The Ozarks region was fiercely anti-chain store in the 1920s and 30s. Big companies were seen as foreign interlopers and a threat to local businesses.
The goal of Ozark men was not to work in factories like those in the North, but to be their own bosses as farmers or merchants.
So how is it that the Ozarks birthed the world’s biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, killer of small businesses?
University of Georgia history professor Bethany Moreton explores Wal-Mart’s unprecedented success in her new book “To Serve God and Wal-Mart: the Making of Christian Free Enterprise.”
Wal-Mart started out, of course, as a local business when the first store opened in Rogers, Ark., in 1962. It has grown to be the 30th largest economy on the planet.
Moreton points out that while Wal-Mart’s founders were mainline Presybterians, the workers were more conservative Christians who believed that serving others, even in a store, was serving God. That drove Wal-Mart’s business.
“What we see is a company that brought in local people who were carrying with them these Christian values and saw the company as a way to exercise their values,” Moreton, assistant professor of history and women’s studies, explains in an interview with Like the Dew.
By playing up neighborliness and thriftiness, “Wal-Mart … becomes a kind of regional champion,” she says.
The company took full advantage of its ties to evangelical Christianity, helping fund small Christian colleges that turned out like-minded free-enterprise zealots, and giving scholarships to Central American students who could spread the Wal-Mart creed outside the U.S.
Thanks to companies like Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and CNN, and the election of presidents from southern states, the South soared in prominence on the world stage.
“The South came to speak for the country politically, economically, culturally,” Moreton says.
Wal-Mart helped turn a once sluggish consumer region into an economic powerhouse.
“It has brought more investment money into the South than the North Carolina banking establishment, for example,” she says. “In that sense, it really has transformed a lot of the South.”
The company boosted employment of women, who make up the majority of the Wal-Mart workforce. Under the traditional Christian view, serving or caring for others is for the most part women’s work. Men are the managers.
Wal-Mart wisely opened stores in towns with large institutions like hospitals, colleges and military bases that enjoy government largesse. It also targeted county seats where people from a wide area interact with the government – and shop.
“If you put a large store in a county-seat town, you’re going to get people not just from that town, but the whole county at least once a week,” Moreton says.
The Mississippi native hails from Oxford, which changed dramatically after welcoming a Wal-Mart in the 1980s as part of a mall project.
Before Wal-Mart, Oxford’s square was a place of “public culture” where people of all backgrounds met and talked and spent money at the hardware or fabric store.
Today, businesses offering the basics are gone, done in by Wal-Mart, Moreton says.
“Now, the downtown square in Oxford is full of high-end retail,” she says. “It’s not integrated. The integrated place is the Wal-Mart on the edge of town.”
But Wal-Mart is a poor substitute for the old square because it is private; non-business activities, like political activism, are forbidden.
“It’s kind of supplanted the public square, and in doing so I think we’ve lost some of the space in which important public culture happens,” Moreton says. “That’s troubling.”
Current Wal-Mart executives did not talk to Moreton for the book. Instead, she interviewed retirees from all levels of the company.
Moreton’s father planted the idea for the book when she returned home several years ago and they shopped at Wal-Mart.
“Wal-mart presented itself as such an ideal container for so many stories that shaped the last 50 years,” she says. “It gave me a way to look at a lot of interrelated cultural and economic strands while keeping it rooted in real concrete life experiences.”