‘Cranktown U.S.A.’—the myth that won’t die

Iowa

Sorry, Iowa, but you’re not the capital, either.

This morning on Facebook, Gary Robson, the owner of Red Lodge Books & Tea, shared a link to my latest story on the Red Lodge police drug raid in Bearcreek.

Gary had some interesting things to say, as always, but what really caught my eye was the ensuing discussion of how the perception of crime in a given community affects tourism. One commenter said there was no effect on visitation after “Billings was called ‘Cranktown USA’ on the cover of TIME magazine.”

I already added my two cents on that page, but allow me to elaborate here, because this was, for me, a fascinating experience in charting the invention and cultivation of myths. Way back in 2005, I did a multiple-day series of stories on the so-called meth epidemic in Billings.

Again and again, I heard references to that Time magazine story, and to Billings’ supposed reign as crank capital of the nation. I decided to look into it, and here’s a distillation of what I found:

Ever since Time magazine featured Billings in a story about meth abuse in its June 22, 1998, edition, the myth has circulated that the influential news magazine dubbed Billings—depending on whom you ask—”Crank City,” “the crank capital of America” or “Crank Town U.S.A.”

In fact, there was only a passing, lower-case reference to “crank city” in the final paragraph of the five-page article, and in context it seems to refer to the shadowy world where crank is sold and used, not to Billings in particular.

That’s the excerpt I put in the comments over at Robson’s Facebook page, but there’s more. I also reported that Kathy Woodward, then a preventive health specialist at the Yellowstone City-County Health Department, attended numerous conferences at which local officials would talk about “the uniquely awful meth problem in their communities.”

Here’s the best part, in the words of Woodward:

“There would always be some mayor who’d come up and say, ‘Hello, I’m mayor So-and-So, and welcome to the crank capital of the United States.’… It’s a strange phenomenon, but communities in the throes of meth epidemics seem to think they are being affected differently, or more extremely, than other communities that are facing the same problems.”

Strange as it sounds, people were almost disappointed when Woodward disabused them of their beliefs.

“I know I’ve offended people when we’ve gone to places and people will raise their hands and say, ‘Aren’t we the crank capital of the United States?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes, along with about 500 other cities.'”

You can read the whole story here.

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