It is nearly fair time in Chilhowee. For small rural Missouri communities, those lucky enough to still put on a fair, it has been a time of friends and family, of seeing old faces and telling new stories. A fair represents the traditions each town is founded on and reminds us we have a heritage worth preserving.
The 67th Annual Chilhowee Community Fair will be held this August 28th-30th. This year’s theme is ‘A Walk Down Memory Lane’ and, for our family, it couldn’t be more appropriately named. Jackie and I know most of the people who make up this community.
We grew up here. This was our home town.
Across the state and across our country, small towns exactly like ours are facing a new reality. They are under increasing pressure with a fall in property values, and as a result, tax revenue. Rural farming communities have been among the hardest hit by the changes in our economy during the past five decades. These communities are literal outposts, out of the way places forgotten by the super-highway of the 21st Century economy. As a result, towns like Chilhowee have struggled to survive. With a lack of opportunities for real, sustainable employment, generations of Chilhowee families and their children pulled up stakes, put the wheel back on the wagon and headed for greener pastures elsewhere. That exodus has been a leading contributor to the Chilhowee condition and a vacuum was left in its wake.
Two years ago, Jackie and I visited Chilhowee on Fair Weekend. For me, it had been the first time I had visited Chilhowee in nearly twenty years. Although Jackie, to her credit, tried to prepare me, I was stunned by what I saw.
In the amount of time it takes to cook a frozen pizza in the oven, a person can cruise every block of Chilhowee. You don’t even have to speed to do it. It is a small town, a spot in the road, although Chilhowee was once projected to be the seat of Johnson County due to the thriving economy and population the community enjoyed from coal mining and the railroad’s prominence.
What I found, upon returning, was a town that was an anemic ghost of itself. Chilhowee had taken on the appearance of a meth addict.
Rotted houses disgraced the streets like crooked, abscessed teeth. Vacant lots were jungles. Other properties looked like the offspring of junkyards and landfills. Once well-kept, beautiful historical homes have been transformed into creepy places kids cross the street to avoid. Store fronts and businesses have been abandoned. Their vacant eyes stare out behind dusty cataracts. Others had the lunatic leer of madness, with motley assortments of fixtures, chairs and junk peering out onto Walnut. Chilhowee had become more Norman Bates than Norman Rockwell.
Still, there were positive signs of life in the community. The park has been maintained and expanded. Now, it boasts planting gardens, although it looks like they could use a hand from someone with a green thumb.
City Hall now has a place of its own, instead of meeting at the Community building. It serves a dual function as a public library, where almost two hundred community members are patrons.
The school building, which has long served as the center of things in Chilhowee, has good facilities that reflect the care they have received over the years. The gym has never looked better, a part of the continuing legacy of our little Indian tribe.
A community investment, of energy, time and love have preserved and improved the gym and that effort is reflected in the shiny floors and murals and on the banners hanging on the wall. There is no reason that feeling of pride can’t grow from that fertile ground to the town that surrounds it.
Pride was at the center of Mayor Jack Campbell’s recent election bid. Jack stated that he was tired of feeling ashamed of saying he was from Chilhowee. That was a sentiment that many Chilhowee residents appeared to share, as Jack won his bid.
There have been positive steps. The town has fewer eyesores than before and more lawns have been mowed. The reality of running a small town like Chilhowee is that there are never enough funds to go around. Attempting to find a way to compel some people in town to comply with requests to clean up their property is never easy. It is like having to tell a co-worker that they need to apply deodorant. It is uncomfortable and can be unpleasant. Still, it is a job that needs to be done in town. The evidence of that is staring at each and every one of us.
The decision to move to Chilhowee was a conscious one by Jackie and I. We wanted our children to grow up with small town values, the ones that have served all of us so well. We wanted them to go to a small school, where teachers, coaches and administrators share those same values. We wanted them to know the sense of community we did when we were growing up. When we put pen to paper and calculated peace of mind and quality of life, no other destination made sense for us.
Certainly there are inconveniences with small town life. You can no longer drive down to the station and get gas. You can’t enjoy early morning coffee with the farmers or sit down and grab a bite of lunch with friends at a café. There is no longer a locally owned bank, barber shop or beauty salon. There isn’t a local garage to service your vehicle. There isn’t a bar in which to laugh or rant and rave in.
What is sorely missing from the Chilhowee skyline however, isn’t a Casey’s sign. What is truly in short supply in town, based on visual evidence, is pride.
Most families who lived in town when we were kids had enough pride to keep their yards mowed. They had enough pride to put their garbage out for collection instead of chucking it in or at a collection of overflowing barrels. They cared enough about what their neighbors thought to take junk to a dump, instead of turning their yard into one. Not so long ago the homes on Pennsylvania, Walnut, Missouri and Ohio were cared for, even if in varying degrees. Abandoned houses or derelict buildings were removed and although the process was never fast enough, it was steady. The town’s business district provided Chilhowee with a communication hub and no one wanted to run afoul of any small town’s gossip network. Peer pressure and pride were the only tools needed to keep our town from looking like a pig pen. Now, without a central area for the community to gather in daily, that sense of accountability and responsibility has dwindled.
It doesn’t mean the pillars of the community aren’t still standing. The churches in town remain gathering places and the Chilhowee Store sees its fair share of traffic. School functions and athletic events draw us together.
So does the Chilhowee Community Fair.
While it is also a shadow of its former self, the fair has always brought out the best of what it means to live in Chilhowee. It is people getting together, enjoying one another’s company, showing off jelly recipes and tomatoes, pumpkins and pies, catching up with old friends. It is the very fabric of who we are and where we come from. The heart of this town and the community that surrounds it is worth preserving. ‘A Trip Down Memory Lane’ is a journey we all should take. There is no reason Chilhowee’s glory days should be distant red taillights fading into the distance down Highway 2.
There has been some progress in cleaning up properties in town, but there is still much to do. We would all like to feel a restoration of pride in the town we call home. Our traditions and values are worth defending, they are worth fighting for.
While the town may not have its best Sunday dress on during the fair, Jack and the city council are genuinely trying to at least cover her ripped fishnets. Maybe, with a little magic and a bit of help, we can all keep the carriage from turning into a pumpkin.
Chilhowee R-4 school district requires high school students to perform a specified number of community service hours before graduating. Asking the students to donate their time to help clean up the town, and accepting volunteers from the community to help with that same effort could go a long way toward achieving the Mayor’s goal. Almost certainly, when presented the opportunity to help the clean-up effort, donations of equipment like lawn mowers and weed eaters would follow. One sustained effort, on the part of the people who live in this town, could go a long way in addressing some of the town’s most glaring cosmetic problems: overgrown yards.
We don’t have to check with a lawyer to make sure we can bill an absent owner for the work. We can just do it. Because it’s almost fair time and because some of our neighbors would genuinely appreciate, and genuinely need, the help. We can just do it because it is the right thing to do. We can do it because we have pride in our neighborhoods and our streets. We can do it because it needs to be done and that’s who we are.
That, like the fair, is a Chilhowee tradition worth preserving.
We grew up here, after all. This has always been our home town.
Jackie’s family tree connects to almost every corner of Chilhowee. While my family wasn’t originally from here, my grandfather preached in the Baptist Church here. The existing auditorium was built during his time serving here. My other grandfather literally built that church, doing most of the work on it’s interior that you see today. My sister was married there. My grandmother’s funeral was there.
Our town is worth preserving, it is worth maintaining and it is worth the effort necessary to effect real change because our way of life is one worth defending, even if it means a few hours of hauling someone else’s trash, trimming sidewalks so our kids can walk to and from school and pruning a tree on a vacant lot.
Our kids are going to grow up here, after all. This is going to be their home town.