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Heartbeat of a Small Town

by Alicia Lohberger
This is it?” My sister had brought her college roommate home for a visit, and the girl’s reaction to our hometown struck a nerve.

I frowned and glanced at my sister, whose face mirrored my own. As we climbed out of the car, I overheard the outsider murmur to herself, “Why would anyone stay here? It looks like a ghost town.” Following her gaze, I took in the lone, paved road running narrowly through the center of the small town. A few old buildings lined the street with boarded up windows, and the filling station on the corner had a yellowed “Closed” sign in the window. I shook my head, thinking how differently our eyes viewed Allison, Texas.

Although my sister and I weren’t around at the time, we have heard the history of the town’s quick birth back in the days of the early railroad. According to my aunt, almost overnight Allison grew up around the new railroad in 1920. A couple of banks, three or four churches, a lumberyard, a cotton gin, a grain elevator, a parts store for the farmers’ tractors, a gas station and a grocery store: all the businesses necessary to support a humble farming and ranching community. And, last but not least, there was a school.

In rural Texas, the school is often the heartbeat of a community. Sports make up the entertainment for Friday nights, the Future Farmers of America provide the occasional dinner by way of a meat sale, and the school cafeteria serves as a gathering point for community meals, baby showers and such.

An outsider could not see all this in her sweeping glance, of course. Gone was the wonderful old man whose personality and good business sense had made a thriving success of the machinery parts store; now all that remained to be seen was the old store, with twelve-year-old graffiti (“Take State in ’98!”) on the dingy, cracked windows. The outstanding ball players had gotten fewer and farther between; sometimes they had so few classmates that they could not even put a five-man team on the gym floor. The day came when there was a last basketball game, a last graduation exercise, a last day of school. The school building still looked fine from the outside, but there were no cars parked around it, and the school steps had tumbleweeds blocking the south door.

When the school closes its doors in a small town, the outcome is like a death sentence; it cannot survive without its heartbeat. The outsider had been right about one thing. The roommate could not see all this in her sweeping glance. She was right about one thing. In theory, Allison should have become a ghost town, fading as quickly as the old blue paint on the school gym.

It should have, but it hasn’t, and the outsider’s perspective led my sister and I to reflect on reasons why. There are ways to cheat the death of a small town.

Open a diner. Communities must have a location where the wisest and most experienced locals can convene over coffee. Through the veins of a small town runs good gossip, and when there is no newspaper, and it’s too late to ask the preacher to announce on Sunday, town news must have a broadcast site.

Create get-togethers. There are no movies to go to, no McDonalds to drive through, and no Wal-Mart to meander around in a small town. Locals must become creative and persistent in finding ways to socialize. Use the old baseball field for community softball games and food to get people there. The women in a small town are often called upon to apply their culinary skills, and they will usually oblige.

Put together a community play. A number of interesting characters can be found among the locals in a small town. Use their country charm and unique wit to show off the community’s personality.

Call when the cows are out. In rural Texas, a ranching and farming community relies on more than the land and stock. Neighborly duty is a special natural resource that folks use like Texas rain and sunshine.

Today, a small diner sits in the middle of Allison serving hot meals to accompany good conversation. The old baseball field’s lawn is mowed every summer, prepared to host the now annual softball nights. These are some examples of how our town has survived.

It is true that the loss of school and business affected the life and the look of Allison, but the loss did not kill the town because those buildings did not define the town. “Heart” defines Allison, Texas and in answer to an outsider’s question, that is why people stay there.
© Alicia Lohberger
"They shoe horses, don't they?"
December 16 , 2007 Guest Column

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