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Small Towns: 2 Comments from the Chateau

Postcards From Bygone America

RAY: I was born in the late fifties into the same small Kansas town where my mother and father grew up.

My grandparents all lived in that same town. Everyone was basically German, with a smattering of other northern European ethnicities thrown into the mix. The Main Street had everything anyone could possibly need to buy, from groceries to hardware. There were several Protestant churches that were always packed on Sundays, and one Catholic church on the edge of town, as well. There was no crime to speak of… we had one policeman, who spent most of his time bringing groceries to shut-ins. (He was a friend of my father’s, and my dad would joke about it.) We kids (and there were tons of us!) were outside from sun up to sun down, playing and fishing and riding bikes and building things. Every family had a garden out back, and sometimes a small orchard, and some folks raised a steer for winter beef, or kept chickens. That was in town! Every holiday was an opportunity for everyone in the family to get together and have some fun and good food. It was a warm, safe, sunny, idyllic way to grow up.

That all began to change in the seventies. People became much more materialistic, thanks in part to Mom taking a job outside the home and having all that extra cash. The new color television encouraged people to buy buy buy. Parents began divorcing and all my friends’ families disintegrated. People began staying inside from sun up to sun down. Where were all the kids? Inside, playing those new video games! The gardens went to weeds.The first black family moved into town. Hey, where’s my bike?

After college, I moved to another state for a job. When I returned home for a funeral last summer, I didn’t recognize the place. It was like that scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when George Bailey gets to see what his small town was like without him in it. The streets had all been widened, there were cars everywhere, and the town had become mile after mile of shopping and fast food joints. Main Street was dead and boarded up. There was a new GIGANTIC shopping Mall, though. It had been built on top of the land where my grandparents’ farm had been.

I sat at a table outside of one of the Mall’s restaurants, sipping a coffee and watching the people as they came and went. Most were fat, poorly dressed, and had a generally unhealthy appearance. They all looked so sad and stressed.

I thought of that YouTube video “Never Forget,” showing archival footage of daily life in a small town in South Dakota in 1938. A town filled with happy, healthy, well-dressed people. My home town used to be that way, too.

But now it is gone. The modern way of life is a curse, for sure.


DETER NATURALIST: We grew up in the same town, or nearby.

Your reference to Pottersville (It’s a Wonderful Life without George Bailey) is razor-sharp. My “home town” grew 800% since the mid-1960s and now looks like it’s the back-lot where every single TV commercial is now filmed. In my old neighborhood literally every eighth 1950’s vintage house has been torn down, replaced by a “mansion” whose walls extend to the utility easements.

I remember climbing a fire escape on a downtown building with Jr. HS classmates and watching a parade from the roof. Imagine trying that now.

I remember buying rocket engines and cannon fuse with cash at the downtown hobby store (rode there on my bike) at 11 or 12 years of age. Imagine trying that now. We launched rockets at an open field near a grade school and a college. No one bothered us. When I tried to launch rockets at a county-owned field with my kids 15 years ago we got hounded by a deputy sheriff.

When I was a kid my home town had TWO stoplights. When I moved out 30 years ago it took literally 45 minutes of stop-and-go to drive from a house on the south edge of town to the north edge of town on a Saturday morning. How many “new Americans” have joined us since then?

An ice age cometh.

{ 30 comments… add one }
  • Rick April 12, 2019, 12:15 PM

    We spent a lot of time when I was little living with and then visiting my grandparents in a tiny, pop 400, NC mountain town and far from the VA line. 73 years later and my heart is still there, the town certainly but mainly the time. My grandfather was a dentist and tobacco farmer as was his father before him and yet my grandparents lived in what today we would call poor circumstances. My grandmother was head of the Selective Service and drafted most of the boys in town during WWII, including my Dad and Uncle. Never but one car, one bathroom, no AC or washing machine, a fickle floor furnace for heat, old furniture, and a radio.

    They never took a vacation except to go fishing down on Lake Murray once or twice a year. My grandmother went to the store almost every day because the refrigerator was too small to hold much and the freezer only had room for 2 ice trays. She spent a large part of every day fixing meals, all from scratch. What clothes didn’t get sent out she scrubbed in the tub with a washboard and Octagon soap. Life was hard and they lived a block from the courthouse! Can you imagine what it was like for the tenant farmers on my grandfather’s farm? One family of 13 lived in a 2 room house up the hollow with 13 kids and got their water from a spring. The “big” house looked nice but was an oven in the summer and an ice box in the winter. Water came from the well across the back yard. There was no electricity until about 1965. There was a small Ford tractor but most of the tobacco cropping was done with the mules and sleds. The toothless, barefooted old men in worn-out bib overalls would sit by the barn drinking whiskey and feeding long logs into the fires day and night until the tobacco was cured.

    There was nothing unusual at all about what I’ve just described. I traveled over hill and dale with my grandfather visiting people and they all lived like that, some better but many worse. The head tenant on the farm built a plain block house up by the road so his kids could get to school. They did go and both the son and daughter went to college, then grad school and then on to very successful careers. He as a nuclear physicist in the Navy and she as a Doctor.

    Their father told me years later that they both lived in big fine houses, had pools, and new cars. He and his wife still lived in the old block house he built himself. He was proud of his kids and thrilled that they were never going to have to live like he did.

    My point to those who complain that things aren’t like they used to be I can only say “Thank God!” Why would anyone want to live and work like that if they weren’t forced to? Who would want a woman to live in poverty and watch her kids go hungry because her husband spent all the money on booze? People moved up and moved out. They improved their circumstances as best they could and got a TV as soon as they could. Comparative wealth brought us all freedom.

    I miss the way it was but then I was a small boy with no responsibilities and I never lay in bed at night with my bones aching wondering how I was going to get the plowing done so I could sell the crop and take my kids to the doctor. If there is a problem we need to look in the mirror for the reason and the solution.

  • Vanderleun April 12, 2019, 12:27 PM

    An excellent tale and I take your point, Rick.

  • AesopFan April 12, 2019, 12:33 PM

    The pictures could have come from my home in the Texas Panhandle; some of the stories too. Dad ran the Five & Dime on Main Street; his dad, my Grandad, parked the old truck in front on parade days, and we sat on the tailgate and ate popcorn and cotton candy from the brand-new machine that the older cousins “got to” operate. It was gone before I reached the magic age.

  • AesopFan April 12, 2019, 12:46 PM

    Small-town nostalgia is mostly an artifact of us Baby Boomers, born in the post-War decade or two, when our folks were at least one-junp better off than their folks, and moving into the new prosperous times.
    My Grandad missed being out on the ranch after they moved into town, but there’s no question his later years were easier than his father’s. My Grandpa was a very-small-town depot master with a “cow farm” of a few acres, but they lived very comfortably there with electricity and well-pumped water in the house.
    My grandparents still had relatives “out in the country” that lived much the way Rick described, and I don’t think many of us are hankering after those good ol’ days — just the better ones we knew, that were halfway between the grinding poverty of the early decades, and the overdone materialism of the later ones.

  • Dr. Jay April 12, 2019, 1:50 PM

    Despite our efforts, we’ve never really got the hang of Feng Shui.

  • Marauder42 April 12, 2019, 2:21 PM

    I remember my dad picking up the phone (no dial or certainly no keypad) and saying, “Hello, Mildred, I need to talk to old man Jones, please?” and his call getting through in a couple of seconds. He also kept his rifles on an open rack he nailed to the wall in an unused bedroom, never worrying about us kids playing with them. Of course we did so, but didn’t dare mess with the ammo.
    We also picked cotton and gathered soft drink bottles for extra spending money, walked all over that small south Texas town with no worries about being grabbed by some pervert.
    Ranchers and farmers came to town and parked their pickup trucks by the curbs with their rifles and shotguns displayed in the back window rack. They took care of their business, whether dining or shopping, never worried about someone stealing those firearms.
    All this was well before LBJ’s “Great Society” that created the welfare state and caused many of those on welfare to think it was okay to steal whatever they wanted. I never was a victim of theft until I got to a big city in the early 60s, stationed at a local Air Force base there. Learned fairly quickly to lock my car after someone relieved me of a camera and a couple of cartons of cigarettes.

  • DAN April 12, 2019, 4:25 PM

    PARADISE was a beautiful small town, growing up there in the late 40s-thru the 50s. from a kids eyes it was truly heaven. don’t remember any poverty, mostly middle class working folks,mostly working in chico, guess we were the original bedroom suburb.nostalgia hell yes we had the best of the times, never to be seen again.

  • Terribletroy April 13, 2019, 5:52 AM

    They still exist. I thank God everyday I found one and raised my children here. My son just graduated HS. I’m in small central Illinois town 10miles north of a urban shithole. Pop 900, demo 98% homgenous, working class incomes from the farms, related industries and the factories in the shithole. My son enjoyed all the freedom(s) you have described in as close to a Mayberry RFD environment that you can imagine. Traditional America is still alive and producing good citizens. Shitbirds don’t last long here cause no one will put up with their garbage. I am originally from NYC and the Northern VA suburbs of DC. My family still lives out there and I can’t fathom why anyone would willing live like that anymore. I’d have more materially if I had kept the corporate job, but the cost was too high on my soul. I truly believe living in too large a hive breeds insanity. There are probably 15 to 20 similar towns in the immediate region. The biggest negative is that we are in Illinois. The real state of Illinois and chiraq are totally different places and I dream of a day where Illinois and Chicago have separate legislative bodies, but as it is, openly corrupt Chicago controls the state. I suspect that the future will bring the possibility of a forceful divorce, but who knows? In the meantime we are here and still producing quality young men and women with traditional values.

  • Spiro April 13, 2019, 6:59 AM

    I recently while travel around southwest Ohio found a few small towns like the ones written about
    Nice as nice as my memories of growing up in Mt Healthy Ohio
    But as close as can be now
    Brought back some great memories
    Thanks for a beautiful article

  • ghostsniper April 13, 2019, 7:07 AM

    “My point to those who complain that things aren’t like they used to be I can only say “Thank God!””
    ==========

    Well yeah, when you cherry pick bad things like you did, of course the past was a nightmare. Except it wasn’t. I’m not going to point out all of the calamities of today that make life miserable for just about everything.

    “He and his wife still lived in the old block house he built himself.”
    ========================

    Now why do you suppose he stayed in his little hand built home and didn’t “keep up with the Jones’s?” Probably the best thing about the days of yore was that people in general were a lot smarter than today, not intelligent, smart. How they looked at the world around them and their part in it. A sense of independence and responsibility, and that tendrilled out into the community and nation at large. Now, from 30 second microwaved food to safety conscious cars to uncountable laws about other laws and everything bogged down in 2 hours of bullshit you end up with a society of sissies that can’t defend or provide for itself, nor wants to, and half the population that doesn’t know whether to put pants on in the morning or a dress. Yeah, tell us about how great things are today, go ahead, cherry pick. I dare ya.

  • Rick April 13, 2019, 8:30 AM

    ghost
    I didn’t realize I had picked any bad things. As I said, it was the way everyone lived. That life was hard but it’s only “bad” from our perspective today. Nobody was complaining, certainly not my grandparents. For me and my siblings, life there was idyllic. Cokes were 5 cents each at the only drugstore in town, the funeral home was the local hangout and the front porch was where the entertainment happened. My point is that that type of life was the norm and that of course people wanted to do better and prayed that their children would. My mom and Dad grew up in the same town and both had fond memories of their own carefree childhoods there.
    However, my Mom and her sister couldn’t wait to get away from the small town pettiness and gossiping.

    As far as the guy who stayed in the little block house he built he did so because he was still dirt poor and had no other options. Possibly they could have lived with one of their kids in a bedroom in a nice house in a city but that would probably have been a bridge too far for them. I hate the current times, I hate what it’s made me, I hate what progress has done to families and kids, I hate cheap houses and crowded neighborhoods and lousy schools but I understand that my parents and grandparents hated the same things in their days.

    Thomas Wolfe said it best, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

  • MOTUS April 13, 2019, 9:11 AM

    I didn’t grow up in a small town but I did grow up in a medium-small conservative city that I couldn’t wait to get out of. Now as I enter my golden years I wish I could go back but it’s true, you can never go home again. The simple city I grew up in is now just a smaller version of the large urban shit hole I already live in. It’s an enclave of progressive politics that favors all forms of diversity other than thought.

    Like many cities under the guidance of decades of urban planners besotted with the notion of “smart growth” – that encourages the growth of dense urban cores – it’s grown larger and decidedly less conservative. It seems “dense urban cores” are just that.

  • ghostsniper April 13, 2019, 9:20 AM

    @Rick, maybe I misread you. Maybe not. I have an almost non-existent fuse when people compare today to yesterday and favor the latter over the former from a skewed perspective. Times are always rough for some and not so for others, probably always be that way. I imagine it is how the individual perceives it.

  • ghostsniper April 13, 2019, 9:33 AM
  • LarryR April 13, 2019, 11:01 AM

    Small southern town, more country than town. On Sunday no stores were open except Sam’s Gulf station and the drugstore near the hospital. After church there was little car traffic. People sat on their porch…and all they did was sit there, talking and waving at the neighbors. I knew the names, children’s names, where they went to church and where they worked of 90% of those who lived on my block. From 10 on I had a .22 and ammo in my room and a pocket knife that had more blades than a kitchen drawer. Other than a few 8 tracks stolen there was very little crime. The radio station played the top ten of every chart: rock, country, soul, big band or crooners. You would hear the Rolling Stones, then dean Martin, then Ferlin Husky followed by Lawrence Welk…. And we listened.

  • Moneyrunner April 13, 2019, 3:14 PM

    Dutch immigrant here. Grew up in a small town in Western Michigan, population 10,000. The place had a few factories making mufflers, pianos, bathtubs and refrigerators cabinets, machine shops. And there was the Coast Guard station that rescued boaters in distress and broke the ice during winter.

    Turn-of-the-century Washington Street was five blocks long, sold everything you needed and ended at the river that emptied into Lake Michigan. The Carnegie Library was my home-away-from-home where I could read Flying Magazine (I wanted to fly) and Boy’s Life (I wanted to camp) for free and take out as many books as I could carry.

    My best friend lived across the street and when his family got a B&W TV we went there every afternoon to watch the Mickey Mouse Club. Annette Funicello was every boy’s heartthrob and the Adventures of Spin and Marty was the serial for our cohort of the Baby Boom generation. The beach had a drive, called The Oval, and people congregated in the summer to play and swim in unsalted, shark-free water. Tourists from Chicago came during the summer.

    The few “rich” people never drove anything fancier than Pontiacs or Buicks. The poor – like us – bought new cars that were 15 years old and not too badly rusted from the salt that went on the roads in winter.

    I spent my weekends and summers roaming the woods and dunes with my trusty .22. We walked to school. It was an idyllic time even for lower-middle class people like me whose parent spoke with accents they never lost.

    My father worked in the porcelain factory as a janitor so college was not in the cards. But thanks to some scholarships including one from the Rotary Club (one member employed my mother as housekeeper) I was able to be the first in my family to attend college. Of course, that was at a time when college cost was somewhere between $1000 and $2000 annually and you could get a part-time job and work your way through.

    That was the last time I lived in that town, but I visit it for weekly visits several times a year. Lots of the old factories have closed, even as newer, smaller, higher tech ones are located on the outskirts. The town’s biggest business is now tourism. Washington Street is now restaurants, gift shops and things that tourists like. The River and Lakefront are now groomed; the old warehouses have given way to parks and a marina. Lots of old homes have been converted to rentals and B&Bs.

    I love this place. I tell people about this little know jewel and tell them that since I left, my home town has become more beautiful than ever. They say that you can never go home again and that’s true. Parents, relatives, and friends die. But somehow, but if you are as fortunate as I have been the present may even be better than the past because you can introduce your past to the future: your children.

  • Assistant Village Idiot April 13, 2019, 3:41 PM

    Garrison Keillor hit the nail on the head. “We think of those as simpler times, because we were children, and our needs were looked after by others. But they weren’t simpler to those who lived them, and we do them a disservice to think so.” (Hog Slaughter)

    If the 20th C’s primary nostalgist can see that, I think readers at American Digest should try as well.

  • Vanderleun April 13, 2019, 5:40 PM

    Well, I think that goes without saying and there’s no reason to require folks around these parts to take up remedial and revisionist history lessons from the drag queen of schmaltz.

  • Casey Klahn April 13, 2019, 7:05 PM

    On point, I think a change has happened that is…searching for a word. Millennial. We have kids that never go outside, and cannot write a thing down on a piece of paper. They thumb it into an electronic thingy.

    It’s going to be a bumpy ride, now, for some time. I always knew the constant thing in life was change, but we just turned over the whole life. Welcome to the Information Age.

    Side note: the wife and I slept under an excess of blankets last night, instead of the one washable wool and one electric blanket, because the latter had gotten soiled by the new puppy. Maybe it was the pain meds, and maybe it was the flashbacks we were having to sleeping in our grandparent’s houses in the early Sixties. Something about the extra weight made it all wash back whatever-many years.

    Is it us that will suffer, or this new generation? Maybe a return to prayer is in order.

  • ghostsniper April 14, 2019, 4:21 AM

    Casey said: “…new puppy…”

    OK, spill is, we want detail.
    We likes all mutts here at the casper compound.

  • Snakepit Kansas April 14, 2019, 6:32 AM

    Wow,
    What a bunch of fun reads about growing up in various small towns. Small town Kansas for me. The all brick roads of the downtown area are wearing well to this day. The movie theater with neon lights built in the 30’s is still up and running although by some local group that has kept it alive. My Dad took me to see JAWS there when I was about 12. My Dad drove me to Wichita to see KISS in 1979 and I only bring that up because an unheard of guy names John Cougar was the opening act, and nearly got booed off the stage.

  • ghostsniper April 14, 2019, 8:04 AM

    Snake said: “Small town Kansas for me. The all (yellow) brick roads of the downtown area (led to the Emerald city).” Now back to my nuclear science class.

  • Moneyrunner April 14, 2019, 10:30 AM

    Interesting memories. Some memories are of poverty informed by more recent affluence. I knew I was poor in relation to many of the kids my age in school. But all poverty is relative – as are many things in life. When you get to be in your mid-‘70s – things have changed – a lot – since we were kids. The TV was just being introduced and social media hadn’t been invented yet. For those who grew up in the South, “The War of Northern Aggression,” Appomattox and Federal occupation were real to the old. It takes a while to get over losing a war where devastation was a military objective. For the American South, a century was not long enough. For places in Europe, Serbia for example, the lost battle is Kosovo lives though it occurred a mere 630 years ago.

    I have introduced my children, and they their children, to my childhood home. We’ve walked the streets, shown them where we lived, told them how the small hills we played on were so huge when I was a boy. How many of us would have loved to see the things our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers saw through their eyes. How few of us actually took the opportunity because of the busyness of our lives. Don’t let the opportunity slip by.

  • captflee April 14, 2019, 12:05 PM

    I grew up in a small city, one that was oft referred to, back in the 60s, as a big city on the idiot box’s most popular small town sitcom. Today that city is not so small, with about seven times the population as in the year of my birth. Can’t say I personally experienced much in the way of poverty, as the economy there has roared for many a year, and the place always has shown well on those “best places to live/work, etc. lists”, and on average educational attainment.

    That said, I am related to a blue million country folk, and have spent no end of long, quiet evenings visiting relatives in little farm towns baking down on the coastal plain, or in little mill villages, running wild with a hundred cousins, days and nights that will always live in my heart. Some were better off than others (when you get to the point where your children can collect pipe organs and pre-war Jags, you’re doing pretty well, even by big city standards), though even those at the opposite end of the economic spectrum were still improving themselves to the limits of their varied abilities.
    That there is some nostalgia at play, I doubt not. Regarding the Assistant Village Idiot’s previous input, I will say that he is right in some small respects, but I think that the present , widespread belief that the central government is actively working against the interests of those same small town folk says that appreciation of those times is a rational response, not a nostalgic one.

  • scory April 14, 2019, 8:46 PM

    Have lived in small towns and large cities. Small towns are friendlier, cleaner and saner. Smallest town I ever lived in had a population of around 600. We attended a two-room elementary school – grades 1, 2, 3 in one room and 4, 5, 6 in the other. I have no idea where the older kids went – probably to the big town (pop. about 5,000) on the other side of the lake. One barber shop and one drug store. The drug store sold comic books and kept all the good EC books on a top shelf that the little kids I couldn’t reach but the barber had a few ECs on a small table and we could read them while waiting our turn. There was a real general store too that sold groceries, hardware and soft goods. One doctor who ran his practice out of the front room of his house (I remember getting a cut over my eye stitched while laying on a couch – mom paid him $10). I still think about that place from time-to-time and contrast it to what I lived in since. That little town comes out on top every time.

  • Casey Klahn April 14, 2019, 10:06 PM

    Ghost:

    We got a mostly Pomeranian because the wife wanted a lap dog for a change. Until now, we’ve had big dogs that thought they were lap dogs.

    Super cute. I forgot how little puppies know and he’s having problems training us.

  • ghostsniper April 15, 2019, 4:38 AM

    Casey, I likes em all, regardless of size. My mother in law had Pom’s all her life. The current one, Yuri, now lives with her youngest son since her death. A veritable 14 lb powder keg of energy and the daughter in law almost daily throws him in the kitchen sink for a scrub down and then an hour with the blow drier and brush. My Shannon is way too big to throw in the sink so she’s going to the groomer next week to offload her winter fur and filth.

  • Dan Patterson April 15, 2019, 4:47 AM

    Summertime, a long time ago.
    I flew countless missions in my Dauntless/Hellcat/Corsair/Wildcat/Tomahawk sitting on the broomstick cockpit seat straddling a stretchy rope tied to a maple tree branch. When I pulled hard on the controls (rope) she would nose up sharply. Give ‘er the gun and she’d climb like a homesick angel ’til the air got too thin, then stall and fall off RIGHT ON THE TAIL! of the pursuing devil Zeke/109/190/Stuka. The maneuver, repeated ’til mom called us in for supper, took about 5 seconds on the clock but hours in kid dogfighting time.
    3-to-a-team baseball with two gloves between us and a waterlogged lopsided ball. Calls of “invisible man on second” and “tie goes to the runner” and always “four fouls and you’re out”. Summertime sweat and drinking water from the hose, unless somebody’s mom made KoolAid. A fist-fight once in a while, playing with each other again in 20 minutes.
    Those kids, and that time of a long while ago, are gone forever. It is always that way and always will be, but I am beckoned once in a while by their ghosts staring through a screen door shaded by the porch – momma’s cooking supper so I can’t come out right now; see you later – I can see them clearly but they don’t see me. They were at that door this morning, but I am no longer that kid and their friend and playmate; that time was replaced in small stages by the present with all it’s own good and ugliness, and that kid by an old jaded cynic with scars and a hard heart. I know him; he shaves in my mirror every morning.
    It’s gotten too blurry to write, for some reason. But in a distant place it’s a soft twilight and the robins and orioles are chirping happily, somebody just cut the grass and it smells like watermelons, fourth grade won’t be for a long time yet and I’m pleasantly tired from a good day in mid-June.

  • Vanderleun April 15, 2019, 10:44 AM

    That’s beautiful, Dan. Really.

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