Sunday, September 18, 2016

Small Towns and Parades...

I like the dynamics of small towns, the way everyone minds everyone else's business, where secrets are hard to keep, but there's always someone who'll help out when you need it. 

Hillsboro, OR, 4th of July Parade
Most of all I like the small town festivals--most have them, of one sort or another--Pioneer Days, the Harvest Festival, a Fourth of July Social, the May Fest, or any of a hundred other reasons to celebrate. They often involved old fashioned parades, with tractors and fire engines and decorated farm wagons carrying the local May Queen or the members of the Ladies Sewing Circle or the officers of a fraternal organization. And always there are the proud veterans of wars past and present in full dress uniform, marching tall and proud, saluted and cheered by their neighbors who line the streets all along the route. 

But automobiles are killing small towns. It's taken more than a century, but it's happening. When anyone can drive to the nearest Costco in a couple of hours, the sixty-year-old family-owned grocery or hardware store just can't compete. Although the small town I lived in for thirteen years is still viable, Main Street just isn't what it was when I was there. I remember a jewelry store, a bookstore/gift shop, a newsstand that sold comic books, paperbacks, cigarettes and candy, two banks, a department store and an appliance store. I'm sure there were others, but those are the ones I could put a name to, if asked. Oh, yes, there was a movie theatre, but it was transformed into a church while I still lived there, a victim of television, not the automobile.

Now some of the storefronts are empty, and the rest house smaller enterprises. For the big items like furniture and appliances folks can drive to a city a bit over an hour away, or to the Walmart across the river (in another town, another state). That small town is now more of a bedroom community than a real town, because people go elsewhere to shop. To play, to dine, to see their doctor, dentist, whatever. I really hope there are still a few small towns left, perhaps less conveniently close to a shopping mall or a big-box retailer. Or just more stubborn. 

Some small towns have deliberately re-purposed themselves as tourist destinations. There is a charming pseudo-Swiss village in the Cascade Mountains, a bit over an hour east of Seattle. A fun place to visit. In Oregon's Willamette Valley is a small town that fifteen years ago had more empty storefronts than full. Today is it a thriving wine center, with tasting rooms in what seems like every third storefront, as well as in the old, long-abandoned depot, and several nice restaurants ;along the main street. But those small towns are exceptions. On a recent trip to Yellowstone, we passed through several deserted settlements, with old grain elevators or saloons slowly decaying into ruin. I remember most of them--perhaps not thriving, but living towns or villages--from the first time I traveled that route, a long time ago. People lived in them, shopped in them, went to church and school there.

On this most recent trip I counted the warning signs along the highway: NO SERVICES FOR 57 MILES. The mileage to the next gas station varied, but I counted five signs in an 850-mile journey. Even in the open, sparsely populated deserts of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho, there used to be gas stations in those small settlements, with restrooms and usually snacks, soft drinks, and sometimes even a small lunch counter. Now the traveler has to plan ahead, to hope for a highway department rest area, to bring snacks for those long stretches between caf├ęs.

It's sad. Something lost, perhaps never to be regained.

A couple of my books are about small towns. Yes, I confess to having shown mostly the good sides of them, and I don't apologize. If you want to look at darkness and despair, watch the news. The world needs more Pollyannas, and I am unashamedly one. Solomon'sDecision and Improbable Solution are both set in small towns that are perfect candidates for decay and eventual disappearance, but the people in them aren't ready to give up. They are very different stories, and the towns aren't much alike, except that they are small, a bit off the beaten track, and handling their potential demises very differently. I wish those stories could be true for small towns everywhere.

Don't you?



C.S. Fuqua said...

Fascinating article, and I certainly agree that some small towns have a certain beauty about them. Some don't. I, too, am from a small town, a south Alabama small town. While the ease of transportation may be contributing to the decline of small town businesses, it may provide better exposure to a broader world, but many either avoid that exposure or use it as an excuse to double-down on a recessive worldview. When I return to that small town from which I came, I'm still struck by the small minds that continue to thrive there. On the flip side, I see some, shall we say, enlightenment among younger generations, though not much among those who choose to stay. Ease of transportation certainly has brought about much economic change to small towns, but social change still lags.

Mary Thornburg said...

Yes. Cities, I think, are more or less alike for ordinary people who grow up in them, if not for travelers who visit there, and the suburbs are even more so. I grew up in a tiny town in eastern Washington, population about 1,000 although the surrounding rural area (including even teensier towns) contributed to the businesses, churches, and schools. We had two drugstores, two smallish -- by today's standards -- supermarkets and two mom-and-pop food stores. We were sixty or so miles from Spokane and, as I recall, drove there only three or four times a year; some of my schoolmates made the trip even less often. That was before the Interstate, so I'm pretty sure it's closer now, and my little town was dying even then. I remember our yearly civic celebration and parade and how exciting they were. A bagpipe band from British Columbia was always featured, and I used to look forward to it every year. Thanks for reminding me of all that.