Lessons From A Small Town

When I was eleven years old, my family moved from St. Louis to a small town in central Kansas.  Adjusting to small town life was hard at first, because it was very different from what I was used to, and I wasn’t particularly happy about moving so far away from my friends and family.  But being eleven, I had only two choices:  be miserable for the next few years or adapt to my new life.  And so I got used to it, and soon came to appreciate the gifts that come from living in a small town.

Scan 7One of the first things I noticed about life in a small town was that everyone knew almost everyone else, if not by name, then at least by sight.  Which meant that when you passed someone on the sidewalk, you acknowledged them in some way.  A simple nod or “hello” would do if you didn’t have time to stop and chat, but hurrying on by as if you didn’t notice the person was considered rude.  The same thing was true if you were driving a car.  People waved at each other as they drove past, even if it was nothing more than simply lifting the index finger off the steering wheel.  No one was anonymous, and everyone deserved recognition.

Living in a small town also taught me a thing or two about trust.  I was amazed to discover that I could walk into almost any store along Main Street and make a purchase simply by signing my name.  It was common practice for stores to accept credit on an honor system, which meant that the clerk would make note of the amount owed, and the next time one of my parents came in, they paid up.  I used credit for an after-school snack, or to pick up something my Mom needed to make dinner, but I knew some of the poorer families in town depended on that credit for the times they truly couldn’t afford to pay.  Small towns tend to take care of their own.

My small town didn’t have different neighborhoods for the rich, middle class and poor, and so we all intermingled at the stores, schools and churches.  I learned to get along with all different kinds of people, because you think twice about making an enemy of someone when you know you are going to be seeing that person on a regular basis as you go about your daily life.  Of course not everyone was good friends with everyone else, but when disaster struck, the community came together very quickly.  I still remember the funeral of a high school friend being held in the school’s gymnasium because none of the seven churches in town had a sanctuary big enough to hold everybody.

I am fifty-eight years old, and I only spent seven of those years living in a small town.  I’m not sure exactly what percent of my life that works out to be, but I am sure it’s a small one.  Yet those years had a profound effect on my life, and I credit them with many of the things I have learned along the way about trust, diversity, tolerance and most of all, community.  I guess that old saying is right, and that it really does take a whole village to raise a child.

52 thoughts on “Lessons From A Small Town

  1. I’ve never lived in a small town. The closest thing I experienced was attending a small college for two years before transitioning to a much bigger one. Although I didn’t know everyone on campus, it was normal to smile and say “hi” as we passed each other along the inter-college trails. After I changed schools, I continued this practice until it became very uncomfortable (either I got weird looks, or some male students thought I was coming on to them). Sigh. I missed the friendliness and lack of suspicion.

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    • Honestly, the difference between the small college and the bigger college sounds a lot like the difference between a small town and a big one! Both have their good points and their bad points, but to this day, it seems only natural to me to smile or say hello as I pass someone. It’s not always returned, but I’ve learned not to take that personally.

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    • Yes, that is the down side of living in a small town. It can become too easy to cross over those boundaries and not remember that everyone has the right to his or her own choices. I loved the sense of community and trust, but I also know that I was less willing to take risks, because if I failed, everyone would know about it.

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  2. My husband grew up in the town we live in, which was much smaller for him as a young person than it is now. I love the feeling of knowing people in town, families who have been here for years & years & the sense of community those things bring. I fear because of its growth, we are losing some of that feeling.

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  3. You have a great understanding and appreciation for your small town and how its members pull together. I grew up in a medium town and can relate to many of the things you talk about. Community is very important!

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    • Thank you! I do believe community is important. One of the things I like about the areas where I live now is that even though it is a big city, our neighborhood does have a strong sense of community. My husband grew up in a small town, and I lived in one for seven years, so both of us really like that sense of community.

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  4. I grew up in a small town too, Anne and I love your perspective. I have very similar feelings about my childhood and I’m really glad I grew up where I did.

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    • There were definite benefits, weren’t there? My friends who spent their whole childhoods in a small town loved it, and I also have friends who still live in their hometown. The sense of community is strong, and it’s really a gift!

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  5. such a touching post of how profoundly you were affected by this experience. I am deeply affected by it. Thanks for sharing Ann. I moved six times growing up – including going through my parents’ divorce, a remarriage, and my mom’s desire to move “up!” It was difficult, to say the least, but it made me who I am, and I hope that is a good thing. You owe some of who you are to this experience, and it is a good thing! 🙂

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    • Thanks, Jodi! My family moved several times as well (although not as often as yours) so I think I know what you mean. There was good and bad in each new situation, but each situation also contributed to who we are today. We learned to adapt and to be flexible, and to rely on ourselves when we had to. And in the end, I am grateful for that. Take care, my friend!

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  6. What a lovely piece Ann! I spent nearly all of my childhood growing up in Grinnell, Iowa, where my dad was a prof. It was very similar to what you described so beautifully. Kept us mostly out of trouble because if you parents didn’t catch you their friends (or neighbor, or teacher, etc) would. Remember feeling so safe even if a bit reined in….and still love my hometown. Going back for 40 yr reunion this summer!

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    • Thanks, Louise! My guess is being a professor’s daughter and being a minister’s daughter in a small town were probably very similar. We had the security, but it did keep us “reined in!” (Which was probably a good thing.)
      Enjoy your 40th reunion! We just had ours last summer, and it was so much fun to see everyone again. And wonderful how quickly we all felt comfortable and at ease with each other. See you soon!

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    • Thanks, Kim! There was definitely a very strong sense of community. Having lived in both large cities and small towns, I see the advantages and disadvantages of both. But I am very grateful for the time I spent in a small town and for the impact it had on my life.

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  7. I think the buying on trust thing, over here, is called ‘putting it on the slate’. Particularly applied to drinks in pubs but also to groceries in corner shops. You paid it off, or as much as you could afford, at the end of the week.

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    • Yes, that’s how it was done. You could charge it until you were able to pay, unless you abused the system, I guess. It was done in most of the shops, and since these were the days before computers, it was kept by hand. Each family had a sheet with their name on it, and the amounts were written (or printed from the cash register) on that if I remember correctly.

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  8. Well written Ann! I also love small town living, used to say if you don’t know them by name you still know of them. Outback is where I have fondest memories, rough diamonds but biggest hearts. Thanks for the reminder.

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    • You’re right about that. We had a volunteer fire department, and regular ice cream socials (the ice cream was home-made, and it doesn’t get better than that.) High school games drew huge crowds, even those that didn’t have a kid on the team, or even in the school. And it was always impressive to see the teamwork that made the annual harvest of the Spring wheat happen. The grain elevators stayed open all night and people worked like crazy to get the wheat cut and delivered at the exact time it was ready!

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  9. You painted a beautiful picture of small town living with a touch of nostalgia.I am sure you treasure the memories you have of the little town in Kansas, where rural friendliness and neighborliness were considered the norm for human interaction. Living in a small town, I can appreciate your post, Ann.

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  10. That must have been a tough move at 11 years old but it was probably better than moving to a big city. Did your parents choose to move or was it job related? I think you live in the St Louis area now, don’t you? Have you ever considered moving back to a small town? I’ve always wondered what it might be like to live in one and thought it might feel confining at a younger age and more fun as you get older. I’m not sure.
    I love small towns and visit them whenever we travel. Then I start thinking again..:)

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    • Oh, yes it was hard at first! We moved 500 miles away from St. Louis, where all my friends and close family lived, and the culture was so different from what I was used to. We moved because my father had recently graduated from seminary and his first church was in this small town.
      But so many of the neighbor kids were welcoming, and of course we got to know the people from the church right away, and best of all….I finally got the horse I’d been wanting as long as I could remember. So I settled in and adapted, as kids tend to do.
      But I have to admit that I always missed St. Louis, and sometimes wished I was free from the constraints of being a minister’s daughter in a small town. There was a lot of pressure to be above reproach, and I was also kind of shy and awkward, which made me wish I could be a little more anonymous.
      After college, I moved back to St. Louis with my new husband (St. Louis has always been “home”), but I’ll always be grateful for the time I spent in Kansas. I made life-long friends, experienced things I would never have if I’d stayed in the city, and learned that there are lots of good things about small town rural life. Honestly, I still consider that town my “second home.”
      So…long winded answer to your question is while I wouldn’t move back, I am glad I lived there. It was a good experience, and if I had to do it all over again, I would!

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      • Bring a preaches daughter in a small town must have tough, as you mention. On many levels. Hard to bust out as a teenager when the whole town is watching….:) But then there was college. Hopefully that was less restrictive…:)
        I always wonder what draws people to small towns, what causes them to leave and what, if anything, brings them back. It would make for an interesting book..:)

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        • Oh, yeah, I sowed a few wild oats in college! But even though I enjoyed getting out of the small town and having a chance to stretch my wings, so to speak, I have found that the lessons I learned from that time in my life have stuck with me. And I think that explains why I still feel close to so many of the people I knew back then, even all those years later.
          And I believe you are right….it would make a good book!

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  11. Ann, lovely post. Living in a small town does have its perks like you mentioned. I don’t know if I can say I lived in a small town in Sri Lanka, but it definitely had the same advantages and everyone knew everyone, sometimes a disadvantage because as a kid we tried to play truant but always got caught.

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  12. I wonder if it was just the times, not so much that it was a small town? I grew up in NYC but I remember things just be kinder and different. You could go into a grocery store and the bakery would give a kid a cookie. Or the veggies were loose and your Mom could give you a string bean to chew on. As a very young kid, I took the subway by myself anywhere. Or played with my friends in a park without parents. I walked to school which was blocks and blocks away. It was simply a different era. When I moved to NH a million years later, I wouldn’t even let my kids stand at the bottom our driveway by themselves waiting for the school bus. Go figure…

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    • I think it was both. When I lived in the city, we certainly had more freedom than kids had now, but we didn’t have the ability to buy things on credit, or feel comfortable going to bed at night without locking our doors, the way we did in a small town. Smaller communities don’t offer as many opportunities as large cities, but they do offer more security and a stronger sense of belonging. Like anything else, there is good and bad!

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    • Thank you! And I know what you mean about too much stimulation. Even though I live in a big city now, our house is in a quiet inner-suburb, and I find cities like New York or San Fransisco overwhelming. Sometimes I do long for the quieter rural life, too.

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  13. I live in a small town, and I love it. Actually, it’s even better than that because I live in an area with large parcels in the Sierra Nevada foothills, so I really live in a forest. But I can walk to the town area–about two miles. It’s perfect for me. I grew up in an LA suburb, and spent part of my childhood in Seattle, and escaping the city was always a goal. It’s been twenty years now that we’ve lived here, and my gratitude to be able to live in this place has never dimmed.

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  14. Lovely post Ann, very visual and it was nice to find out more of your upbringing. I grew up in a medium size town where I think I had the best of both worlds. Nowadays we’re raising our kids in a small rural type suburb where there’s a very close knit community. I love the sense that we’re all looking out for each other.

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    • My kids are out of the house, but we raised in an “inner suburb” of St. Louis that is like a small town in most of the good ways. We know our neighbors, have our own city services, the school is in walking distance, etc. Since my husband is from a small town and I lived in one for a while, we both like that. But we also like the stores, museums, restaurants, etc., of the large city that surrounds us! So I think I know what you mean about the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, though, we don’t live where we can have any livestock. That would be ideal!

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  15. Your years in that small town in Kansas sounds idyllic in some ways, Ann, the sense of communality and care for one another. That was how rural towns and villages often were in England before the neoliberal onslaught of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, and the gentrification of those places accelerated. The moneyed moved in, and squeezed out all sense of community along with the locals whose offspring could no longer afford to live there.

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    • That is so sad! In the States, gentrification usually happens in towns that become destinations for vacations, such as those along the coast or in the mountains. Here, most small towns are struggling because the family farms are dying out, which were the mainstay of their economy. Some of the small towns are close enough to larger cities that they survive (and in some cases thrive) because their residents can commute to city jobs, but the ones that are isolated are often dying.

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  16. It sounds like a different universe: being known by all the people in town, being trusted by shopkeepers. I barely know the folk in my street. Thanks for a lovely post Ann. Very interesting and thought provoking. Have a good week.

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