Life Through My Lens: I Love Small Towns

April 24, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

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Oatmeal, TX Bluebonnets on door in Burnet, TX. I love small town America.  Granted, I have not been in all of the small towns in America, but those I have been in have always piqued my curiosity and given me new insights.  On a recent road trip around Texas Hill Country, I traveled the smaller state and county roads and stopped in towns I picked out on the map:  Mason, Brady, Llano, Marble Falls, and even tiny little Oatmeal (I couldn’t resist the name).

Small towns are a relative term, I suppose.  Population can range from less than 200 people to 25,000 people and still be considered small, when compared to cities.  But regardless what state I am in, and which small towns I visit, they all have a number of things in common.

Wandering minstrel headed to the train station in Frostburg, MD Ice cream shop — and more — in Dripping Springs, TX. First, many of them are struggling to stay alive, especially if they are located far from any larger cities nearby.  Industry has left the area; the young people seek a livelier atmosphere, or they leave for college or the military and find lives elsewhere.  Superhighways have pulled travelers off the local roads.  The allure of the familiar, such as Walmarts and chain restaurants and hotels, appeals to many.  Travelers often want to get somewhere quickly, and they are not in the least bit curious about what they are passing by; they set the GPS and go, and small towns are usually not where the GPS routes them.  For these reasons, small towns are turning to other means to attract travelers — and business — to their Main Streets.  

The courthouse in Brady, TX. Old-time advertising in Graftom, WV Generally, the small towns that are most prosperous, in my opinion, are the county seats where the courthouse often dominates the center of town.  Law offices and bail bond businesses have employees, and they need places to eat lunch or meet over coffee.  If there is not a courthouse, small towns often turn to arts and antiques to pull travelers onto Main Street.  Some unique items can be found; there won’t be any “Target art”  or “vintage” items mass produced in Asia in these shops. 

There’s a sense of humor alive and well in Burnet, TX. Although I am not an expert on small towns, I do have a couple of suggestions for those that are trying to attract travelers.  First, make sure that there is a place where someone can buy a cold bottle of water, a hot cup of coffee, and find a bathroom to use.  A few food offerings would be nice, too, especially if there’s a regional specialty like pecan pie or barbeque.

I love vintage gas stations. This one is in Mercersburg, PA. Now for one of my pet peeves regarding small town businesses.  Above all, acknowledge me when I come into your shop.  Look up from reading the newspaper or chatting with your neighbor.  Make me feel welcome in your town.  

Third, know what makes your town unique:  When was it settled?  Why was it named “Dripping Springs” or “Boonsboro?”  What might be a local history tidbit I’d be interested in?  I think that anyone who works in a small town trying to attract and keep visitors interested should know these things.  I have too often been disappointed by people working in shops who tell me they have no idea about the history or, worse yet, tell me to go down the road half a mile to read the historical marker.  

The Seaquist mansion in Mason, TX. On the other hand, when I do encounter a local in one of the shops, whether an employee or not, I often find out the most interesting information, and I’m directed around the corner to a three-story mansion that’s being restored, or to a little waterfall that’s off the beaten path and one of the prettiest scenes around.  If I feel welcome in your little town, and I am interested enough to learn more about it, chances are good that I will tell my traveling friends to be sure to stop there, too, and sample the peach cobbler and look at the art.

On the street in Burkittsville, MD. Careless boating in Rock Hall, MD. My 18 months of photo walking found me in more small towns than most people I know have visited.  I always find unusual photo opportunities, good ice cream shops, and friendly people.  

My advice to you is to get off the highways, travel with a map, and pick out small towns along the state and county roads.  Get out, walk around, talk to the locals, and support local business.  You might just help a small town to stay alive.

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