Small Town America on the 4th of July
Photos from a Small Town Celebration
I live in a small town (Chester, NE – pop. 250) in the middle of farm country. I didn’t grow up here, but instead chose to live here 11 years ago. I grew up in the suburbs in Vancouver, BC in part of a sprawling metropolis. My early childhood was spent in a great neighbourhood, where we all knew each other along the street. From there I kept moving every year or two and never settled in one place for long.
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In 1997, I moved to Las Vegas – another sprawling metropolis. Our neighbourhood there was a small four house cul-de-sac. We knew our neighbours there, or at least 2 out 3. Then came the move to Chester. Some might say there was culture shock involved, and there was. It took a while to slow down and actually see what was around me.
I had previously visited ‘small town America’ on many trips from Vancouver down the west coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. I’ve sat and had a beer or a burger at the local establishment and have always enjoyed the company of the people I met. There was something ‘different’ about these small town folk. Not better, not worse, just a little different. Always friendly, always with a joke, always asking questions about what things were like where I was from – conversations would run to all kinds of topics.
So that was my experience with small town America. I’ve driven through towns on a Friday night and seen a small stadium full of people watching high school football (an unusual sight for a Canadian). I’ve driven through a town the size of Chester which had its own custom Mustang car parts shop – such a specialty in the middle of nowhere (pre-internet!).
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that each small town is a jewel. You might need to see it in the best light for it to shine, but it’s still valuable. It might look like the rest, yet it is still unique. And this past July Fourth, I was in Hebron Nebraska (pop. 1500) to photograph their celebration and see this jewel of town in its best light.
Before I get any further, I’ll address the ‘elephant’ in the room. In the current political climate, there is much division and lack of dialog. Issues are presented as black and white, so they are easier for the talking heads on TV to discuss. I see the many issues facing the world today in shades of grey as they are complex and there are no easy answers. Anyone who knows me, generally knows my opinions, but thankfully the Nebraska weather gives everyone something to talk about when they say hello. On this day, I did not see a “divided nation” of “red and blue” people. I saw a community come together and celebrate everything they hold near and dear to their hearts. And to me, this what made the day special.
The town had a full slate of events throughout the day, but holidays mean you can relax, sleep in and start your day when you choose. I missed the presentation of the “Quilts of Valor” at the volunteer-run Majestic Theatre. I didn’t see how many people they had for the fun run. But I showed up at the park and everything was in full swing (world’s largest porch swing, that is!).
The parade would be starting soon, so I needed to find out where it would lead, check for light and shadows and find a good spot to shoot from. I had decided I would follow a theme I started at the Cattlemen’s Ball and try to catch the ‘faces in the crowd’ (or on the floats). With a spot picked out, we were ready.
Any event in the United States seems to begin with the national anthem. Today’s parade was no exception. What might have been different was the young girl who walked out onto main street and belted out a great version of it.
In a big city, this honour would usually go to a local celebrity or other adult. In a small community, children take the spotlight quite often. With the anthem complete, and hats back on, the parade could begin. It was getting warm, close to 90F and with the sun directly overhead, there wasn’t a lot of shade. Still, the members of the local Legion were ready to continue leading the parade up Lincoln Street.
This was followed by another uniquely American group, the “Legion Riders” who come out to a wide range of events from Veterans funerals to parades and various celebrations. I’ve seen them roar through Washington DC on Memorial Day to create a stunning display, and today’s parade featured a couple of dozen from around the area.
The Legion Riders were followed by local Fire Departments. Once again, when you’re in a small town – things are different. Almost all of the Fire Departments in our area are run by volunteers. These are our friends and neighbours who spend their time to train and learn the techniques, then stop what their doing when the alarm goes off. Many of our EMTs are also volunteers, and without these dedicated people the communities would suffer. Also, these departments are small, so they often work together to put out field fires or larger structural fires.
If you’ve grown up in ‘city life’ you might find it odd that volunteers are needed for Firemen and EMTs. This is just part of the reality of working with a limited tax base. You might have noticed I mentioned how the local movie theatre is also run by volunteers. This is because small movie theatres don’t make enough money these days to support an owner and pay staff. The Majestic is now staffed entirely by the work of volunteers. The more you learn about small town life, the more realize these towns can not function without the countless hours put in by volunteers. These mostly unseen men, woman and children are what make these local communities shine in their unique ways.
After the many fire trucks passed, the local high school cheerleaders and band came through. You might even sense there’s a subtle theme to this parade. It leads with the veterans, follows up with the VFD, and now the children are coming – Country, Community, Schools – all sources of pride.
Schools are a focal point in small towns. Anyone I know out here with family (which is everyone) is busy year round with school and kid based activities. From sports to concerts and other events, the schools bring people together when there is no other focal point. As rural populations shrink and schools consolidate, it can be devastating when a small town loses its school. It’s not just the inconvenience of added distance, but the local source of pride is just ‘gone’ and there is nothing to replace it in most cases. Again, coming from city life and thinking schools are just a place to store kids for the day, it was eye opening to see the community pride these towns place in their schools.
Next came an assortment of politicians, local businesses and other people throwing candy. Oh yes – throwing candy is a HUGE part of any parade. Kids line the streets and run out grab it, while their parents happily ‘store’ it for them.
The next big group to pass by were the Shriners. You might know them as the old guys that drive the little cars in parades – and you would be partially right. But you might not know they also operate 22 hospitals in Canada, the United States and Mexico for children. They also operate these at no cost to the patients. Again – these are volunteers helping to provide resources for the community.
After the many Shriners moved by, in cars (big and small), trucks and Corvettes, the parade continued with more local businesses, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and then came to an end after about thirty minutes.
In a big city, a parade usually consists of big floats and lots of strangers passing by as you watch and wait for it to end. In a small town, parades are full of your neighbours, friends and you just never know who you are going to see next. Each year as I meet more people and learn what they do and how they’re related to other people I know I begin to recognize the role(s) they play in the community.
For me, this is also the first time I’ve lived in an actual ‘community’. Community is more than a collection of houses or a shared zip code. I see communities all around me and some are more vibrant than others, but in small towns people really do know everyone (and most of their business). What isn’t known is usually a good place to start a rumour 😉 . A community out here in these small towns ties the people together and the strength of those bonds is usually based on how active their volunteers are.
After the parade, we stuck around to watch a new tradition in Hebron – the Bathtub Races. These races are short a obstacle course with two or more people pushing a bathtub on wheels, while another person steers. And added twist this year was having each team eat a burger slider half way through. As a photographer, I love this event! This is an incredible mix of competition and fun. People of all ages compete and the excitement shows in their expressions.
Here’s a small gallery of photos from the Bathtub Races:
I’m seeing a transition in my work. It might be due to my environment, but I find myself less interested in shooting landscapes and wildlife, but more interested in telling stories and ‘shooting people’. I find the challenge of capturing the right expression vastly more difficult than shooting a sunset. Catching the ‘decisive moment’ is more rewarding than shooting beautiful scenery.
I’ve spent most of the last forty years shooting a wide range of subjects, and usually did my best to avoid getting people in the frame (something my mother would constantly complain about!). But now I’m at a point where I feel the ‘person’ should be the subject and not a distraction in the background.
PS: And of course, there were fireworks!