In Honor of the Small Town

I love small towns. By small, I’m talking 10,000 or fewer humans in the last census.

Ten thousand has been a sort of red zone of population for me ever since I was little, perhaps because I was raised around St. Louis for my first decade. Not a giant metropolis, of course, but…St. Louis is no slouch either. We moved about more than a little bit, Mom and Dad and Thister and I, and I’ve mentioned here before how the South St. Louis-City area wasn’t really awesome for runty little me. Culturally, St. Louis was great. The museums, the river front, the zoos and our extended family all made for great experiences and I have long fond memories. Sledding down Art Hill in the winter; climbing over railroad tracks on the East St. Louis-side of the Mississippi to watch the July 4 fireworks during the VP Fair (back when it was still called the Veiled Prophet Parade); playing hide and seek with our cousins in the gangways between the houses off Alfred there near the Botanic Gardens…truly good times. But, you know by the late 1970s and early 80s, the city was changing. We packed up again and moved south. We got to Farmington in the summer of 1982, and at that time the population was somewhere near the lower 9,000s. The jewels of St. Louis were just up the highway and the green peace and hills of the Lead Belt were where I thought I’d be the rest of my life.

Statements like that make full and practical sense when you’re in the fifth grade. But, things change. Progress and growth mean a sturdier tax base for a town or city of any size. Farmington grew. I was in junior high when we got a McDonald’s. I was in high school when we got a Taco Bell. The old battered Wal-Mart was closed and a bigger, shinier one constructed over near the highway. Traffic started to avoid the historic downtown and family businesses that had been in Farmington for generations started to feel the strain. By the time I graduated, Farmington’s population had swelled past 12,500. No longer my little hometown, but now a percolating small city. Many people were and remain quite happy about that. I resist change. Other things occurred then that belong in the category of Crap That Happens When You Grow Up, and I ran away to college in Springfield (population estimate in 1992 near 90,000*). Trips back to Farmington became unfortunate reminders of mistakes I’d made as a young adult. My father died. Dear friends were beyond my reach. My heart was sore. So, I ran away to the mountains.
I got to Denver, Colorado, in January of 1997. The Census Bureau lists Denver’s population in the 2000 census as more than 553,000 persons. I wasn’t exactly sticking to my quest to keep my homebase near that 10,000 red zone. So, I found a like-minded young man and ended up back in Springfield, MO, in 2000. But, life being what it is, plans shifted again and we ended up in Chicago, Illinois, in 2004. Chicago, population of nearly THREE MILLION PEOPLE, if you don’t throw in the whole urban or metro area numbers. And we’ve been here since, both of us yearning for smaller confines. Our plans to make small town life a reality have been bumped around some with his accident and my illness. But, you know, we get out of the city when we can and we grumble about the noise and lights and pollution…. The culture in Chicago is phenomenal. The medical resources, too, and we have amazing friends and family here. But I miss the small town. Very badly.
It weighs heavily on me because today is Homecoming down in Farmington. The parade, of course, the football game, the marching band and the bruhaha…. Farmington’s got about 15,000 people in it now, but…I know they can still  throw a mean party. Gold mums on the moms and grandmas, all the men in their FHS ball caps and tee-shirts. Kids with their faces painted with unbelievable things like “Go Black Knights! Class of 2021!”
Big cities can celebrate. Don’t get me wrong. We were in Denver for the Broncos Superbowl wins in 1998 and 1999 both, and here in Chicago for the White Sox World Series win in 2005 and the Blackhawks Stanley Cup win just last year in 2010. Of those four events, I think the Sox put on the best display of showmanship and homage to the city…. Those Broncos fans, on the other hand, acted pure fools, runnin’ around downtown in their all-togethers and shootin’ guns in the air. Just ridiculous. Better to focus on President Obama’s acceptance speech here in 2008. An amazing display of humanity in Chicago’s Grant Park. It’s lengthy but beautiful, transcript included:
But I digress. I think my point is that big cities make big, exciting, multi-cultural parade and celebration experiences with all kinds of hoopla and music and giant floating balloons. Fireworks and rock bands. Fans take the trains in from the suburbs and drink until they’re sober again. Pipes and Drums bands give goosebumps to even the most hardened curmudgeon. Kids love every minute.
Me, I prefer a high school marching band and some badly-devised parade floats pulled by somebody’s uncle in a John Deere. I prefer a Friday night football game on a field that isn’t shared by six different school districts. I prefer a hay ride to a train ride.
I resist change, but embrace nostalgia. And I will make small town life a reality again, whether it’s down South or here in the Upper Midwest somewhere. It’s all in the planning and timing. In the mean time, I’ll raise a styrofoam cup of hot chocolate and toast my old hometown, and small towns everywhere. They are the balance to the big cities that have taught me so much and so tested my strength and faith. Lessons can be learned wherever our mail goes, and I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve gotten all along my way. But, today, I’m just a little more grateful for the ones from my old small home town. Happy Homecoming.
*According to, Springfield’s population grew by an astounding 27% between 1990 and the year 2000.

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