In the past week or so, I’ve written pieces about the ongoing conversation on the future of the Historic Clark Farm in Grantsville and a reflection on the one-year anniversary of the wildfire that destroyed Stockton’s water tank.
While those stories revolve around events and public meetings, they’re really about the people and histories common to rural communities. Small towns have long memories and pride in their communities that sets them apart from big cities.
It’s something that resonates with me and I’m more than familiar with. When I tell people I’m from New York, they sometimes think I’m a big city guy but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I grew up in Bainbridge, a small town in upstate New York, three hours away from the hustle and bustle of New York City. According to the U.S. Census, the geographically far-flung township, which includes the village and a number of hamlets, includes only about 3,300 people.
My parents still live in Bainbridge, the town my mom’s parents raised her in, and my dad is from one town over. My childhood home sits on a couple acres on a hillside, tucked up against the woods on a quiet, oil-and-stone road with no centerline.
I know what it’s like to see a community rally around itself in times of difficulty. I know what it’s like to have two sides with different visions of that community’s future and how that can be difficult and feel personal — it’s hard not to when everyone knows your name, your family and usually your home address.
The population of a small town can be its greatest strength and weakness. If you’ve lived in the town your whole life, it’s quite possible you have family nearby and you know your neighbors.
If not, it can be an isolating place where the long-time members close ranks and any new blood is seen that way for years, sometimes decades — or the rest of their life.
My wife spent most of her childhood in the suburbs and then moved to the country, where she had to attend a small school. She always felt like an outsider and had a generally bad experience in high school as a result.
I lived in the same town my entire life and I’ll admit — I was one of the people who remembered if a classmate moved to the school from somewhere else, even if it happened in elementary school. It never really meant much to me to know that fact, but being able to identify someone who wasn’t a lifer after they lived in the community for a decade says something about small town America.
Rural communities also tend to be conservative and resistant to changes, both good and bad. Small towns usually have an identity as well, even if it’s just being quiet and peaceful, which residents and community leaders look to protect.
Those communities can be passionate on topics when riled up. The council chambers at Grantsville City Hall were full when the moratorium on a cemetery behind the Clark Farm buildings was discussed, and the prospect of prison relocation has generated an even stronger response.
I think people in larger communities struggle to comprehend opposition in what they see as sleepy, rural cities and towns. It’s just as true in New York as it is here — lawmakers always seem shocked when a small town rises up against a measure or law they disagree with.
That’s why the stories I cover in Tooele County that affect communities like Stockton and Grantsville resonate with me. I may be the outsider now but I understand the dynamics, loyalties and spirit that guide these cities and towns.
I think that’s just one of the many things I loved about growing up in a small town — it becomes a part of your identity.
There are so many fantastic people I met while growing up in Bainbridge, the memories of whom I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. When you live in a bigger city, you never need to know your neighbors and it’s not common to run into people you know on the streets.
So when I stood on top of the new water tank with Stockton Mayor Mark Whitney and he described his passion for the town, with its beautiful night sky and the peaceful silence, I knew how he felt.
Back in upstate New York there’s a slightly different, but equally beautiful night sky, where the only sounds at night are spring peepers and crickets in the fields.
So wherever I am, if I can see those stars sparkling on that velvet black sky, it feels like home.