Small town America has been called the “heart and soul of the country.” In many ways, that has been true. Throughout our history as an agricultural economy, small towns have been where the majority of us lived, worked, were educated, and died. Even as late as 1980, 60% of “rural” Americans never traveled more than 100 miles from where they were born.
Small towns have changed, though. As farms have shrunk and agriculture has been replaced by a service economy, rural America has taken a hit. More people have moved to larger cities. The Internet has connected their youth to the world and changed the culture. There are fewer tractors on the streets. Residents are more likely to drive 20 minutes or more to work in a town different from the one in which they live.
A perfect example may be Greenfield, Indiana. Greenfield lies East of Indianapolis and has a place in history as the boyhood home of poet and writer James Whitcomb Riley. The town has been here a very long time. When Hancock County was created in 1828, Greenfield was already here and selected as the county seat.
The town built up around the nation’s first federal highway. The old National Road, originally “paved” with wooden planks, eventually became U.S. Highway 40, which is still Greenfield’s main street, running through the heart of downtown. Its oldest buildings, such as the old courthouse, are made of Indiana limestone and display an incredible craftsmanship that has been virtually lost in modern architecture. Driving around town is like a history lesson in home architecture as well, from large Victorian-styled structures to sprawling ranch designs. The town wears its history proudly.
Greenfield has not escaped change. Drive along the town’s N. State Street and one finds a state-of-the-art medical facility, followed almost immediately by a commercial district that seems to play host to every fast-food and dining franchise in existence. Newer subdivisions sprawl on the North and West sides of the town. People attempting to escape Indianapolis have caused population here to jump to over 20,000.
Yet, there are still touches of what was. In addition to the historic structures, an old grain elevator still towers just South of downtown, its corrugated tin slowly rusting, the rail road bed that once serviced it now a biking trail. An art-deco style theatre sits proudly, standing out starkly from buildings around it. Antique shops hold almost two centuries of memories.
I took these pictures early on a Sunday morning, and was surprised at the amount of traffic. This isn’t a “sleepy” little town, but one bustling, evolving, working hard to maintain a sense of vitality and importance in a changing world. The town’s web site declares that Greenfield is the “Friendliest Town in the U.S.” Its raining this morning, so I’ve not been able to see how they indeed respond to this old, long-haired hippy wandering their streets, but I’m hopeful.
I won’t stay here long. Since I escaped Oklahoma so many years ago, large cities have been where I feel most at home. But everyone needs a break, and perhaps small towns like Greenfield are just the break we need. Of course, I would be doing you and Greenfield a disservice if I did not leave you with the words of its favorite son. So, here’s Unless by James Whitcomb Riley.
Who has not wanted, does not guess What plenty is.--Who has not groped In depths of doubt and hopelessness, Has never truly hoped.-- Unless, sometimes, a shaow falls Upon his mirth, and veils his sight, And from the darkness drifts the light Of love at intervals. And that most dear of everything, I hold, is love; and who can sit With lightest heart and laugh and sing, Knows not the worth of it.-- Unless, in some strange throng, perchance, He feels how thrilling sweet it is, One yearning look that answers his -- The troth of glance and glance. Who knows not pain, knows not, alas! What pleasure is.--Who knows not of The bitter cup that will not pass, Knows not the taste of love. O souls that thirst, and hearts that fast, And natures faint with famishing, God lift and lead and safely bring You to your own at last!
My thanks to Keith Dellinger for driving me around and introducing me to Greenfield, and to Joshua Starr for being my gracious host. Enjoy the photos.[Disable Flash Gallery]