Hello! I am your host, Laura Milkins.
In Search of the Great America is a public history podcast project. Asking people to define their great America: past, present and future.
The mission is simple, to ask people to define their Great America (past, present and future) and to uncover the diversity, complexity, and community connections that already make us great. To find out what people really want for America, outside of the framework of politics and the media. With this project, I offer a non-judgmental space for people to share what they wish for themselves, their family and their community.
Each interview is only 15 minutes long. The guest will answer the following questions:
-Where did you grow up and what was it like?
-Was there a time in history that you thought America was great and why?
-What is great about America now for you?
-What does your great America look like in the future?
-Who are we when we are our best?
So… What’s your Great America?
I am an interdisciplinary artist living in Tucson, AZ. My work explores vulnerability, intimacy, and cultural norms, using variety of media: online-interactive performance, video, drawing, painting, and live radio/podcasting. Since 2012, I have taught Art and Visual Culture at Pima Community College. I received an MFA in painting from University of Arizona in 2008. In 2009, I was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico City.
My recent work includes The Depression Session, a website dedicated to de-stigmatizing depression, and to help listeners feel less alone in their struggles with depression. The Depression Session project was a way for me to relate to others, to understand my own depression, but more importantly, to give back in providing a source for others to find connections and resources.
Past work includes Of Birds and Men, 27 portraits of men in power accused by women of sexual harassment and abuse, facing a bird with the same letter as their name. Zero Packaging Project, a year without packaging; and Walking Home: stories from the desert to the Great Lakes, in which I walked 2,007 miles from Arizona to Michigan wearing a live webcam; Walking Stories: Mexico, I walked across Mexico City in the company of strangers, posting the stories they shared each night on a BLOG.
My work has been exhibited across the U.S., Mexico, and in France. I have received grants, awards, and international recognition for my work, including a Fulbright award to travel and work in Mexico City and a Tanne Foundation Award.
10 - Salt Lake City, UT: Unified Through Listening, Caring and Understanding with Jewel Cummings
Episode 10. Jewel Cummings describes a Great America that is a unified country through listening, caring and understanding each other.
She is a college student studying accounting and is a return missionary from southern Germany and Salzburg, Austria. She loves the warm weather of Southern Utah.
Jewel grew up in Mill Creek neighborhood in Salt Lake City, Utah with five younger sisters. She enjoyed the diversity and amenities of Salt Lake City. Her mission to Europe during the COVID virus was an exceptional experience. These foundational experiences of family and her faith taught her the value of listening to people and hard work.
6.2 - Denver, CO History: Diverse, Progressive and Forward-Thinking Leadership
DENVER, CO: THE GREAT AMERICA OF 1983-2003
The years between 1983 and 2003 were a time when diverse, progressive and forward-thinking leadership elevated Denver to a position of national prominence rare for a city in the intermountain west. These were years when Denver emerged from a depression after the collapse of domestic petroleum production to become not only economically prosperous, but a center for arts and culture and an exciting place to live.
The energy crisis of the 1970s prompted the nation to look for domestic sources of energy, and Colorado’s coal, natural gas and oil shale resources attracted the attention of investors. This led to a real-estate boom in Denver, whose once-humble downtown suddenly sported glass-and-steel skyscrapers. When oil prices crashed in the mid-1980s, the real-estate market did as well, and the downtown was described as having “see-through buildings,” as many of these high-rises were unfinished or otherwise unoccupied.
Denver’s recovery was due in large part to the leadership of two mayors, who were remarkable not only in terms of their policy accomplishments, but also because the coalitions that got them elected reflect a unique and vibrant political culture. Federico Peña, elected in 1983, was the first Mexican-American mayor of Denver. During his term, the city invested in the downtown as a cultural center, with a library, convention facilities, and, perhaps most famously, a major league baseball franchise, the Colorado Rockies. Additionally, construction of a new, modern airport was started during his tenure. Peña’s work drew national attention, and after he stepped down, he was tapped to serve in the Clinton Administration as Secretary of Transportation.
He was succeeded by Wellington Webb in 1991, who would be the first African-American mayor of Denver. Webb would continue Peña’s work, seeing to the completion of the airport, making further investments in cultural amenities like museums, and overseeing the redevelopment of formerly blighted industrial areas into parkland. His efforts at broadening the city’s economic base increased employment and dramatically reduced crime. Like Peña, Webb would achieve a national profile, and served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of Black Mayors.
Though it may be better in this regard than some cities, this should not be taken as a sign that Denver is some kind of paradise of racial harmony. The activist culture that started the careers of Peña and Webb and was the basis of their political coalitions was born out of strife. Denver had historically been hostile to African-Americans, even becoming a nexus for Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s and 30s. The African-American community organized and formed partnerships with sympathetic whites to fight discrimination, and this tradition of activism would remain in the community, continuing into the 1960s and 70s. Webb’s own activism seems is part of this legacy.
Ironically, perhaps, considering this background, the city was criticized for who did not get included in its progress. The airport project, along with controversies regarding jurisdictional disputes, cost overruns and planning process failures, was also called out for failing to grant more contracts to women and minority-owned businesses. Likewise, transit expansion and other economic development projects threatened minority neighborhoods like the historically African-American Five Points neighborhood with gentrification. All of this tends to show that mere representation is not always enough to assure equity.
Nonetheless, Denver in this period blossomed and embodied a unique political culture which embraced its diversity in a way that most cities did not. This continues today, though it remains to be seen if more recent leadership will achieve the sort of sweeping chang
7.2 - Cheyenne, WY History: Powered by the Rapid Development of the Cattle Industry
CHEYENNE, WY: THE GREAT AMERICA OF 1867-1887
The time when Cheyenne was “great” was the years between 1867 and 1887, the years of the cattle boom in Wyoming. Though much has happened since then, Cheyenne continues to celebrate this era and Wyoming’s branding as “The Cowboy State” remains central to Wyoming’s identity as a state.
It is important to understand that the American cowboy, and the cattle industry as we know it, has its origins in Mexican-American traditions in the states along the southern border, but the image of the cowboy in popular culture owes much to the works of author Owen Wister, who is credited with creating the western as a literary genre. Though he set his writings in various places around the west, his two most famous and endearing novels, Lin McLean (1897) and The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) took place in, and were based on first-person accounts of, Wyoming during the cattle boom. Together with his illustrators, Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington, two other great American mythmakers, Wister had helped secure a special place for the Wyoming cowboy in the popular imagination.
The origins of the Wyoming cowboy, the beginnings of the cattle boom and the genesis of the city of Cheyenne all happened at the same time. In 1867, the Union Pacific railroad laid track across what would become Wyoming Territory and established a railroad depot at Cheyenne. Within two years, the so-called “Magic City of the Plains” was home to 200 businesses, had a population of 4000 people and was the capitol of the new territory.
This growth was powered by the rapid development of the cattle industry. Though there was some ranching in the area since the 1850s, it suffered from lack of access to markets. The railroad not only addressed this problem, it also brought investors from the Eastern States and Britain. This ushered in the era of huge, heavily capitalized cattle operations. It seemed, for a time, that no one could lose money in the cattle business.
Cattlemen dominated politics. In 1879, the Cheyenne Club was established in an ostentatious building which nearly dwarfed the territorial capitol. This became the premier gathering place for the biggest players in the cattle industry, and functioned as some ways as a “third house” of the territorial legislature where deals would be made over liquor, cigars and oysters.
While this arrangement worked very well for a small number of cattlemen backed by Eastern and foreign financiers, it excluded many Wyoming residents. In their quest to monopolize land and water resources, the heavily capitalized large cattle operations were engaged in conflicts, sometimes violent, around the territory with sheepherders, farmers, and small-time ranchers.
Another excluded group seems a little ironic. Though the city was named Cheyenne, the tribe would not be a part of the life of the community. In the 1870s United States was actively at war with the Cheyenne and other plains tribes and the army was initially the primary market for beef.
Beyond this, a lot of people got written out of the mythmaking of the period. Though a significant number of cowboys were African-American or Native American, and Mexican-Americans worked the initial cattle drives to Wyoming from Texas, these were not the men elevated by Wister. The author considered the Anglo-American cowboy to be a paragon of the nation’s values and dismissed others with words like “mongrel.” His heroes were White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, and this shaped the popular notion of the cowboy in Wyoming and beyond.
The cattle boom came to an abrupt end in 1887. The number of cattle both exceeded market demand and the capacity of the range to support them. The final blow was a particularly severe winter in 1887. The Cheyenne Club was soon abandoned. Though the industry survived, it was no long
8.2 - Lander, WY History: A Successful Shift from Extractive Industry to Ecotourism
LANDER, WY: THE GREAT AMERICA OF 1983-2007
Lander, Wyoming, experienced a heyday from the mid-1980s to the 2000s, as the city recovered from the economic blow of a mine closure to become an internationally known center of the emerging outdoor recreation industry. The city of less than 8000 residents is an example of a successful shift from extractive industry to ecotourism and tells a story of the American West in transition.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Lander served as a railroad hub for ranching, farming and mining in the region. By the 1960s, nearby iron mines dominated the economy and local affairs. This came to an end in 1983, when the last of the mines closed as the American steel industry collapsed nationwide. The streets of Lander were soon lined with for-sale signs as families went elsewhere to find employment.
But the foundations of a new economy were already in place. Already a destination for tourists for hunting opportunities and dude ranches in the Wind River Country, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), which specialized in outdoor skills and eventually, environmental education, was established in 1965. It moved into a permanent headquarters in downtown Lander in 1971, and expanded rapidly through the 1970s and 80s as outdoor recreation came into its own as an industry nationally. By the 1980s, Lander became a focus for what would come to be called ecotourism as other outdoor programs and environmentally-oriented nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy would establish themselves there. In the 1990s and the 2000s, Lander achieved a reputation as a “college town without a college” for a youth-oriented culture and an active arts scene which belied its relatively small population, even becoming home to a well-regarded record label and an NPR affiliate.
Lander, however, faces a problem common to other towns dependent on a tourism economy, namely housing. While after the closure of the mine, there was plenty of housing available, this would not last as NOLS and the tour companies expanded. The community has been hard-pressed to house the seasonal workers the tourist industry needs, and the shortage of affordable housing has increasingly made attracting permanent employees a challenge. This would become a perennial issue as local leaders continue to struggle to address this need.
Lander’s status as a “college town without a college” ended in 2007, when Wyoming Catholic College was founded there, attracted by the unique cultural vibe of the place. The city remains a center for outdoor recreation and the spectacular scenery of central Wyoming assures its future vitality as a community. However, recent efforts by state and county officials to attract investors to re-open the iron mine, something which has been met with a certain ambivalence in Lander, show that there are still those in leadership who have not accepted the new economy. This will doubtless be a source of tension in the future.
-Tom Prezelski, Resident Historian
9.2 - Cedar City, UT History: How the Community Came Together and Saved the Town
CEDAR CITY, UT: THE GREAT AMERICA OF 1918-1941
Local historians in Cedar City, Utah, point to the period between the two world wars (1918-1941) as a time when the town showed its best as a community. In those years, residents came together to embrace a new economy and to save the town from collapse during the darkest years of the Great Depression.
Cedar City was founded by Mormons in 1851 as a hub for iron and coal mining in the region. It was a fairly modest community, with a population of less than 1500 at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, it remained growing and prosperous as an economic center for the region.
Expansion of nearby Mukuntuweap National Monument into Zion National Park in 1916 was seen as an opportunity by the town’s leadership. In 1919, the local chamber of commerce raised money to build an elegant hotel, El Escalante, to serve and attract tourists. Transportation would remain a problem until 1923, when the Union Pacific Railroad built a spur to the town to serve local mines and agriculture.
Tourism quickly exploded, and the hotel hosted thousands of visitors every year, including celebrities and President Warren G. Harding. The Union Pacific purchased El Escalante and ran a tour company, the Utah Parks Company, out of the hotel and adjacent depot. A vehicle fleet, first of Model T Fords, but of busses by the late 1930s, would take visitors to national parks as far away as the Grand Canyon.
Even with this new industry, the Great Depression (1929-1939) would hit Cedar City as hard as it did most other places, but resident’s willingness to come together as a community helped the town survive through the crisis. One such occasion occurred in 1931, when state regulators ordered the closure of the Bank of Southern Utah, the main financial institution in the town and the surrounding region, for not having enough cash on hand to cover its deposits. Residents raised $90,000 to re-open the bank and held a ball to celebrate its survival. This incident, and others like it, remain part of local lore as an example of Cedar City’s unique solidarity and resilience as a community.
This solidarity, however, tended not to include the local Southern Paiute tribe, who remained on the fringes of the community and the economy. Under a series of Federal and State policies intended to force assimilation of tribal people, the Southern Paiute had become landless and destitute, serving largely as laborers for local Mormon families and exploited as tourist curiosities. This state of poverty and dependence would continue for decades until the focus of Federal Indian policy moved to one of building tribal self-governance.
With the expansion of auto travel after World War Two, rail travel declined in importance, though Cedar City remained a “Gateway City” to the National Parks of Southern Utah. The town continues to embrace tourism and has dubbed itself “Festival City U.S.A.” for the numerous arts and cultural events that have located there. This was all made possible by the vision of the town’s leaders a century ago.
The rapid postwar growth of the town in the subsequent decades meant the loss of the community’s character as a scrappy small town. However, a spirit of civic pride remains from those days as the town continues to find inspiration in their forbearer’s willingness to set individual concerns aside to work together as a community.
9 - Cedar City, UT: A Melting Pot of Diversity and Acceptance with Tamra Borchardt-Slayton
Episode 9. Tamra Borchardt-Slayton describes a Great America that is a melting pot of diversity, acceptance and knowledge, where people actually listen to each other instead of fighting.
She is the Chairperson for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.
Tamra grew up in rural Enoch, Utah on a road past where the pavement ended. Although, Enoch acts as a suburb of Cedar City, it is actually its own town. Growing up, there was no gas station or store in Enoch so they would drive ten miles into Cedar City for supplies. She was one of very few minority students at her school, but loved the family and farm community she grew up in.