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For The Love Of Small Towns

“Well I was born in a small town

And I live in a small town

Prob’ly die in a small town

Oh, those small – communities…”

So begins the 1985 hit song “Small Town” by John Mellencamp. I heard this song the other day and got to thinking about the small town where I grew up.

Well, I actually lived on a Wisconsin farm five miles from the town--more accurately, village--of Stratford; but it’s where I went to school, where many of my friends were, where many of my memories still reside.

There is a lot to be said for small towns.

Census information indicates that 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in one of about 350 combined metropolitan statistical areas…a fancy term for urban sprawl.

Yet the census also shows that those large planning areas are composed of smaller cities, towns, townships, boroughs or villages, each with fewer than 25,000 people.

And between those large blobs of population, there is a lot of land and many, many small towns.

So while it might at first glance seem that small towns are anachronisms, I think as social animals we still want to gravitate to a community where everybody knows your name.

Stratford was a small farming community that started out as a small lumber community in the late 1800s. When I lived there, the population was a little over 1,800; it now stands at 1,600.

Growing up, “let’s go into town” was a phrase that never had to be spoken twice for me to jump into the car with anticipation and stand up on the bench seat with my arm around my dad’s shoulder as he drove; there weren’t seat belts in those days.

There were so many things for a young farm boy to see and do.

And indeed, everybody knew my name and my parents’ names and those of my siblings.

The doctor who delivered me (after calling out the county snowplows to trench a path to the hospital in the worst blizzard of the year) lived there and was still our family doc.

The vet who took care of our sick cattle was there and he knew the name of my dog as well.

The local grocer knew us and what we shopped for. My mother had introduced him to tomato paste when she, a Chicago-Italian, had wanted to make pizza when they first moved there. The local community hadn’t heard of pizza. We were the only Italian-heritage family amongst mostly German and Polish stock.

The local gas station owner knew my dad and his car, and he liked me, so there was normally a candy bar for me when we visited; when we stopped for gas it was more like a visit, not a business call.

At the local watering hole, where we would stop on visits to town with just me and my dad, there would be a cold beer on a hot day for Dad and candy aplenty for me. There was a stuffed black bear reared up in one corner--a corner I avoided.

As I got into school, there would be the daily bus rides to and from town; always the same route with the same driver and same riders. The bus was a learning experience all unto itself.

There was a consistency in life that I would not appreciate until much later.

Then I got my license and eventually a Ford Galaxy 500; not the muscle car of my dreams, but she was mine.

The car was a surprise my junior year that my dad sprung on me; I think he just didn’t want to drive me back and forth to football and track practice. I eventually had to drop football because I was needed more at home for farm work, but the car stayed.

I didn’t expect the car, but I didn’t turn it down either. I began to appreciate the extracurricular aspects of “going to town” when you had your own wheels.

There was cruisin’ the main drag with the windows down and Kenny Rogers belting out “Something’s Burning” from the 8-track stereo through Jensen speakers, all installed by yours truly.

There were the football games and track meets, the Homecoming float building where I got my first kiss, the away games that meant venturing into other nearby small towns where we met new and exotic people.

I enjoyed the freedom of fishtailing down the dusty dirt roads that led from our farm to the county asphalt roads, where I could open that 289-cubic-inch V8 motor up to 55 or 60 mph.

It all revolved around that small town. It was a destination. It was home.

I am relieved to see that Stratford has continued to thrive. In the midst of all the uncertainty and chaos that surrounds us, it’s good to know that consistency has remained somewhere in this world.

Stratford’s logo really ties its past to its present. It features a silo and barn, a home, and a business/industrial building. Farm, home and business; that’s what has obviously kept this town and others like it alive.

To this day, I still love to take back roads wherever I go just so I can find hidden small towns that would have remained otherwise undiscovered; by me anyway, because they are all somebody’s hometown.

So today, on Friday, June 1, I invite PRB readers to join me in a salute to the small town.

Long may the spirit of the American small town shine through the fog of big-city complications and call back a simpler time, a time when “community” didn’t refer to a cyber-space place with millions of unacquainted cyber residents, but a small town with real people where everybody knows your name.

If you’re from a small town, name it here, tell us about it and join in the salute!

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, who also served until recently in municipal parks and recreation, lives in Peachtree City, Ga., and can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

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