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How to Explore a Small Town

Helpful Tips So You Won’t Feel You've Missed Anything

By Johnny Stucco

“You can observe a lot - just by watching.” – Yogi Berra
If you’re doing it correctly, exploring even the smallest of towns can take hours. There are some people who have been exploring small towns for years and aren’t even close to finishing. There’s a name for people like that. Archeologists.

Exploring a 19th Century American ghost town could easily be considered archeology. Exploring a still-breathing 20th Century town might be considered cultural anthropology. It all seems to hinge on whether you brought a shovel and a whisk broom or a camera.

You can think of this as a checklist if you are the type of person who likes checklists. Actually, it is just a helpful reminder (with numbered suggestions).

Here are Texas Escapes' 12 helpful suggestions for visiting a small town (so you won't feel you have missed anything).

These suggestions are for the layperson, historical tourist, curious traveler, or anyone who enjoys the quiet and understated thrills of small town exploration.
1. Reconnoiter Main Street

Start at one end of the town’s main street (which has a 50% chance of being officially named Main Street) and drive through town getting an overall impression. Drive until the buildings disappear and then drive a few more blocks for good measure. By doing this you will frequently encounter some structure or another that isn't included in downtown proper. Perhaps it is a railroad switching tower, brickyard, or grain elevator. Perhaps the town had been hit by a tornado or fire and a building or two will define the town’s former city limits.
Street Scene in Pawhuska, Oklahoma

Street Scene in Pawhuska, Oklahoma
TE Photo February, 2005

2. Signage

Note the names on the street signs – especially if they are surnames. In most cases small towns have surnamed streets while the larger towns have natural, topographic or geographic names. Someone once defined suburbs with the memorable quote: “That’s where they cut down all the trees and then named the streets after them.”

Also pay attention to the faded painted signs on the walls and windows of buildings. Walls were frequently painted with ads. Painted relics in windows often include names of doctors, dentists and public officials.

Once the icon of modernity, small town neon signs are now considered vintage artifacts.
Grand Saline , Texas ghost sign
Photo courtesy Mike Price, October 2007
See Ghost Signs
Arnold Cotton Co. neon sign, Crockett Texas
Crockett, Texas neon sign
TE Photo April, 2002
See Old Neons
3. Secondary Businesses and Residential Streets

Drive back to the opposite side of town using streets one block over that run parallel to main street. This will give you an overview of secondary businesses in some cases and samples of residential architecture in others.

Looking at the rear of the main street buildings will often reveal ghost signs of defunct businesses. Why backdoor signage? In former times pedestrian traffic was heavy and residential patrons would often enter through the back entrances of stores. Without the telltale clues of main street, one needed the guidance of rear-of-building signage.
Humbolt, Kansas

A February morning in Humbolt, Kansas
TE Photo, 2005
See Water Towers

C.F. Kerr Hardward ghost sign, Hereford Texas
Rear Entrance Ghost Sign in Hereford, Texas
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, December 2007

4. Cemetery

Visit the cemetery if you encounter it on your drive or allow time to explore it later. Not only will you notice now-familiar names from the street signage on the tombstones, but you'll see names that you'll encounter on the buildings and their cornerstones.

Bastrop Texas Fairview Cemetery
Bastrop, Texas Fairview Cemetery
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, 2007
See Texas Cemeteries

5. Sidewalks, Curbing and Thresholds

After returning to main street, park your car and walk the sidewalks. Remember to look down. Sidewalks, curbing and thresholds will give you additional clues to the town’s history. Are the bricks embossed with the name of a regional brick company or are they frogged with the name of the town you're visiting?

Proprietors once had their name proudly spelled out on the building’s façade, or in other cases, they had it set in tile at the building’s entrance. Buildings with cast iron fronts sometimes had their owners names forged into the iron thresholds.

 Victoria Texas 1892 Allnoch building
Allnoch Building in Victoria, Texas
TE photo
1894 W.B.Turner cast-iron threshhold in Chico Texas

A Cast-iron Threshold in Chico, Texas
TE Photo June 2002

Flatonia, Texas Arnim and Lane General Store tile sidewalk
The Arnim and Lane General Store in Flatonia, Texas
TE Photo March 1999
See Texas Stores
6. Cornerstones

Depending on your schedule, and the number of towns you hope to visit, you may want to start by visiting public buildings. If the town is a county seat, the courthouse will be the easiest to find. Examine the building - making sure to seek out the cornerstone(s). Frequently the cornerstone of a demolished or burned former courthouse will be on display on the courthouse lawn. Besides courthouses, buildings most likely to have cornerstones are schools, post offices and lodges.

A rather modest cornerstone on the
Masonic Lodge in Fort Scott, Kansas
TE Photo February, 2005
See Cornerstones | Lodges

7. Statuary and Fountains

Scattered around city parks (or in county seats – on the courthouse lawn), you will encounter statues and fountains. There is no particular pattern to placement. In Southern states, the nearly identical and seemingly omnipresent Confederate memorials are interesting in that they were not erected by government decree – but by the veterans themselves who solicited funds for placement some 50 years after they had served.

Many marble fountains for watering horses also had basins a few inches off the ground for dogs. Installation of these fountains matched the years when “Animal Societies” began incorporating. Memorial fountains are rare but always a delightful discovery since there’s a story attached.
Ft. Worth Texas Fountain Alfred Hayne
Fountain honoring Alfred Hayne, a civilian who died in a fire after saving others in Fort Worth's most disastrous fire.
TE photo, 2002
Chickasha, Oklahoma watering fountain for animals

A watering fountain for animals sits near the depot in Chickasha, Oklahoma.
TE Photo March, 2005
See Grain Elevators

8. Public Buildings

Public buildings include County and Federal Courthouses, Jails, City Halls, Fire Stations, Post Offices, Auditoriums, Hospitals, Schools and Libraries. Most have cornerstones or dates incorporated into the building and most have predictable architecture – sometimes grand and sometimes less-than-grand. Of the approximate 1,400 Carnegie libraries built across the United States, for example, the favored style is Greek Revival (the favorite of Mr. Carnegie).
Pioneer cabin, Milam County Jail and Courthouse
Cameron, Texas Pioneer cabin, left,
Milam County Jail (right) and Courthouse in distance.
TE Photo Januaryn 2000
See Courthouses | Jails

9. Commercial and Private Buildings

Stores and retail establishments were usually utilitarian rectangular structures for the most part but when dealing with uneven real estate, they may sometimes have a triangular shape. Collectively, the commercial buildings will usually form the overall impression one gets from a town. The familiar 19th Century woodframe false-fronted buildings gave way to more substantial brick buildings with subdued facades in the 20s and 30s. Banks were either stone or brick with marble details and shared a notable characteristic with drugstores since both favored corner locations.

Depots are included in the "private" half of this category since they were owned by the railroad. Thousands were demolished in the 1950s and today the survivors are mostly gifts from the railroads to the host towns. They once comprised the largest group of orphan buildings in America. Most now operate as museums or chambers of commerce. After courthouses, they are the most frequently-restored buildings.

Gas stations are another members of this group. Depending on the town and the era, these orphan buildings range from the grand flagship stations of oil companies to the generic run-of-the-mill variety. Some towns still have a dozen of these modest buildings – usually occupied by smaller businesses like dry cleaners, auto detailers or hair salons.

Lodges and theaters break the monotony of main street. Pediments of lodges are often decorated with links of chain, heraldry, painted globes or suits of armor. Others may display mysterious initials like K of P, BPOE, or IOOF. (Knights of Pythias, Benevolent Protectors of Elks, and the International Order of Odd Fellows.) The subtle lodge facades almost always lose out to the brash terra cotta or brightly hued theater marquees of theaters.

Opera houses were sometimes privately-owned and sometimes owned by the municipality.

North Platte, Nebraska Fox Theater
The North Platte, Nebraska Fox Theater with the Pawnee Hotel across the Street.
Photo shot by Stephen Michaels, Christmas Day 2007 (Four degrees above zero.)
See Theaters
Clarksville Texas former gas  station
A former gas station in Clarksville, Texas
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, April 2006
See Gas Stations
Taylor Texas Odd Fellows Lodge

Stone Pediment of a former Odd Fellows Lodge in Taylor, Texas
TE Photo January 2002
See Lodges

10. National Chain Stores

Piggly-Wiggly, A & P, Kress, Woolworths, Montgomery Ward, and many other stores once made the difference between a backwater town and one whose star was ascending. Things haven’t changed. Chambers of commerce still swell with pride when their town gets a Wal-Mart or Starbucks. While relics of most of the old chain stores were long ago stuccoed over or obliterated, Kress stores are still easily recognizable by their distinctive nameplates. In larger cities the ornate signage, gilded trim and terra cotta details of Kress buildings have been preserved. The smaller (and far less detailed) Montgomery Ward stores are easily identifiable for their “Spirit of Progress” logo.
Spirit of Progress in Beeville, Texas

A former Montgomery Ward Store in Beeville, Texas
TE Photo August 2000

'The Spirit of Progress'... was M-W's logo and appears on many of their storefronts from the early 20th century. It's a good way to spot old M-W stores that have been converted to new uses. - Dwight Young, Columnist for Preservation Magazine

Detail of the former Kress Building in Memphis, Tennessee
The former Kress Building in Memphis, Tennessee.
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, July 2007
See Texas Stores
Kress Buildings Across Texas & America
11. Ecclesiastic Architecture

Churches and Synagogues are easily recognizable. At least the churches. In Nineteenth Century Texas many synagogues often kept a low profile by building simple frame buildings that closely resembled Christian churches – just minus the steeples. Examining the donated stained glass windows of a town’s early churches will usually reveal the same surnames encountered on the town’s street signs, storefronts and tombstones.
Whitney Tx Cumberland Presbyterian Church
Whitney, Texas
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, July 2007
See Churches | Water Towers
12. Bridges, Infrastructure and Unique Buildings

Bridges are rarely found downtown, but they are often a predictable fixture on approaches to town. They usually surprise or delight the visitor (but are all but invisible to the local resident) unless they are the bland modern overpass or concrete span. Those delight no one.

Unique and miscellaneous structures include water towers, incinerators, waterworks, cotton gins, factories, warehouses, grain elevators, creameries, etc.
Imperial Through Truss Bridge,  Pecos River,  West Texas
"Lionel Dreams"
The Pecos River Through Truss Bridge
Photo Courtesy Barclay Gibson, December 2007
See Bridges
Luling Texas old tourist court
The unique (and defunct) Rock-a-Bye Courts of Luling, Texas constructed of native stone and petrified wood.
TE Photo July 2002.
See Rooms with a Past
Lagniappe / Consideration

When visiting a small town you will undoubtedly see ruins or buildings soon to become rubble. You'll recognize them immediately for they will look out of place as well as out of time. You will get a sense that they're not going to be here if you pass this way next year. Consider snapping a photo if only to pay homage to the building or the people who laid the bricks, raised the roofbeams or lettered the signage. It may become the only proof that it was ever here.
Denison High School, demolished in Texas
Denison's Old High School lost it's battle with "Progressive" developers and city fathers in 2006.
Photo courtesy Mike Price, December 2006
See Razed in Texas
Encountering Residents and Denizens
The Icing on the Cake

Crossing paths with a person who has lived there for years is a rare opportunity and often turns out to be the highlight of the trip (See Local Personalities) . Think of it as the proverbial "icing on the cake." Secondly, they can relate stories you won't find in the local newspaper.

One small town explorer has stated: "A stranger in town is never as invisible as they might think, so speak to folks - and say Howdy. I guarantee you will learn something and each will walk away from the encounter with a sense of pride for having shared."

If your visit coincides with library hours, you may want to extend your investigation in that direction. Check to see if a local history has been published. Our recommendation would be to check out the small self-published volumes over the commercial tomes that were published for profit. They may be inaccurate, but they're more entertaining.
These hints cover most of what you're likely to encounter on a small town adventure and we hope they prove to be helpful. You will likely come away with a broader knowledge (of the physical town) than most longtime residents. A few hours spent exploring a small town will often create a permanent bond to that community.

© John Troesser

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