Saturday, April 29, 2017

Small Towns in America

This post was written by Robert Williams

When I was a kid, I grew up in a small town in eastern Ontario, just outside of Ottawa, called Merrickville, one of the oldest known communities in pre Confederation Canada. Merrickville is filled with distinct character and rich in history, with its National Historic markers, including the Blockhouse Museum, Rideau Canal Locks and Merrick's Mills Ruins. I wanted our RV trip to include the similar sense of nostalgia I experienced back then while living in a unique village.

They say that half the fun of any trip is just getting there. That was certainly true for us as we made our way from Montreal to the southern tip of Florida to the edge of Mexico at San Antonio and finally to Lake Erie in Ohio and Michigan. Over that span,we had a chance to visit many beautiful cities and destinations, but I also wanted to remember the little towns and hamlets we passed through or stayed in briefly. These were anything but "bumps in the road", as they gave our journey that much more meaning, excitement, and fond memories. Listed below are our top ten communities that we'd like to share with you, we hope you enjoy!

1. Bardstown, Kentucky:
Population 12,933

An incredible town with so much character, history and activities that the local courthouse, founded in 1892, was transformed into a tourist visitor center. Bardstown is locally dubbed as the bourbon capital of the United States, and for good reason, featuring over a dozen breweries and distilleries and festivals to cover all of them. The calendar of events for this community lasts all year long. Our most amazing stops here included: the Abraham Lincoln birthplace monument; the Jailhouse Inn, which features one of the oldest jails left in America open to visitors; the Hurst Soda Fountain, an old fashioned pharmacy and soda shop right out of Back to the Future or It's A Wonderful Life; and, of course, the old Talbott Tavern, in business since 1797, once visited by Jesse James and the Lincoln family. A wonderful treasure of a stop for any type of traveller.

2. Jefferson, Texas:
Population 2055

Jefferson is a hidden gem with many surprises. On a busy Saturday afternoon, you can still park anywhere you like and walk along the very few main streets here, each with many stories to tell. Our first stop was the local General Store, a true fantasy land for all lovers of candy, souvenirs, snacks and nostalgia. Down the street we found the famous Gould Railway Car, a hotel like sanctuary once owned by a rich railroad baron who was the Donald Trump of his day. Next was the Jefferson Public Library, built with Corinthian pillars to honor its sponsor, Andrew Carnegie. After that, we passed by the Excelsior House, one of the oldest hotels in Texas still standing; one of the last wooden railway bridges left intact; and, just outside of town, we found the old Civil War cemetery plot for the long gone town of Coffeeville. An amazing little town to visit.

3. Franklin, Tennessee:
Population 68,886

No visit to Franklin is complete without checking out the Loveless Café, which begins the legendary Natchez Trace Parkway and offers the best country biscuits you can taste. In the historic part of town, we found a slew of Civil War plaques and monuments, too many to count. Franklin is known as the town where the Civil War "ended", but they pay commendable homage to their Confederacy soldiers. The main street features many tempting shopping spots, including Kilwin's Chocolates, where they make the best shakes. Also of interest was the old Frankin Theatre, built in 1937 and still showing movies to this day. If you're looking for coffee in a unique joint, try the Frothy Monkey!

4. Key West, Florida:
Population 25,500

Key West is the last stop in Florida and the end of Route 1 and is certainly one of the most interesting island towns you can find.  A blend of American, Mexican and Spanish culture, you can find anything here and it's no wonder Ernest Hemingway spent ten years writing in his house near the water's edge. Watch out for all the resident roosters and cats as you sample Cuban coffee, visit Mallory Square for the infamous sunset, and head over to Better Than Sex for a decadent dessert that claims to be. It's a hundred mile stretch to get to Mile Zero, but it's worth the drive.

5. Canton, Mississippi:
Population 13,263

On a Sunday afternoon, Canton is both movie town and ghost town all rolled together, and its makes for a fun walk. The main square makes for a perfect film set, as shown in movies like Mississippi Burning (1988) and A Time to Kill (1996), and with a self guided tablet tour online you are shown over a dozen other vintage locations with breathtaking homes from yesteryear surrounded by old oak trees. The central courthouse, old barber shop, and preserved churches are a delight to visit, and for more adventure check out the Petrified Forest or the Cypress Swamp a few miles outside of town. Once back in town, shop a bit and grab a bite, but don't miss the old saloon still standing on the corner.

6. Woodstock, Vermont:
Population 3048

A photographer's dream in any season, Woodstock features the Taftsville Covered Bridge and Country General Store, the breathtaking Quechee Gorge, and the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historical Park, for starters. But the town seems to have been born for fall colors, and walking along its quaint, relaxed streets during Labor Day through Halloween while the leaves fall is truly spectacular. Filled with neat little shops and boutiques and bed and breakfast inns on every corner, this wonderfully hidden New England gem is not to be missed. Watch out for hot air balloon rides flying overhead.

7. Smithfield, Virginia:
 Population 8089

One of the oldest pre-colony towns in America, Smithfield is home to the world's largest ham and peanut, preserved in a beautiful museum that also holds a full exhibit of a fallout shelter! The historic trail through main street brings you through a gauntlet of beautiful houses and ends at a lovely pier pavilion, where visitors are reminded that Smithfield remains the only town never to surrender to Union troops during the Civil War. We had a chance to stop by one of the oldest churches in the country, where the guide showed us the oldest working organ in the world. A proud, storied little town filled with something for everyone, one of our most interesting stops along the east coast.

8. Lafayette, Louisiana:
Population 127,657

Just outside of Lafayette is a little village called Vermilionville, once a Cajun village that has been preserved as a living historical monument that embraces its Acadian roots. You can walk through the little town and hear a Cajun fiddler, attend a schoolhouse, cross a hand ferry, watch wooden carvings being made, even dance at a Cajun band concert. The village is well represented by informative signs everywhere and you can learn the roots of North American French and the secrets of quilt making. To visit this place is to lose oneself in a time machine.

9. Logan, Ohio:
Population 7152

Logan is home to Hocking Hills State Park, an unforgettable hiking and camping paradise that brings visitors all year long from all over the world. The park region includes the famous Old Man's Cave, the Rock House, Cantwell Cliffs, Ash Cave and Cedar Falls, all surrounded by over two hundred campgrounds and overnight rest stops. Along the way, don't forget to check out Grandma Faye's shop for lunch and souvenirs. Caution: lots of memory needed for picture taking.

10. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Population 7620

The town is a walking history text and a marvel of nostalgic architecture, but the real draw is the unforgettable driving tour through the Civil War battlefields, littered with hundreds of cannons, monuments and historical markers, not to mention the two observation towers available to visitors. Outside of Gettysburg and closer to Lancaster lie the peaceful hills of Amish country, where you can explore the joys of simple life with fresh eyes. Don't forget to stop by the Hersey Factory on your way out of the state. Your sweet tooth will thank you, just as mine did.