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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,514

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This is the grave of Sam Walton.

Welp…this one should be something.

Born in 1918 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, Walton did not grow up that wealthy. His father was a poor farmer, typical of the Ozarks for that time, until he gave it up in the early 20s and got a job in the insurance industry. Basically his job became foreclosing on other farmers and forcing them out. Like father, like son I guess. The family ended up in Columbia, Missouri, where young Sam became the youngest Eagle Scout in Missouri history to that time. They had a farm and the insurance stuff and they weren’t rich, but they made ends meet, in part because young Sam worked on the farm and also sold magazine subscriptions. He wanted to help the family and so he went to the University of Missouri on an ROTC scholarship. He was a popular student and graduated in 1940 with a degree in economics.

Walton initially got a job with J.C. Penney up in Iowa. He stayed there until 1942, when he joined the Army Intelligence Corps. He worked in security in defense plants, so it was important work but he was also safe from fascist bullets. He became a captain by the end of the war.

Walton was a weird conglomeration of utterly ruthless capitalist and populist. He knew poverty, he knew the Ozarks, and he hated the elites. So when he started buying up stores, beginning in 1946 after his father in law fronted him a loan, he wanted to build an empire for his people. Initially, it was a Ben Franklin variety store that he bought on a franchise model. But he didn’t like how the company ran things and he wanted his own empire anyway. So he got rid of that and bought a little store on the town square in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Because you all know the basic story of Walmart, it is time to have a conversation about the absolute weirdness of the Bentonville town square, and really the entire town. Bentonville is a town completely 100% dominated by Walmart. That’s not surprising. But it’s not the way that Flint was dominated by GM back in the day or something. No, it’s remade on Sam Walton and descendants weird combination of valuing nothing about the past and also creating nostalgia around the past when it serves them. In other words, you can visit the original Walton store and I guess if that does something for you, it does something for you. Me? I thought it is fucking weird. If you are also me, you are probably creeped out by seeing the American flag that was hanging at the Walmart in El Paso when the dude shot up the store. But if you are a Walmart fan, this might actually inspire you in some way? In any case, there it is! Huh. OK then.

The rest of the original town square is completely old school small town nostalgia fantasyland. And then the town itself is almost completely plowed over and is either new homes or gigantic Walmart sites, which means huge low-slung warehouses and parking lots. Even the area around this cemetery, which is the original town cemetery, has been almost completely torn down and turned into Walmart facilities. There are a few old houses around there so clearly it was in the middle of town at one point. I assume the money that has poured into Bentonville has led to huge construction of new giant McMansions on the outskirts of town. That area is all big strip malls, facilites for the companies that contract with Walmart, and I assume very large homes out there. All of that is not that big of a deal if it wasn’t for the weird nostalgic “downtown” that the tourists flock to like it was Disneyland. Odd.

Now, we don’t hardly have to go that deep into Walton’s biography here. The details aren’t even that important. What is important about Walton is the business model. The historian Bethany Moreton, in her superb To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, notes that evangelical Christianity was central to both Walton and the success of Walmart. Effectively, Walton created a business model that tapped into Ozark sensibilities about big city elites with their fancy religion and their fancy stores and said that this was a place where the values of the Ozarks would be respected. Costs would be as low as possible and there would be no frills. Of course workers were going to make minimum wage or slightly above and not be treated well, but in a patriarchal society and in a region with few good jobs, this was no problem. This is how people expected to be treated, basically.

Moreton notes that Walmart came out of the same counties that were the center of Populism. But that Populist vision of capitalism actually helped lay the groundwork for a company like Walmart, for it wasn’t so much anti-corporate as anti-elite. In other words, if one of their own ran a giant company according to Ozark values, that would be great. And that’s really one of the genius moves of Sam Walton. This he understood. He knew how to speak specifically to his core base of agrarian or small town whites. The money wasn’t going to be with New York Jews. It was going to be with good white folk. So long as he made some feints toward Baby Jesus and didn’t threaten their white supremacy, the people were totally cool with his giant corporation.

The first official Walmart opened in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. Walton targeted small towns in order to drive all other businesses out of the market. This was part of the irony of the whole company. All the fake small-town family bullshit hid the fact that he was the most rapacious capitalist ever known, someone who was utterly brutal in destroying the downtown merchants he would later romanticize in his fake Bentonville downtown. People ate it up, and only partly because of the low prices. The overt appeal to white evangelical culture at Walmart also has long played a major role in its success, as Moreton explored in depth in her book. Of course, he basically perfected modern logistics to make all this happen and Walmart has been as brutal in cost-cutting mechanisms as in all other parts of the business.

By the time Walton died in 1992 of multiple myeloma, he a billionaire many times over. Forbes had ranked him as the richest person in the world each year between 1982 and 1988 and that only changed because the stock had gone to his children. Today of course, the Waltons are still among the world’s wealthiest families and that is unlikely to change any time soon. To unionize Walmart has long been a major goal of American unions, but it has never even come close to happening. When some Canadian butchers unionized in a Walmart, it not only closed down that butcher counter, but it got rid of all its butcher counters in its stores. Interestingly, it has accepted unions at its Chilean stores, largely because there was no way around it.

Anyway, there is much, much more to say about Sam Walton and the impact of Walmart on the world, but you all can have at it in the comments.

Sam Walton is buried in Bentonville Cemetery, Bentonville, Arkansas. Happy Christmas Eve, I guess.

If you would like this series to visit other of our extremely rich people, all of whom are just the nicest, kindest, most wonderful people ever, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Arthur Vining Davis in Locust Valley, New York and Richard King Mellon is in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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