Small towns: not what you think they are

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
Texhoma, OK
Unalakleet, AK
Russel, KS
Harrison, AR
Lexington, MO

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.



Filed under geography, Travel

19 responses to “Small towns: not what you think they are

  1. Alan Fox


    Hi Blipey

    Hope the clown business is still going strong. Just had to comment on the blog. Nice… very nice. Do I detect Lou’s hand in the upgrade?

  2. I’d love to get to Unalakleet, AK. Especially during early March. Iditarod!

  3. Thanks Alan. I guess Lou might have had a secondary role. I just started this as a place to record this tour for my family and friends–nothing fabulous. But plinging away at UDoJ kept itching my brain to actually make it look acceptable.

    So, I took an afternoon to do some painting and caulking–no heavy lifting or room additions. It’s still a place to let the loved ones know where I am or what I’m doing.

    On that note, yes the clowning is going well. I’m actually doing a national tour of a children’s theatre show. So, I get to pretend that I’m an actor in a very, VERY serious show, but actually I’m not: in a serious show (or an actor–no wait, I am that). I get to clown around for 45 minutes, twice a day, for eternity (it seems).

  4. Unalakleet in March, oh to dream!!! I was in Unalakleet in late November. It actually wasn’t that bad, winter-wise, the year I was up there–very mild. There was snow and it was below freezing but unseasonably warm.

    December made up for it though (at least to my thinking). It was -14 F in Teller, +2 F in White Mountain, 5 feet of snow in Shishmaref, and I got stuck in Savoonga for 2 extra days because no one could fly through the storm to get to the island.

    I did get to see a whale landed and butchered during those 2 days, however. And I got to eat mukluk–not bad, and to my detriment–eskimo icecream.

    I would also like to see the Iditarod someday. My dad has seen it go through a couple times (maybe more?). He was going to see it off in Anchorage this past year but I don’t think they actually got to see it (weather to mild, or something).

  5. max

    Wow. You are so a city kid. “Small town” does not mean 6,000 residents. And does not mean suburb. It means “small.” Like a couple hundred people.

  6. Wow. You are so a city kid.

    Yes, I know, that’s the point I was trying to make (badly, apparently); I did say my picturesque small town had 841 people.

    Then there are towns like Amos, MO: population 6. That’s a bit extreme, but certainly small. I guess my point is that small towns as depicted by things like Little House of the Prairie are a dying breed. I think everyone should go out and visit them.

  7. max

    I have lived in a couple real small towns. I do not know about all small towns but the ones I lived in had a lot more in common with David Lynch stories than they did with Michael Landon’s version of Little House on the Prairie. Of course you have to live there to see that. Just passing through, small town secrets do not show so much.

  8. Hmmm. Lynch-burgs, huh? That would be very exciting.

    I totally agree that you would have to live in a small town to get the full experience; as a kid I lived in a couple small towns as well (though probably not as small as yours): Deertrail, CO and Craig, CO. And the time I’ve spent in tiny towns since has mostly been of the passing through variety.

    I’d advocate taking a week or two, if possible, to stay in these towns Visit the Atlantic coast or the Rocky Mountains or wherever and experience as much of it as you can. You won’t become a part of the community or anything (and you may not want to), but you can experience something a bit (a lot, depending on your innitiative) different than the “city kid” days most of us are used to.

  9. max

    That is the collective you, not the personal you, right?

    Hey, I just dragged off a mountain. I am not going back for a while. Too many bears.

  10. That is the collective you, not the personal you, right?

    You will be assimilated.

  11. max

    The Borg pops up in the most unexpected places.

  12. The Borg pops up in the most unexpected places.

    Certainly do, but it’s not anything Starbuck and the gang can’t deal with, right? They should have that small town, lost tribe, “ragtag” feeling.

  13. max

    Blip, we have got to work on your scifi. Borg is a Star Trek thing. Cyborg is a Terminator thing. Cylon is a Battlestar Gallactica thing.

  14. I am well aware of that (I have seen every episode of the original BG and most of the Next generation), but I am also aware that too much explanation of a punchline renders it useless. Of course, explanation has nothing to do with whether the punchline is actually funny or not. I’ll try harder–well, I’ll occasionally try harder.

  15. max

    Oops. Missed that one.

  16. Wyoming

    Bourgeois Rage: You would love to go to Unalakleet? Why not go then? I’ve been there, done that. Call the school see if you can sleep on the floor and volunteer to work at the checkpoint. It is a great place to meet the mushers and a great community.

  17. Wyoming

    Small towns are the heart of America. Real people, no facades. Coaching this year in a small town (pop. 115) has be a wonderful experience. Supportive parents, excited players, community support. However, the school is just a small part of the community. There is a community library that has a large patronage. There is a recreation district that holds many events other than just sports – dinners, hayrides, Easter egg hunts, musical events, book clubs, and probably others I don’t know about. Everyone is on a first name basis and expects to help someone else out when there is a need knowing others are going to help out when they have a need. I currently live in a city of 3,500 and find that there are many social amenities that the city offers but the people in the city have nothing over the people in the little community in which I coach. Could it just be that it is the people that make a community what it is?

  18. Wyoming:

    Could it just be that it is the people that make a community what it is?

    Absolutely. I like the city life, but I think the same thing holds true for cities. That’s why I like Chicago: big city, lots of restaurants, theatre, museums, etc. Now, contrast this to say, Philidelphia; I don’t like it so much. It has many of the same things and you add lots of American history to the mix. Why don’t I like it as much as Chicago?

    The people. People in Chicago are more laid back, a little more “Midwestern” in attitude than the east-coasters. Don’t get me wrong, I like the east coast (Boston, Annapolis, Newport), too–just not as much, in general.

  19. I love this writing about small towns. I would like to see many of your musings regarding your experiences as you travel published. Think about it!

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