My parents grew up in Olivia, Minnesota. It’s the seat of Renville County, but it is still, fundamentally, a small town. The 2,500 or so residents form the support system for those in the outlying agricultural areas; they run a grocery, hospital, golf course, canning factory, car dealership, library, one public school, one parochial school, two hotels, three gas stations, four sit-down restaurants, and five churches.
My sister was born in Olivia and I’ve been visiting the town since my infancy. Combined, my grandparents put in over a century there, and many of my father’s 64 first cousins still live in or around the area. I’m likely to stumble across relatives no matter where I go. Although I grew up in suburbs all over the Midwest, I consider myself an honorary Olivian.
That said, I figure I usually know what to expect when I’m in a small town. I’m familiar with the features and personalities that grow from and thrive in semi-isolation. I have a reasonable expectation of what will and won’t be accessible, and I can usually manage to, if not blend in entirely, at least not stick out like a citified thumb.
Or so I thought. Turns out, despite common sizes and mutual affection for lawn ornamentation, Southern small towns and Northern small towns are just as different as their respective big cities. I was reminded of this fact on a recent jaunt through five exurban counties in west Tennessee.
In the Midwest, a church:resident ratio of about 1:500 is considered typical. Along the south end of the Mississippi, however, the theory seems to be that everyone should have a church home. Literally. I passed twenty churches while driving through Halls, TN, a town roughly the same size as Olivia. And yet I couldn’t help feeling like these communities were off-limits. Not just to me, a Lutheran-raised ex-Mormon with Unitarian tendencies, but to anyone unknown. The abundance of houses (and storefronts and trailers) of worship gave each tiny congregation the feel of a small social club. Even on Sunday morning, it was hard to find a parking lot with more than ten cars in it. There’s no sliding into the back pew in a church like that. Which is incomprehensible to Minnesotans, who would prefer that all churches contain nothing but back pews.
Despite their congregational quirks, most small-towners are friendly folk, but the nature of “friendly” changes as you cross the Mason-Dixon. Up north, it means a smile and a wave. In a Southern town, it means actually making friends. Asking (or answering) one question of a store or restaurant proprietor can lead to half an hour of conversation, introductions to family members, and possibly an invitation home. I now know more about the owner of Alvino’s Pizza in Dyersburg, TN than I do about my colleagues in the next aisle over. It’s a social model that’s difficult for me to adapt to personally, but I appreciate it on its merits.
Perhaps the most distinctive element of Southern small towns is the fact that they are not homogenous. The history of Southern agriculture intertwines diverse races and classes, and the towns that supported agrarian lifestyles still reflect this diversity. The Midwest, simply put, does not. Not once you get outside of the city centers, at least. I can’t speak for how each community is affected by its cultural make-up, but I tend to assume that any forward-looking group benefits from multiple viewpoints.
Of course, believing that is why, despite all their ties to a tiny homeland, my parents raised their children in a metropolitan area of 1,000,000 people, and why I now do the same. I’m drawn to the history and tradition of small towns, but I can’t help feeling that it takes a whole lot of people to build a future.