I’ve always been fascinated with small towns and have lived and worked in a good many: Tarboro, Rocky Mount, Chapel Hill, Boone, and Raleigh as it was then, in North Carolina; Highland Springs, Short Pump, Charlottesville, Hopewell, and Chester, Virginia before it became suburbia.
Associate Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court Lewis Powell, of Richmond, spoke to a graduating class of lawyers some years ago and told them, “Go to a small town, join the Baptist Church, get to be a deacon as soon as possible, and you’ll have all the business you can handle.”
Wayland Jones from Blackstone told me when I went to work in a small town, “Get to know who everyone’s cousin is.” In small towns, as in cities, it is unwise to speak ill of anyone. Word gets around quickly at bridge tables, funerals, barber shops, coffee shops, and country stores.
In Bible times, it was expected that the Savior would come from a prominent city of the Roman empire such as Corinth or Rome or Nineveh. But in John 1:45-46, Philip said to Nathanael, “We have found him,...Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” a menial town by Middle East standards.
Dr. James Appleby of the Union Theological Seminary preached a marvelous sermon on this in Richmond in 1973. I had confided in him that I was making a move to a small town and he looked at me when he read this scripture and later said, “It was like saying ‘could anything good come out of Ashland or Highland Springs or Hopewell or Amelia.’” Jim preached it personally to me.
It used to be said that “Rotarians owned the town, Kiwanians ran the town, and Lions enjoyed the town.” Many politicians have come from communities that were only villages. The only city-person elected Governor of Virginia was Douglas Wilder of Richmond. Two U. S. Presidents have been elected from cities: Theodore Roosevelt of New York and William Howard Taft of Cincinnati. Some rural places that produced early Presidents became big cities or metropolitan areas, notably Boston. Some recent Presidents have come from Plains, GA; Dixon, IL; and Hope, AR; Westmoreland County, Virginia produced George Washington and James Monroe. Charles City County was the birthplace of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. Tyler was Harrison’s Vice-President. In small towns and county places people play bridge, go to church, meet at the country store, play checkers, play softball, go to the post office and always speak to each other, even to strangers. The next time they meet they shake hands, and the next time they ask about the family. In suburbia as in small communities, they go to ball games, to the PTA, to parades, and 4th of July celebrations. They don’t play chess, which is a big-city sport.
Virginia differs from other states in that cities are not in counties and there are many unincorporated communities. The opportunity for holding leadership positions is considerably smaller for the county resident when compared to the opportunities in a small town. A small, incorporated city may have 21,000 residents with a city council of 7, thus having one representative for each 3000 citizens. A county of 300,000 may have a board of supervisors of 5 members with a ratio of one representative for each 60,000 persons.
The same situation exists in high schools. A school of 2500 students produces one football team, one basketball team, one set of cheerleaders, and one student government. A school of 900 offers a better chance for the development of leadership skills through these and other activities.
Apparently, small cities and villages do a pretty good job of screening state and national leaders. Sarah Palin was a small-town mayor before running for Vice-President; Spiro Agnew was a county supervisor before being elected Vice-President; and Harry Truman was a county supervisor (called judge in Kansas) before being elected U. S. Senator.
In summer 2011, USA Today and Rand McNally sponsored a study to select the 5 best small towns in the U. S. Towns picked were: Walla Walla, WA; Lake Havasu City, AZ; Mount Airy, NC: Nacogdoches, TX; and Valdosta, GA. What made Walla Walla stand out? “It is famous for its sweet onions. Many wineries are located in the area and it is a popular vacation spot. It has a community college and a state penitentiary. You can ride your bike around the entire city in the morning, see kids at park in the afternoon and enjoy a musical under the stars in the evening,” they say. “It seemed everyone was involved, from wine growers and politicians to cleanup crews. It’s a happy town which was made for friendly people.”