Do Small Towns Just Like Those in the Old Days Still Exist?

Most of us still have a mental image of the towns created by set designers for TV. Modern technology makes it possible to relive those programs.

| March 2020

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Our picturesque small town of Fairfield, Idaho, is shown here photographed in the fall. The paved highway is at the bottom and the paved road perpendicular to it goes through the middle of town. Other roads are dirt. If the photo had been taken in spring or summer, the surroundings would be lush green and snow would cover most of the 10,000-foot mountain in the background. For pavement to last on Main Street, the dirt had to be removed a few feet deep on all eight blocks and replaced by coarse gravel. That prevents break-up in spring conditions. Photo courtesy Rod Pridmore.

Although movies and TV programs depicting our country’s frontier era are not as popular today as they once were, most of us still have a mental image of the towns created by set designers. Modern technology makes it possible to relive those programs with very little effort.

Even those of us who avoid spending time staring at screens can’t help seeing depictions of frontier towns from time to time. Whether it was a spoof like Blazing Saddles or a more historically accurate depiction such as Little House on the Prairie, every town looked alike.

In the movies, the buildings along the street were all made of wood and most had false fronts. Boardwalks in front of each building were covered by roofs attached to the buildings. Of course, hitching posts were found in front of every business where a person’s horse could be tied up. At night, the only light in town was that which spilled out of the buildings, but surprisingly, it was enough to allow viewers a clear view of the action. In most scenes, there seemed to be a lot of people walking on or near the street. Horses and buggies lined the side of the street and men on horseback were always in motion, coming or going.



That scene has been recreated dozens of times in our country for commercial purposes and by tourist attractions. The question posed in this article doesn’t apply to them. Without any fanfare and usually with little or no notice, do unmodernized small towns still exist? The obvious answer would be “yes,” but maybe that response would be premature. I have good reason for saying that. You see, although I’ve spent my life in a very small town similar to those depicted in movies, I was unaware of what it really consisted of. 

A person seeing our little town of Fairfield (population approximately 400) for the first time can’t help but think it is an idyllic example of what small towns should look like. Isolated from the nearest small town by 40 miles to the south, 60 miles both east and west and as many as hundreds of miles of unsettled mountainous territory to the north, at certain times of the year it looks almost like it is painted with mountains in the background. The town is laid out with roads and blocks and has a few local businesses. We have to travel quite a distance to reach someplace that resembles modern America. We just take our unique lifestyle for granted. Then something happened to make me open my eyes and really look at my surroundings.



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