Filed under: Activities & Attractions, Historic Places & Landmarks, Roads & Routes, Scenic Byways/Historic Routes
Small Town Americana: Where History Comes Alive
By Laura M. Kidder, Rand McNally
Rand McNally, a Good Sam travel-planning information partner, loves to celebrate small towns. During Rand’s summer Best of the Road contest, folks discuss and vote for their favorite communities across the country. In a series of articles created just for Good Sam, Rand highlights the Americana that makes small towns fun, friendly, flavorful, patriotic—and beautiful.
A road trip across America is as much about timelines as it is about maps. White-clapboard Colonials surround New England village greens; quarry-stone Victorians dot Midwestern whistle stops; earthen pueblos line Southwestern town streets. Some communities do more than just preserve their historic architecture—they also preserve and showcase the culture that brings history to life.
Here are a few picturesque Colonial, antebellum, and frontier towns where lived-in history meets living history. To see what people are saying about other beautiful, historic small towns and to vote for your favorite, be sure to visit Best of the Road.
Paul Revere once rode in here with news of British troop activity (in daylight, four months before his more famous midnight ride). John Paul Jones twice lived here (when he picked up his vessel, The Ranger, and later, while he supervised construction of the America). Today, zoning here is strict, and history is rich. In Market Square, Federal-period red bricks house boutiques, galleries, and cafes. Their residential wooden counterparts sit on narrow, adjacent streets. Everything winds along and inland from the Piscataqua River, the tidal estuary that has made Portsmouth an attractive harbor since 1630.
A short walk from the square, history gets even richer at the museum enclave of Strawbery Banke. In and amid the 42 restored and furnished structures—which date from the 17th to the 20th centuries—artisans and other “townsfolk” in period costume go about their chores while you look on.
Other Colonial Classics: Sturbridge, MA; Salem, MA; Mystic, CT; St. Mary’s City, MD; Williamsburg, VA.
First, there were the hilly forests, the Mississippi River, and the Natchez tribe, who used a nearby trail. Then came the riverboats, whose captains sold their goods and boats (for use as lumber) and returned east toward Nashville along the trail now known as the Natchez Trace. Then there were the planters, who made fortunes from cane and cotton and built mansions to prove it. Thanks to a relatively quick 1862 surrender to Union Admiral David Farragut (of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” fame) and to arduous long-time efforts of preservationists, many of these antebellum confections still stand.
About a half-dozen are open to the public year-round; during special spring and fall house pilgrimages, privately owned properties also open, bringing the count of houses you can tour up to around 30. Each one has a story, often told by hoop-skirted docents who also point out the hand-painted wall paper, mahogany furnishings, bone china, and old-time household contraptions like crystal flytraps.
Other Antebellum Charmers: Natchitoches, LA; Columbus, MS; Vicksburg, MS; Athens, GA; Milledgeville, GA; Franklin, TN.
Deadwood’s history would be a Wild West cliché if it weren’t for one thing: what happened here probably inspired those clichés to begin with. An 1874 expedition—under General George Custer himself—found gold in the Black Hills. Though the government had, with the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, given the hills to the Lakota-Sioux, by 1876, thousands of prospectors had entrenched themselves in a mucky tent- and shack-filled camp. They were joined by gunslingers, gamblers, and other opportunists who often frequented the inevitable brothels and saloons.
For a spell, daily life included skirmishes with the Lakota, brawls between miners, and general lawlessness. Wild Bill Hickok was even shot down here. Although the brothels are long gone, and the only gun slinging you’ll see is during re-enactments of Hickok’s tragic end, the casinos are still around—some of the revenue they generate pays for the town’s historic perseveration works.
Other Frontier Favorites: Durango, CO; Fairplay, CO; Winthrop, WA; Jacksonville, OR.