I’m a representative of a small town. I grew up in a dot (a very small dot) on a map off I-385 that existed only because of cotton and railroads. The town had a good cotton gin and the CSX railroad ran right next to main street, which was also State Highway 14. The gin and most of the farms that raised cotton were gone by the time I was old enough to know what cotton and cotton gins were. All that’s left of the old gin that was the heartbeat of the town is a square foundation with poles at the corners. It’s a great place to dig worms for fishing.
Towns like mine are the biggest part of our country. Sure, you’ve got your New Yorks and LAs, but for every big starred Atlanta, four or five Sugar Tits, Pleasant Groves, and Smithfields hold down their dots on the Rand-McNally.
In the South, we have a lot of textile mill towns. Back when “Made in America” meant actually created here instead of just assembled here from foreign parts, the South was the largest exporter of textiles in the world. Many bales of cotton rolled into one end of a plant only to emerge as miles and miles of cloth on the other end. Of course, once NAFTA and its corollary bills passed back in the ’80s and ’90s, the plants and mills started shutting down. It’s hard to compete paying $15 per hour to American workers when Mexican workers would do the same job for $15 a week. Of course, in a bit of irony, the Mexican factories that took the textiles from the South are losing their $15 a week jobs to Chinese who thing $15 a month is a royal wage.
The textile South isn’t the only small town area that’s hit hard times. The Rust Belt has small towns around steel mills and those mills started dying in the ’70s to cheaper foreign metal. Still, lots of small towns all across the country are holding on. Mining outposts in the West, farming towns in the Midwest bread basket, cattle towns in Texas and elsewhere. They are all places where life moves a little slower and things haven’t change much in many years. It’s the fishing towns on the coast and the orchard towns in the Citrus Belt that join the remote northwestern logging towns in making up the backbone of the country.
But what all these towns have in common is a set of individuals making up their population. Each has a cast of characters just as varied, but at the same time as predictable, as a Shakespearean play. I want to introduce you to some of them whom I grew up with and whose analogues can be found in pretty much every small town from Maine to California, Washington to Florida and all point in between. Look for them in some of my next posts.
Until then, keep your feet clean and remember who loves y’all!