This is Real America, a world without lawyers, neckties or middle initials, where life is so palpable that you can taste the apple pie, touch the slimy fur of newborn lambs--and these days feel the deep pain of recession.
In the dusty berry fields around this town of 690 people, far more adults than usual are joining schoolchildren in crawling along berry rows, picking fruit for a little extra money. Local voters defeated the high school budget twice and rejected levies for the county fair and the farm extension service.
It hasn't been this bad since the Great Depression, some old-timers say.
These reverberations are changing Yamhill. Children will not be able to show their prize calves at the county fair because, beginning next year, there will be no fair. Students will have to organize car washes to afford athletic uniforms.
Not only are many individuals out of work, as they are in most places, but the fabric of this close-knit community is stretched and tearing.
Yet most of the rugged, hard-working people who farm and log around this town on the edge of the Willamette Valley do not blame President Reagan, who carried the area by a solid margin in 1980. Moreover, the farmers are cooperating and organizing to help themselves, in a resurgence of what Reagan has hailed as "voluntarism."
I know Yamhill, for this is my home. I grew up on a farm four miles north of Yamhill, raised my sheep and then left five years ago for college and the bright lights of the East.
A week ago, I returned to see how Yamhill was coping with the recession. Fifty years ago, in the Great Depression, social history was written not so much in Washington as in the Dust Bowl. Now social history is being written, though not as harshly, in Yamhill and the other towns of Real America.
Some 35 miles southwest of Portland, Highway 47 rounds a tired old sawmill and in the blink of an eye slices through Yamhill. Times are so rough now that Yamhill is down to one policeman. More shocking, collections are faltering at the town's four churches.
"I don't believe it's as bad as in the Depression," mused Lloyd Dumdi, an 84-year-old patriarch nicknamed "Grandpa" who still raises a few sheep. "In some ways it is and in some ways it isn't. . . . In the Depression it was bad, but if you got ahold of a dollar then, it was a dollar."
Jobs are scarce, but the pervasive work ethic has driven most people who were laid off to find something else, even if it is picking strawberries in the hot sun.
Normally that is work for high school students, but this year adults were crawling in the fields as well. Because the pickers are paid for the amount they pick, they generally earn less than the minimum wage.
Unemployment statistics aren't calculated for the tiny area around Yamhill, but for the county as a whole, unemployment is 10.7 percent, slightly under the statewide rate of 10.9 percent. Those figures, which would be higher if seasonally adjusted, do not reflect the pain fully.
In an agricultural area, most people are farmers who work for themselves, and not many are wage-earners who could be laid off. The farmers and their children remain employed in a recession, but they must scrape to get by.
"If you wanted to find a community that's pretty much typical of Oregon, you couldn't do much better," said Thomas McCarty, labor economist at the Oregon Employment Division in Salem. "Yamhill is pretty typical."
Ten days after Mahlon Beachy lost his job making T-shirts in a nearby town, he said, "Jobs are just--it's ridiculous, there's nothing available."
He applied for work at a department store 20 miles away before it opened, but was told that two months earlier the store already had received 3,000 applications.
The story of the recession in Yamhill goes far beyond the plight of just the unemployed. The pathos of the community and the frayed spirit of the town are compounded in Oregon by a system in which local voters approve budgets for schools, cities and most other public bodies.
* Voters twice rejected giving funds to the high school. One divorce and two school board resignations are attributed to the turmoil, and school officials now pray that the budget will pass in September; if it fails and fresh attempts to pass it also are defeated, the school would have to close. Many voters agreed with the school board member who announced that he simply couldn't afford a tax increase. He said he had borrowed money for three years to keep food on the table and would be wiped out by any tax rise.
This is the school that focuses community pride! This is where the townspeople gather each Friday night to cheer the Tigers' football team.
* Voters rejected the county fair budget, so next year there presumably will be no county fair.
This is the fair everyone loves! The 4-H and Future Farmers of America kids look forward all year to showing their hogs and cattle and sheep. Farmers exhibit their massive ears of corn and women show off their needlepoint.
* Voters rejected the budget for the county farm extension service. The farm agents--people like Wayne Roberts and Dave Valencia--visit farmers and make suggestions. Although the county only needs to provide a fraction of the cost of the service, the budget failure means the office will be closed in September.
But these extension agents are an institution. Farmers count on them to examine alfalfa or a sickly calf. The psychological, and perhaps practical, effect will be enormous.
The desperation these votes reflect, and their consequences, will mightily affect Yamhill. But despite profound anxiety, people are not turning away from Reagan, at least not yet.
Indeed, if anything, the recession seems to have confirmed people's conservatism. Many blame Congress, unions, foreign aid and especially the Federal Reserve, but no one I talked to who previously supported Reagan has turned against him.
Not unlike the way Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed strong support even in the late 1930s when times were excruciating and the nation was making little economic progress, so Reagan's skills as a communicator are winning him popularity even among those suffering badly. Because he is doing things--in this case slashing rather than creating programs--and conveying charm and sincerity, Reagan remains popular here.
"My personal feeling is it took a lot of years for us to get in the mess we're in," said Marjorie Bannister, echoing what Reagan has been saying. "We can't get out of it in just a year or two. Furthermore, there's a lot the president cannot do."
Lee Schrepel, who runs Fruithill, a processing plant outside Yamhill, paused and said cautiously, "There are so many darn factors involved. A lot of it is the Federal Reserve, a lot of it is Congress, a lot of it is the administration. We had a lot of economic problems before and needed a bitter pill. Whether this is the right medication, I don't know."
Many farmers agreed with Bruce Belt, manager of Yamhill Farm and Home Supply, who said, "I'm all for Reagan . These are things you have to go through."
This notion, that times had been too good, that people had been spoiled, arose in almost every conversation. "If people receive any more help, they're not going to know how to struggle," said Lew Brown, who lives on a small farm near Panther Creek and commutes to his job at a supermarket. His wife, Judy, added, "I think it has been good for our family. I think it was good for Alan their son to come home from college and scratch."
Many farmers said the recession had this good side: it forces people to reexamine their priorities and remember that life can be unfair. "You have to have adjustment times, or things get way out of line," said Vern Thornton, a cattle rancher. "If farmers survive, they'll be a lot stronger afterward."
Many also lauded the cooperation and voluntarism arising from the recession. Reagan has said that as government cuts back services, businesses and individuals will step in. To a limited extent this is happening in Yamhill.
After sharp cuts in the athletics budget at the high school, parents and supporters formed a booster club and are planning a country-western dinner and dance, car washes and candy sales to raise money for uniforms.
Principal Gene Carlson said the Grizzly Bear Pizza Parlour 10 miles away had agreed to give half its profits on a slack evening to the school if volunteers do the work. "The thing to do is to get everybody from Yamhill and Carlton out eating pizza that night," Carlson said.
Another parent group is collecting contributions to finance the school newspaper, which also covers community news and is distributed to area residents. At Derby Day, Yamhill's annual celebration, volunteers collected about $170.
"It's coming back to, 'Hey, we're going to have to get together if we want to survive.' I'm not talking about how we're going to progress, but how we're going to survive," said Carol Roy, adding that she found the challenge "very exciting."