What You Miss if You Don’t Grow Up in a Small Town

By Jerry Nelson
Jerry Nelson
Jerry Nelson
I´m often asked why do I do what I do. Through floods, stampedes, drug cartels, raging rivers and blizzards…why do I keep putting this old battered and used up body on the line. The answer is simple, but maybe hard to understand. I believe that photos can be used to change the conditions in which people live. For me, photography is both a path and instrument for social justice. I like to point the camera where images can make a difference — especially
September 2, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

bath county

For the past few months, I’ve been a regular visitor to a Facebook group devoted to the county in which I grew up. Located along the West Virginia/Virginia border in the United States, Bath County is home to Hot Springs — the quintessential small town.

Early in the morning as I set on our balcony, I watch the sun come up over Rio de Plata and listen to the vendors with their push carts thumping along the cobblestone in the street below. While Ale quietly sleeps, memories of growing up in a small town mingle with the smell of breakfast empanadas and, for a moment, I’m back home again.

Despite what you may have been told, there are some advantages to growing up in a small town.

Crime is Practically Nonexistent.

When a person lives in a small town like Hot Springs, they don’t fear the outside world as much. We always left the doors unlocked. Most of us didn’t have anything worth stealing anyway. If the neighbor needed to borrow something while we were out, they came over and helped themselves. We could do the same.

A person could stop for gossip – in the middle of the street – with the engine running and no one would notice. If a car came down the road, the driver would either wait patiently for the chinwagging to finish, or, more often than not, they would join.

The only crime in Hot Springs was that old man who hung out on the front steps of the bank and the only misdeed he could’ve been accused of committing was excessive staring.

You Created Your Own Fun

In Hot Springs, where Main Street is the only street, you weren’t supplied with ready-made, off-the-shelf fun. You had to create your own entertainment. There weren’t any big concerts to go to, the Liberty was turned into a parking lot so you couldn’t check out the latest movie and it was extremely rare to meet new people.

Everyone already knew everyone and within this symbiotic relationship, creativity was born.

The treehouse that Ann and Reed Williams built wasn’t just a shaky structure suspended between heaven and earth under a canopy of oaks. One day it was the crow’s nest on a schooner crossing the Atlantic and the next it was the observation tower where sentries stood waiting for those “damn Yankees” coming through the pass.

Knowing everyone – and being known by everyone – made for developing some of the greatest social skills known to man. When you opened the door to Ashwood elementary for the first time, and met those 20 other kids, you didn’t know it, but those were the kids that you were going to spend the next 12 years with. You’d better get to know them, and learn to get along with them.

Sure, the kid that used to eat the glue in Ms. Shaver’s first grade class was a little weird, but he lived next to the bridge that crossed the river, so it was good to at least to pretend to eat some glue with him.

Small-town Sports

The atmosphere of sporting events in a small-town is more intense that the atmosphere of professional sports in a big city.

The number of people that could fit into the high school field won’t compare to the number in a major-league ballpark, but every person in the bleachers knew every kid on the field — personally.

When Rocky hit the homerun, he was everyone’s kid and everyone was on their feet cheering. When Marion “Flea” Woodward broke loose in the flats and zig-zagged 75 yards to a touchdown, he was a child of the community. It didn’t matter that he was black and most of the spectators were white, he was one of us and we were all one.

High school sports fans often have more passion for the game than the people playing it. Makes for a pretty interesting atmosphere.

Shopping was Easy

There weren’t any “big box” stores. There was the pharmacy where you could get a strawberry ice-cream soda while you waited on Mr. Williams to fill the prescription you picked up across the street from Dr. Myers. If you made sure your fingers weren’t sticky, you could browse the comics on the black spinning rack in the corner. When no one was watching, you could thumb through the True Detective magazines with the salacious images of women bound and gagged on the cover.

Two grocery stores, McAllister’s and Mick-or-Mack, fed the village. If either store didn’t have what you wanted, you probably didn’t need it in the first place.

The closest thing to a WalMart was Western Auto where Pete Hobbs could fix you up with a new bicycle, snow tires, baseball glove or a mawl. If you don’t know what a mawl is, you never lived in a small town.

Walking into Western Auto as a kid would leave an indelible imprint on your brain. The unmatched smell of rubber, tar, glue and paint would stick with you; nowhere else on earth would ever have the same aroma.

Hot Springs seems to have changed a lot since I was a kid tramping around the woods and mountains around the village.

In the backwoods of my memory though, it will always be the same.

 

 

 


Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer. His work has been featured in some of the world’s largest media outlets. On assignment in South America, Jerry is always interested in discussing future work that give him an opportunity to combine his two passions: photography and social justice.  Contact Jerry today.


 

Jerry Nelson
I´m often asked why do I do what I do. Through floods, stampedes, drug cartels, raging rivers and blizzards…why do I keep putting this old battered and used up body on the line. The answer is simple, but maybe hard to understand. I believe that photos can be used to change the conditions in which people live. For me, photography is both a path and instrument for social justice. I like to point the camera where images can make a difference — especially