Here we are in Watseka, IL. I know, I know, a booming metropolis if ever you saw one. Population: 5,700 (as of the year 2000). It’s not particularly close to the Chicagoland megalopolis, on US 24 and IL 1. My mom lives in a small town of 6,200 in the suburbs of Kansas City, MO. You mght think these towns would be similar. Well, here’s the thing.
Watseka has about 30 times the business district that my mom’s town does. In fact, it doesn’t look that much different from places like Blue Springs, MO (pop. 40,000). There are dozens of restaurants, shops, services, etc. Whereas back in my mom’s town, there are about 10 places to eat (6 of them fast food joints), a small grocery store and a bowling alley.
I’ve always had only two images in my head when people say “small town”. The first is a truly small, farming community on the great plains. This town has 841 people, 13,000 head of cattle, 1 diner / saloon, a barber shop, a general store, and 1 school. The second image is an old fishing town, nestled along the northeastern coast. This town has several fishing boats, a couple restaurants, some tourist business, and quaint, old row houses sitting along cobblestone streets.
These towns do, of course, exist, but are few and far between. I used to attribute these silly ideas mostly to East Coasters who were out of touch with the middle of the country. When I was in my first go-round in college, I roomed in a 6 person suite with 5 guys from NJ, NY, and PA. I was from Kansas City (well, the burbs). They all thought (with reasonable sincerity) that I probably raised pigs and drove a tractor. When, in fact, I came from the 3rd largest metropolitan area (2,000,000) of the 6 of us (and not even the smallest town: 6,200 to 2,500). But, I too, seem to think of small town America in a way that is almost entirely fictitious.
Small towns that are suburbs rely on their cities to provide them with all the things that make modern life what it is. Small towns such as Watseka have to supply all of the modern world on their own, so they begin to look like medium sized towns.
Even from where I come from in KC, we’re forgetting what a nice thing a functioning small town can be. They’re dying. If you have the time, go out and find one. Spend the weekend there. You’ll probably have a good time; some good, down home cookin’; spend some time out of doors; meet some of the nicest folk who know the coolest things. Get out a map, find a point–not a dot or a hollow circle–and go there.
Here are some places I’ve been that I recommend:
Walnut Grove, MN
There are many others hiding from the interstates, tucked away in the hills and mountains, perched on the tips of inlets–go find one and bring a little bit of it back home. That’s one of the great things about small towns: outsiders can never take enough to make it go away. Now, go experience one before the residents take it with them.