How does news get around rural communities these days? Hint: it's not all by social media or newsfeed. Humor writer, outdoorsman and rural-living veteran, Jim Mize, shares his stories of how community news, history and gossip makes its way through rural America.
Before the days of the internet, local news in rural areas traveled through gathering points. “I heard it through the grapevine” became the phrase describing how this news traveled from far-flung places to a central point and back out again. Any place where people came together became hubs for sharing the latest happenings.
Sometimes, the local barbershop or hair salon would be the place to catch up on births, weddings or graduations. As I’ve traveled through rural areas, I sometimes stumble into diners that serve the same purpose. For the price of a cup of coffee, you can get the lowdown on the local events.
In other instances, information traveled through less predictable routes.
When I was young, my grandfather’s porch was one of these news hubs.
My grandfather worked on a neighbor’s farm, but on the side, he was a trader. The family joke was that he would start the morning with a pocketknife and end the day with a pony. Dogs, shotguns and watches were common items for trade as long as you threw in a cash kicker. My grandfather knew you couldn’t spend hardware.
To make the trading go smoother, an exchange of dialogue seemed to be the grease that eased the deal along. So, each trader would share the news of the day, what the relatives were up to, and the latest views on politics. Some things never change.
Then, when Sunday arrived, and our family gathered at his porch, we would hear the latest week’s events and opinions.
As a youngster, I knew I only got to listen if I kept quiet, so while I learned family history and happenings, I also learned patience. Both were valuable lessons.
I learned stories about relatives I never met and how they got funny nicknames like Hump or Booty. Sometimes, we’d hear about the trades made during the week and what my grandfather’s inventory looked like. His collection of hunting dogs always changed. Some were coon hounds, others squirrel dogs. Ask him if they were any good, and his typical answer was, “That’s what they said.”
A few years after college, I settled into a rural community where the primary crop was peaches. Our house was surrounded by peach orchards, and we had a ten-mile drive to town. Closer by, at a crossroads, a small grocery store and gas station was the primary point of commerce.
Outside the store in what was known as Little Chicago stood a sign with arrows pointing in all directions.
On each arrow was painted the name of a major city or a lesser-known town and the distance to it. A person could stand there and figure out how far it was to Paris or Pumpkin Town, Frogmore or Flagstaff. The sign made this crossroads the center of the world.
Or at least it set it as the center of the community.
Inside the grocery store, a church pew ran along one wall, and that’s where folks gathered to swap tales and catch up on events. You could buy a soda, dump a bag of peanuts into the bottle and be entertained for an hour or more for less than a dollar.
The gentlemen who were regulars on the bench were referred to by my neighbors as old codgers, which they pronounced in the local jargon as “coodgers.” The tales they weaved didn’t necessarily have to be totally truthful as long as the embellishment added to the story. The church pew ironically became known as The Liar’s Bench.
Being new to the community, I found The Liar’s Bench to be educational as well as entertaining. When I didn’t have the inclination to sit and listen, it was just as useful to go fishing or bird hunting with one of these gentlemen. They seemed obligated to fill the silence with community history and happenings as long as I would listen, a skill I had picked up on my grandfather’s porch.
These hubs of wisdom still dot the rural areas wherever people gather. Usually, they are not hard to find. Just follow the grapevine to that shop or porch where people gather and seem to come for something other than whatever is for sale. Buy a cup of coffee, soda and a bag of peanuts, and pull up a chair. They won’t mind as long as you listen quietly.
Now, my writing office is in a cabin nestled between a wilderness area and a state park. The closest town is more than a half hour away. Luckily, a coffee shop aptly named The Mountain House is just a mile away.
Located downhill of Caesars Head State Park, the location would be a good one for the sign from Little Chicago, for it’s not the center of the world; it’s likely to become the center of the community. Local news is shared as the coffee perks, muffins are warmed and waffles get topped off with strawberries.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to be one of the codgers holding court in their coffee bar. I told them to save me a seat.