Monday, November 10, 2008

Old and new in central Ohio

I spent most of this weekend in central Ohio, visiting my daughter. We spent Saturday roaming the roads of Amish country, a bit northeast of Columbus and southwest of Cleveland. Two items struck my fancy.

In Wooster, home of the College of Wooster, we had a nice breakfast and visited Freedlander's Department Store, which is going out of business. Freedlander's is the story of the growth of America's heartland. The store, which until now is the largest independently owned downtown department store in America, was opened in 1884 by a Polish Jewish immigrant who got his start peddling goods from farm to farm before opening his store in the thriving town of Wooster. The store grew over the next 75 years and generations of the founding family, slowly taking over neighboring buildings until it covered most of a downtown block, four stories high. In the 1970s things started declining, and today all that's left is a small fraction of what was there a few decades ago - probably largely done in by suburban stores like WalMart and cars which made it easier to travel to bigger cities & stores. A nice history of the store can be found here.

The lesson is that we should never assume things will be the same 20 years from now as they are today. The technology industry survives because it constantly reinvents itself, although some companies who have thrived have lost sight of the continuing changes. Wang Labs comes to mind - when I graduated from college in 1980 they were one of the highest of the high fliers, and were in the process of building a huge new campus. Now, almost no one has even heard of them.

The second item was also something of a recognition of continuing change, and how people learn to adapt. As is well known, Amish people eschew use of electricity and other modern conveniences. However, after teenagers finish 8th grade (the end of their formal education), both boys and girls are permitted to work in the "English" (secular) world. So I was amused when visiting a cheese store to see the girls, dressed in their traditional Amish clothing, chatting on the phone with their friends, and expertly running cash registers. The cashier I spoke to said she didn't get tired of cheese (which was rather overwhelming in the store), but rather the sheer number of people she had to deal with every day - quite a contrast to her serene farm life. The most amusing example I saw of this old-new contrast was at a flea market, where a young woman (again wearing traditional clothing) was intently staring at a computer screen used to set up a laser engraving machine!

I wonder how they feel about the contrast between old and new?


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