Ohio appears to be the epicenter of politics in the next election and will continue to be the bellwether – at least from the media perspective. I also believe that Appalachia – put on the national scene once again by John McCain’s visit to Inez, Ky. – will play into the presidential election. The small towns that dot the landscape along the presidential trail were brought to mind a few weeks ago as I served as keynote speaker for the Hartford kick-off event of their bicentennial celebration.
Hartford, located in western Kentucky just off the Natcher Parkway and just south of Owensboro, is a city of about 55,000 on the Ohio River. To give you an idea of Hartford’s population, consider their slogan: “Home of 2,000 Happy Souls and a Few Soreheads.” To their honored citizens they actually give out “sorehead” certificates – I received one that day – with the idea being that to be a good citizen you sometimes have to be a sorehead to get anything done!
But as joyous as the occasion was, Hartford is suffering from the ills of many small towns and shares many of the ills of small towns in Kentucky. The poverty rate is above average, the educational attainment is below average and per capita income is way below Kentucky and U.S. averages.
Like many Kentucky towns, it was a farming community and was within its own parameters of what I refer to as a bell curve kind of place. In other words, with its “2,000 happy souls and a few soreheads,” Hartford was where settlers came to farm – the town growing up to serve as a “trading” center of activity for the farming community. The settlers bore children, lived and did business there and in the end were laid to rest in the cemeteries surrounding the many churches overlooking the beautiful farmland. Everyone knew everyone and neighborliness was the order of the day.
But all that changed. Just as my parents participated in one of the biggest migrations out of eastern Kentucky in the early ’50s to find work in the factories of the North, so too did the young people in Hartford, leaving along with others throughout small-town Kentucky. Sadly, that exodus continues today.
The day of the Hartford celebration was brilliantly beautiful and the people were dressed in period costumes – including the mayor, a particularly impressive person who is head of nursing at the local hospital. It was a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and it made me happy and sad at the same time. It was a portrait of happiness, with the bleachers crowded in front of the makeshift stage. There were the talented and beautiful beauty pageant winners, one of whom played a stirring rendition of the national anthem on her violin.
But the sadness came in trying to answer the question: What is the end game for small-town America? My speech that day was about defying those who say small-town America is dead. It was about the talk of a new age dawning where people will be returning to small towns as they are beginning to do now – to places where they can make a difference in a world grown bewilderingly wild and out of control.
But do I really believe it can happen? Do I believe that those young elected officials in Inez can make the difference that has to be made? Do I believe this extremely talented mayor of Hartford can continue the tradition of celebration of life in this small town?
I invite you to visit my blog at sylvia.newcities.org as I explore this topic – particularly as we move into the meat of a historic presidential election. I would like to hear from readers as we examine whether small towns can survive in the rough and tumble of this 21st century of unprecedented change.