This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
A lumberyard, variety store, pharmacy, video rental stop (complete with great Disney classics), Masonic hall, beauty parlor, the cafe where they had Mr. Pibb…
I drive through a lot of small towns, all of which have unique stories, spirit and history. There are some communities to which time has been kind, with circumstances that have kept them relatively intact or even growing.
Others — many others — must work to make the present better than the past: To recover what time took when faced with a changing sense of community.
I thought about that again recently as I walked around the square in a small Ozarks town. I won’t say which one, because it’s a common ailment that many places face.
It’s a town where traffic is so light on a weekday afternoon that I could walk down the middle of the street without much trouble. And where, right as I typed these words, a man drove down the street on a lawn tractor.
It’s also a place where I spent a lot of time growing up: Those landmarks I listed at the start of this post were the businesses I remember as a child filling one side of the square. They aren’t places my Dad recalls as remnants of his childhood in the ’60s; I saw them with my very eyes, just a few years ago, when I would come visit my grandparents’ insurance agency.
Today, nearly every one of those buildings is empty. Some of the businesses moved elsewhere in town, but many did not.
What do we do? There are great people in this town and so many others like it that are working for revitalization. Hope is not lost. But if we want small communities to resemble any form of what they once did — if not for the types of businesses and services that have evolved, but because we want to know our neighbors and feel connected to where we are — this has to be a team effort.
It’s easy in this fast-paced world to overlook details and little factors as to why small communities are important. But I think they make a difference for you and me and those who come after us. Without these connections, traditions and bonds they build, what does it mean to be in the Ozarks?
All that said: I would encourage you to see how you can help make a difference in your community. Maybe it’s joining a board, suggesting a solution or simply showing you care. It can mean a lot when it feels like momentum is building. (I need to do better at this, too.)
Ultimately, it is up to us to build places where we want to be.