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The 10 Best Small Towns in America

With its focus on towns with populations less than 25,000, this article takes you on a leisurely stroll across small-town America and its unique culture. 


Copyright © 2012.  From Smithsonian Magazine, May, 2012.

 

1. Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Big-city smart meets New England natural in an art-rich mountain setting.

Main Street in Great Barrington. Photograph by Anc516/Courtesy Wikipedia

 

You’ve got to slow down when Route 7 leaves behind the wide-open valley of the Housatonic River to enter Great Barrington. The road becomes Railroad Street there, right of way to pedestrians stalled in the crosswalk trying to decide whether to have sushi or chimichangas for dinner. Others carry yoga mats, bags of farmers market produce, books, CDs, double espressos and all the other stuff it’s hard to find in surrounding Berkshire Mountain villages like Stockbridge and Lenox.

Compared with them, Great Barrington (population 7,500) is like a big city where you can get anything you want, to borrow the chorus from “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” by hometown boy Arlo Guthrie. He was 18 when he wrote the satirical ballad about true events on Thanksgiving Day 1965, when he got arrested for illegally dumping some of Alice’s trash, ultimately making him ineligible for the Vietnam War draft. Trinity Church, former abode of the celebrated Alice, is now the Guthrie Center, a stage for folk music, starting point of the annual “Historic Garbage Trail Walk” and a place for interfaith spiritual exchange in a town where there could be something contrarian in the water.

Or in the food. At the forefront of the big-chain-grocery-store-defying, eat-local movement, Great Barrington is devoted to its family farms, farmers markets and co-op. Berkshire Grown, an organization that promotes the production and marketing of locally grown food, spreads the word with lectures by writers like Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and most recently “Food Rules”).

Great Barrington’s latest unconventional endeavor is to mint its own currency, an experiment launched in 2006 aimed at getting people to buy everything—not just food—local. Almost 400 businesses in the area trade BerkShares bills; the 5-BerkShares note features W.E.B. Du Bois, the great African American author and educator whose boyhood home just west of town is a National Historic Landmark.

Incorporated in 1761, around the same time as Stockbridge and Lenox, Great Barrington, too, attracted rich summer people who built Gilded Age mansions like Searles Castle, now a boarding school. But Great Barrington grew up as a mill and railroad center, its blue-collar ring never excised. About [200 kilometers] from New York City, it attracts a hip crowd from the Big Apple, along with New Englanders and recent immigrants from Asia and Mexico.   

“Great Barrington is a small, manageable, economically and ethnically mixed town. That’s what I love about it,” says locally renowned Northeast Public Radio director and commentator Alan Chartock, who proudly lives in a house once owned by one of the judges at the Lizzie Borden trial.

When passenger trains still stopped in town, they brought performers from New York, booked to appear at the Mahaiwe, a vintage 1905 vaudeville theater. Now lovingly restored, it offers a year-round schedule of jazz, rock, dance, lectures and HD broadcasts from London’s National Theatre and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Executive Director Beryl Jolly, who came to Great Barrington from New York’s Public Theater, calls it the Mahaiwe Mix, no categories excluded, for the whole “big mix of people you see walking down Railroad Street.” 

Early summer brings the Berkshire International Film Festival to the Triplex Cinema, and classical music performed on historic instruments to the Aston Magna Festival at the Bard College Simon’s Rock campus. Not to mention such famous cultural institutions as Tanglewood, Shakespeare & Company, the Norman Rockwell Museum and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival just a country drive away. 

Then there’s the frame that nature put around the picture, with [500-meter] Monument Mountain to the east and the rest of the Berkshires to the west—such cozy mountains! Orchards are sheer walls of pink in the spring, farm fields thick with corn in the summer. Fall leaf-peepers train cameras on golden oaks and crimson maples. Honking geese pass over ice-coated bogs and ponds in the watershed of the Housatonic River. All this, and bagels, too. Arlo got it right. 

 

2. Taos, New Mexico

Modern art, ancient history and counter culture in the luminous high desert.

The visitor center of the Earthship community in Taos. Earthships are houses made of natural and recycled materials. Photograph by AID G/Courtesy Flickr

 

Beyond Santa Fe, the high road (Highway 76) and the low road (Highway 68) are both beautiful routes to little Taos in the enchanted upper valley of the Rio Grande. Before the counterculture found it in the 1960s, before Spanish missionaries and mountain men like Kit Carson arrived, even before the building of the Taos pueblo in the 15th century, the Anasazi were here, leaving their ghosts to walk in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. These days tourists, seekers, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts pack the plaza of the old adobe town, dabble in its many galleries and museums, delve into history at the 1804 Spanish Colonial Martinez Hacienda and attend concerts (the Music from Angel Fire is a world-class chamber music festival). But Taos (population 5,700) still speaks most compellingly to writers, photographers and artists who, like Georgia O’Keeffe and D.H. Lawrence before them, come for the flash of a passing spirit and the quality of the light.

 

3. Red Bank, New Jersey

Willie Nelson sings and Basie swings in a riverfront town graced by Victoriana.

Ice boats on the Navesink River in Red Bank. Photograph by WASTED TIME R/Courtesy Wikipedia

 

William Count Basie grew up and got his musical chops on Mechanic Street in Red Bank. In the early 1920s he moved to Harlem and the rest is jazz history, to the tune of the “One O’Clock Jump.” His hometown on the south bank of the Navesink River about [40 kilometers] south of Manhattan went through some lean, mean times after that, but has since made an astonishing cultural and economic comeback, linchpinned by the refurbishment of the 1926 Carlton Theater, now the Count Basie performing arts center, a venue for ballet to rock to Willie Nelson. Cafés, galleries, clubs and shops followed, along with farmers markets and street fairs, attracting people from well-heeled Monmouth County and the Jersey Shore. Town folk (population 12,200) went to work on neglected old homes with good bones, the landmark Victorian train depot was restored and the silver was polished at the Molly Pitcher Inn, named for a Revolutionary War heroine who is said to have brought water to thirsty soldiers serving under George Washington during the Battle of Monmouth County. The Navesink got a spiffy waterfront park, the setting for jazz concerts in the summer and iceboating when the river freezes; string quartets and youth choruses perform at the Monmouth Conservatory of Music, while the Two River Theater Company stages new plays and musicals. It all adds up to a model for small-town renewal.

 

4. Mill Valley, California

A Bay Area enclave that put mellow on the map keeps its funky vibe.

The Depot Bookstore & Cafe in downtown Mill Valley. Photograph courtesy Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau

 

Mill Valley is one of the jewels in a necklace of beautiful towns—along with Sausalito, Marin City and Tiburon—across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It’s tucked into a canyon on the flank of [784-meter] Mount Tamalpais, near the giant redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument and marshland surrounding Richardson Bay. The setting and proximity to San Francisco attracted sawmills, dairy farms and resort operators, then Beat poets and hippies.... A more recent influx of wealthy commuters has made Mill Valley (population 14,200) one of the nation’s wealthiest ZIP codes. Shops, galleries, organic food restaurants and art festivals cater to the newcomers, threatening to crowd out ratty old landmarks like the beloved Sweetwater Saloon where Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Jerry Garcia and Elvis Costello played. The good news is that, as of this past January, the Sweetwater’s back, occupying new quarters in the town’s old Masonic Hall. The Art Commission sponsors concerts and comedy in the town plaza, and the Throckmorton Theatre welcomes music groups like the Kingston Trio and Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, along with a June festival dedicated to gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

 

5. Gig Harbor, Washington

Take numerous art galleries. Add sailboats and local wines. Stir. Enjoy.

Net sheds at Gig Harbor. Photograph by TOM COLLINS/Courtesy Flickr

 

If you come by boat, as so many people do—beginning with a team of surveyors from the Congressionally mandated Wilkes Expedition in 1841—it’s easy to miss the narrow opening on the ragged west edge of Puget Sound that marks the entrance to Gig Harbor. That would be a pity because it leads to one of the snuggest harbors in the Pacific Northwest, a thicket of sailboat masts rimmed by tall pines on the far side of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. When the sun shines you can see Mount Rainier and the snow-crusted Cascades on the eastern horizon; in squally weather the sky closes in so seascape artists paint from memory. Never mind. As local gallery owner Bill Fogarty would say, “Don’t let the drizzle get you down. Think of what it does for the rhododendrons.”

The unprepossessing little town (population 7,500) has lately been discovered by outlanders from Tacoma and Seattle in search of still relatively affordable waterfront property. Chain stores have sprung up out on the highway and old fishing docks have yielded to fancy powerboats and yachts. Day-trippers come for gourmet restaurants with Washington State wines, for nautical tchotchkes and for gallery walks held on the first Saturday of the month, during which one might meet, say, renowned local jeweler Kit Kuhn. 

Yet Gig Harbor remains a working fishing village with a fleet of about two dozen boats that head up to Alaska for salmon every summer. The fishing way of life is still passed down from one generation to another. “It sure spoils you for the 9 to 5,” says Guy Hoppen, who has done plenty of salmon seasons in Alaska. He’s the director of the Gig Harbor BoatShop, a former commercial facility in a tight cove bounded by working docks that is now an interpretive center promulgating the art of shipbuilding, partly to make sure salmon boats never get crowded out of the increasingly high-rent harbor. Trained eyes can pick out venerable old fishing vessels like the 1922 Commencement and 1925 Beryl E. among the pleasure boats.

Settled in the 19th century by immigrants from the Adriatic Coast of what is now Croatia, Gig Harbor is a little like Maine without Yankees. The Jerisiches, Dorotiches and other founding families were net fisher folk and ship builders. They stayed close together, founding Gig Harbor’s Roman Catholic St. Nicholas Church, still the starting place for the annual Maritime Gig Festival, highlighted by a blessing of the fleet.

Meanwhile, the peninsula’s forested hinterlands became home to many Scandinavians, who built dairy farms and planted strawberry patches that send their riches to Puget Sound markets.

Gig Harbor was isolated until the building of a bridge across the strait that separates the Olympic Peninsula from Tacoma. Engineered by the same company that gave San Francisco its Golden Gate Bridge, the [1640-meter] span was a wonder when completed in 1940. Thankfully, no one died when it collapsed a scant four months later, leaving Gig Harbor all but water-bound until the completion of a sturdier bridge in 1950, paralleled by another in 2007. You can still see dredged-up chunks of the first bridge’s foundations at the spacious new Harbor History Museum, added to the waterfront in 2010, along with a restored 19th-century one-room schoolhouse, a vintage Thunderbird sailboat hull and exhibitions about languages spoken by Native American Puyallup and Nisqually tribes, the bay’s first residents.

On any given summer weekend there’s likely to be a chowder cook-off, a quilt show or a festival celebrating boats, gardens or wine; vendors at the farmers market offer mandolin lessons along with strawberries and grass-fed beef. The town center is Skansie Brothers Park, where the city is restoring one of 17 historic net sheds that line the waterfront. On open-air film nights folks pile on blankets spread across the lawn to watch “Free Willy,” “Jaws” or another maritime classic. 

 

6. Durango, Colorado 

All aboard for mountain fun, plus classical tunes and—gasp—vaudeville. 

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad opened in 1882 and still carries passengers 72 kilometers into the heart of the San Juan Mountains. Photograph by Drumsara/Courtesy Flickr

 

It would be a bald-faced lie to say that Durango (pop. 17,216) isn’t devoted above all to outdoor recreation, from mountain biking and black-diamond downhill skiing to Iron-man triathlons, white-water kayaking and rock climbing. But between adventures in the surrounding San Juan Mountains, people celebrate life Western-style in the old railroad and mining town’s lamppost-lined historic district, among art installations along the Animas River greenway, and at the nearby Music in the Mountains festival come July (heavy on the classical offerings, but a bit of pop, too), the Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall, and the Henry Strater Theatre, a.k.a. the “Hank,” a showcase for vintage melodrama and vaudeville. Best of all, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, opened in 1882 and now a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, still carries passengers 45 miles into the heart of the high San Juans, pulled by a coal-fired, steam-driven locomotive, with the occasional bluegrass band or cowboy poet onboard for entertainment.

 

7. Butler, Pennsylvania

An old-time rural hub as down-to-earth as its most famous product—the Jeep. 

 

Marcie McDonald (left) and Ron Allen drive over log obstacles on the Jeep Playground at the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival. Photograph by KEITH SRAKOCIC © AP-WWP

 

Mines and factories come to mind when people think about western Pennsylvania, but forests and farms stretch across the state, punctuated by small towns like the seat of Butler County north of Pittsburgh in the Allegheny River watershed. Butler (pop. 14,000) is an American classic that grew up along a trail blazed by George Washington, sent in 1753 to discourage French settlement along the frontier. Farmers followed, giving the region its country character and prized hand-built barns. The town serves as a business and cultural hub, with its own baseball team, thriving downtown, community symphony, theater and barbershop chorus. The Maridon Museum, founded by local philanthropist Mary Hulton Phillips, houses an excellent collection of Asian art, and the Butler County Historical Society maintains an old settler’s cabin, schoolhouse and the landmark 1828 Lowrie Shaw House. Butler owes its star on the map to the Jeep, invented just before World War II at the town’s American Bantam Car Company and still celebrated in August at the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival.

 

8. Marfa, Texas

With mock couture, edgy movies and ironic motels, it’s no cow town.

El Cosmico, the vintage trailer park at Marfa. PATRICIA WHITE/Courtesy Flickr

 

 It’s just a flyspeck in the flat, hot, dusty cattle country of southwest Texas—closer to Chihuahua than Manhattan. But it’s cooking, thanks to an influx of creative types from way downtown: filmmakers like the Coen brothers, who shot “No Country for Old Men” in Marfa (pop. 2,100), indie rock bands and others who have brought such outré installations as Prada Marfa, a faux couture shop in the middle of nowhere by the artists Elmgreen and Dragset. Cultural camp followers arrived on their heels to open galleries, bookstores, gourmet food trucks and lodgings (in a historic Pueblo-Deco hotel and vintage trailer park called El Cosmico). It may have all started when people first noticed the Marfa Mystery Lights, an optical phenomenon popularly attributed to UFOs and celebrated with parades, battling bands and exhibitions every Labor Day weekend. Or in the early ’70s when New York artist Donald Judd landed in Marfa to plant his massive minimalist sculptures on a decommissioned military camp outside town, the core of the collection now at the Donald Judd and Chinati foundations. These days—move over Austin—an Our Town grant from the NEA is helping Marfa’s not-for-profit Ballroom Foundation create the Drive-In, an open-air art space designed by the cutting-edge New York architectural firm MOS.

 

9. Naples, Florida

World-class music, design to die for and palm trees: What’s not to like? 

The Naples Botanical Garden has 4 kilometers of walking trails and six cultivated gardens. Photograph by Chiot’s Run/Courtesy Flickr

 

Even when it’s snowing somewhere up north, around the historic Naples pier they’re catching mackerel, opening beach umbrellas and looking for treasure in the surf. Grandkids are building sand castles, pelicans are squawking and the Gulf of Mexico is smooth as far as the eye can see. 

Travelers have been coming to this small town on the edge of the Everglades ever since the late 19th century, when you could reach it only by boat and there was just one place to stay, the steeple-topped Naples Hotel, connected to the pier by a track with a cart for moving steamer trunks. Back then the visitors were chiefly sportsmen drawn to the abundant fish and game of southwest Florida’s cypress swamps. 

Once the Orange Blossom Express train reached Naples in 1927, followed a year later by the opening of the cross-peninsula highway system the Tamiami Trail, sun-seekers arrived in boaters and bloomers, many of them Methodists from the Midwest who thought the drinking started too soon after Sunday church service in West Palm Beach. So when the snow flew, say, in Cincinnati, they decamped to winter retreats in Naples with wide sleeping porches, pine plank floors and whirring ceiling fans. Palm Cottage near the pier is a sterling example of classic Florida vacation cottage architecture. Built in 1895 for the publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal, it is now headquarters of the busy Naples Historical Society, which sponsors walking tours through the town’s winsome historic district and bougainvillea-lined back alleyways. 

Sure, Naples (pop. 20,115) has malls and high-rise condos. Touristy development has taken over bayside docks where fishermen used to haul in giant grouper and tarpon. Traffic clogs the ritzy Fifth Avenue South shopping and restaurant district. 

If most of the folks you meet are over 65, in Naples old age looks pretty golden. Ask a duffer with a fishing pole how he likes his martinis and he’ll tell you the third one’s always beautiful (Methodists notwithstanding). 

A fair percentage of the snowbirds are retired executives with cultural expectations and the means to pursue them. So the town has an astonishing concentration of deeply rooted cultural institutions like the Naples Zoo, located in a tropical garden founded in 1919 by botanist Henry Nehrling; the Naples Players, a community theater now in its 59th season; and the almost-as-venerable Naples Art Association, at the Von Liebig Art Center in Cambier Park. 

“A group of people wanted this little winter paradise to have the same cultural features as Northern cities do,” says Kathleen van Bergen, CEO of the Naples Philharmonic.  

The Phil, born [32] years ago of an amateur group on nearby Marco Island, is a renowned orchestra with a state-of-the-art concert hall visited by the likes of Kathleen Battle and Itzhak Perlman. From September to May, it holds 400 events: classical and chamber music performances; concerts by pop stars; galas; Broadway musicals; and lifelong learning programs, along with appearances by the Sarasota Opera and Miami Ballet. Bronze sculpture by the Spanish artist Manolo Valdés and massive art glass by Dale Chihuly spill over into the lobby from galleries in the adjoining Naples Museum of Art. Its chiefly modernist collection got a new star in 2010: Dawn’s Forest, Louise Nevelson’s last and largest work of environmental art. 

Dozens of art galleries line Third Street South, just a few blocks from the designated Design District. Meanwhile, at the Naples pier, there’s bound to be someone at an easel, with a palette provided by the Gulf of Mexico—all sky blue, sand white and aquamarine.

 

10. Staunton, Virginia

A Shenandoah mix of Confederate relics and Elizabethan theater.

A scene from “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Shakespeare center. Photograph courtesy Staunton Convention & Visitors Bureau

 

Staunton—drop the u to pronounce it like locals—looks west to the Appalachians, east to the Blue Ridge, at the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. The town (pop. 23,921) played its role on the early frontier and as a staging center for the Confederate Army, bred America’s 28th president (a highlight of the Woodrow Wilson Museum is the 1918 Pierce-Arrow limo he used after negotiating the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I) and nurtured the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind and Mary Baldwin College. But Staunton’s latter-day rejuvenation was based on something more prosaic-sounding: In 1908 the town created the city-manager government model, laying the foundations for growth that garnered such cultural assets as the Dixie Theater movie house, Mockingbird Roots Music Hall, Heifetz International Music Institute, the outdoor Oak Grove Theater and, above all, the American Shakespeare Center, housed in a landmark re-creation of London’s Blackfriars Playhouse, where original staging techniques such as role-doubling are replicated and the dramaturge doesn’t shy away from a bit of Elizabethan bawdy now and then. Staunton’s National Historic Register red-brick downtown has galleries, a camera museum, an old-fashioned trolley and Tiffany window-lined Trinity Church. Up the hill at Victorian-era Thornrose Cemetery, there’s a separate section holding the remains of almost 2,000 Confederate soldiers, while the band shell in nearby Gypsy Hill Park serves as the summertime home of the 70-piece Stonewall Brigade Band, founded in 1855 to feature the then-novel saxophone.

Susan Spano is a New York City-based travel writer.