Thoughts on Small Towns

I love small towns. That might seem funny coming from someone who lives in the largest metroplex in Idaho (over half a million), but Boise is the exception. Boise has a small town feel to it and I really like it there, but it’s not as peaceful as a small town.

I’ve lived in small towns most of my life. The traffic is slower, people know each other better, and there’s a level of friendship that is almost palatable. In small towns, old-timers gather in the mornings for coffee and discuss the current events around town and the nation. For some reason, most of the gatherings I’ve seen involved only men. One thing I’ve never figured out, where were the women? I’m finally at the age where I could join their roundtable discussions. One morning in Spearfish, I joined in with a group of retirees who happen to be old friends. We sat and talked for about 2 hours. Now I understand why old-timers do that. It’s fun!

We’ve been through a lot of small towns across the northern Great Plains. St. Regis has a really cool tourist shop and awesome huckleberry shakes. In the little town of Hungry Horse, Montana is the Huckleberry Patch where we got more really great huckleberry shakes. East Grand Forks, Minnesota has a really friendly postal clerk that was very helpful. Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota remains a perennial favorite stop just because of the diversity of things they offer, like jackalopes, books, mementos, and a mechanical singing cowboy band.

I like living in small towns because you see familiar faces more often, making you feel more at home. The pace of life and traffic is much slower and easier. Some of my favorite small towns: Pierre, Custer, and Spearfish, all in South Dakota.

View of the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre
View of the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre

Pierre (pronounced “peer”) is the state capital, one of the smallest capital cities in the nation. With less than 15,000 residents, it is graced with a magnificent domed building in the middle of town and multiple state office buildings. The lake beside the capital is a warm water lake that is covered with waterfowl in the winters. The town is putting up statues of all of the governors in the past 125 years of statehood. The homes are neat and lawns are well kept. The Missouri River runs through town, separating the towns of Pierre and Fort Pierre, and the Central and Mountain Time Zones. The park along the river provides swimming beaches, shade, and activities. It’s a quiet town with the best ice cream drive-up anywhere, Zesto. Come to think of it, maybe Zesto is the center of town because you see everybody there in all kinds of weather and temperatures, rain, shine, or blizzard.

Custer is a quiet town with less than 2,000 people and is named after General George who slept there in 1874. Its attraction is its playground: Black Hills National Forest, Mickelson Rail Trail, and Custer State Park. The prettiest scenery in the Black Hills is within 20 miles of Custer. If you are in the right place, you can see it from your front deck, including Harney Peak, Calamity Peak, and the Cathedrals. The hiking or biking trails are a short walk or ride away. The weather is usually warmer and less snowy than the northern Black Hills, making it the “banana belt” of the area.

My favorite small town is Spearfish, with about 11,000 people in it. Its population grows during the school year with Black Hills State University, my alma mater. The town is the neatest and cleanest and friendliest of all the towns I’ve been in. All of the amenities are there so it is self-contained. The city park along Spearfish Creek is one of the most beautiful places anywhere. Celebrations, festivals, or events are numerous, with something for everyone. People come from miles and miles around to attend the events. The only bad thing about Spearfish is that it’s 18 miles from Sturgis and around the first of August, it’s terribly noisy with all the ear-shattering Harleys everywhere. If it weren’t for the rugged winters, I’d move there again in a second. But I’ve grown soft with the mild winters of Boise.

There’s nothing bad about large or small cities. They offer so many opportunities and amenities and are a fun place to visit. As for me, I like living the small-town way. It brings me peace.

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