It's best to know your neighbors and create an alliance when it comes to rural community development.
When Susan Clark was doing research for her book on New England's annual town meetings, she visited a little town called Newark, Vermont, population 470. These townsfolk, Clark says, are more involved in their town meetings than any other town in New England. So Clark asked the town clerk, "How do people here stay so informed? Is there a newspaper?"
The clerk guffawed. In a town of 470?
Is there a post office? A bulletin board where everyone posts things? No, the clerk responded, just a little post office in the village store.
So where do people gather to talk about what's going on? Clark tried desperately.
"Oh!" The clerk answered, understanding at last. "At the dumpster!"
It was a Saturday morning tradition to hash over the week's events at the town dumpster.
Every rural community has its idiosyncrasies, its traditions, its culture that residents can only learn by jumping in and getting to know their neighbors. There are lots of ways to do that: share your bumper crop of apples or attend the local art festival. But the best way to really get to know your neighbors, says Clark — who teaches a course on rural community development — is to roll up your shirtsleeves and get busy in the work of the community, making the load lighter for everyone around you.
"If you actually work on a project with your neighbors, you'll be much more integrated than if you try to do it through frivolous connections or social connections," she says.
That sentiment was heartily echoed by Steve Piper, mayor of Marquette, Kansas, who recently made headlines by offering free building lots to try to build up his town.
"In a small community you really rely on volunteers," he says. "We simply ask people, if you're going to move to Marquette, we expect you to be part of the community, not just live here. People get here and say they're almost busier here than in the big city because there are fewer people to do the things that need to be done. We have several museums in town, we have an active Parent Teachers Association, we need volunteers for concession stands at school games or for reading programs. When people see how hard we work to keep a small town going, this impresses people. They like the idea of being part of that."
Tom and Pam Harris already understood that principle when they moved into the little community of Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico. Predominantly Hispanic, Arroyo Hondo is in a section of northern New Mexico where most families go back generations. Acceptance can be difficult for outsiders. So when a neighbor's husband died, Pam offered to manage things at the house so family and friends could attend the Catholic services. For three days, Pam says, she collected the covered dishes people brought, served food for family gatherings, cleaned the kitchen and mopped the floor. When relatives and friends of the family showed up, they asked "Who is this woman?" But Pam was then readily welcomed into their hearts.
Tom, who mingles less easily, started earning his place in the community by hard physical labor. New Mexico's water system runs on acequias, little ditches with streams that meander through people's property. Everyone who benefits from the water in the acequia is expected to pitch in every spring to help clear debris and mud from these ditches. Tom showed up with beer and a willingness to work. He also turns up every other year when the men congregate to put a new coat of adobe mud on Our Lady of Sorrows church — even though Tom's not Catholic.
Paul Underhill, co-owner of Terra Firma Farms, an organic farm near Winter, California, said it took awhile before he had the tools or know-how to be much help to his neighbors. But recently, he and another fellow who owns a horse-boarding operation decided their businesses might create more wear and tear on the gravel roads than other neighbors. So, together they bought a road grader and began tending the roads themselves.
"People like it if they figure out that you are paying attention to what's going on," he says. "The first step, if you realize the situation your neighbors are in, is to do something respectful that shows you are in the same mindset they are."
Skip and Barbara Pendrey decided long ago that when Skip retired from his job in Washington, D.C. they would move to Floyd, Virginia, population 435. Floyd has one stoplight and people in these mountains still make moonshine. If you stop to talk on the sidewalk, they'll gab all day, says Skip. But he and Barbara wanted to really get involved in the community so they both work several days a week at Angels in the Attic, a local thrift store — the proceeds of which benefit the community. They also work Friday nights at the one cultural and social event in town, the Floyd Country Store Jamboree.
"There's nothing to do in Floyd," Pendrey says. "There's no movie theater, no bowling alley, no community center, no swimming pool. But every Friday night we have the jamboree."
Volunteer musicians play bluegrass and gospel in the Country Store and other groups play outside on the sidewalk. The jamboree draws visitors from all over the country and the world. Skip runs the soundboard while Barbara takes money at the door.
"I love (having this sense of community)," Skip says. "You can be at ease here. If I need anything, if I need a hand, there is always somebody who will come out and help."
Of course, some people find it easier to dive into a new situation than others do. For Pam Harris in New Mexico, jumping into the community was easy. A retired school psychologist, she has lived most of her life in small, tight-knit communities and knew that involvement was part of the package. But some people are shy or more reserved.
Tammy Young moved to Marquette, Kansas, after her parents saw an advertisement about the land giveaway. A widow with two daughters, ages 11 and 13, Tammy had been a homebody in her hometown of Riverside, California. But she realized when she moved to Marquette that she would have to overcome her natural shyness.
"I wasn't a real go-getter," she says. "The difficulty was breaking out of the initial shell. But my girls kept getting after me and saying ‘Mom, you need to get out there and meet some people because we want a dad eventually.'"
Young was helped by the fact that Marquette was prepared for new people.
"Not only did every church minister in town come knocking on the door, wanting to visit," Young says, "but there were other volunteer things for the community and each of those had representatives who came by."
She signed up for classes to become a paramedic and also volunteered to work at the girls' school. After that, she says, she was "up for grabs" among organizations that wanted a volunteer.
And she actually did meet a dad for her girls. Tammy met her new husband, Rusty, at a local café where he bought her breakfast.
The two big mistakes newcomers make when they move into a community is either to keep too much to themselves or to try to take over the town. Rural and farm publications are rife with stories of city people who moved to the country and started complaining about the farm odors and noises. Old timers are quick to warn newcomers not to try to "change things." People moving from urban areas often become frustrated with common rural issues such as no home mail delivery, slow response times from emergency personnel, rough roads and spotty phone or electric service.
Some agricultural organizations have even sent out scratch-and-sniff cards with manure smells to warn would-be country dwellers that they're moving to an environment where things are going to be different.
Newcomers can alienate neighbors quickly by ignoring the mores of their adopted culture.
Paul Underhill, who moved from New York City, learned country ways, he says, "mostly by offending people." He has learned that one's first intro to neighbors is usually the wave as you pass on the road and that going up to someone's front door when you don't know them is the same as trespassing — at least in his neck of the woods. One of the worst things you can do is set up a fence for any other purpose than to keep your animals at home.
In New England, Clark says, it is expected that people show up at the town meeting — a vigorous form of democracy where each person speaks for himself and the event is preceded by a potluck supper. But if you're new, you'd better keep your mouth shut.
"You're expected the first year not to speak," Clark says. "Sometimes people do make the mistake of thinking they have to have the pearls of wisdom immediately. A good piece of advice would be to listen. Listen hard and watch. And don't try to make too many changes too fast."
Harris learned the same thing. He shoots the breeze when he's helping with the acequias or helping mud the church. But he doesn't give his opinion or try to tell anyone present what to do. Most of them have learned the job from 400 years of heritage.
Often, Pam Harris says, there are reasons why people do things a certain way that has deep roots hidden from a newcomer. She has often "treaded on toes" by thinking she understands the culture before she really knows those roots.
While volunteerism is hands-down the top means for connecting with a community, there are others. Attending a local church, for example. And attending local festivals. Anything involving food, Clark says, is good.
"Food is a really great convener . . It's almost Biblical, breaking bread together. I don't think the power of food should ever be underestimated."
She herself has brought so many cookies to so many meetings she's run out of cookie recipes. She recently bought two new cookie recipe books.
"It's been really good for me, culinarily," she says.
The only exception to the food rule is sharing zucchini in August.
"There's a joke here in Vermont that the only time people lock their doors is when the zucchinis get ripe in August," Clark says.
By and large, the rule is to simply look out for one another. If someone is stuck in the ditch, stop and help. If you have extra produce, share. If you know someone with a need, do what you can to meet it.
"A community like this is very supportive and warm," says Pam Harris.
"It gives you a sense of belonging. Before I came here, I lived in Idaho. I was a single mom for years. Without neighbors, I don't know how I would have survived.
'I helped someone load wood and that's how I got firewood to heat my home. I trade produce in my garden for someone Rototilling it. People just pitch in and take care of each other. They don't always agree on everything, but it's like family. A good neighbor is worth more than gold."
Susan Lahey is a veteran journalist who writes and lives with her three children in the mountains of Northern New Mexico.