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In 1885 a down-on-his luck actor from New Hampshire penned a sketch about the virtues of small-town life that led to a four-act play in Boston. During the next couple of decades Denman Thompson’s “The Old Homestead” became one of the most popular dramas on the American stage as it toured the nation, tugging at the heartstrings of theater-goers who had left rural New England behind.
Meanwhile, back in New Hampshire, efforts were launched to lure back former residents who had abandoned rocky hillsides for the bright lights of big cities. In August 1899 dozens of towns organized parades and other festivities to welcome back old friends; in time the Old Home Day tradition spread to other states and even parts of Canada.
Old Home Days are still held in a few communities around where I live in southwestern New Hampshire, but in nowhere near the numbers of the past. As for “The Old Homestead,” annual revivals that faithfully included a team of oxen in the cast were staged in playwright Thompson’s home town until just a few years ago.
Still, rural life hasn’t left the spotlight. It’s just that people are talking about it in different ways and in a different tone of voice.
Unlike their predecessors of a century ago, rural boosters today are leaning forward, not back. They’re not about homecoming nostalgia but instead new opportunities – in business, in culture, in civic affairs – that can be found in rural settings today. One example is the non-profit Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder, that gets the word out on economic and cultural initiatives in rural areas.
And, new to the stage: Radically Rural, a two-day focus on rural challenges and opportunity that’s staged in Keene, New Hampshire, not far from where “The Old Homestead” had its long revival run. In September Radically Rural in its second year drew over 600 people from 24 states to talk about such things as getting more charging stations for electric cars, how to find financing for farms that are too small for consolidated banks, and how to pull together news collaboratives that include small rural dailies, weeklies, monthlies and journalism schools.
Radically Rural, which this year was backed by more than $80,000 in grants from foundations and businesses around the nation, was an upbeat affair held in a variety of downtown venues in a city of 24,000 people. Over the years the city has experienced the rise and fall of textile mills, the beginning and end of railroad manufacturing, the arrival of big-box stores, the loss of local ownership of important employers, the outmigration of young people – the very dynamics that have hobbled small cities across rural America.
But in Keene the tradition has been to fight back. For example, greet the arrival of big box stores 30 years ago with heavy public and private investment downtown, and respond to the decline of old manufacturing by building new commercial and business parks that are now full.
The birth of Radically Rural fits that pattern of creative response. Fourteen years ago a local business incubator called the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship launched an annual networking event called CONNECT. A few years ago the locally-owned daily newspaper in Keene got involved, and that led to discussions about how to take the networking to a higher plane. The model was South by Southwest, the phenomenally successful music event in Austin Texas.
Terry Williams, the president and chief operating officer of The Keene Sentinel, thinks big. “The national speakers focused on contemporary issues facing small communities across the country, and I heard from several non-local folks how much this resonated with them. As word spreads, I think Radically Rural will become more and more of a destination for those looking to innovate in rural America.”
That’s good, because there remain problems that need to be talked through and worked out. For example, poor broadband service and housing shortages in rural areas.
But Radically Rural’s timing seems right. Days before this year’s event an authority on rural affairs penned a column in The New York Times that was titled “Something Special is Happening in Rural America.” The message: city life is losing its luster for some people, and small town life is looking good.
Denman Thompson, whose signature play was about a man from a small town bringing back a son who had lost his way in the city, would approve.
Author Jim Rousmaniere is a retired journalist and author of the recently published “Water Connections – what fresh water means to us and what we mean to water”