Since moving to Kansas City six years ago, my identity as a city boy, an urbanite, has taken on new meaning. We now live three hours from the small town of Neodesha, KS, where my partner spent twenty plus years before our marriage. I have gotten to know some of her long time friends and like all of them a lot. They live in small towns of southeast Kansas like Chanute, Coffeyville, Yates Center, Fredonia and Climax and I have enjoyed thinking about what if anything makes them different from the big city residents like myself
The observation that there is a greater appreciation of the value of community in small towns I accept as true but inadequate. Spending a recent weekend on a Lake near the town of Emporia, KS yielded for me a better understanding of what community in a small town feels like. And it was a pleasure to experience. Almost all those present resided in a small town of the region. Some still lived in the town of their birth, some nearby in the state college town of Emporia.
During the early decades of the 20th century, William Allen White’s opinion pieces in Emporia’s newspaper were read nation wide. He became famous as the voice of small town residents in the “heartland of America”, People in the big cities, and the nation’s capital in particular, saw him as a kind of oracle, a modern day sage expounding on the enduring values of what made the U.S. a “great” nation. The origin of those values he attributed to the community life that grows in small towns across the Midwestern United States.
The weekend festivities at the Lake began with a rousing jam session Friday night where the musicians joined around the lead guitars of Kenny and Jeff, both leaders of popular regional bands thirty or forty years ago. Two or three newcomers to the “shrimp boil” weekend joined to sing or play some fiery rock-a-billy” and blues, including a few songs written by the musicians themselves.
The harmonica player in Jeff’s band and his wife, who now live on 40 acres of woods on the outskirts of Neodesha remain among Kate’s best friends. Though not herself a musician, Kate has been a fan of the bands represented at the “Shrimp Boil” since moving to southeast Kansas. Later in the weekend I was amused to learn that “Uncle Vance” who trucked the seafood up from the Alabama Gulf Coast had been an eager fan of hers forty years ago.
The fact no one needed a ticket to be present either for the jam night or Saturday, when one of Kansas City’s favorite rock-a-billy bands played, added to the joy, ambience and charm of the weekend. Most of the Lake’s families who attended did bring a dish and all were displayed on a crammed L shaped table arrangement. Uncle Vance supervised the preparation of a delicious gumbo soup made with the shrimp, mussels, crabs, scallops. For me the melt in your mouth scallop was the eating highlight.
There seemed to be an instant community created at the “shrimp boil” by the seafood smorgasbord, the music that summoned us all to “let the good times roll” and the lifelong relationships renewed and restored by the gathering. It had the feel of a family reunion which all present had looked forward to attending. People were at their best: not a despairing word, not an offensive gesture, not a cutting remark, no wrestling for the limelight. William Allen White would have been proud.
I returned to Kansas City assured that human beings are social creatures who thrive in community. We are made for life in communities. Whether it be a community of musicians, a church congregation, a union local, a small town. We are most productive, we are more creative and satisfied when we submerge our personal interests to participate in a group. For many people in this heavily urbanized country, the small town they live in or were raised in is that “something bigger than ourselves” which transmits the values they seek to defend and represent.
Life in a small town encourages a panoply of values, sometimes conflicting and all seen at risk by some of the residents and former residents. There is first the identity of belonging to a community created by geographic isolation. Relationships with persons who hail from the same town endure often in spite of age, class and vocational differences. One honors and elevates one’s own existence through reminiscencing about shared experience and the persons, alive and dead, whose lives continue to intersect with our own. Each conversation with persons of the community, after a prolonged absence or not, reinforces our recognition of the sacred quality of relationships and our desire to preserve them against threats both perceived and real.
That commitment to preserving the community and the relationships rooted there means once a community member always a community member. Unfortunate and at a disadvantage is the politican who cannot announce his or her candidacy in the community which nurtured them. How distressing it is, though, whenever politicans twist and distort small town values to stoke fear and division. Recent history of the U.S. proves there is nothing good, whether it be faith in a loving God, the values fostered by life in a small town, democratic ideals expressed in our founding documents, nothing good that cannot be used for the pursuit of self interest and power. Loyalty to a community’s way of life becomes easily transformed into opposition to the changes required by the climate crisis, opposition to acceptance of migrants fleeing from injustice and violence, or opposition to the truth of the nation’s oppression and cruelty. But rather than close this blog on a somber note, let’s consider some lines written for books or articles by the sage of Emporia, KS William Allen White.
“Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others”
“So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold — by voice, by posted card, by letter or by press. Reason never has failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.”
“My advice to the women of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias.” (Prior to passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote)
“Youth should be radical. Youth should demand change in the world. Youth should not accept the old order if the world is to move on. But the old orders should not be moved easily – certainly not at the mere whim or behest of youth. There must be clash and if youth hasn’t enough force or fervor to produce the clash the world grows stale and stagnant and sour in decay.”
“If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, or joys, or base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own . . . how much kinder, how much gentler he would be.”