their land and homes. Urban sprawl contributed to the disappearance of the area’s rich farmland. Desperate farmers were selling their land for a quick (but not great) profit to bargain-hunting developers with sights set on building lucrative housing subdivisions and impersonal superstores and yet another mini-mall.

But while the signs of hard times are evident throughout the Ohio Valley’s towns and along its back roads, equally apparent among these very rooted people is the strong sense of place, of identity. I can’t help . . .

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