LAND In Coudersport, Pennsylvania, real life
tangled with unreal ambition
PA--For many miles as you travel south into the heart of Potter
County, PA--"God's Country," according to the welcome sign--you
will encounter some peculiar scenery on both sides of the
long stretches at a time, the road will be lined with well-kept
log-link fences, behind which rest a series of farms of strangely
uniform appearance: carefully manicured rows of sweet corn
and other crops, wrapped around tight formations of windowless,
unblemished dark brown barns. Nothing in the world is more
brown than these brown barns. They are a deep, almost biological
color, without the faintest hint of warping or weather damage.
No other barn in the area looks anything like them. You might
say that the brown-barn farms look like someone's idea of
a farm, rather than actual farms.
the county seat, Coudersport, there is a brown-barn farm lining
both sides of route 49. With the fresh paint job, the Currier-and-Ives
log-link fences, and paved entranceways, it looks great--unless
you're a farmer. Then it looks a little strange, because a
field that is normally full of sunflowers at this time of
year is instead overgrown with mustard weed. Despite the expensive
exterior, and the state-of-the-art equipment housed in those
brown barns, whoever was farming this land let this field
get away from him, probably seeding it at the wrong time.
farm and countless others in the county belong to Adelphia
founder John Rigas, who owns them through a company called
Wending Creek farms. They are a symbol of the weird clash
of fantasy and reality that has rudely descended upon the
region in the past three months or so, since the Adelphia
scandal broke and the national press made Coudersport, in
the words of the local head of the historical society, "the
most famous little town in America."
things are timeless, and some things just never were. The
story of Coudersport shows how blurred the line between the
two can become when a garrison of the global economy decides
not only to set up shop in a pretty little American town,
but to call it home.
it has at times been home to tanneries, a glass works, and
a metallurgy plant, Potter County has primarily been known
for two things over the years: hunting and farming. Long before
Adelphia arrived, the complexion of both things had begun
to be altered by the growth of the corporate economy in the
Thompson is a sheep and poultry farmer whose family has been
farming in Coudersport for almost a hundred years. He has
a farm with about 350 sheep on a hill in the township of Hebron
a few miles from Coudersport proper. His wife, Jane, is a
landscaper, and their elegant log farmhouse overlooking a
valley, with its lovingly kept beds of flowers and potted
plum trees, looks like a little Garden of Eden. A former County
Commissioner, Thompson is exceedingly amiable and keeps a
bemused smile on his face that tells you that he's satisfied
enough with the way life has turned out, and doesn't begrudge
you if you feel like agreeing with him. Like a lot of farmers,
he looks more comfortable in his perfectly faded jeans than
you ever will be.
explains that a number of factors have seriously altered the
nature of farming in Coudersport over the last twenty to thirty
years. For one thing, there has been a trend toward consolidation.
Where there were once several hundred dairy farms with 25-50
cows in Potter County, there are now relatively few, and many
of them have been replaced by a dozen or so larger farms with
400-800 cows. The bigger margins that large farms can produce
has made it harder for smaller farmers to compete and, more
importantly, prohibitively expensive to start a new farm.
As a result, he said, fewer and fewer young people are getting
you talk about farming, people always say, 'That old farmer,'"
he says, laughing. "The tremendous cost of getting into the
farming business has made it very difficult in the last thirty
years, especially with the mechanization and the new equipment.
Young people are just finding something else to do."
are other factors eating away at the labor pool, obviously.
For all the predictable reasons--media-induced attraction
to urban life, the promise of high-paying jobs in the city--more
and more young people are leaving town and never coming back.
Of the five high schools in the county, all but two have dropped
their vocational agricultural schools. The dearth of young
farm hands has led to the appearance of Mexican labor in the
area in the last year, something Thompson said he would never
have thought possible in a family-based farming community
like Potter County.
with the gradual disappearance of the younger generation to
the cities in search of money, wealthy outsiders have begun
to flow in, bringing about another phenomenon that undermines
local agriculture. As smaller farms struggle to survive, farmers
are selling off their properties for development. "Farmers
are dividing their properties up into 100 lots, so that everyone
can come in and have 5 acres of God's country," Thompson explains.
Wealthy retirees and businessmen in search of weekend retreats
come in and buy up old farmhouses, which in addition to reducing
the number of active farms has the effect of driving up local
real estate prices.
doesn't take many wealthy people coming in to drive up prices,"
Thompson explains. This in turn provides a further dis-incentive
for young people to try to start up a farm, all of which
makes it less and less likely with each passing year that
any of the subdivided farms will ever be put back together
if it weren't enough that the local kids were leaving home,
some in Coudersport say that even the goddamn deer are moving
to the suburbs. Where Coudersport once did a brisk tourist
trade in hunters coming from all over to mine Potter County's
forests, the flow in has slowed to a trickle in recent years.
"The deer herd is getting smaller," explains Donald Gilliland,
editor of The Coudersport Leader-Enterprise. "Beyond that,
the deer are all moving to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, feeding
on the garbage... Now you have guys who would have come
here in the past, and they don't have to come, because they
can shoot deer right in their own backyards."
a quick-witted type with a red beard who looks like a distantly
malevolent version of the Lucky Charms pitchman, is a classic
editor's editor: his office is a nightmare of four- and five-foot
high newspaper piles, pens, obscured furniture, and incomprehensible
strips of paper. His desk features only one prominent non-pulp-based
object: a desk lamp in the shape of the Starship Enterprise.
He is, after all, captain of the local version.
has had a long year. Two big stories involving his town have
forced him to receive more national journalists in the past
nine months than even the most heinous sinner should be forced
to endure in a lifetime. The first came last fall, when a
local lunatic by the name of August Kreis announced that he
was going to make Potter County--which incidentally was a
key station on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War--the
new home of a Neo-Nazi Aryan Nation. For months afterward,
a seemingly endless succession of journalists rushed into
town to run fast-food media features touting Potter County
as the "new Idaho." After a mostly unsuccessful effort at
warding these belligerents off, Gilliland watched with relief
as the story finally died down earlier this year. Almost on
cue, the Adelphia story exploded and the streets of Coudersport
were instantly thick with cameras again.
journalists basically did two stories," he says. "The first
was how the locals blindly supported John Rigas and were crushed
by his downfall. The second was a story about how the town
wasn't going to survive now that Adelphia was probably going
to go under. Neither were really true."
aggressive, in-depth coverage of the Adelphia story should
have been a message in itself to reporters that the idea that
John Rigas governed Coudersport by fiat was a myth. No newspaper
controlled by Rigas would have run the stuff that he ran.
Back on June 12, Gilliland ran documents and illustrations
he'd obtained of Adelphia's apparently secret plans to revamp
the center of town--which included massive, creepily neo-classical
designs for a grand hotel and convention center, a "corporate
campus" in the center of town, and a new borough building.
Gilliland juxtaposed those against pictures of local landmarks
Rigas already owned, but had left to rot, like the "Old Hickory"
building, a beautiful old house that for years had been home
to the most popular bar in town. Gilliland also ran stories
about ecological damage caused by the now-notorious Rigas
golf course, and while much of the local population was still
aghast over the "perp walk" arrest of Rigas in New York, Gilliland
was running the only detailed account of the Rigas indictment
of any print reporter anywhere.
look at it as something you do for history's sake," he said.
"Even though it might not be the most politic thing to do,
you have to put it out there so that 100 years from now, people
can look back and know what happened here."
distressing to Gilliland is the widely-held notion around
the country that Coudersport now won't survive. "People have
this fairy-tale notion that the town is suddenly going to
curl up and die without Adelphia," he said. "It's just not
true. It's insulting."
were, however, a lot of fairy tales in Coudersport in the
last fifteen years, most of them of Rigas's making. In the
entire pattern of Adelphia behavior over the last few decades,
one can detect the outlines of Rigas's relentless attempts
to realize a young man's sentimental fantasy of returning
home victorious. Rigas, whose family came from Wellsville
(where they ran a hot dog restaurant that Rigas still owns),
spent his twenties in Coudersport, and got his start in business
here, borrowing $300 to buy the local movie theater (which
he also still owns). Residents who remember Rigas from that
time inevitably fail to recall many details about him from
that era; he must have been very inconspicuous. More than
once, I heard him described as "that little man who ran the
little man was on his way, however. After the movie theater
venture, he started a cable company in the area, one of the
first in the country, then moved on to found a second one
in his other hometown, Wellsville. From there he founded cable
systems all across Western Pennsylvania and New York, building
a mighty company that he incorporated under the name Adelphia
in 1972, once again placing the headquarters in Coudersport.
not farfetched to imagine that Rigas, who is famously proud
of his Greek heritage, might have seen in his return to Coudersport
a little of Odysseus returning home after conquering Troy.
In a recent interview with The Buffalo News, he himself called
his downfall and arrest a "Greek Tragedy," and the architectural
choices he made in building the company headquarters in Coudersport--a
garish structure with grandiose, Athenian pillars--suggest
that there was a little more at work in his mind at the time
than mere concern over functionality.
conscious as he was of the cosmetic trappings of epic success,
Rigas appears not to have read the endings of the stories
he modeled his life on. Everywhere he went, he behaved exactly
like a classic tragic hero, defying nature and trying to alter
his fate. Rigas clearly wanted to retire among friends in
Coudersport beloved as one of their own, but the road he'd
traveled to become wealthy had changed him and made it impossible
to really blend in in any genuine way.
Coudersport resident I talked to, for instance, recalled being
hired by Rigas to clear some brush away from the front of
his house so that he would have a clear view of a pond set
off on his property below. When the job was finished,
.Rigas realized with
dismay that the pond was too brown for his liking: he wanted
a pond that would shine azure blue in the sunlight. Rigas
eventually decided to have the pond filled with a chemical
that would clear away the sediment and simulate a clear body
there was the matter of the golf course. Never built, the
property it was supposed to occupy now stands overgrown with
ragged brush and eroding banks of moved earth. When its construction
was discussed with the county planners, concerns were voiced
by the locals that the golf course might have an adverse impact
on the already-existing Coudersport Golf Club. After all,
in a county with only 17,000 residents, it would be hard for
the new club to avoid moving in on the existing club's business.
spokesmen brushed aside these concerns. At the meeting with
the planning commission, company spokesman Carla Brown Horn
insisted that, "It will not have any effect on Coudersport."
county planners balked, not able to see how this might be,
Brown Horn laid it out in plain English. "Coudersport Golf
Club is an inexpensive golf club. This will be more costly."
Wending Creek farms was buying up properties all over the
county, dotting the landscape with its telltale brown barns.
Other farmers watched in increasing irritation as the farms,
subsidized with Adelphia money, continued to be managed haphazardly,
with little attention or even obvious interest in turning
a profit. Rigas was not a farmer, but for some reason he liked
owning farms. Locals found themselves wishing they'd had the
money to burn on expensive equipment. The lack of interest
in making the farms financially viable was an insult to locals
who had to fight to keep themselves above water.
all of this time, Adelphia itself was venturing further and
further into the realm of financial fantasy. Everyone knows
the story by now: loans from Adelphia to private Rigas ventures,
the leveraging of the company to give the Rigases cash to
buy more stock in the company, a spending spree that created
an illusion of wealth at a time when the company was steeped
in debt, misreported expenses and numbers of cable subscribers,
bizarre co-borrowing agreements, etc., etc.... most of which,
in the end, served mainly to fund the family's quirky expressions
of local largesse: farms, golf courses, buildings around town.
the end, it was all a dream, as hopeless as the idea that
you can ever come home again.
company's dizzying demise was doubly shocking to the people
of Coudersport. The thing most fundamental to the nature of
a small town is that everything is visible. When you walk
down the street, you know who it is you're passing. "Before
Adelphia, I knew everyone," says Bob Currin, of the local
though a few farms have fences, that doesn't keep anyone from
seeing how your crops are doing. The idea of three or four
billion dollars simply vanishing overnight--or, worse, being
shown to have never existed at all--is an alien concept to
people who are used to understanding wealth as something you
can see with your own two eyes.
idea of wealth is that it's something you can see," says Thompson.
"It's something you can put your hands on and spread over
many, many people."
is a successful farmer, but his philosophy is to stay small.
He and his wife run their farm with two farmhands and have
carved out a decent business. In addition to sheep, he raises
pastured chickens--chickens that are raised in movable pens,
so that they feed on different sections of earth every day.
They're gourmet chickens and he sells as many as he can raise,
and he sells almost all of them locally. He worked for many
years as a manager at the Pure Carbon metallurgy plant nearby
and knows something about business, or at least enough to
know that there's a lot of money moving around out there in
a way that many people insist makes sense.
he's not convinced. He believes small agriculture is a stabilizing
influence on a community. If he goes under, it's no catastrophe,
someone else will take his place. You get enough people farming
and it's hard to shake a community.
small is better," he says. 'I know there are people out there
who believe in the economy of scale. It may make sense on
paper and in linear thinking. But the bigger the train...
the bigger the wreck. Nothing works in isolation.'"