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Just a Matter of Time


Last week I took the third graders in my hometown on a tour of a community that once existed and exists no more.

It is my job as town historian to preserve the past of my community and to educate young and old about it. Thus, every year, I visit the third-graders when they do their unit on local history to tell them tales of what it was like for early pioneers as they cut their way through dense forests to settle the western lands of our state, an area 18th-century denizens of longer-settled regions described as a “hideous, howling wilderness.”

I tell them of a family that dug a hole in the side of a hill, closed it off with a few boards and lived there through the first winter; of the family’s rattlesnake-hunting dog; of the danger of bears and wolves and of the settlers’ fear of the Indians they were displacing.

Subsequently the students walk to my history center where I take them on a tour of the village center, illustrated with turn-of-the-last-century photographs to show the many changes that have taken place. As we walk, I try to tell them what small-town America was like 50 or 60 years ago. I might as well be describing the face of the moon.

These little people have been on this earth for eight, perhaps nine, years. The breadth of their experience is minimal even for the ones with the most enriched backgrounds. They know nothing of a world without microwaves, cellphones or video games. Their homes are heated with oil or electric heat—not wood or coal—and electricity powers the many labor-saving and entertainment devices their families enjoy. I would bet that each child’s family has at least two cars with nary a horse or buggy to be seen. Few have gathered eggs, milked a cow or worked in a hay field. For most, meat that was once a living creature comes wrapped in plastic on a Styrofoam tray.

Those are the obvious changes that only a few decades have made in American life but there are more subtle changes as well. As technology skyrockets forward, the changes come faster and faster and we lose touch ever more quickly with things once familiar and now gone forever.

I have learned to pause, to ask them if they have ever heard of the object I just mentioned. “Do you know what a record is?” I asked one year. “Oh, yeah. I saw one of those in a movie,” a little girl responded.

This year a little boy wanted to know about the tank outside the VFW Hall. I told him it was used in the Korean War—and then realized they had no idea when or what the Korean War was. Similarly, telling them a building was built about the time of the Civil War elicited no spark of recognition. They won’t study the Civil War for three years yet.

So, I try to tell them stories that they can relate to as children. As we walk I show them pictures of gravel-paved roads, arching elm trees, simple country stores with barefoot little boys in knickers on the sidewalks in front of them. Moving forward 50 years, I try to evoke an emotional sense of what it was like to be a child in the mid-20th century. I tell them of being able to roam the streets, my dog trotting unleashed by my side; of being welcome to invite the dog into the local drug store where the owner dished up ice cream for us to eat, sitting side by side on stools—yes, the dog sat on a stool—at his ice cream bar.

I tell them of friendly merchants, many of whom contributed materials for the elaborate dollhouse my friend and I created from cardboard boxes for the first of the grown-up dolls manufactured—boxes for the rooms from one merchant, carpet samples for the floors from another and wallpaper samples and custom-cut glass scraps for the windows from a third.

I recall for them the artist who worked in The Tenth Muse, an art supply and record store that once graced Railroad Street. That artist was always ready to look at my juvenile artistic attempts and to give me tips on how to make them better. A few minutes out of her day but priceless for me.

Then it’s on to the movie theater, now shuttered but once an entertainment Mecca for the town with its bowling alley, movie theater and upstairs ballroom where kids could enjoy roller skating when no dances were planned.

I tell them that the town once bustled with three drugstores, three or four grocery stores (depending on when you were counting), clothing stores, a shoe store, two hardware businesses, florists, a five-and-dime store, restaurants of all kinds, car dealerships, jewelry stores and the delightful movie theater with its double-matinees on a Saturday afternoon. No, they had never heard of a double matinee and were agog at the $15 cent admission fee.

Invariably, at least one child says, “I wish it could be like that now,” often adding, “Why did it change?”

I explain that the greater mobility provided by the automobile, the love of novelty and the convenience of big box stores with their many temptations drew people away from towns like ours where people walked to get anything needed. I also tell them that the future of the town is theirs; that they can decide what they want it to be. Not an easy task, but they have years ahead of them to decide—and affect—its future direction.

They seem to like the simple universe I describe. But the arching elms are gone, the mom-and-pop businesses have folded and we are all now forced to wear shoes and keep our dogs on leashes. Even malls with their big box stores are having to adapt today to new merchandising trends.

We cannot go back but will my wistful listeners somehow embrace and perpetuate the essence of small-town living? Only time will tell.