As the Triangle grows, we'll soon run out of small towns where folks walk to their own beat

A recent news story reported on a comprehensive growth plan adopted by the neighboring town of Wendell.

I view the news with mixed feelings. Who can quarrel with so-called progress?

But folks, with almost non-ceasing growth in the Triangle, we may soon be running out of small towns.

I love small towns. I grew up just outside the town of Dobson long before it achieved its population of around 2,000. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Dobson is the county seat of Surry County.

When I was a lad, the town was predominantly Democratic. As the son of a hard-core Republican, I kept that fact to myself.

A two-church town, Baptist and Methodist, it boasted a couple of banks, a drug store, and a restaurant called The Lantern that featured country cooking.

With no movie theater, and before TV, a major source of entertainment was "Court Week," when local residents, as well as farm folks, would show up to watch the real-life dramas unfold in the courtroom.

The late Supreme Court Judge Susie Sharp would sometimes describe holding court in Dobson. She remembered the longtime sheriff who frequently asked Judge Sharp to allow him to dismiss court for lunch by singing a hymn.

"I occasionally obliged him," she said. "But I would first announce, 'We will now adjourn for lunch. Sheriff Patterson wishes to sing a song. Those of you who wish may remain to hear him, but court is now officially adjourned.'"

She said the sheriff would then belt out a verse or two of "Amazing Grace" as some spectators left and others remained.

Like every town, ours had its colorful characters. They included the Norman sisters, three elderly "Old South" ladies: one a widow, the other two unmarried.

When I would go back to visit, I often encountered them at The Lantern, where one would sometimes stop by our table and announce, "A.C. we'll be receiving this afternoon at 3. We'll expect you then."

I usually showed up for an entertaining hour or so of chit-chat and town gossip.

When the Norman sisters once visited Sanford, the marquee at the motel where they lodged announced, "The Norman sisters are here!"

The desk was deluged by callers wanting to know if the Norman sisters were a singing group, or some other type of celebrities.

The desk clerk reportedly responded, "No, they're just three nice elderly ladies . One can't half-see, one can't half-hear and the other one talks all the time."

Small town residents march to a different drummer. Their lives are slower paced. They seem to be slower to anger, quicker to forgive, more at peace with the the deck of cards that life has dealt them.

Small town residents seem more morally sensitive. Soon after the town's liquor store opened, I was driving my sister and two nieces to the mountains to buy apples. We stopped at the liquor store where I went in to pick up some empty cartons.

When I returned, the car was empty, or seemed so until I looked inside and saw the three women crouched on the floorboard.

"No need to hide, God knows you're at the liquor store, " I teased.

Although seemingly laid back, small town residents are not to be trifled with.

One night an out-of-towner stopped in for dinner at The Lantern. As he was paying his bill, the owner asked the usual, "Was everything all right?"

"Well, not really," the diner replied. "The baked potato was not quite done and the steak was a bit tough, and …."

The owner interrupted. "Why you sorry so-and-so! Who do you think you are? You come in here almost at closing time and order a meal and dawdle over it for an hour. What do you expect? You get your pea-picking a-- out of here and don't ever darken our door again!"

The startled stranger complied immediately.

A reader of this column once wrote that while on a vacation trip, he and his wife drove 15 miles out of their way just to visit my home town.

"Mr. Snow," he wrote. "There's no THERE there."

I reminded him of a certain truth that most past and present inhabitants of small towns well realize: You don't see the THERE. The THERE resides in the hearts of those who live or have lived in small towns.

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