Our small towns are disappearing

Published 8:42 am Thursday, July 21, 2011

Column: Bill King, Washington Avenue

Thompson. Leland. Hanlontown. Joice. Toeterville. Bolon. Mona. Where did you go?

Since 1950, these rural towns have become a skid mark on the road to nowhere. The families used to gather on the main streets of these rural communities on Saturday to shop, to watch the latest movies, to meet our friends, to socialize, to get haircuts and to take a breath of fresh air, from our days on the farm or in the local factories.

Bill King

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We could run, jump and holler. We could be transported to unknown places of the world at the local movie house. We could buy the best ice cream sundae with a cherry on the top at the drugstore. There were prepackaged goodies at the local grocery store and mechanical wonders at the hardware store.

The local department store meant school shoes, Sunday pants, dresses, shirts, ready-made underwear, candies and Dad’s black wool suit and an Easter hat for Mom.

Do you remember watching the money put into those shiny, little metal boxes? We stuck it in a slot by the counter and watched as it flew through the air, around corners, through the wall and then back out again, along the track and back to the clerk, faster than the speed of light and out popped our correct change.

Maybe you grew old enough to follow Dad to the local garage to talk about the latest model of Ford or Chevy. Maybe they had the latest model of Studebaker. You walked around and around trying to figure out the front from the back. Were there new fins on the Cadilliac? What would they think of next?

Do you remember the night you drove to town to see the new weekly movie and the theater was closed?

What went next? Was it the clothing store, the hardware store, the drugstore with the soda fountain and the marble floors?

Now you can stand in the middle of Main Street America, slowly turning as you point out to your companion where you used to ride the open prairies of the Wild West, buy the best ice cream sundae with real chocolate and the sweetest cherry on top, nesting in a generous helping of whipped cream.

Looking next to the boarded-up windows of the hardware store where you bought nails to hang the barn door. The nails now have to be purchased 30 miles down the road at the new box-shaped franchise from Arkansas.

The brand new bank now holds a beauty shop. Mollie’s Coffee Haus now houses an insurance office, a real estate office and a weight-loss clinic. The dentist office now serves a different type of Novocaine; it now comes with a liquid mix and a lime twist.

The lumber yard has used some of its own products to cover the windows and chain the fence gate to keep the vandals and spirited teenagers from hurting themselves or burning the yard to the ground.

The empty creamery stands as a monument to all the farmers who raised and milked cows, who produced the milk the creameries turned into butter, that made the dry toasted bread taste so good, which gave us such a great start on the day.

The school no longer teaches the rural youth but houses the seniors who once tramped those same hallways, seeking knowledge, that would one day take them away to larger cities, some to the four corners of the earth or maybe traverse the heavens, seeking other planets or maybe a chance to walk on the moon.

What’s left of the old bustling town?

Our bank is out on the highway next to the elevator.

The farmer goes to the bank to secure a loan, to buy seed, to grow corn and beans, to sell to the elevator, to pay back the bank and buy gas, to drive to the big-box store from Arkansas, to buy all the things we used to buy from our friends and neighbors on Main Street USA.

Around and around we turn looking for our past. What are we seeing? Is it our future?

Alden. Wells. Emmons. Mapleton. Minnesota Lake. Scarville. Vinje. Walters. Hartland.

Albert Lea resident Bill King is a member of the Washington Avenue Writers Group.