ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
On his quest to write a book about the well-being of small-town America, Englishman Mel Usher stopped in Hillsboro last week to do some research.
The 56-year-old resident of Kingston spent nearly five days in this community, interviewing residents from a variety of walks-from mayor to high school student.
“What I want to do is pass through towns and find out if they’re prospering, what holds them together, what are the values, what are the principles, how different are they,” said Usher, who is taking time away from his career in the field of town planning, urban regeneration and housing.
A self-professing America-phile who had made numerous trips to the east and west coasts over the years, Usher started his quest seven weeks ago in Ocean City, Md., and plans to finish in San Carlos, Calif., in mid-June.
“Basically, I’m trying to stop for four or five days in each state,” Usher said.
U.S. Highway 50 is the thread that ties his itinerary together. He chooses only one community along that route in each state for his research.
“Obviously, you’re slightly off Highway 50, but I’m very flexible,” he said with a smile.
Choosing Hillsboro for his Kansas stop “was a bit serendipity.”
“I’d stick a pin in the map, look at Web sites, and your city had a good Web site,” he said. “Steve (Garrett, city administrator) responded and said, yes, why don’t you come. So that was really helpful.”
Usher’s modus operandi when he started the tour was to interview community officials and leaders. But he quickly broadened the scope to include people from all walks of life.
“I’m not pretending to get a scientific view of it,” Usher said. “I come and I start off knowing one person, maybe the mayor or at the bed and breakfast. We talk about the issues and I work my way out from there.
“As soon as you get a little bit of encouragement, you think, well, they may be quite friendly.”
In Hillsboro, Usher interviewed the mayor, the city administrator, the president of Tabor College, and the president of a local industry-but he also talked to the fire chief, a farmer, five college students, the hosts at a local bed and breakfast, a high schooler, a newspaper editor and “a couple of people on the street.”
And what did he find?
“What I found here in this town is that the people have been really friendly, open and honest,” Usher said.
“I think of all the towns I’ve been in, this is one where faith has been really crucial to the life of the town. People seem to want to live their faith in their everyday lives.”
Usher wasn’t sure what he would find when he arrived on Sunday afternoon, May 14, to find the streets deserted.
“It was like a neutron bomb had hit the town,” he said with a chuckle. “The buildings were standing, but there was nobody around. Everybody was at a dance festival at the high school. The high school was surrounded by empty cars.
“I wandered around and there was this surreal incident where a young girl, who was only around 7 or 8, scooted right past me-she was the only person I’d seen in a half an hour. She said, ‘Good afternoon, sir,’ and never stopped. I thought, this is just like out of a film set.”
Usher said every town has its uniquenesses, and traveling as much as he does makes it’s difficult to draw conclusions already about the state of small-town America. But he said he has been impressed by the spirit of volunteerism and the sense of security small towns possess.
“The reasons people want to live in small towns is almost always the same,” he said. “It’s about knowing people, it’s about security, it’s about understanding what’s going on in that town. It’s about perhaps being protective of their families, feeling they can leave their doors unlocked.”
But Usher said he’s also finding some uncertainty about what the future holds.
“Part of that is about the future of small towns, part of that is about the role of the U.S.A. in the world,” Usher said. “Some of it is a feeling about the national politics here, and how people have stopped talking to each other. Instead, you get the extremes, with people expressing their views very forcefully.
“That feels much stronger to me than the last 30 years when I’ve been coming here, going back to the Vietnam era.” he added. “You’ve got polarization in society.
“If that’s what you see in small towns, I suspect it’s even stronger in big cities.”
Unlike an ex-mining town he visited in West Virginia, Usher said people in the Midwest still seem hopeful about what lies ahead for their particular small town.
“Here, you seem to actually be quite prosperous,” Usher said. “I find quite a lot of manufacturing going on here. People seem to feel more confident about the future.”
Usher electronically records his interviews and then downloads them, along with some 800 photographs he has taken so far, onto his computer.
He figures it will take him three to four months to pull the material together for the book. He hopes to be done with the project by Christmas.
Though Usher has written numerous articles for publication, this will be his first book. He will begin marketing the manuscript to a publisher in England after completing the first two or three chapters.
As for breaking into the U.S., market, Usher quipped, “I’ll sell the first million in England, then see how it does here.”