14 Apr 2019

The Bygone American Small Town

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Vanderleun has some elegies to the American small town so many of us grew up in.

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.

And he links the more hard-line Alt Right perspective of Chateau Heartiste.


I find it amazing sitting here, aged 70, looking back, and realizing that the whole entire active, complicated, functioning-in-a-lot-of-ways-better-than-today’s-America small town world I knew as a boy is as dead as Nineveh and Tyre. Who could have imagined this would happen?

When I was young, my small town was already a provincial relic, home to an industry in its final death stages. The coal was below the water table and post-WWII environmental regs stopped them from pumping out the water anymore.

A lot of people had already left to find work in the modern, economically thriving America of cities and suburbs, but a lot of people, too, clung to home and church and family, and their small town middle class status. Moving to the city involved an instant demotion to the bottom rung on the social and economic ladder. Moving to the city also involved the loss of ready access to the out-of-doors, and hunting and fishing were like religion to people like us. Families were close. Everyone showed up for weddings and funerals, and you were in touch with grandparents and aunts and uncles all the time. People who moved away lost all that.

But alternatives to moving away ended with my parents’ generation. I and my contemporaries grew up feeling confined by the narrow intellectual horizons and thoroughly conscious of the lack of opportunities of small town life. We were eager to get out and take on the great big outside world. Only losers and criminals stayed behind.

A lot of this had to do with the vast 20th Century growth in personal and social mobility. I had an uncle, born in 1910, who was an all-around able and intelligent man, with natural dignity and a sense of style. He had to leave school after third grade and go to work. He was stuck as a coal miner all his life. If he’d been born 40 years later, he’d have taken standardized tests and scored well, and elite colleges would have been recruiting him.

In the old days, a small town was full of able and talented people. After WWII, social mobility dispersed all the competent younger people to the four winds, leaving behind the hapless and unlucky.

Nobody today, not even the hapless and unlucky, is willing to work hard to make a small living. The malls killed Main Street, and now Amazon is killing the malls. Costs and regulations have piled up, and starting a small business is much, much harder today. When I was a kid, there were barrooms and mom-and-pop little convenience stores on every block. The latter opened at 7 in the morning and closed at 10 or 11 every night. The kind of people living in today’s small town cannot be bothered to do all that. They’d rather take relief. Personal character has dramatically decayed and our society is sclerotic with regulations and red-tape.

We’ve gained a lot with mobility and economic growth, but we have also lost so very, very much.


4 Feedbacks on "The Bygone American Small Town"


I grew up in a small Indiana town of about 2000 people. It had two grocery stores, a drugstore with a soda shop, Hardware store, bakery, five and dime, a “department store,” a couple of dinner/restaurants…

Anything you needed was there.

It’s surviving better than most of its neighbors. There’s not as much heroin use. The hardware store is now a t-shirt printing shop. The bowling alley is now a hardware store. The bakery is now an insurance office. The five and dime and “department store” have been combined into a place where people can sell stuff. Most of it is not bad artsy-craftsy stuff.

But the Mayberry it used to be is long gone.

A lot of farms are gone. Some where purchased by Amish. Parents are terrified that the town will go the way of the nearby heroin soaked communities.

The nearby “big city” is in bad shape. It’s population used to be over 30,000 but now it’s closer to 20,000. Church congregations are disbanding because they’ve dwindled down to a handful of families. The gorgeous Presbyterian Church is in danger of being sold off in pieces. The Catholic churches are now without one priest. The city council is a revolving door of idiots. They get elected because they promised to stop tearing the old building down and preserving some historic stuff, but once in office, sell out. Beautiful old Victorian houses are owned by absentee landlords who chop them up into crappy little apartments, let them get run into the ground, until they burn down.

It’s horrible.


There is something going on in small to mid-sized towns across America. You will find a few Africans and Muslims and more than a few illegal aliens in each of these towns. Did they just look at a map and say I want to live there, throw a dart at a map? How did that happen exactly? Somehow I suspect that there is an intent behind it.

In my town you will see recent African immigrants, so recent they don’t speak English and don’t have jobs. I recognize some of them having seen them more than once and they are always by twos. Two men aged 20 something not able to speak English and just hanging out. Ditto for the Muslims who often but not always were some form of traditional dress so you can’t miss them but again always speaking some strange language. And I see recent South of the border (they used to always be Mexican but now they can be from anywhere down there) non-English speaking.

I have a habit of going to Walmart at about 8AM everyday because that is when the meat department puts the sale sticker on cuts of meat. I also go late the day before the 1st of the month because that is when the meat display cases are full of the best cuts of meat to catch the food stamp users the next day. It’s a full price day but the advantage is that the really good stuff is out there for the SNAP folks to buy for free.

How did this happen? I mean we import poor people who won’t/don’t work and provide them with everything they need including spending money. The citizens pay for it and retired folks like me have to shop the food that is too old to sell at full price because we can’t afford not to. Will they ever work and pay taxes like I had to for 47 years? Will they always get free health care while I have to count my pocket change to see if I can afford to see the doctor? Someone calculated that a woman on welfare with a child gets the after tax equivalent of $57,000 a year and I get about $18,000 from SS. Can this go on forever or will it all collapse someday under it’s own weight?


To add stuff mine: the great of certain real estate agents doesn’t help. I’m not sure what they do is within any sort of code of ethics to which they may pretend to subscribe.

They buy property from person A, and sell it to person B. Person A didn’t want it torn down and sold off to Family Dollar General Tree or to be converted into s**t apartments and naively sells it to the real estate agent who said that he couldn’t find a seller, and promises that won’t happen. By then turns around, sells it at a higher price to the very buyer the owner didn’t want to. The owner didn’t want to sell it to a rapacious buyer to help preserve something in the community. The real estate agent stands him in the back — and makes money off it as well.

By the way, typo above: Three Catholic churches with not one priest among them.


I remember playing work-up. For those that don’t know how to play, it is softball with anywhere from six to a gazillion kids. You need at least four kids to bat and one pitcher. In a pinch one of the batters can also catch. The others just fill in on the bases or in the outfield.

When a kid grounds out or strikes out he (or she) goes to right field and everyone moves up one place. If a kid flies out he (or she) exchanges places with the kid that caught the ball.

No score is kept. There are no innings. There is no need for an umpire. Any age can play and if there are not enough gloves just leave the glove you have where you are when you move up and let the next guy use it. Every kids plays every position. No need, even, for a regulation sized field. Just an open place without too many windows to break.

It was wonderful. The game can go on for hours. Kids can come and go as they want/need. They run and throw and catch and bat and . . . have fun.

Then Little League showed up. There weren’t enough uniforms for all so tryouts began. Those of us that couldn’t make the team ‘got’ to sit and watch. Suddenly there needed to be teams and coaches and umpires and registration fees that some of us couldn’t afford and regulation fields to play in. And, of course, parents who needed to sit in the stands and watch their kids play . . . and boo the umpire . . . and complain about some really big kid on the opposing team that had a five o’clock shadow.

Same thing with football. We played all against one. No teams. Flags. Whoever had the ball had to run to the far end of the field trying to dodge everyone else. He gave the ball to whoever had taken his flag and off that guy went towards the far end of the field. No teams, no scores, no referees, no uniforms, no regulation sized gridirons, no nuthin’ . . . except running, shouting, having fun for hours on end. Any kid can leave or join whenever. All you needed was a football and a piece of cloth (a handkerchief [remember those?]) would do for a flag. Come and bring your own.

Then Mighty Mites showed up and then ref were needed, uniforms were needed, registration fees were needed, special shoes were needed, regulation sized fields were needed and those that didn’t make the team ‘got’ to sit on the sidelines watching the others . . . hurray!


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