Re-inventing Small Towns for the 21st Century

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, June 14, 1911: There is nothing to write about for today.


Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since Grandma had “nothing to write about” a hundred years ago today, I’m going to get on my soapbox.

A hundred years ago this building was the Reader Hotel.
The building with the porch once housed a restaurant. When Grandma was writing these diary entries the other building was  Armstrong’s General Store. 

Sometimes I read other genealogy blogs. Jennifer in Climbing My Family Tree visited some small towns in Iowa where her ancestors had lived. She wrote about towns “that reached their peak a hundred years ago,” and then wondered what caused some towns to struggle or disappear while others thrived. I’ve often pondered similar issues regarding the towns in central Pennsylvania–

McEwensville Community Hall is the white building in the center of the photo. It would have been the center of community activities a hundred years ago.

I find the world within a 10 mile radius of the farm where Grandma grew up to be fascinating.

One hundred years ago the nearby towns were filled with shops and restaurants. Neighbors helped each other. A good Saturday night would involve doing things with friends and family—visiting the neighbors for ice cream, maybe playing a few cards—or on a big week-end there might be a box social or the high school students might put on a play that the entire community would attend. The local newspaper would report whose grandmother had come to visit-and who’d attended a picnic.

One hundred years ago the villages, towns, and small cities were thriving. Some regional economists today assert that many small towns no longer serve a purpose. When transportation and communication are poor that there is a need for more local and regional centers. But according to these economists when people can easily travel further to work and shop the need for many small communities begins to vanish.

Fred’s–the one  and only restaurant in McEwensville today.

Yet I somehow don’t want to give up on the small towns—and want to believe that they still have an important role in the 21st century. Personally I find the small towns in central Pennsylvania to be wonderful, friendly, relaxing places and believe that they are in the process of re-inventing themselves for the 21st century.

Many of our youth today participate in study abroad programs and know all about remote villages half way around the world. Our kids can tell us about the foods, agricultural practices, and cultural norms of tiny villages in Asia, Latin American and Africa (which I totally support and think is incredibly cool)—yet they are clueless about the awesome history and culture of the small towns outside their backdoor.

One young man I know recently told me that when he was growing up his parents regularly took him on trips to Europe—but they never bothered to show him America.

Last year he and some of his friends went on what they called a Rust Belt Tour—and explored and photographed towns in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that once had been thriving but now are really struggling. He talked with the people—and learned about the unique history, culture, and foods of each locale. And he discovered some wonderful places and people.

His perspectives and interests are unique in many ways, yet I’m thrilled that there might be a resurging interest (however small) in rediscovering some really cool places.

5 thoughts on “Re-inventing Small Towns for the 21st Century

  1. Love your soapbox! If the auto contributed to the decline of small towns I am hoping the internet and new technologies will spark a comeback for some of them.

    1. Glad you like liked it–Telecommuting seems to be becoming much more feasible than it was a few years ago. Hopefully it will help revive the small towns and rural areas.

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