Unexpected Joys of a Small Town

Posted: Aug 14, 2014 12:01 AM

After spending years in a densely-populated part of Virginia, I have now lived in a small town in my home state of Wisconsin for the past four years. It's a location I didn't expect to find myself in, and honestly it's taken quite some time to acclimate. The town leans heavily towards both the farm community and a blue-collar manufacturing and trucking segment. It's no idyllic Andy Griffith small town (I doubt those really exist), but it is certainly a town where most people know each other, and I've been struck by the level of community involvement in this small part of America.

My wife, son, and I made a concerted effort this year to go to community events. The town has an arts nonprofit that sponsors concerts in the park and an arts show each year. The local firemen and American Legion have pork chop dinners to raise funds. There is a brat fry or two or three every weekend to raise money for all sorts of causes (many of them as simple as the local little league). And there are numerous fairs and other festivals, including a celebration of local German heritage, a semi-truck parade, and a surprisingly-impressive Fourth of July fireworks display.

One nearby smaller town of roughly 500 residents hosts an annual summer fair that brings in thousands of people. People show up for this two-day event consistently, year after year, many of them taking a full two days of vacation time to simply hang around, enjoying the festivities. Since the whole fair can be absorbed in a mere 1-2 hours of walking about, I'd never really understood this commitment, until a friend pointed out recently that the fair is known locally as "the biggest family reunion in the area."

This description is apropos, since many people in these local communities have grown up here and spent decades getting to know their neighbors, seeing their children marry other local children, and sharing a consistent culture. While even I routinely encounter dozens of people I know at the "family reunion" fair, I'm confident that for others it serves as a chance to connect to hundreds of their friends and relatives.

The longer I've lived in this area, the more I've come to appreciate its shared culture. These are primarily people of faith. They lean conservative on the local political issues, favoring less government and more social mores, but with a Midwestern inclination against hyper-libertarianism. Many of the local residents lead relatively straightforward lives, emphasizing family, church, and local interests. Statistically-speaking, they don't necessarily pursue college, and the number of those with bachelor or graduate degrees is surprisingly small. There is a definite sense that they have each other's backs and are genuinely concerned about the needs of their community.

One of the most impressive feats of this community is that people simply show up. The population of my town hovers around ten thousand, but routinely hundreds show up for the concerts in the park, and fairs and arts shows pull far more. Every event is well-attended, and people find comfort and joy in spending time together.

While these descriptions may sound nice, I've also concluded that rose-glassed conservatives overstate the magic of the small town. It is not nearly the back-home salt-of-the-earth utopia that some localism-oriented writers fawn over. There are plenty of local problems and selfish, nasty people exist in every community, no matter how small. Immaturity and wasted potential seem sometimes expected of the younger generations. Gossip runs rampant and people are more likely to engage in petty disputes or be over-involved in other people's lives. That said, I've been impressed to observe a thriving small community, even though my wife and I sometimes still feel like outsiders.

Sadly, I don't know what the future holds for small towns like this. With a demographic shift to big cities, careers, and mega-churches, will the small churches, the community groups, the small businesses that populate this community flourish? It's hard to say, but there certainly seems to be a talent drain as kids move away to college and take career opportunities in larger cities.

In the end, conservatives have it right on the whole: the small town is fertile ground for robust cultural mores, preserved traditions, and a sense that most people know each other’s names and care about each other's lives. But I fear for the future - a move to large cities so often coincides with an increasing isolationism. The small town resident knows many of his neighbors, but how often is the city apartment dweller involved in the lives of the people around him?

One of the best hopes for the moral future of our country is for young people to invest in their shared heritage in the places they grew up. Sadly this idea seems quickly to be losing ground in our increasingly transient and career-oriented society. Hopefully more young people will find an ability to support a family and pursue their interests and talents without abandoning their original roots. Without that guiding force, I fear our sense of community and morality will fade. But if some of this community-mindedness still exists in your own town or city, do show up and encourage this connectedness where and while it still exists.