How do things work in really small towns?
July 31, 2012 11:54 AM   Subscribe

How do things work and what is life like in really small towns?

I read an article in a magazine this month about community projects they were doing in really small towns. I guess the magazine (I think it was Reader's Digest) was giving away money for community projects and people got to vote for them, and the entries with the highest votes got the money. It was stuff like renovating an aging swimming pool, making a park accessible for special needs, that sort of thing. But what blew my mind was how small some of these towns were. The smallest town that won money had just over 100 people---we have more people than that just in my urban apartment building!

I get that not everyone can (or wants to) live in major mega cities like mine. But I am just curious about some of these super-tiny towns. What would the economy be like in a town of 100 people? Where do these people work? How do the children have social lives, go to school, have activities to go to? How can such a small taxpayer base afford civic necessities like policemen, road repairs, snow plowing and so on? I just can't picture it. We struggle here to afford such things, and we're hitting over 1000 people before we even leave my city block.
posted by JoannaC to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Generally speaking they work in the nearest large city or are farmers, the kids don't have much of a social life outside of school until they can drive, and they go to school on the bus, just like everybody else.

They afford policemen because speeding tickets will pay for one or two officers, they afford the school because the state pays for most of it, they afford road repairs because most of the roads are state-maintained or privately maintained, and they don't plow the snow.

Basically they're not actually functional cities in the way you'd think of them. They're more a collection of gas stations, banks, and churches surrounding the school, post office, and city hall. City hall being a three room place with a part time mayor that doubles as the place Jim and Fred meet up to pass the police car between them. If it's really remote, there might even be a couple of restaurants. In big farming areas, the town will also often have a grain elevator and a farm supply store and maybe an auto parts store.
posted by wierdo at 12:00 PM on July 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

Mostly they provide services to surrounding farms. If you're really talking about a town of 100 people, there will be a grocery store, a hardware store, a service station, a liquor store, and a school. There might also be a bank.

And that's where the people in the town will work (the ones who aren't kids or full-time kid caretakers).
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:01 PM on July 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

(I forgot: yeah, there's also going to be a church.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:01 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can speak to how this works in rural Western Iowa.

Most towns of 100 are clustered around a larger town of 5,000-10,000 or so, within say 30-40 minute drive usually. Children will be bused in from the smaller towns to the larger town for school. Most people work in agriculture type jobs, or trucking, or work at a nearby plant if there is one. Amenities in the small town will be few, probably just a corner gas station/convenient store and maybe a bank and a couple churches. For groceries, doctor visits, that sort of thing, people go into the larger town. Social life often revolves heavily around church and neighbors. Snow plowing and fire fighting can often be volunteer. Police and road repairs are often county collaborations, with all of the towns in the cluster working together as opposed to being isolated entities.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:02 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think in terms of being able to search for answers to your civic questions, you'll probably be wanting terms closer to "village" and "hamlet", as they deal with settlements that are (in terms of population size) smaller than actual towns.

I'm in a town of 4,000 and there are a handful of hamlets nearby. What's the maximum size town you're interested in for the purposes of your question?
posted by mireille at 12:03 PM on July 31, 2012

"Where do these people work? How do the children have social lives, go to school, have activities to go to? How can such a small taxpayer base afford civic necessities like policemen, road repairs, snow plowing and so on?"

Farms, factories three towns over, prisons and other state installations in rural areas.

The children are generally collected from several towns to one town for school, by bus. The rides can be long; some areas are installing wifi on buses for just that reason.

Around here, with towns that small, police and roads and so on are done at a county level usually. However, cost of living is a lot lower than you're used to. They might be able to hire half a policeman for not very much money. (Also, in a town of 100 where you literally know everybody, how necessary is a policeman? The county sheriff's office on a need-to-call basis is usually plenty of law enforcement.) More difficult than police is fire and ambulance, which is typically volunteer. Most farm families have a pickup truck and a lot of them have their own snowblades to plow for themselves. County roads (which a lot of these roads are), the county plows.

I guess the shortest answer to your question, though, is that you can have different sorts and sizes of taxing bodies. Maybe your "Park district" is a collection of several towns and you all pay tax into that one body. Your school district will almost certainly be several towns. Police and fire may be at the county level. You aggregate some of the more expensive functions of local government and share them across several towns. (Illinois is the land of 6000+ local taxing bodies, which has its own issues, but that's how it works here!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:03 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

In rural areas more services are provided by the county government than in cities. There is probably a sheriff and several deputies for the whole county. The fire department and ambulances are probably staffed at least in part by volunteers. Road repairs are often funded solely by or with matching state funds with the federal government. The post office is federally funded and provides a few jobs. Rural communities are generally far more dependent on federal spending then urban cities, often receiving 10-20% more than they pay in taxes.
posted by ChrisHartley at 12:04 PM on July 31, 2012

My cousins grew up in a town so small that everyone living there literally was related to each other. They actually had a large school across the street from them--over 1,000 students. But the students were bused in from other large towns, some riding the bus for over 90 minutes one way.

They had one restaurant, where my cousins and their parents worked. They also owned the convenience store.

Their only road was a US highway, so their town never paid for the repairs, and the county sheriff or state troopers patrolled it.

Their fire department was all volunteer, with about 14 people that covered eight or nine other towns. They would have to be flown or driven about 100 miles to the nearest hospital.

My cousins as kids had nothing to do except play on the school playground, drink, and get pregnant. It's a cliche, but it's a cliche for a reason. They used to drink in the bars and even get drunk there with their parents when they were as young as 12 years old.

Before they could drive, they drove ATVs everywhere.

As I said, in my cousin's family's case, they all owned buildings and worked in town, but usually the husbands went away for work for a week at a time and came home on weekends, doing whatever it was in the area to do--in their case, their cousins' dads worked in the logging industry.

My cousins are all in their 30s now, and they all still live there, owning the same buildings or working at the school in town.
posted by TinWhistle at 12:07 PM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

A lot of really small towns are really just satellites of larger cities or towns.

Many services are delivered through the county (Sheriff instead of police, volunteer fire department, etc.) Or through the state (State Patrol).

One thing that I thought was interesting was that a Wal-Mart needs a population of 35,000 to make it viable.

My uncles lived in a teeny town in MO (one of them was the Mayor). The largest industry was the porno store off the interstate. They had to drive to another town for basic stuff like groceries. It was about 8 miles away.

Kid go to a school somewhere in the county. There's a hospital, but it might be a bit down the road.

One of the big issues in small towns is kids doing meth. It can be very boring and stultifying living in a very small community. Husbunny got the eff out of the little place he grew up in KY.

Rural life isn't for sissies.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:08 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a town of under 500 people. This is specific to my town, which is in northern New England and actually isn't much of a farming town, although there are a few farms.

What would the economy be like in a town of 100 people? Where do these people work?

There really isn't much of an economy. A few people work at a state park, the one convenience store (which sometimes sells gas, but not always) and one pizza place (it's new), and the farms. Most other people commute to work in surrounding towns, which are larger and have some industry (not much). Some people do odd jobs, like logging or carpentry or work with heavy equipment.

As far as I know there still is no church in town. There is a town hall, which is no longer located in someone's living room (as it was when I was growing up), but rather in the back of the volunteer-only Fire Department.

How do the children have social lives, go to school, have activities to go to?

I was bussed to the next town over for school. Activities meant going at least one town over, and I traveled over 45 minutes for dance lessons and orchestra. I think there was a two-day-a-week policy on after-school activities for me, but that was just my family. In terms of social lives, your parents generally had to drive you to spend time with friends, who were frequently also a town or two over.

There were a few activities based in the town, like 4-H (which drew from two towns but primarily from mine). But most towns in the area were small enough that an activity like Girl Scouts drew from two or three surrounding towns, as did the schools.

How can such a small taxpayer base afford civic necessities like policemen, road repairs, snow plowing and so on?

The post office is in the next town over. We have no policemen, just the county sheriff's office. Snow plowing is a big deal and is paid for by the town.
posted by pie ninja at 12:10 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

I didn't grow up in a town; the closest town was 250 people, and I went to high school in a town of 3,000 people that was 5 miles away. 30 minutes out was a city of 60,000, and an hour or so away was Minneapolis and St. Paul.

What would the economy be like in a town of 100 people? Where do these people work?
My father worked for the county government, which was seated in the town of 3,000. Mom worked for a university in the city of 60,000. I worked at a cafe in high school, and then got out of there. Others worked as school teachers, maintenance workers, etc. etc.

The 250 person town had a meat market that closed when I was in middle school. The other businesses included a gas station, creamery, feed store, and a small factory that produced cabinets. Add in a church and a bar, and that was the town.

How do the children have social lives, go to school, have activities to go to?
It was all though school and church. I started biking to baseball practice and the like, 5 miles each way, when I was 13 or so. Some had very long bus rides. When you turned 16 you drove to the 60,000 person town and tried to go to the occasional concert. Lots of kids would drink in cornfields after football games. Fair amount of meth.

How can such a small taxpayer base afford civic necessities like policemen, road repairs, snow plowing and so on? A lot of this is paid by the county government, not the city government. You're also providing services to a lot smaller number of people. The very rural areas will only see a police presence when someone calls 911. As others have mentioned, federal funding plays a role as well. In the winter, some roads take time to get plowed, but most of the people living on them have plows, or have neighbors who have plows.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:14 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I left Seattle I moved to a village of 150 people in a town of about 900. The town was notable for having had a larger population in the 1780s than in the 1980's. I was even on the outskirts of the village. I now live in a town of about 4500 which is more right-sized for me, but we are the sort of focal point town for some of the smaller towns that are around me that have fewer services and etc. I'll be happy to outline how some of that stuff works.

- What would the economy be like in a town of 100 people?

In a town that small, there is usually no local economy unless there is an agrarian one or people who have work-from-home jobs. Maybe one store. One restaurant? One gas station? People commute to jobs in neighboring towns. You can see this in rural areas a lot of you look at census stuff and see how far people are commuting to their jobs. Smaller towns usually have longer commutes. One of the reasons I initially chose librarianship was that it's a job you can have in a small town. Likewise town officers, policemen, people who maintain the cemetery, other small jobs like that.

- Where do these people work?

Schools, medical centers, mental health, agrarian stuff, service industry stuff. Often they're retired in the really swindling towns, or they're self-sufficient for the most part and live off of social security or disability [hard to do, but people can do it if they own their house and taxes are cheap and they're either part of a large family or very handy]. Sometimes they're veterans, have family money or a family land interest that helps them stay afloat.

- How do the children have social lives, go to school, have activities to go to?

When I was a kid I took a bus about 40 minutes to go to school. Kids in my area do that too if they come from the neighboring towns. Often there are after school programs and there's a late bus to get kids home if their parents work. Or the kids go home with friends and get picked up when their folks get back from work. There are a lot of church based activities that often have transportation.

- How can such a small taxpayer base afford civic necessities like policemen, road repairs, snow plowing and so on?

Some of this stuff is done at a county level in some states. In Vermont where many if not most of the state is rural there is some spending leveling that happens so that all towns get a minimum level of education funding [some rich towns pay more, some small towns get the more that the rich towns pay] but this is one of those wacky things that is threatening farming at a small scale. My state has some tax credit programs if you're a farmer and there is also some stuff at the state level, but it is fairly tough to keep the bills paid.

That said in super small towns you really have very few things that need to get paid for. They're governed by mostly volunteers with a few paid staff. They have volunteer fire departments. The state plows the big state roads. But some towns don't, for example, have policemen. There are county sheriffs and towns have a constable which is an unpaid or not very paid position. A lot of small towns have budgets online so you can check them out and see what the deal is. I think sustainable small towns either have county support for roads or some other absentee landowners who pay a share of the taxes. It's a balancing act, for sure.
posted by jessamyn at 12:19 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Policing for tiny towns and villages in the US state I am familiar with is provided by the State Troopers. Fire is provided by a volunteer fire department that covers a large rural area. I think snow plowing is a state thing?

In terms of activities, I worked at a music school and we had kids come from quite far away for music lessons once a week; all the kids in one family did them and we'd specially schedule them so the family just took one trip for five kids. In exactly the same way, in that family the kids all did 4H, and the kids all did scouts. The family I knew best was homeschooled, but there was a bus that would have picked them up from a RR.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:23 PM on July 31, 2012

This is a Canadian perspective, but I grew up in a town with about 250-300 people (population varied over time, but we counted it every 2 months when a new edition of the newspaper came out, so we always had a pretty clear idea what it was). Here are some of the answers to your questions, based on my hometown:

What would the economy be like in a town of 100 people? Where do these people work?

We had two saw mills which each employed a hundred people or so. Many of those employees bused out to the mills from a larger city an hour a way, but some chose to live in town. We also had people who worked in the support industries for the mills -- logging truck drivers, fallers, etc. We had a store and a restaurant, but most people did their major shopping in the larger city -- those were just for small things, occasional treats and the like. They thrived primarily based on summer tourist traffic and winter emergency supply runs when you ran out of bread but the roads were too snowy to make it to town.

Most women were stay at home wives, partially because living in a small town is inexpensive enough to make that affordable, partly due to lack of job opportunities.

How do the children have social lives, go to school, have activities to go to?

We had a lot of forest area around us, so things were pretty focused on outdoorsy activities that ranged from swimming in the lake up the road to fishing and ATVing to hanging out in the gravel pit drinking. In the winter, we had a covered hockey rink, but it was much harder to find places to drink. People socialized much more outside their age group / grade cohort, because if there's only 5 people in your grade, you need to go up and down a couple of grades to make up a decent game of pick-up hockey. Plus, our school was so small that several grades share a classroom anyway, so you were used to spending time with the kids near you in age. A few kids participated in organized sports or lessons in the town about an hour a way, but the commute made that harder.

It was sometimes a boring place to live, but we also functioned in a world where it wasn't deemed necessary for children's activities to be organized, scheduled, coordinated and uniformed. We were kids, so we went outside and played or hung out or whatever. Walking on the top of our fence was a major game on my street for years, for example. That's the sort of shit kids make up when a fence is the coolest toy available at the moment.

How can such a small taxpayer base afford civic necessities like policemen, road repairs, snow plowing and so on?

Many of our services were provided by larger government entities because Canada doesn't have the same mentality of pushing everything down to the lowest level of local government. Policing was done by the RCMP. Water was provided by the Regional District (somewhat equivalent to a county). Snow clearing was provided by the regional district and the province depending on the road. Our elementary school was affiliated with the school district of the nearby city. That city is also where we went to high school. Ambulance services are provincial in BC.

But we also did without a lot of things or just did them ourselves. We had a couple of ball fields that were cared for by the guys who played on the baseball teams. We had a curling rink that was cared for by the guys in the curling league. When it needed major work, it had to be closed because there was no money. We had festivals, potlucks, dances, etc, that were run by volunteers and sold tickets to cover unavoidable costs. Our fire department was volunteer. Garbage service consisted of there being a dump across the highway that you drove your garbage over to yourself.

But, also, our local taxes were largely paid by the two mills, the railroad and the pipeline that ran through town. So when we decided to build a satellite rebroadcasting system because we wouldn't get cable in a place so remote, it cost most of the residents nothing at all, and those four businesses ended up paying about 80% of the cost, with most of the rest being picked up by the provincial government via homeowner's grants that covered most of everyone's property taxes. There was a push to build a swimming pool at one point that would have been funded basically the same way.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:23 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think in terms of being able to search for answers to your civic questions, you'll probably be wanting terms closer to "village" and "hamlet", as they deal with settlements that are (in terms of population size) smaller than actual towns.

This isn't true everywhere. In North Dakota, for example, where there are lots of very isolated towns with fewer than 100 (or even 50) residents, all incorporated places are known as "cities."

My mom lives just outside a small town, and about half an hour away from a city with 100,000+ residents. Basically, nobody does anything in the little town - everyone drives to capital-T Town to work, to get groceries, to shop at a mall, etc. The consolidated school in town draws from surrounding communities, and grades K-12 are housed in one building.

Trips to Town take planning, especially in the winter, because when the weather gets bad, the state DOT just closes the highway (with a gate and everything) rather than plowing.

Social lives revolve around school and church. People are REALLY into high school sports, even after their kids are grown up; they go to the home football games and stuff, like people in bigger cities would for a college game. People also drink a lot.

Now that people are moving off of the farms, these very small towns are more like bedroom communities for somewhere larger, rather than being independently functional cities.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 12:36 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most people have to commute; to work, to school, to shop, and for services. When I was a kid, my town of 1,000 (we lived on a farm 8 miles out) had a number of businesses and was the location of the consolidated school for the smaller surrounding towns, but had no public swimming pool, no dentist's office, no eye care, no hospital, no chain restaurants, no movie theater ... well, you get the idea. My parents commuted 30 miles to work (lots of people from the area used to car pool until that custom gradually fell to the wayside). For our annual dental exams our whole family would pack in the car and go the same day, so it would seem to take a really long time to get through us all. I didn't get my drivers' license till about a year after I was eligible because it wasn't convenient for anyone to take me to the town where the licensing office was. I usually did not see other children (except family or the occasional accidental bumping-into at church or at Wal-Mart in a nearby town) from the last day of school, all summer till the first day of school. We didn't really have activities, except "vacation bible school." It was lonely and hideously boring. I never felt like everyone knew everyone's business, but I think that was because I was a kid. However, if anyone needed to know who I was, I could tell them who my parents were, or even my grandparents, and then they could place me.

Other adults who had jobs worked at the grocery store, hardware store, or school or owned the burger joint. Schoolteachers were the wealthy in my town.

Also Wal-Mart was closed on Sundays. Sometimes I marvel that I'm "only" 44. I made a beeline for college out of state, let me tell you.
posted by Occula at 12:46 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Canadian here. The town I live in has a population of 2300. It's surrounded by many small villages and hamlets with population in the low hundreds. Further south is the same with hamlets in between all the farms. Taxes for civics go though the counties and townships and are dolled out county wide. Several small places have volunteer fire departments. Most hamlets have a corner store, maybe a couple of shops and sometimes a feed mill. People work in the larger towns or drive into the 'city'. 150,000 population. (45 minute drive from me).

The area I'm in has some farms. It grew up around forestry, fishing, farming and rock quarries. Quarries are the main resource industry still in operation. My town though not as small as what you're talking about is bustling because it's now a major tourist and cottage area, as well as being a gateway town to an even larger tourist area that contains couple of national parks and a world renowned freshwater diving park in Lake Huron.

It's cool. I get the small town but have a varieties of work options, most amenities that a bigger center would have, great restaurants, as well as lots of recreation opportunities. Many people work in jobs related to this. We also have a growing population of retirees that move to their cottages from the Toronto area so they put a lot into the economy without working.
posted by Jalliah at 1:03 PM on July 31, 2012

"In terms of social lives, your parents generally had to drive you to spend time with friends, who were frequently also a town or two over."

My friend who lives 40 miles out from my small city in a town of around 1,000/1,200 or so drives her kids in to see their friends and then hangs around for 3 hours. She'll go to the mall, go see a movie, visit with her friends, do her grocery shopping at the big grocery store right at the end of her kid's visit. Sometimes she texts me and says "Daughter going to mall with Friends, will be in town; if you want to run to the grocery store I can watch your kids for a couple hours!" She consolidates her errands into town and tries to schedule socializing for when her kids need to be here.

Also, a town about 60 miles from me de-incorporated a couple years ago (2010 election cycle, I think?). They were so small ... fewer than 15 families ... that it was cheaper for them to be an unincoprorated part of the county than to maintain the various things they had to do as a town. Which were pretty minimal as it was, but still took a lot of time, holding public meetings for town business every couple months and posting it 48 hours in advance and complying with FOIA and all that stuff alone takes at last 20 hours a month, before you actually get into the business of doing business. They'd once been larger, around 100 families, but over time had dwindled, which is how they ended up incorporated but no longer able to support being incorporated. (I think the news story said that literally every adult in town had served as mayor and none of them wanted to anymore, which is when they agreed it was probably time to de-incorporate and put it on the ballot, though it only got 75% of the votes.)

" In North Dakota, for example, where there are lots of very isolated towns with fewer than 100 (or even 50) residents, all incorporated places are known as "cities.""

In my state, the difference between "city," "town," and "village" is a matter of form of local government (village board vs. mayor/council, etc.) and extent of local taxing rights delegated from the state to the ... incorporated agglomeration of houses. Except where it's not because of historical precedent, where a village may have a city form of government but still be a village because it's been a village for 200 years.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:07 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Australian perspective here -
I have lived in a variety of different sized towns. After uni I moved to population 5000 then to a population 943 ( so said the sign into town and I had a hard time finding a place to rent so it wasn't like there was a lot of vacant houses).
The economies of the towns depend a lot on how far it is to a larger town. For the 5000 town it was 3 hours, for the 943 it was 1 hour to a large grocery store and 2 hours to a large department store.

The thing that I found in common with both towns was SPORT SPORT SPORT.

Before leaving the big city I played no sport at all. It wasn't part of my culture or even something I watched on tv.

Within weeks of moving in I was playing (well lets be honest I was running around like a blue arsed tit and displaying my general uncoordination to all) touch football, squash and volleyball.

There was also afl football, tennis netball and soccer in winter from memory.

In the 943 I played squash and tennis

In both towns I thought that there was a bit of a culture of volunteering, with groups such as lions, rural fire service, state emergency service, hospital auxiliaries and the like.

I found I only really had time available for 1 group so I chose the rfs.

How do the towns work? Well in Australia we have three levels of government, and the state provides schools, hospitals, police, funding for main roads, with local government providing water and sewerage, local roads, rubbish, libraries, halls public toilets etc. the state government funding is a bit dependent on population as well as on need and lobbying/influence on local politician.

In 943 we had 1 policeman, a 16 bed ( I think ) hospital that was more like a nursing home, a primary and high school and the local council.

We had two pubs and an RSL (returned services league club). A butcher, baker, chemist, small grocery, cafe, two banks ( one closed soon after I moved there), a doctor. A dentist used to come to town once a month.
It was a service town for the surrounding agriculture, but the main employer as far as I could see was the local shire, which was funded by land rates and received money from the state to maintain the state highway that ran through town, and also received grants from the federal government for whatever they could. Second main source of income appeared to me to be welfare ( single parent, old age and unemployment) with passing trade keeping the cafe and bakery in business. The poker machines kept the rsl open.

The age demographic looked a lot like an egg timer. Lots at 0-18 and 60 + with significantly less in the 23 - 40 bracket. ( mostly they seemed to be imports like teachers and nurses). People used to retire here because they could sell their home on the coast , buy here and have an extra 200k left to retire with.
posted by insomniax at 2:00 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

My cousins live in LaRue, Texas (population: 160).

They don't have proper addresses; 80 percent of the time, anything I mail to them gets returned. There are 3 mailboxes along the country road where they live; it's very difficult for the postmaster to find them, so they typically pick it up at the PO in "town" (which is 25 minutes away).

Their driveway is at least 2 miles long.

They have a well, salt-water pool, gigantic propane tank, satellite service (so they can receive any channels at all), and there aren't telephone poles or power lines out there... everything's strictly propane-powered, or you can run a generator. There's so much ridiculously cheap unoccupied land that is mostly used to grow hay, feed cattle, and this particular cousin also raises horses, alpacas and goats.

Trash is burned once per week in a metal barrel; there's no such thing as "recycling/trash day" there. If they have trouble with the well, they hire a contractor to come out and do whatever they need to it.

Both cousins are in the medical industry; one's a speech pathologist, the other is a physical therapist. They drive 45 minutes to an hour each way to work in Tyler, Texas at a clinic.

They keep a large, meat-only freezer beside the house for wild game, fresh fish, and of course any livestock the youngest daughter shows and slaughters each year (she's in FFA).

Roads? Yeah, those mostly don't exist; they're dirt lanes, maybe some gravel, and black top once you get to a proper "county" road.

One of the games we used to play as a kid was: guess the color of the next car we see going down the highway through the visible patch in the woods. It was a level of boredom I can't imagine dealing with now as an adult...

Kids from the surrounding areas typically ride the bus up to an hour and a half each way to school, and most folks keep a large Igloo cooler (or two) in the back of their trucks/vans for grocery store visits, as driving to and from the nearest WalMart can take an hour or more each way. It's usually a family outing, and MOST of the food is bought in bulk, frozen, or canned. Since virtually everyone grows produce, nuts, or owns honeybees, those things are traded or sold on the side of the road in little stands to tourists and travelers passing through. EVERYONE goes to church; 90 percent of a kid's social life revolves around school and church activities, and almost everyone identifies as Baptist, Methodist or Church of Christ. Most kids are expected to ride their bikes to each other's houses if it's less than 10 miles, and many of them miss a few days of school each semester to help plow fields, reap crops, castrate hogs, etc.

Most kids run around barefoot outside without thinking it's weird, many learn how to drive tractors at 10 or 12 and then move on to cars at 14, and "ethnic" food means Mexican, Chinese, and maybe Italian.

Most police out thataways are state troopers; the locals (which are few) are usually near the Henderson county courthouse, ferrying prisoners to and from their trials. The newspaper is 8 pages and has a staff of 4 people; the only major store within 60 miles is a Super WalMart. There's one movie theater with 4 films showing each weekend within 50 miles.

TL;DR: It's really, really fucking boring and everyone's poor as shit. Almost all women are stay-at-home moms. Unless you're in the medical field and working at the hospital or the 8-10 nearby nursing homes, a land owner raising cattle/livestock/alpacas/llamas/ostriches, or one of the few successful lawyers/bankers/taxidermists/home builders in the area, you're likely unemployed and looking to get out.

But if you DO have money, you can build a 2 bed, 3 bath house out there on several acres of land for about $110k... so, cost of living is pretty low.

As my in-laws say, "you don't have to shovel heat," and snow in East Texas is pretty rare - so, no emergency road services/repairs, usually. The roads are complete shit out there; most everyone drives a tractor and maintains their own property lines/fences, mow with a tractor attachment or Ditch Witch, and many herd cattle with old beepers attached to their collars (seriously).

My cousin's favorite way to check out her daughter's newest boyfriend is to make him come out and help her repair their fence, dump gravel in the "driveway," clear brush and haul away dead trees. It's nice that you can shoot a 12-point buck from their front porch, but I MUCH prefer city life!
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:28 PM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

I grew up in small-but-not-tiny-town, Maine, but the town continues to grow. When I was a kid there were 2500 people in the winter (being in the lakes region means summer population is at least 3x that) but now it's closer to 4000.

Things that have changed with population growth:
- I grew up on RR1 (rural route 1) but now it's called Egypt Road. About 15 years ago all fire lanes (roads that used to just be numbered, or long driveways with a few houses at the end) all had to be named.
- There is now municipal trash collection whereas you used to bring stuff to the dump yourself.
- There is now a middle school, whereas the school extended to include 6th grade (from 4th) while I was young. I spent 60-90 minutes on the bus (each way) to get to middle and high school, until I got a license and a car and could make the 30 minute drive to the next town over myself. My ride was long because I was the third person picked up, at the inhumane hour of 5:45 am.

Things that have not changed:
- Economy is still based mostly on tourism. Some restaurants are seasonal, etc.
- We have a hired-not-elected Town Manager and a committee of selectmen (and women) who are elected. There is a town meeting twice a year where people get together and discuss/hash out town issues. It's hilarious and a joy/frustration to behold.
- Fire Department is volunteer, with one paid fire chief, and county sheriff department covers our police needs.
- Kids amuse themselves by playing school sports, participating in church groups, and drinking in the woods.
posted by hungrybruno at 2:33 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

About a year ago, I moved to a fairly rural area. My wife and I decided to buy there because we wanted a lot of land for our dogs to run about in, and we could buy a much, MUCH nicer house out in the boonies for the same price as a tiny house on a postage stamp-sized plot of land in the town where I work.

Prior to this I hadn't lived anywhere rural; just major cities and suburbs. So my answer is based on only the 14 months I've lived in a rural area.

Where do these people work?

Those who aren't farmers tend to have very long commutes. If I commute to work, it is 1h15m each way, but it is primarily on 2-lane, rural farm country roads, so it is a far more pleasant commute than 1h15m sitting in traffic the whole way. The only place I ever hit traffic is when I am very close to work. Sometimes I can work from home.

My next-door neighbor on one side works from home 90% of the time; if he commutes to work (which is rare), he has a slightly longer commute than I do.

My next-door neighbor on the other side actually works in another office building on the same street as mine, and her husband has a 2 hour commute each way.

Any other of my neighbors whom I have met are on farms and farm their land in our "neighborhood", so that is where they work.

How do the children have social lives, go to school, have activities to go to?

We don't have kids yet, so I'm not certain of this. My next-door neighbor's daughter recently graduated from high school; most of her friends (from what I gather) are people she met at school. The family is also very active in their church. I don't know if that's typical of people in my "neighborhood."

I had some activities I did outside of work before, but as of yet I've been unable to find the same sort of things in my new community, so I end up driving a lot if I do participate in the same stuff. I'm not very religious so church activities aren't really my cup of tea.

How can such a small taxpayer base afford civic necessities like policemen, road repairs, snow plowing and so on?

This sort of stuff is provided at the county level. Our police and fire departments are county police and fire departments. The roads are also maintained/plowed by the county and in some cases by the state. I find that the county is a lot better at road maintenance than the state is.

We don't live in a "town" per se -- it's officially an "unincorporated area." If I was pressed to give a name for the neighborhood I would say the name of a small "village" down the street with a few houses and a church but that's not really where we live either.

Our postal address indicates we live in a close, mid-sized city (actually, the county seat), but it's a 15-20 minute drive to get to that town. There is a closer, smaller town, and I'm actually surprised we aren't served by that town's post office (it is physcially closer).

Most typical suburban amenities can be had in the county seat, which as I said is a 15-20 minute drive away. There is a grocery store in the closer, smaller town (10 minutes drive in the other direction), but we typically do our shopping in the county seat because it's on my way to/from work and therefore actually more convenient.

It's not much different than suburban life with the exception that you have to drive a lot to get anywhere, so your budget takes a hit as far as filling up your gas tank. (Oh, also, we need to mow nearly 3 acres of grass so that's even more gas into a riding mower.)

I have not met ANYONE our age who lives here (I'm in my early 30s, my wife's in her late 20s). Most seem to be in the 45-or-older age group with young or teenage kids.

I love living where I live. I really enjoy the peace and quiet. I don't like how much we have to spend on gas. I REALLY don't like how much I have to bend over to get a decent internet connection (we can't get cable or DSL, I'm forced to get a T1 line and we have Direct TV). My biggest surprise was some of the added expenses (particularly with regard to decent internet connectivity).

Rural life is not for everyone, but I enjoy it for the most part. I think it will be better once we meet more people, but that's going to take more time than it would in the city/suburbs.
posted by tckma at 2:50 PM on July 31, 2012

I grew up in a town much larger than the ones you're asking about (it was around 2000 people when I lived there) but there were smaller towns around us, and my experience may be relevant to your questions.

Some of the things you view as civic necessities don't have to be covered at the municipal level. My town did not have a police force, nor did most of the surrounding towns. We got law enforcement and animal control coverage from the county sheriff. There was a larger town adjoining us that did have a police force, and it was well known among locals that when you crossed the town line from the larger town to the smaller town, it became "safe" to exceed the speed limit.

There was a lot of sharing of resources among towns in the region. We shared a public library with the next town over, and "mutual aid" for fire and rescue was the norm. The nearest post office was over in the next town. Schools were organized into multi-town districts. Some adjacent districts only provided local schooling up to grade six or eight; beyond that point, the district would pay tuition to other districts, and students would be bused out. These bus rides could be easily an hour or more each way as the bus wended across the countryside picking up far-flung students, so teenagers who lived in those districts would be especially eager to get their license and acquire a car so they could drive to school instead.

We had our own all-volunteer fire department, which was a big point of civic prideā€”so much so that there was an annual festival day celebrating the fire department.

The concept of a "neighborhood" didn't really apply to where I grew up. My brother and I were lucky enough to live next door to a pair of siblings who were close in age to us, and they were our main playmates outside of school. There were very few other kids living within walking distance. For kids, socialization happened mainly at school, in after-school play dates (typically you'd get a permission slip to go home on the bus with one of your friends, then get picked up before dinnertime by a parent), and at extracurricular activities like the private sports leagues which drew from multiple surrounding towns. For teenagers, a car truly equaled freedom, and your world pretty much exploded as soon as you got your license or a close friend did.

The nearest supermarket was a 20 minute drive from home. Most other things you might want to do (clothes shopping, summer job, movie theaters) were a 30-45 minute drive away.

You asked about the economy. My town was not truly remote; it wasn't exactly suburban (though it has become more so since I left), but there was a medium-sized city half an hour away, and a lot of people from my town probably worked in the city. Some people also worked in the surrounding towns, or owned small businesses (e.g. raising cattle, running a gravel pit, cutting hair in a home salon). Some people subsisted on Social Security checks, just like anywhere else in the country. And I suspect we had a drug dealer living down the road for a while. (I wouldn't venture to guess what the neighbors were vending, but life in small-town America is not all Norman Rockwell and Garrison Keillor. Oxycontin abuse became a huge problem in the rural areas of my home state around the time I was in college. For all I know, meth or bath salts may have taken over as the drug of choice in recent years.)

The town did pay for its own snow removal, which was a large portion of the annual municipal budget (this was in New England). The budget was debated and voted on every year at annual meeting. Any resident of voting age could have their say and their vote (by show of hands, as I recall). Other governmental functions were fulfilled by an elected board of selectmen. A full-time town employee (secretary? manager?) kept the town office open on a daily basis and would help you with stuff like birth certificates and voter registration, but I'm not sure if there were any other paid, full-time positions.
posted by Orinda at 4:41 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is based on my experiences in rural New England. Please note that small towns are different in other parts of the country, they are not all the same everywhere.

Where do these people work?: Many are farmers. Some are tradesworkers. Some commute very long distance (over two hours in some cases) to the nearest city. Some telecommute, but there is not reliable internet so that's not very common (where I lived there was nothing but dial-up and satellite, neither of which are fast enough for real work).

How do the children have social lives, go to school, have activities to go to?: Not much social life for kids. A lot of my friends worked for their family farms after school. There are not enough children of the same age to have town schools, so the buses go to every town in the county to bring children to a county-level school that may be 50 miles from their home. Thus, friends live very far away, and until you can drive, you don't see them much.

How can such a small taxpayer base afford civic necessities like policemen, road repairs, snow plowing and so on?
Well, to an extent, some of this just doesn't happen at all. Some roads are not plowed, you are expected to have a vehicle that can handle this. But there is also less need for services to some extent--there are not that many roads, almost no crime other than vandalism and everyone knows whose kids are doing it.

But you're right, there is not enough money to provide full services like you expect in a city. So most services are provided through volunteer labor--many small towns do not have any paid municipal staff, except for maybe one 10-hour position for the town clerk (the "secretary" that Orinda mentions). Police, fire, and public works are all part-time and volunteer. Where I lived, there was a volunteer organization made up of people from a group of 10-15 surrounding towns which pooled resources to buy emergency vehicles and staff the (outside of New England, which doesn't have unincorporated land, these services are sometimes provided by the county). Once a year at Town Meeting important decisions, usually things like "should we buy a new fire truck" or "can we afford to renovate the library this year" or somesuch, are made by majority rule. One vote per person by show of hands, everyone shows up.

To be honest, in some places this system is working okay, but in others, it is a real struggle. Depopulation and changing economies are making it very difficult to maintain a stable community structure.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:55 AM on August 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've been reading the rest of the answers here and I did forget to mention some things.

One, trash collection. There is no municipal trash collection. You can take your trash and recycling to the county dump (for a fee), which is 25 minutes' drive away, or you can hire a private company to pick it up. There are coupons on the back of your property tax bill for use of the county dump for larger construction stuff (up to 500 lb) that private companies might not pick up. We did some math when we first moved in, and between the gas to get to/from the dump and the dump fees themselves, we determined it was roughly the same cost to hire the private company (there's only one that serves our street). We are billed once every three months. County law says that any company that picks up trash also has to have separate recycling collections, so we have both picked up once a week on the same day -- the recycling truck comes much earlier than the trash truck.

Two, local businesses. There really aren't any. 10 minutes' drive away from us is a capital-T Town that has a couple of small grocery stores, a CVS, an auto parts store, a few banks, a branch of the county library, small mom-and-pop restaurants, gas stations, and so on. Then there is the county seat 20 minutes away which has things like Wal-Mart and Target, BJ's, larger chain restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, county offices, the local hospital, the local community college, and so on. Many people work in the capital-T Town or the county seat at those places, or they work from home, or they are housewives.
posted by tckma at 6:57 AM on August 1, 2012

Oh yeah, as for social lives for kids--drinking, high school sports, shooting at things with BBs and then real guns, growing and smoking pot. Sometimes simultaneously.

And some rural towns have lost population, but others are growing due to tourism. So that's one industry too, but it's seasonal.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:58 AM on August 1, 2012

I live in a small town less than twenty miles from Albany, the capitol of New York which is not a large city.

To add to the points made above:

Trash collection: Wasn't available for a while, had to take our trash to the town dump (which is now a transfer station) There was a monthly fee for the dump and now a higher fee for the transfer station.
We now pay for end of driveway "one-stream recycling" and garbage pick-up.

Churches: There are many on a short stretch of road including a Synagogue. All are old, some need serious work.

Schools: We have an elementary school in town, relatively modern, seems like most elementary schools.

Higher grades (6-12) are bussed to neighboring towns (10 - 15 miles).

Police: We do have a town police force, housed in the town hall. They seem to mainly issue traffic tickets (our town police are not friendly to drivers), and do other normal functions.

Fire Department: We have a town fire department near the center of town, the last fire was the house next door to the Fire House burning down a couple weeks ago. They mainly pump out flooded basements.
While the Town fire dept. is two miles away, we live near the county line and have another town's Fire House less than a mile in the other direction.

Snow Plowing: Mainly done by the county, although we have a couple Town plows that help out.

Post office: We have a small PO with boxes, also we have home delivery.

Transportation: There is one bus running hourly 6AM to 9AM and 3PM to 7PM into - from Albany.

Village: Within our small town exists a smaller Village the difference being the Village residents pay Village taxes. The Villagers have sewage and water, we have wells and septic systems.

Miscellany: Our town consists of mainly commuters, there are farms, a veterinarian, about twenty local businesses (auto garages and body repair, three gas stations (convenience stores), two liquor stores, one pizza parlor, one olde time hardware store, one modern hardware store (TrueValue) two small dive restaurants, one normal bar / restaurant, barbershop, American Legion post, Gun club, Library, a funeral parlor and that's about it.

There's nothing to do in our town for children or adults, we don't hang out at any special place (a few frequent the Gun club and I assume the Legion post). We travel to nearby towns for activities. My neighbors sons are into school sports and travel 10 - 30 mile for all games (Baseball, Football, Soccer, etc).

Cultural activities occur in nearby towns or cities.

Albany has a lot of normal venues for sports, clubs, theatre, concerts etc. living so close, many go there or other nearby cities.

Our town's population is slowly increasing as new homes are built on undeveloped land.

Within twenty miles of our town is everything one could want from skinny-dipping to auto racing to fairs, to everything in Albany, just not in our town.
posted by DBAPaul at 10:13 AM on August 1, 2012

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