Hello again! It’s me, Anna Martin, your friendly dramaturg. Last week, I wrote about our upcoming production of Elephant’s Graveyard by George Brant and promised more historical context for the play you’re about to attend. The next few blog posts by Sophie Hamm and me will divulge a piece of what grounds this story in United States’ history. The theme of today’s blog: the town of Erwin, Tennessee. At the turn of the century, Erwin was suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. In fact, the town was not meant to be named “Erwin” at all. It should have been called “Ervin” after David J. N. Ervin, a farmer who owned the majority of the land the city was built upon. After a typo by the postmaster led Ervin to become Erwin, a few years of confusion ensued until the town charter clearly stated the correct name in 1876.
But the name confusion was not the sole cause of Erwin’s woes. The internal conflict boiling within Erwin was sparked by the Industrial Revolution, which was responsible for upturning many rural areas of the United States with the introduction of factory work as an alternative to pastoral occupations. Tennessee as a whole is rich in natural resources and was therefore the perfect unfettered paradise to pollute with steal railways and coal-powered factories. The railroad dictated where factories could be located since they were dependent on each other for business, and Erwin just happened to have a train station for the Clinchfield & Ohio Line. In 1916, the Blue Ridge Pottery factory was opened in Erwin, Tennessee. The Blue Ridge Pottery factory is renowned for its artisanal flatware and was the number one employer in Erwin next to the railroad itself.
Despite the booming flatware economy, Erwin was far from a major city. Unlike other, more metropolitan areas like Nashville or Memphis, Erwin’s population at 1900 was only 1,149 citizens. In fact, the majority of the Tennessee population tended to live outside the larger cities. Even with the introduction of more industrial means of production, Tennesseans were reluctant to abandon traditional occupations such as farming. At the beginning of the 20th century, farmers outnumbered industrial workers six to one. On the one hand, farming is practical; a farmer could provide everything their family needed while still producing extra to sell. But on the other, those who refuse to adapt to changing times often fall by the wayside. After the Civil War, a population boom decreased the average acreage owned by one farmer. Sharecropping, or working on another farmer’s land, became commonplace, as did spending part of the year employed at a mill.
So what can be expected from Erwin, Tennessee? In a town of divided ideals, torn asunder by the prospect of advancement colliding with the fear of change, will residents favor progress or be stuck in their ways? The play asks what Erwin values, considering an historical event and a range of citizen responses.
Be sure to see Loyola’s production of Elephant’s Graveyard later this month, and stay tuned for more blog posts leading up to the opening October 28.