The backbone of America in a place you’ve never heard of

Published on: August 8, 2012

Small towns are the backbone of America yet I fear they may end up much like this Edsel found near a body shop in Marengo, Iowa (population 2,500, give or take). Mitch Traphagen Photo

Small towns are the backbone of America yet I fear they may end up much like this Edsel found near a body shop in Marengo, Iowa (population 2,500, give or take). Mitch Traphagen Photo


I once stood on the geographical center of the United States and looked out upon nothing but fields and gravel roads. At the time I took solace in the thought that the center of the nation — the very heart — was at peace and was a quiet, tranquil place.
That place is located in rural Kansas, a state that with a handful of other states makes up the Heartland of America. Almost every good thing you’ve ever read about the Heartland is true — the people are good, hardworking folks in small towns where you don’t have to lock up the doors, chain down the lawn furniture or leash the children. There are still places in America that are, more or less, a good bit like Mayberry.

The problem is that fewer and fewer people seem to know that, and fewer than ever are choosing the Mayberrys over the Gothams.

I am in a small Iowa town of roughly 2,000 souls. I’m certain you’ve never heard of it, let alone have ever been there. Judging by the “For Sale” signs around town, a lot of people seem to want to leave. The adults complain about the weather, something usually reserved for winter but this summer’s relentless heat has made it a year-around event. Some do leave, flocking with the snowbirds to Arizona and Texas, mostly, but they almost always come back. And then, once they reach a certain age, they never leave again. They die near where they were born and are often buried somewhere near their parents.

Listening to the kids talk, a lot of them can’t wait to get out of town. That is not because it is a bad town, it’s because the kids simply don’t yet know that it can be a bad world. No, it’s not a bad town at all, it is a very nice place with families and small businesses and people who work hard. A lot of them end their days with dirt or grease under their fingernails because they earn money by actually producing stuff. But it is in Iowa and somehow people have been led to believe that nothing happens in Iowa. Or Kansas. Or Nebraska. Take your pick from the Heartland. Now, from my half-century perspective on life, nothing happening can be a plus.

But when I was young, I felt the same way about my hometown on the prairie. Somehow, I became convinced that nothing happened in Worthington, Minnesota, and I needed to leave to find the stuff that was happening. I have no idea what I thought that would be. Was it a quest for a high paying job in a large corporation? Did I hope to find a place in which I could become a regular patron of the opera? Was I looking for nightlife and 24-hour parties?

The hell if I know. Looking back, I was just a stupid kid.

I got a job with a large corporation and it turned out I didn’t want that. To date, I’ve never seen an opera and I rarely go to bars. I’ve done my share of all-nighters, but those have been for work, no high spirits and high life involved in that. The only 24-hour party I’ve ever attended was in college, in Minnesota, and it involved tents and sleeping bags.

So, what was I expecting from “somewhere else” that life in a small town couldn’t provide?  It turns out there was really nothing. I told myself I was going to leave, and I did. Perhaps coming back would have felt as if I had failed to find something better out there, even if it turned out there was nothing better.

I am now leaving the small town in Iowa that I briefly called home, although I’m not sure that I really want to. There is something peaceful and tranquil about this place, but I’m concerned that the tranquility is masking a horribly slow death. On my way back to the airport, I pass through an even smaller town and notice the swings are up on a swing set at one of the handful of homes along the highway. I was happy to see the swings because in the fall, during hunting season, the homeowner removes the swings and hangs bloody deer carcasses from the top bar. I know many hunters in Iowa and they take their responsibilities as seriously as they take the responsibility of providing for their families. For many people, hunting is less sport than sustenance, and there is certainly no shortage of deer in that state. There are so many deer that evidence of collisions between them and cars is sadly and frighteningly commonplace along the freeways.

Regardless, I lived there for two years and this was the first time I noticed the swings in place. I also wondered what that sort of thing could do to a kid. The kid spends all summer having fun on the swing set and then one nice, crisp fall day, BAM!  Suddenly dead Bambi is hanging there. I have to think that is something that could well come up during some future therapy session, probably in Des Moines, Minneapolis or Chicago. The patient begins by saying, “I grew up in a small town and couldn’t wait to leave. Let me tell you about the swing set…”

Of course, that scene would take place in a city because the small towns lack the psychiatrist or psychologist needed to make note of the story. But I believe most kids growing up in Mayberry-like places will never need that. Maybe not even that kid.

Part of our national psyche is rooted in Main Street USA and in the Heartland filled with sturdy Americans instinctively charged with resolve to not only survive but to thrive. That still exists, but increasingly people are finding the surviving and thriving is easier in the cities and are leaving the small towns of America with a lot of “For Sale” signs in front yards.

Perhaps some of the kids will need to flee to the cities for fame, fortunate or psychoanalysis, but I hope some of them stay. There is magic in small towns; our collective hearts remain in them, the places where our parents or grandparents were born. Being out “in the country” is representative of our country in so many ways, and a lot of what is good about America can only be found there. As a nation, big cities give us power, but small towns give us backbone. I hope that backbone survives.