;

A Small County

May
21

Spencer is what I refer to as the “big” town here, though that’s relative to my “little” town of Walton. The entire county of Roane boasts a population around 15,000. My new farm is located on the far southern edge of the county, which means it’s as far from Spencer as it is from the city (Charleston), and with the interstate only 8 miles away, the city is pretty handy. But all things being equal, if I can’t get what I need at the (one) little store in Walton, I’d just as soon get it in Spencer as go to the city.

There’s not a whole lot in Spencer, but there’s enough. There are a handful of small restaurants, hardware stores, drugstores, antique/thrift stores, hospital, library, and so on. It’s the county seat, so all your county business is conducted there. The Robey on Main Street is the longest continuously operating theater in the country. My dad took his first date to a movie there. Ross took his first date to a movie there. Weston took his first date to a movie there.

In Spencer there are traffic lights–and traffic! If I’m counting right, I think there are three intersections with traffic lights, and there’s only one main road through town, which creates a certain amount of congestion during popular hours (particularly right after school lets out). There is a Wal-Mart, and while Wal-Mart inspires much controversy as to its impact on a community and society, the mayor of Spencer has been known to say, “Wal-Mart saved Spencer,” and I think that is true. Wal-Mart provides a measure of “city shopping” that satisfies and negates most needs to travel further. In fact, Wal-Mart is an attraction that brings people in from the next county over. They have no Wal-Mart in their county, and they come to spend their dollars in Spencer not just at Wal-Mart but after they shop when they stop in at one of the handful of restaurants, pump gas at one of the two gas stations, pop into one of the couple of hardware stores for farm supplies, or stay for a movie at the Robey before they go home. The impact of a Wal-Mart on any given community is individual, and here, the store keeps as much money home as it takes away. Without Wal-Mart, all the little stores and restaurants would likely be folding up along with the sidewalks–just as they have in other surrounding areas where there is no Wal-Mart and shopkeepers have watched their customers hit the two-lane road with their wallets and head for Spencer. And if it weren’t for the Wal-Mart in Spencer, they’d be heading for the city–because they’re after a little “city shopping” and Spencer is just the closest place to get it. Much of the “influx” to Spencer, of course, is also from farmers in the outlying communities right here within the county. Back in my dad’s day, that was the big event every Saturday–a trip to Spencer. It’s still that way today. The businesses here that were able to overcome the challenge and thrive alongside Wal-Mart do so because they adapted to their looming neighbor, offering hard-to-find or specialty items with personal attention, playing to the needs of the rural customer who prefers not to go to the city. You can get your flour and sugar at Wal-Mart, then circle around town for everything else and go home without ever seeing an interstate.

The “outlander” traffic in Spencer is a specific type of traffic–it’s rural traffic. It fits in. There’s no interstate anywhere near Spencer. (The interstate that is 8 miles away from my farm is a long, long way from Spencer.) Spencer is a very insular town, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Access in or out involves long winding, twisting roads. When teenagers learn to drive, they are rarely allowed by their parents to leave the county. The roads are dangerous to novice drivers. For high schoolers planning a date or just looking for some fun, the city is out of reach. Here, a typical date night is dinner at one of the little restaurants on the square and a movie at the Robey. Your parents can drop you off at the square in front of the restaurant and pick you up when the movie is over because you can walk. In Spencer, you can walk almost anywhere. I’ve never seen as much foot traffic around a Wal-Mart anywhere else I’ve ever lived. Kids spend a lot of time hanging out at the Wal-Mart, browsing the store as a form of entertainment (most of them have no money) or just driving around the parking lot if they have a friend with a car. If they’re feeling more adventurous, there’s always mudding on a back road, riding four-wheelers, or camping out. Most of them have the same friends they’ve had since kindergarten, and the school is an insular sub-section of the county itself. There is only one high school in the whole county and its graduating class doesn’t always meet 200.

After high school and before he entered the Navy, Ross went to Texas for awhile. He worked at a Taco Bell and was surprised by the after-work plans of the teenagers with whom he worked. They always had plans that involved going here or there miles and miles away. In Texas, the roads are flat and straight, making fewer restrictions for teens and opening the world for their access. They could pick and choose restaurants and theaters and other entertainment. This allowed them to spread out, separate, go their own ways. Ross was baffled by the lack of cohesive community sensibility. It was just too easy for people to go somewhere else.

Yesterday, during his fly-by trip in and out, he told me he’d heard from one of his friends that a new interstate was going to be built and it was going to go through Spencer. He said, “It’ll ruin Spencer.”

I hadn’t heard of any such plans. I asked around and couldn’t find any confirmation of it so I suspect this is just a rural legend, but the rumor is enough to inspire consternation, most surprisingly, amongst people Ross’s age–who one would think would be the most eager for whizzing access out of this “boring” town. Where the interstate hits 8 miles from my farm, it is a rural intersect. (The nearest town is Clendenin, but Clendenin is far enough off the interstate to escape an impact. Passers-through don’t want to get off an exit and drive 10 miles to find a grocery store or restaurant.) But an interstate into the heart of this county, its “big” town, would change the landscape in irretrievable ways. It would bring a third (fourth, fifth, sixth) gas station, chain hotels, bigger restaurants, maybe a massive car dealership, and a wholly different sort of outlander stopping in at Wal-Mart from Florida because they forgot toothpaste for their trip. Worse, it would scatter the community, making trips to the city an easier breeze. The isolated nature of the county would be lost. Kids wouldn’t have to make up their own fun–they could go buy it in Charleston. It’s the very lack of easy access out that makes this county a special place where everyone knows your name. The world has a lot to offer, but here, we can decide when our kids get to have it, and when we go home, we don’t have to look at it.

One of my favorite photos of Spencer, taken in the winter. Many of the houses in town, surrounding the square, are perched on steep hillsides. Spencer is not all that different today than it was in 1950–in many ways.

I was impressed that, at 21, Ross could already see how an interstate would have altered the experience he had here as a teenager, and how now that he is out in the big world, he values the community nest the hills and twisting roads provide. I’ve lived most of my life in suburbia surrounded by interstates, and I came here for what is lost there. Here? We don’t need no stinkin’ interstate.

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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on May 21, 2012  

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  1. 5-21
    1:31
    am

    Hallelujah, and Amen to that!!!! Interstates have their uses, but they are death to communities. Besides, I want to SEE what’s on the roadsides, not just whizz by it. Smart young man, your son Ross.

  2. 5-21
    2:51
    am

    Great comment on rural life and your community in particular. Good for guest editorial in local paper?

  3. 5-21
    7:43
    am

    I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but I have lived in this area my entire life. I’ve seen small businesses come and go. Your son is correct that an interstate through Spencer would totally change the town. I grew up not far from the Kanawha/Roane County line and I saw the ruination of Clendenin by the interstate being constructed. We mostly went to Clendenin for what we needed because the route was more of a straight shot than the drive to Spencer. Clendenin, too, used to be a booming little town with everything you needed right there. There was a five and dime,there were department stores, hardware stores, restaurants and a movie theatre. I never will forget going shopping in Clendenin with my Grandma. I graduated from Walton High School. My graduating class had 36 students. :-) I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The friends I made then are still my friends today. We were more than friends, we were family.

  4. 5-21
    7:44
    am

    I hope it does not come. We had an ugly dollar “type” store plunk itself down in our little town. Soon the wonderful little dime store closed and the has hurt another family owned party/general store. It is sad to see outside influences insert them selves into a community without the communities best interest in mind, and change it forever.

  5. 5-21
    7:45
    am

    Debi, that is a good point that I hadn’t thought about. While people off the interstate don’t seem to GO to Clendenin (too far off the interstate for convenience to them), it IS easy for people FROM Clendenin to make that straight shot to the interstate and do their shopping in Charleston (or especially Elkview).

  6. 5-21
    9:53
    am

    You did a good thing moving your family there.

  7. 5-21
    11:30
    am

    I LOVE SPENCER – LET ME COUNT THE WAYS.
    EACH SATURDAY WAS THE DAY WE TOOK MY GRANDFATHER IN TO TOWN..HE MET HIS FRIENDS AND PLAYED SET-BACK WITH HIS CRONIES..LATER HE WOULD GO
    TO THE COURT HOUSE.. NOW THERE WAS MANY BATTLES FOUGHT AND MANY VICTORIES WON ON THE BENCHES IN THE COUNT HOUSE SQUARE. WE ALWAYS ATE LUNCH AT THE DRUG STORE. SHOPPED AT G.C.MURPHYS & O,J.MORRISONS
    MOTHER WOULD TAKE OFF HER APRON AND GO INTO TOWN FOR CHICKEN FEED. OF COURSE IT AFFORDED HER AN OPPORTUNITY TO VISIT HER FRIENDS AT THE 5&10.
    FOND MEMORIES OH – I ALMOST THE STOCK YARD WHERE YOU COULD GO AND SELL HORSES, SHEEP, PIGS AND YOU NAME IT… OH MY!!!!

  8. 5-21
    12:40
    pm

    Ha-you live in a big county.We have only 7,000 folks in ours here in IN. We live 3 miles out from the county seat. It has a hometown hardware,ice cream/hamburger place,& grocery store. There is a Subway but that is the only fastfood place & is out on the edge of town. There is a drive-in movie yet over in the next county which is just across the state line in OH. WalMart is 10 miles into OH. The closest bigger town with a shopping center is 20 miles north in another county.We love it here!

  9. 5-21
    12:42
    pm

    Except for Wal-Mart, I don’t think Spencer has changed much since I was born in 1937. We were there two summers ago to spread my brother’s ashes. Suprized me because he was career Air Force and had retired to Florida. I guess we all want to return to Roane Co.
    Oh, Suzanne, at one time Walton had its own High School. Does anyone know when they closed it?

  10. 5-21
    12:58
    pm

    sueann, my father graduated from Walton High School. I’m not sure when it was closed, but it was within recent history, maybe in the 80s.

  11. 5-21
    1:08
    pm

    I WAS IN THE CLASS OF 41. MY BROTHER WAS ON THE FOOTBALL TEAM AND THE GAMES WERE PLAYED IN A COW PASTURE. WHILE WE ARE IN MEMORY LANE – –
    CAN ANYONE REMEMBER THE GYPSY BAND THAT TRAVELED THROUGH EACH YEAR. THEY CAMPED ON THE SCHOOL YARD. HAD THREE OR FOUR HORSES, A COUPLE OF COWS, LOTS OF CHILDREN AND DOGS. MOTHER GAVE THEM POTS & PANS AS WELL AS GARDEN VEG. WHO WERE THESE PEOPLE AND WHERE DID THEY GO???????

  12. 5-21
    1:12
    pm

    Ross is a wise young man. When our 4 children were in high school, they couldn’t wait “to get out of little town.” (pop. 10,000) They are all in their late 20s and 30s and have done some traveling/living elsewhere. Guess where they ALL LIVE NOW? In the “little town” that they couldn’t wait to leave. By choice! HAH!
    Hear’s to Small Town America and country living!!!
    Pat in Eastern NC

  13. 5-21
    6:17
    pm

    I believe that Roane County High School (consolidation of Walton and Spencer High Schools) opened in the 1993-94 school year. The first graduating class was 1994 (I am pretty sure of this).

    Small towns are special!

  14. 5-21
    8:51
    pm

    This reminds me of something the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch once said about Baja California, that it is “a wonderful example of what bad roads can do for a country.” I have often thought about that when visiting places that are unspoiled simply because bad roads make them less accessible. Good roads are not always an advantage.

  15. 5-22
    5:24
    am

    Very nice tribute to my hometown Suzanne. The small town feel is one of the reasons we returned to Spencer for our retirement. I grew up here (until I was 15) and like many others, never returned after graduating from college. I feel fortunate to live in a community where you always see familiar faces. Oh,there are four stoplights though :-)

  16. 5-22
    8:27
    pm

    What a gorgeous picture … So peaceful

  17. 6-1
    3:52
    pm

    I have heard the rumor of an expressway for a few years now. I hope that doesn’t happen. I come down there to get away from all of the city life. I dislike the city on so many levels. I think the only thing I might miss would be the “City Water”!

  18. 6-5
    11:24
    pm

    My family recently moved to Wirt County, WV from the Philadelphia area. My husband and I discovered Spencer during one of our “get to know the area drives.” It still holds quite a bit of old time character, and my favorite shop, Berries and Vines.

  19. 9-30
    9:38
    pm

    My hometown is Gold Beach, Oregon, located on the southern Oregon coast. I graduated from high school there in 1964, and whenever I go back, it looks just the same. No movie theater, no bowling alley, no big box stores, and one main street through town. GB does have a street light now, I’m not sure why they need one. It’s located right next to the ocean, and has the majestic Rogue River flowing next to the town. Hunting and fishing is fantastic, the beaches are pristine, the sunsets are unbelievable, and probably the majority who live there (including my relatives) wouldn’t live anywhere else. Long live small towns in America.

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