Small towns have changed greatly - Keith Roulston editorial
It was about this time of the year (well maybe a little earlier) that I used to write an editorial or column reminding people to shop at home. Looking at the state of most main streets in the area makes it evident how influential those requests were.
The theory of those pleas was that what goes around, comes around – that if you wanted the money you spent to eventually help advance your own life, you needed to spend it with people who were likely to buy the products or services you helped create.
The communities we live in were much different way back then. Fifty years ago, we bought most goods from merchants who in turn helped support our churches, arenas, and community halls. Back then we had several small grocery stores, hardware stores, retailers of men’s and women’s clothing and shoes, furniture, televisions and other electronics. Farmers and townspeople met in those stores as they bought the goods they needed. People travelled as few miles as they could to shop. Gas seemed expensive (though most people today would laugh at the prices) and few people had cars they wanted to strain by driving extra miles.
Going back to when I was growing up in the 1950s, I remember times where you could see the road through holes in the floorboards of our ancient vehicles and a trip down our gravel concession on a hot summer day would mean peering through a dust storm to see out the windows. Those holes were also our only air-conditioning.
My family wasn’t a great example of the what-goes-around-comes-around theory. Money was short and income intermittent enough that my mother bought most dry goods from the Simpson-Sears catalogue in spring and fall orders. She could charge those shipments and pay so much a month.
We also often charged groceries at one of four groceries stores in town (I grew up near Lucknow in the 1950s), paying when money came in.
On the other hand, Saturday night – shopping night for farm families – was a glorious time for farm boys. While our parents restocked, we country boys wandered main street, picking up friends, getting to know boys from more distant areas that we would befriend later when we came together in the local high school.
We were better off by the time I started my own family in Blyth in the early 1970s. We could shop in local clothing stores – Helen Gowing’s dress shop or Ray Madill’s men’s wear and shoes – and pay cash at Borden Cook’s, Jack Stewart’s or Alvin Snell’s grocery stores or Ernest “Freck” Button’s meat market.
In fact, we were so self-sufficient that when the Blyth Festival started in the summer of 1975, bringing the upstairs theatre at Blyth Memorial Community Hall back to life, that James Roy, the founding artistic director, had to work hard to find additional attractions to bring tourists to Blyth. He visited local artists to get them to exhibit their work in the Hall basement and recruited homeowners to offer rooms for bed and breakfast patrons to stay overnight and see more than one show.
How things have changed in rural communities today. People think nothing of driving 30 or 40 kilometres to shop for groceries in well-advertised chains that are many times larger than the food stores back home – if your town is even fortunate enough to still have a food store. People also buy clothing and housewares from highly-promoted chains, or from big-box
stores at bargain prices. Of course none of the owners of these stores support local churches or arenas.
So the main streets of our communities depend on the inventiveness of business people to survive, and many have done an admirable job. In Brussels, fortunate to have one of the best-supported grocery stores, there is also the gift of the Four Winds Barn, which has drawn a different clientele to the community. Blyth has been lucky to have the Blyth Festival and, more recently, the Goderich-to-Guelph Rail Trail to bring visitors to town. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Festival for a year, starving businesses of those visitors, and the use of the outdoor stage for the last two summers may have saved the Festival but has directed visitors away from main street. That, and the Festival’s switch to having only one show in performance at the same time, has undone all the work that James Roy began nearly 50 years ago to encourage people to come and stay in Blyth,
One thing all this shows is that people change, and life changes with them. Our small communities have been marvellously adaptive, but one law of physics is that something will only flex and bend so much before it breaks.
I grew up in a small town. I have spent nearly all my life in a small town. I hope my grandchildren have the option of enjoying a thriving small-town life as I have.