A FIELD GUIDE TO SMALL TOWNS
Small towns are away from the city and that is what makes them grand. I used to rush though these places, taking too much of the city with me. I did not realize their potential for discovery and interest.
This all changed when I moved to the South. Here there is wonderful wealth of small towns that beckon you to stay and savor them. Some are overblown with gift shops and fancy art venues. Some are raw bone with little on the surface to attract. Some are lovely with old architecture. Many have empty storefronts. You want to take them in your arms and make them right again.
I found myself making notes about these small places. Overtime, it grew into a journal and fostered a “Field Guide” of sorts to enjoying these special places. Here are some of my thoughts from wandering in small towns.
Before You Go
Study a map. You will not find many of these towns along freeways or even blue highways. Rather, it is good to follow highway signs reading 10 miles to Union or 5 miles to Ridgeway. They lead to two lane winding roads and the beginning of your quiet retreat from the City.
Take a camera. One that does not attract too much attention. Consider reading books like “Deep South” by Paul Theroux or “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat - Moon. They will set the mood and fuel your appetite for small town wandering.
Do a little research about the history of the town, why it even exists, and points of interest. Sometimes this leads to surprising finds. For instance, York SC was founded largely because of the Fergus Tavern located at a key crossroads. Inhabitants fiercely fought the British in two battles and remained the only area not defeated in the back and forth fighting of the Revolutionary War. It also played a key role in the civil war. The tavern must have served a good brew!
Challenge yourself to reach out and meet local people that look interesting. In Chester SC, I introduced myself to George Caldwell, an elegantly dressed black man, who was standing in front of his business. I learned that George is the town’s insurance agent and bail bondsman.
He led me into his office filled with family and area artifacts. As we talked George paused and said, “He was not much for titles, but I might like to know he was also the Mayor of Chester.”
I figured if I was ever in trouble in Chester, George would be good to know.
The architecture in a small town is great visual art and the buildings have stories to tell.
Many small towns are like time capsules. The low profile buildings and Antebellum homes seem suspended in time. Their colors showing muted patina, hues, and patterns that delight your camera.
Small towns are a tasty break from McDonalds and Taco Bell. The centers of town often have eating places that have survived for decades on the “honest food” they serve. In Camden, Blackmon’s Little Midget will serve you a burger “all worked up.” Don’t be surprised if Allen Blackmon, whose family has owned it for over 50 years, visits your table to make sure the burger is right.
The Bantam Chef in Chester, The Wagon Wheel in Fort Lawn, and many other small eateries abound. You will get a real flavor of the people and their lives at these places.
Some towns have become popular enough to afford the glitzy gift shop or fancy art venue. Even in these towns you can sometimes find a shop owned by a local winery or hardware store with deep history.
More novel experiences can be found in less popular small towns. There you may find the fixer of old clocks, locally craft makers, a record store, or stamp collectors nook.
Libraries, Art Councils, History Museums and Civic buildings are often fun and always informative to visit. The Native American Studies Center in Lancaster SC features Indian artifacts, pottery, and craft. Extensive study and research areas for the different tribes of the Piedmont Region are housed in the back of the Center. The York County Library holds many documents and photographs from the Civil War. Some small towns are also county seats. You can see small town dramas play out in court rooms deep in history.
Some Final Thoughts
There are great small towns all over this country, not just in the South. The important thing is taking the time to enjoy them. Maybe even developing your own “field guide” to them.
You will undoubtedly come across towns that puzzle you. They will have growing industry around them and modern outskirts, but the core downtown remains much as it was, with empty storefronts. You will ask yourself why?
Part of the answer is that many longtime residents and civic leaders don’t want it changed. They remember how it was and want to restore it to then. Thus, buildings and storefronts languish in a never-never world. They are not viable for large retail or services.
How do you fix them? Art and antiques are one way, but not the only one. The unique is what attracts visitors and vibrancy to a town. It may be as simple as a record or used book store. More ambitious might be a store helping people do things. For example, a small electronics store focusing on the computer hobbyist, a local fashion designer, an art store with a studio area for demonstrations and locally made art paint. Disheveled also works. There is a bit of explorer in us all. The collector stamp store or antique shop that looks unorganized is a magnet for these adventures.
Small towns remain a wonderful retreat from busy everyday urban lives. A place to slow down, soak in the locals, and enjoy life. Try taking that two lane road to one of them, you will find rewards in many ways and always new discoveries.
Quotes about Small Towns:
“My plan is to have a theatre in some small town and I’ll be the manager. I’ll be the crazy movie guy.” - Quentin Taratino
“Living in a small town, one of the keys to survival was your imagination.” - Nick Nolte
“Fame is only good for one thing: they will cash your check in a small town.” - Truman Capote
“There are things about growing up in a small town that your can’t necessarily quantify.” - Brandon South