Commentary by Ward Degler
I spent a good chunk of my youth growing up in small towns. There is something special about these places that has become lost in the city.
A small town’s personality is tangible and palpable as you drive through the streets. It’s history can be read on every corner, from the neglected building that started out as a blacksmith shop, then became a gas station and ultimately spent a few years as a tire store before being locked up and left to the sparrows that nest in the eaves; to the house that saw seven generations of one family grow up and move out into the world before being purchased by a young couple who just arrived from another state.
In the city the blacksmith shop would have been torn down years ago. A Dairy Queen would have been built on the land, and no one would remember the smithy who spent long, tiring days at his forge, or the gas station attendant who saved enough money to send his son to college, or the one-armed man who ran the tire store and confounded everyone with his ability to change a tire using only one arm.
Building codes are stricter in the city, of course, so many of the buildings and houses look alike. Folks living in small towns built their houses in ways that suited them. Some were brick, others shiplap frame. A few prefab homes appeared during the housing shortage at the end of World War II. Some thrifty folks used concrete blocks. And nobody cared that the old Sassman house on the corner still had the same 60 amp fuse box and knob and tube wiring that was installed in 1920.
You pretty much knew everybody in town, too, and you understood what to expect from them. Wally at the barbershop never did haircuts after 3 p.m. because he volunteered as a softball coach at the grade school part time.
Mr. Grant at the IGA store still delivered groceries every week to the Sturgis family because he knew Mr. Sturgis hadn’t been able to work since his accident. And every kid in town knew that old Mr. Jenkins at the drug store only pretended to not notice when they sat in front of the magazine rack for hours and read comic books they couldn’t afford to buy.
When we started building super highways across our nation, folks feared small towns would dry up and blow away. They were wrong about that. They are still there, and their stories are still worth noting.