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My Kind of Town
Mar 22, 2016
I wasn’t born in Yankton. I didn’t set out to live here. Things just sort of worked out that way, but I’m content they did. I’m happy here.
And yet …
I was flipping through Yankee magazine the other day (I have since realized this was research, not goofing off) when I came across an article about a town called New Englandville. This fictional place was a compendium of everything the author thought a perfect town should include. It got me wondering: what would my ideal hometown, Rogerburgh, be like?
I think of myself as a bloom-where-you’re-planted type. Although I’ve spent most of my life in the Dakotas, I could adapt and be happy in many environments. By nature I am low-key, well suited to the glacial pace of small town life. I also have a built-in defense against people’s biggest beef about such places: everybody knows everybody else’s business. My life is so dull gossips soon move to more fertile fields.
How small is small? One water tower, two intersecting highways, no more than three traffic lights and no confusing turning lanes. The high school is Class A, which is big enough and not too small. Every day at noon the siren over the volunteer fire department sounds and it can be heard to the edges of town.
Unlike New Englandville, which is historic, quaint, unique and quite snobbish about it, Rogerburghers are unassuming: they like their town because it’s a wonderful place to live and raise kids. Beyond that, most of them are comfortable being ordinary.
Rogerburgh’s old streets are lined with stately elms whose roots wreak havoc with sidewalks and sewer pipes. In the new part of town every house has a specimen tree surrounded by a perfect circle of wood chips. A healthy town needs both kinds of trees.
Rogerburgh has a great hardware store, an if-we-don’t-stock-it-you-don’t-need-it kind of place. If you go in with a problem the clerks will spend a half-hour with you for a $2 sale. There’s also a farm supply store just outside of town. It smells like rubber hose, and they have a clothing department that sells canvas coveralls and Big Butt Cut jeans.
There are three kinds of eateries in Rogerburgh. One is the quintessential small town cafe. Old-timers gather there every morning and talk about how the country is going to hell. When the waitress is busy they feel free to pitch in and brew a new pot of coffee. Hot beef sandwiches — made with white bread and mashed potatoes slathered in gelatinous brown gravy — are popular. There was a huge brouhaha when the cook switched from real to boxed potatoes, but people are mostly past that now.
Rogerburgh also has a chain pizza place and a homegrown hamburger joint that serves greasy, salt-laden, unhealthy food because that’s what made America great. At the pinnacle of the food pyramid is an upscale restaurant. If you tell people you ate there they invariably say, “Must be nice!” It features cloth napkins, salads made with purple-tinged lettuce and served on a plate, and wine from bottles with corks. Only a few go that route, however. Most locals stick to boxed wine or Bud Light with their meals so people don’t think they’re putting on airs.
There is a bar with a creaky wooden floor, a perpetual pinochle game, and a dice box used to settle bar bills. A foul-tempered guy with a deep, phlegmy cough and a belly that hangs over his belt owns it. He lets people light up despite the ban on smoking indoors because that’s what made America great. Mike, who peaked in high school, owns Rudy’s, where the younger crowd drinks.
Strange as it may seem, my fantasy town has some bad apples. A friend told me about the place where she grew up. Her bike got stolen one evening, and when she told her brother he knew right where to find it. A certain family had a hand in most of the crimes in town. This saved a great deal of investigative time.
There are two grocery stores in my little town. One is on life support. People can’t understand how it manages to chug along. The second is modern and progressive and stocks exotic items like soy sauce and low sodium toaster waffles. Rogerburghers are proud to show it off to visitors. People were leery of buying ready to eat food from its deli department at first — this was considered a big city, even foreign idea back in the day — but the store’s fried chicken and fruit delight, with marshmallows and shredded coconut, no longer raise eyebrows when people bring them to potlucks.
As for the finer things, Rogerburgh has a theater that shows movies while they’re still being advertised on TV and a hoary Carnegie library that covers the ideological spectrum by subscribing to both Redbook and Good Housekeeping. Partisans of each have tried to get the other banned in the past — the two camps nearly came to blows in ’09 when RB said long hair would be in for spring while GH counseled its readers to go with Easy! Breezy! short cuts — but Mrs. Finch, the crusty, loveable librarian, stood her ground until the storm passed.
Because that’s what made America great.
Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the March/April 2014 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.