Monday, October 17, 2011

Grading the Grove

10/5/11 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Grading the Grove

As I write this, it is late Sept. and a groundswell of activity to save the Dr. Pierce Barn from destruction has begun again. An informal group has been busy getting the word out that the campaign to save the barn is still very much alive. This enthusiastic group of volunteers has accepted the challenge to do whatever it takes to get financial support for the Grove’s gem of a barn.

Cathy Bellavita describes the effort to save the barn as “simply people who love the Dr. Pierce Barn doing what they can to save it. By spreading the word we just may find the person who wants to love it for just what it is: an in-town mini farm with an irreplaceable historic barn and all the ingredients needed to become a successful commercial enterprise and tourist attraction for Cottage Grove.”

This on-going effort to save this old barn has caused people from all walks of life (such as myself) to dig down deep and ask themselves why the barn is so important. Frankly, to some people it’s not important at all. They could live the rest of their lives without seeing the fading barn fa├žade again.

Others, like myself, believe it is very important to save prominent landmarks. Reminders of the past bring joy and perspective to the present. Just thinking about all the animals, changes and decades that old barn has survived is good for the soul.

All across the country, people are recognizing that small town gems like Dr. Pierce’s barn are priceless.

By pure happenstance, I found a website featuring towns that appreciate Americana. The site is www.smalltowngems.com and the pictures took my breath away the first time I clicked the link. The site is not affiliated with any person or organization promoting their municipality. They are like the Consumer Reports of small towns.

The site attempts to be an unbiased source of information about places to visit with populations of 10,000 or less. They define why people like me enjoy strolling the streets of old towns and soaking up the ambiance of yesterday. I decided to see how or if Cottage Grove measures up to their standards.

First, “Small Town Gems” reminded me of what I already know — a desirable small town and its architectural gems will touch your heart and make you want to stay awhile. Cottage Grove definitely passed the following emotional tests:
1. Does this town remind you of a Currier and Ives print?
2. Do you think to yourself “I can’t wait to tell my friends about this place?”
3. Do you wonder if your camera has enough capacity?
4. Is this place similar to the town where your grandmother was raised?
5. Could this be the great retirement location you’ve been searching for?
6. Would this be a safe, wholesome place to raise children?

‘Gems’ uses lots of adjectives to describe what appeals to such tourists: “historic, small, quaint, charming and romantic.” Places such as “historic districts, attractive store fronts on Main Street, antique shops, art stores, boutiques, Victorian homes and bed and breakfast lodging.” Towns are described with phrases such as ‘A step back in time,’ a ‘picture postcard’ or ‘small town Americana at its best.’”

The ‘gems’ website outlines 34 of the criteria that earn their approval. A few of those are: Distinctive architecture, numerous buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, bike or walking path, lampposts, fountains, luxurious tree and flower landscaping, art galleries, antique stores, specialty boutiques, nearby college or university, gourmet coffee shops and bakery, ice cream parlor, free summertime park concerts, proximate to a lake, clean, easily accessible public restrooms, wooden picket or wrought iron fences, unusual scenery, a vintage train station with antique locomotive offering excursion rides and iron or covered bridges.

Towns that don’t merit their approval are clearly defined. Back in the day, we used to say, “they know how to call a spade, a spade.” ‘Gems’ comes right out and says that not all old small towns are considered special. And it’s good to remember that the word ‘old’ does not necessarily mean historic. Sometimes ‘old’ is just that—old:

“Thousands of small towns in this country advertise their downtown areas as ‘historic.’ The difference between historic and historic district can be as severe as the difference between rap and rhapsody. The term historic should be used to designate structures of historical significance. Unfortunately, in many towns, historic simply means old. And all too often, historic is used to describe buildings in such a chronic state of disrepair that they should be bulldozed from terminal neglect…and unless a municipality displays an official federal or state historic district emblem, ignore the historic baloney.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, you really need to check out the website smalltowngems.com. The photos of their chosen towns are inspiring. Check out the murals at Barnesville, GA; the windmill in Pella, Iowa; the boat docks at Stillwater, Minnesota; the water tower shaped and hand- painted like a fancy coffee pot in Stanton, Iowa. There are 46,185 photos to keep you busy on this site.

FYI: This month, my husband and I are going to be checking out one of these landmarks and I’ll report back on how it meets the criteria.

But what do you think? Does Cottage Grove measure up to ‘Gem’ standards? Personally, I think we have many first-rate stones. They just need to be polished and appreciated. Once everyone is aware of their worth, there will never be a question of whether or not we want to keep an advertising barn icon of 1912 or spend the money on an hand carved, old-fashioned 1920s carousel. We will keep and upkeep our precious heirlooms here at home and in the family.


Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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