« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Mayberry and Peyton Place


Given that the vast majority of Americans (almost four out of five) live in urban areas, we small town residents might well feel flattered by the attention we received during this presidential campaign.

Not all the attention was complimentary, though. Democratic nominee Barack Obama observed that "You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them.... And it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion..."

But the Republicans lauded us. Carolyn Dunn of St. John, Kansas, spoke at the Republican National Convention, and related that "Small-town America continues to be the moral grounding of this country, and it is a culture worth preserving."

That was a warm-up for vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin of Wasilla, Alaska. She said we were "the ones who do some of the hardest work in America ... who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars." Quoting "a writer," Palin said "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity."

So are we good people, or a bunch of bitter losers clinging to our guns?

That's a hard question to answer, partly because it's hard to define a small town. From 1998 to 2001, there was a New York-based media-watchdog magazine called "Brill's Content." Its lead story one month concerned the frenzy around the 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colo., which it described as a "mountain hamlet."

Boulder had about 100,000 people then, as well as the state's flagship university, and those of us who live in real mountain hamlets found this somewhere past bizarre.

Going the other way, in 1978 I moved from Kremmling, Colo., population 1,200, to Salida, Colo, with about 5,000 people. As I met people here, they assumed I'd come from somewhere bigger, and asked "How do you like living in a small town?"

After four years in Kremmling, Salida seemed close to metropolitan, with a stoplight, paved streets and parking meters. Its stores handled most everyday needs, whereas in Kremmling, buying common items like auto parts and sporting goods required driving 27 miles to Granby.

From Manhattan, Boulder is a hamlet; from Kremmling, Salida is rather urban.

We don't get much help from the U.S. Census Bureau, which classifies American population as "rural" or "urban," with no intervening category for anything like "residing in a community of less than 20,000 people which is not a bedroom town."

The upper limit of 20,000 comes from my planner friend Randy Russell of Montrose County, Colo., who says that up to that size, "You are viewed as a whole person and judged that way," whereas in a bigger town, "participation becomes more one-dimensional, issue-oriented, abstract and alliance-based." In his view, that's the size limit on "small-town values."

But if American is relying on us to produce wholesome, hard-working patriotic citizens, then this country is in big trouble because it's been headed in the other direction for years. In 1910, only 45.8 percent of the population was urban. The nation crossed the line to an urban majority in the 1920 census with 51.4 percent.

The West hasn't escaped. Colorado's population was 84.5 percent urban in 2000; Arizona's 85.4; Utah's 88.2 -- all higher than the national rate of 79.0 percent. Even Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Alaska have urban majorities.

We haven't escaped progress. Much development of the 20th century worked against small towns, and the 21st hasn't offered much evidence that the trend is changing.

The mechanization of agriculture made for bigger farms, and thus fewer farm workers and fewer farmers. That means fewer customers for the implement dealer that eventually closes, and fewer children in the local school, which gets closed in a consolidation. Losing a school doesn't just mean losing some teaching jobs -- it also means losing a community's focal point, the place of PTA meetings and football games.

There's the spread of Wal-Marts, which attract folks from miles around -- and take the dollars that might have been spent in their little towns, maintaining their retail sectors. Government's role? Helping consumers get lower prices by repealing the "fair-trade" laws which allowed manufactures to set minimum retail prices that a big retailer couldn't undercut.

Many presumably worthy efforts at governmental economy have worked against small towns. We lost a downtown drugstore when Medicare refused to pay more for prescriptions than what Wal-Mart charged -- which was less at retail than what our druggist had to pay at wholesale.

To save money, the U.S. Postal Service closes inefficient post offices that serve few customers -- that is, facilities in small towns which provide community identity.

Utility companies used to maintain offices and crews in most little towns they served; under pressure to lower costs to keep rates down, they've consolidated and closed those offices.

This list of public-policy decisions and technological changes that hammer small towns could continue indefinitely, from the improved efficiency of our shrinking railroad network to regulations that hamper creameries, sawmills, canneries, brickyards and similar enterprises. Plus there's the disproportionate number of Iraq War casualties from America's rural areas.

Add it all up, and it's pretty clear that America often offers lip service to our small towns and their presumed values, but has generally ravaged small towns. Little wonder that we might feel a little bitter from time to time.

Ed Quillen lives in Salida, Colo, where he publishes Colorado Central Magazine and is a regular op-ed columnist for the Denver Post.