Everyone has heard this comment, probably a million times, and let it pass on without comment. Indeed, the American background story is, almost invariably, "I was born in a small town" or "I grew up on a farm". So archetypal is it, that rocker John Cougar penned a song called "Small Town" which is entirely about the virtues of small towns. Iris Dement, on the other hand, penned the heart breaking "Our Town" about a town that's clearly a small, and dying, small town. John Prine went one step further and penned "Paradise" about Paradise Kentucky, a real small town, that he somewhat fictionally claims was "hauled away" by the Peabody Coal Company, to their enduring irritation.
The small town of Paradise Kentucky, in the late 19th Century.
Leaving the "I grew up on a farm" comment aside for a moment, it might serve to actually look at the statement. What's it mean? That is, what is a small town, and do we really recognize one when we see one.
Do we really recognize a small town when we see one?
I grew up in Casper Wyoming. It's not a small town, it's a medium sized city. Because it is a western city, however, it's a medium sized city that's an island in the prairie to some extent, although this is now less true than it once was. Suffice it to say, however, the entire time I've lived in Casper, it's been a medium sized city, although my father lived in it when it was a small city and he lived through its growth to be a medium sized city, something he never commented on but which I'm glad in a way hasn't been my experience, as I would have lamented the change. Having said that, I have lived in a small city, Laramie Wyoming, for a period of several years, and because it too is an island in the prairie, or more accurately the high plains, the geographic feel of the city doesn't vary tremendously from Casper in some ways.
While Casper is a small city, or rather a medium sized city, I've heard time and time again, both in the past and currently, that Casper's a "small town". Far from it. It's definately not. It has ample population to be regarded as a medium sized city, and if the greater metropolitan area is included, there's no doubt of that at all. So why do people think that?
I wonder if it is, in part, because true "towns", at least in this region, have taken such a hit. A lot of them are mere shadows of their former selves, if they are there at all. For example, in this county, the small town of Powder River at one time spread across both sides of the highway and the town featured a church, post office, bar/restaurant, another restaurant, a hotel and a store. It also had a railroad station. It was never more than a small town, however.
Today, Powder River retains a church and a post office (and maybe the hotel is functioning, I'm not sure), but nothing else I've mentioned above still exists. A person cannot even buy gasoline there, and the nearest station is over 20 miles away. It's not a town that a person could live in and expect to have any local services.
House of Our Shepherd Church in Powder River, Wyoming. This Assemblies of God church is served by a pastor who is a local rancher, which adds another element to this story, as this town was always so small as to have a single church, in so far as I'm aware. Slightly larger towns, like Shoshoni Wyoming, had considerably more services, including churches of more than one denomination. The blue building to the left is or was a hotel.
Arminto, just up the railroad, may provide a better example. It was always quite small, but none the less it was at one time very active. It was the largest single railroad loading facility for sheep on earth, at one time. It had a famous bar, a store, and a population that served the railroad. Now, the bar is gone (burned down), there is no store, and the railroad doesn't stop there any more.
Arminto Wyoming, looking towards a grove of trees that stand where the bar and a hotel once did. This town has the Disappearing Railroad Blues.*
And I could go on. But, suffice it to say, in order for a small town to really survive now, it has to have a reason independant of isolation and the railroads, and even then things might be rough for it. Shoshoni Wyoming, for example, hangs on, but it's at a junction for two state highways near a very busy recreational reservoir. And even it is a mere shawdow of its former self.
For that reason, I think small cities, like Riverton Wyoming, get confused for "small towns" fairly frequently. A true town, like Lander Wyoming or Thermopolis Wyoming, is probably a larger town by historical standards. Small towns that really hang on, for example something like Hudson Wyoming, or perhaps Dubois Wyoming, are exceptions, and exceptions for a definite reason. We hardly recognize a real small town when we see one.
*From the lyrics of The City of New Orleans, about a train named that, on its last run.