Andy needs a gun and Opie’s moving meth.
Smalltown America has always been an important part of who we are as a country. Back in 1960, Producer Sheldon Leonard worked with a then little-known comedian named Andy Griffith to create a television show that would look at the humorous-yet-wholesome side of small-town living. Griffith would play a county sheriff who never needed a gun, aided by a neurotic deputy who couldn’t be trusted with more than one bullet while trying to raise a son and find love somewhere in the mix. America latched on to this bucolic fairy tale and for more than 50 years it has been one of the most cherished television shows ever produced.
Mayberry itself was a fictional place, though many have long suspected that it was based on Griffith’s hometown, Mount Airy, North Carolina. Still, there have always been places like Mayberry in almost every state in the union. Places with fewer than 5,000 people in residence, where chances are high that one lives down the street from at least one relative, where life moves at a slower pace and seems protected from the crime and dangers of the big cities.
Places like Mayberry cropped up after the Civil War, in the latter party of the 19th century and into the 20th. They were agriculture-based communities back then, filling the needs of farmers who required a place to buy feed and seed, groceries, and send their kids to school. Land was cheap and the westward expansion was attractive as it offered the opportunity to be self-sufficient and in control of one’s own life. Native tribes were pushed from their land and new territories were opened to settling. The West was tamed not so much with bullets as it was with a plow.
The early part of the 20th century was the heyday for towns like Mayberry. They grew strong. The people who lived there were committed to the core tenets of freedom, valued their independence, and didn’t shy away from participating. They wanted their voice to be heard in government, they wanted to provide for their families, and they wanted to be safe.
The industrial revolution and the popularity of automobiles brought light manufacturing to these rural areas. A small plant that hired 100 people was enough to fuel the economy for the entire county. The results are still present today. The large two-story Victorian houses of plant supervisors and shop owners still line the main streets, with the smaller houses of their employees lining the streets behind them until they eventually blend into corn fields or wheat fields or pasture for cattle.
In the economic boom of the early 20th century, small towns like Mayberry often built schools and town halls from limestone. City parks with gazebos and bandstands and playgrounds were central aspects. Banks were locally owned and most small towns, like the fictional Bedford Falls in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, had two, one with a national charter and the other chartered in the state. Most anyone could get a small loan and in the majority of small towns, foreclosures were rare.
Small towns were made of God-fearing people, mostly Protestants with heavy doses of Lutherans and Methodists. Businesses closed up shop at 5:00 and everyone was home for supper by 6:00. High school sports brought the town together in the evenings, and almost every small town thought they could have a chance at a state championship next season.
Sure, small towns had problems, like rampant racism, unspoken sexual abuse, and unchecked alcoholism. Those issues seemed so very minor, though, compared to the big city crime gangs with their tommy guns and turf wars, investment scams, hoodlums, and bank robberies. People in small towns at least pretended to care about each other, even if they were secretly jealous of each other’s pie recipes or who went on the most exotic vacations.
War takes its toll
People in small towns were largely disconnected from World War I in many ways. News from Europe traveled slowly to rural parts of the country. The United States’ involvement was late enough and brief enough that most of those who served returned home as decorated heroes, the stars of small-town Fourth of July parades. They even formed their own clubs, such as the American Legion, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. This gave the men a place to sit and drink and make-up battle stories where everyone was pinned down and the least likely of the group saved them all.
But on the back side of that war came the Great Depression and small-town life grew challenging. Cash flow became a problem. Factories began to close and family farms struggled to stay operational. When World War II came along, people in small towns saw it as a chance to be great again. So, they sent their young men, their store owners, their farmers’ work hands, and any other abled body to fight.
The end of that tragic war saw the resurgence of the American hero. While small towns paid a greater price this time around, they were still proud of those who had served. Parades featured them prominently. Membership in ex-military organizations was a sign of social standing. Military release papers guaranteed one a job in almost any factory and a loan from practically any bank. By 1950, the only thing most small towns saw as a threat was rock and roll.
But then came the Korean conflict; not actually a war, but a call to duty and the sons of heroes were sent off to fight and die in jungles for a cause so confusing that World War II’s best generals couldn’t win. When many of those sons failed to return, some began to question the whole military worship of small towns, but only the rebellious “trouble makers” dared speak of it.
Then came Vietnam and the 1960s. The children of those WWII heroes had gone off to college, something most their parents never had the opportunity to do, and with education came the realization that conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam didn’t actually solve anything. Speaking out in small towns wasn’t acceptable, though, so the young adults left small towns, moved to the cities and joined a different kind of social revolution. Those who didn’t leave were drafted and small towns paid a disproportionately heavy price as troops fought in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia. With few young people left to maintain the local workforce, small towns began to see the first signs of decline.
By the 1970s, small towns were beginning to realize that they were in danger and struggled to hold on to their identities, and often failed. Small manufacturers were gobbled up by larger corporations and the jobs moved outside the US. The economics of farming changed and the family farm grew less viable. Corporate farming companies made attractive offers and bought up thousands of acres. Farmers, chasing whatever jobs they could get, moved to larger and larger cities.
With fewer economic opportunities and the lure of fast fortunes and glamorous lifestyles perpetuated through television and movies, small towns became the places where people were from, not where anyone of note actually lived. Young people ran from their hometowns the instant they graduated high school and never looked back. Then, by the late 1980s and 90s, those now middle-aged adults began moving their aging parents away from the small towns as well. Medical care was better and more readily available in the big cities. Retirement centers offered comfortable living without the upkeep and maintenance of an aging house and lawn. There was no reason for anyone to stay in a small town anymore.
Of course, not everyone just immediately gave up and left. Some tried to hang on. The store owners whose shops lined main streets everywhere did their best to maintain services for those who remained, but even they found the economics difficult. Wal-Mart, with its impossibly low-priced clothing, knocked small shop owners out of business, unable to compete. Big chains such as CVS and Walgreens eliminated the local pharmacist. Finally, the bulk-purchasing power of grocery chains such as Kroger drove out the small independent grocers whose stores had fed small towns for generations. Remember Wally, Mayberry’s mechanic and gas station owner? He was bought out by Shell or BP and replaced with a convenience store. Even restaurants and diners ultimately gave way to McDonald’s and Taco Bell.
Slowly but surely, the economic vitality that once fueled small towns just went away. Nothing was left but a handful of dreams and memories of when the town used to be great.
All that’s left
I grew up in small towns and, like most of those from my generation, couldn’t wait to be gone, to make my mark on the world and enjoy the opportunities of the big city. I’ve never regretted moving away and have no plans to return for any length of time.
Earlier this week, though, Kat and I needed to visit one of those once-great small towns. We knew from our last trip two years ago that we couldn’t stay long. We would fulfill familial obligations, give grandma a chance to grow weary of the kids, and be gone. Four days total. It felt as though we were there for a month.
What we saw and heard was depressing. Gone are the days where small towns can be policed peacefully. Local law enforcement utilizes the most modern equipment available as they attempt to hold reign over an epidemic of meth and opioid literally stripping the life from the town. Were they still alive today, Andy not only would wear a gun but body armor as well. Barney wouldn’t be some hapless goof, but a well-trained paramilitary officer with tactical capabilities sufficient to take down well-armed gangs.
The policing equipment was the highlight of the town’s Independence Day parade. Only four military veterans were left to ride in a refurbished Jeep. The rest of the parade consisted of local church groups, a half-dozen Boy Scouts, a bus filled with residents from a Lutheran retirement center, and the one local business that still does well: a sewage company.
At the local park, food tents and vendors’ stalls were run by the town’s increasing immigrant population. Unable to find local people to fill the positions, companies hire immigrants for farm work and to process chickens at the local food conglomerate facility. The town has an obesity issue. It would be challenging to find many people over the age of 18 who are not severely overweight. Not that we’re surprised. Statistics show that small towns are havens of undiagnosed diabetes. There’s little healthcare available in town. There’s no hospital anymore. Most people drive the 30 miles to a large city when an emergency arises. They try to avoid those situations, though, because few can afford insurance.
There were no softball ballgames on the school diamond. In fact, the youth population has dwindled to the point the county has considered closing the schools there. The large houses along the main street are filled mostly with older people whose children bring the grandchildren to visit, just as we did. While little faces lined the parade route, few actually live in the small town. When the parade was over, most people retreated inside their homes for the rest of the day. There were no community picnics, despite the festivities at the park. No pie-eating contests. A local band played on the bandstand, but no one was listening. A firetruck opened its hose, spraying water into the air, but only two children were playing in the spray.
At the end of the day, we were one of a dozen cars sitting in an empty parking lot watching fireworks paid for by a non-profit grant-based organization. Even on that matter, most people seemed to prefer doing their own fireworks with their families, seeing who could go right up to the midnight deadline.
We left the next morning, anxious to get back a life that is, for us, more comfortable and, quite possibly, even a little safer. Small towns like those in which I grew up have changed. They thrive only on memories of what life was once like there. No one smiles and waves as they pass. No one sits on the front porch and strums a guitar in the evening as Andy did in Mayberry. Next-door neighbors don’t know each other’s name.
As we pulled onto the Interstate headed home, we pondered whether we would ever return to the small town again. Perhaps it would be easier if Grandma just came to us, where we don’t have to worry about not being able to find the right kind of milk or ice for a cooler. The once-quiet and peaceful attraction of the small town is gone. Now it is simply lacking and perhaps a bit more dangerous than the inner-city neighborhood we call home.
Life in small town America is no longer capable of projecting the idyllic pastoral settings we once pretended were the reality. When the dominant family-run business is three generations of divorce attorneys, we can no longer claim that small town life holds any advantage. The glory days are gone and no orange-skinned con man can bring them back.