In Albany, Indiana, a town of about 2,300 an hour north of Indianapolis, Denise Thornburg smiles when she talks about the day visitors from Kentucky asked what they should see while they were in town.
“I asked them, ‘Have you seen the shoe tree?’” Thornburg said from behind the counter of Iceburg Ice Cream, the shop run by her son, Cameron.
The shoe tree?
Thornburg gives directions to a narrow road just outside town where for a couple of generations, the town’s young people – and a few not-so-young – have laced sneakers together and thrown them into the branches of a tree along the road. The practice became so popular that shoes now decorate three trees in a row and websites like Atlas Obscura and Roadside America have published entries about the Albany Shoe Tree.
Back in Albany, the town is making sure it doesn’t rely solely on the shoe trees to attract visitors. For most of the past 100 years, the local Lions Club has put on a Halloween parade that’s popular with kids and local politicians in election campaigns. Murals decorate the brick walls of the town’s vintage buildings.
More importantly to the people who live in or near the town, Albany has a vital downtown, with both a diner and a destination dining restaurant, a grocery store that has a fresh meat counter with steaks that attract backyard barbecue artists, and a hardware store that dates to 1892 that thrived during the Covid pandemic.
With specialized businesses, schools with small classroom sizes, and opportunities for some of the country’s newest immigrant entrepreneurs, America’s small towns are doing it for themselves.
A Lot of People, a Lot of Towns
Before we start talking about what towns are doing, maybe we should ask: what is a town?
Sources often cite the U.S. Census definition of a town as an incorporated area with 5,000 residents, but Census documents themselves note an “urban area” is one with more than 2,500 population outside an “urbanized area” of more than 50,000 population. The Census Bureau notes that its own definitions have changed over the decades.
In a 2020 post on its blog, the World Bank said the United Nations’ Degree of Urbanization said cities had a population of at least 50,000 people in “contiguous dense grid cells,” while towns had a population of at least 5,000 people. Rural areas were much less densely populated, obviously.
There are almost as many definitions of a town as, well, towns. For the purposes of newspaper coverage over the decades, the publications I wrote for decided a town was a town, regardless of population, if it did not have a city-type government led by a mayor. If it did, it was a city.
Whatever your particular definition of a town might be, it probably falls under the 10,000-person population threshold that Statista used to count the number of towns in the United States. The site came up with 16,410 communities of fewer than 10,000 people.
In 2020, the Census Bureau published an article noting that three-quarters of the country’s incorporated places have fewer than 5,000 people.
That’s a lot of people in a lot of small towns.
Visitors From All Over
About 12 miles of Ind. 67 separates Albany, Indiana, from Muncie, the seat of Delaware County with a population of about 65,000, in a county of about 114,000.
About 61 miles of interstate and state highway separates Albany from Indianapolis, the state capitol, with a population of more than 860,000 in a metro area with a population of more than 2 million.
Those miles physically separate Albany and the two largest cities in its area, but with handy state and interstate highway access, there’s no barrier that prevents Albany residents from going to the larger communities for work, play, or shopping.
Key to the success of some Albany businesses is that those roads run both ways.
“We have people from Muncie, Yorktown, Portland, Dunkirk, Upland, Noblesville, Pendleton and we also have people from Dayton and Greenville, Ohio,” said Bob Lehman, co-owner with his wife Debra of Just Quilts, located in the former five-and-dime store on the main drag in Albany, Indiana. “We’ve done quilts from Georgia and New Hampshire.”
Just Quilts, which opened four years ago, sells quilting supplies, but a big part of the Lehmans’ business is doing the final assembly on its customers’ quilts. Customers sew the decorative square panels for their quilt tops, like fabric from a grandfather’s favorite shirts or team shirts from a young athlete, and bring them to the Lehmans, who use their industrial size longarm quilt sewing machine to attach the top to the batting and backing.
“The first year, we did about 86 quilts, the next year it was a little over a hundred, and the third year we did 150 quilts,” Bob Lehman said. “We’re averaging about 150 a year.”
Not every business in a small town like Albany has thrived during recent years marked by the pandemic and inflation, but Albany Hardware has.
In its vintage 1892 building, still decked out with a tin ceiling and rolling ladders to reach items on high shelves, Lance Engle’s hardware store isn’t sprawling like the Big Box hardware retailer that Engle formerly worked for. But on a recent day, he was able to find a customer’s requested item – an Allen wrench of a particular size – and ring up the sale: 87 cents.
The Engle family has owned the store since October 2015. The past two years have seen the business move to the next level.
“The pandemic was really good for the home improvement industry for sure, as bad as it was for restaurants,” Engle said. “People were stuck at home, there’s no ball games or family vacations, you’re not spending money on gas or trips and they’re looking at the wall you wanted to paint, so ‘let’s improve our house.’”
The hardware store’s biggest seller during the pandemic was paint, Engle said, but plumbing products are the store’s mainstay. “It seems to be one of the things that breaks a lot. It keeps the lights on for us.”
Albany still has some industrial businesses and it has a long history of manufacturing. There’s the McCormick Brothers factory that made kitchen fixtures and is now the Wedding Factory, an event venue, to the Albany Automobile Company, which in 1907 and 1908 made the Albany Runabout, celebrated in a modern-day mural in town. Those big industrial employers are gone but not forgotten.
More Than Roadside Attractions
Not every small town in the United States is like Albany, Indiana, or Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for that matter. Gatlinburg, with a population of only about 4,000, is packed with tens of thousands of visitors every day, virtually year-round. Its location at the gateway to the 500,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park gives it an advantage few small towns have.
Across the country, towns play up attractions that bring visitors and create jobs for their citizens. With more than 8,000 residents, Abingdon, Virginia, has an enviable spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Besides the natural splendor around it, Abingdon touts attractions like the Martha Washington Inn & Spa and the town’s historic Main Street, but many know Abingdon for the Barter Theatre, the designated state theater of Virginia and the scene of year-round theatrical productions. A few years ago, I saw an excellent production of the Mel Brooks musical comedy “The Producers” at the Barter. Inside the Barter is a wall of photos of some of the well-known performers who had appeared in productions at the theater.
Not far away, in Meadowview, the Harvest Table restaurant attracts visitors. We ate lunch at the restaurant, which takes its cue from the book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” written by renowned author Barbara Kingsolver and her family. Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp, is the director of the restaurant and sustainable dining enterprise.
“From start to finish, we invest in the health of our community and the land,” the restaurant’s website notes, going on to add the effort includes the community, including farmers, small business owners, artisans, and neighbors.
If small towns are successful in building a brand, like Abingdon and Meadowview, they can thrive.
Some towns are better at building a brand and presence than others, but successful towns – ones that attract new residents and businesses – strive to do so.
Increasingly, that means building a diverse, welcoming population.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Johnny Singh moved from India to the United States in 2005 and worked in the grocery store business for years before buying Minars Market in Albany four years ago.
As he stocked shelves in his supermarket on a recent Saturday, Singh said business was good, even though the prices of the goods he buys have gone up. “Right now, companies are not giving us good deals.”
But under Singh’s ownership, Minars – the name comes from the former longtime owner – is doing well. Its full-service meat counter, filled with steaks and chops and chicken, is the only place for miles where customers can find such a variety of cuts of meat. “We get a lot of people who come in just for the meat,” he said.
Asked if Albany had been welcoming, Singh said, “They’re nice people. This is the best town I’ve ever been in.”
Albany has seen more stability, and even some growth, compared to some towns. Milton’s in the heart of downtown serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and its walls are covered with historic photos, especially of high school teams from the early days of the 20th century. Just over on the other side of Albany, Pete’s has been a popular dining destination for decades. The Thornburg family’s ice cream shop, Iceburg, sells that quintessential Indiana favorite, the breaded tenderloin.
The town recently installed a splash pad for youngsters to play in the water and invests in its greenspaces.
“I was skeptical about it,” Lehman said about the water attraction. “But they’ve had a packed house every day.”
Lehman moved away from Albany after he graduated from Albany High School in 1972. The high school is no more, lost to consolidation of some county schools, but Lehman moved back.
“One thing that hasn’t changed about this town, everybody knows everybody,” Lehman said. “And everybody is friendly. When I grew up, if I did something wrong, by the time I got home, my parents already knew. It’s just a friendly town.”
Keith Roysdon is a lifelong reporter and writer who contributes articles to news and pop culture websites. He has co-authored three true crime books, the latest of which, “The Westside Park Murders,” was named Best Nonfiction Book of 2021 by Indiana Society of Professional Journalists.