Hog Day, Carrot Day, Frog Leg Day, Oktoberfest – America’s small-town festivals celebrate just about any part of our natural or human-made heritage you could imagine. Behind the fun, which is sometimes tongue-in-cheek, these festivals help small towns create community identity and cohesion, says Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow in an excerpt from his book, Small-Town America.
Robert Wuthnow is a Princeton sociologist best known for his book Red State Religion (2011), which examined the history of religion and politics in Kansas. In his new book, Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future (Princeton University Press, 2013), Wuthnow looks at how small-town residents create and sustain their sense of community. Based on hundreds of in-depth interviews with residents in dozens of small towns around the country, the book provides an opportunity for readers to listen deeply and carefully to diverse rural voices.
Wuthnow hopes to convince us of two things: 1) that small towns are not so different from big cities but that 2) the way small towns define themselves and create community is different. The key to small-town community is cultural, Wuthnow says. “Small towns can only be understood by paying attention to the cultural constructions that give them meaning,” he writes. “…[S]ocial network theory does not explain why people behave as if they know one another even when they do not or why a brief exchange at the post office can communicate more about community than a long conversation might in some other setting.”
In this excerpt from Small-Town America, Wuthnow describes the important role that festivals play in creating and passing on cultural identity.
One of the most popular events in small towns is an annual festival, usually held in conjunction with the homecoming weekend, or at another time when residents and former residents gather to promote community spirit plus remind themselves of the community’s traditions. These events are seldom evident in towns of fewer than a thousand residents, but were nearly universal in the towns we studied that had populations of at least two thousand.
Fall harvest celebrations, county festivals, and rodeos are common examples. In most instances the festival celebrates something distinctive about the community, whether that consists of commemorating its founding or drawing visitors from the region because of its ethnic traditions. The Oktoberfest in a prairie town of twenty-three hundred surrounded by pastures and soybean fields is typical. Timed to coincide with the homecoming football game, the festival runs for three days, involves costumes and prizes, includes a dance, and reminds everyone of the community’s heritage.
Another town calls its festival Old Home Week. Still another has an annual Blueberry Festival, and yet another hosts the best-attended Salmon Festival in its vicinity. Less typical is another town that celebrates its religious heritage with a festival topped by a parade of citizens dressed as biblical characters. One town we visited called itself the German capital of its state, another Little Sweden, another was known as the nylon capital of the world, and yet another billed itself as the start of the Chisholm Trail. Each had festivals commemorating its heritage. A dinner theater with special performances during the annual festival was the regional attraction in one town, an annual outdoor musical concert in another one, and a tractor pull in still another. Other festivals included Daniel Boone Day, Fun Day, Dogwood Day, Hot Dog Day, Frog Leg Day, Tomato Day, Carrot Day, and Daisy the Cow Day.
Residents spoke glowingly of these events. The people we talked to in one small town boasted of having the best Mardi Gras festival anywhere— that is, anywhere that celebrates Mardi Gras in the fall. A leader in another community said his town was the inspiration for the famous American Gothic painting. Indeed, nearly every community in which we conducted interviews considered itself special in some way. One town conceived of itself as the birthplace of rock and roll, and another—two, in fact—as the birthplace of the blues. Yet another boasted of being the real home of the first rodeo (in contrast to faux competitors), and another as the location of the first Red Cross chapter.
In other towns, residents reported with pride that their community currently produced more irrigation sprinklers than any other place, that theirs had shipped the most ammunition during World War II, and that their town was where the police had spotted a UFO some years back. They knew about these distinctive features of their town because of hearing about them at the annual festival. A community nestled along a winding river billed itself as the best hiking spot around, a community near a lake claimed to have the best birdwatching anywhere, and another one claimed to be near the most scenic covered bridges. It may only have been that the town had the oldest Halloween parade on record, the largest ball of twine, the most colorful ceramic jack rabbits, the largest tomato ever grown, an exceptionally large oil storage tank, or the best attended gun show, but residents knew about and made a point of mentioning it, half in jest, half seriously.
If there was any way to weave its distinctive historic identity into an annual celebration of some kind, residents did so. Several towns hosted annual reenactments of Revolutionary or Civil War battles, and a few commemorated local skirmishes with outlaws and renegades. …
A community leader in another town agreed that something like this was important enough that a festival just might save a dying town. “The only way you’re going to survive is to make the community unique, different, even odd,” he observed. “Make it an antique capital. Restore the old opera house. Offer the best fried chicken. Have an Oktoberfest.” That view was generally shared, although occasionally we heard mixed opinions. These came from town leaders who worried that festivals were taking the place of more serious discussions about their community’s future. It was good that the festivals were happening, they said, because organizing them brought people together and sparked conversations about the town’s history. But coming up with a comprehensive plan for the future, including something about historical preservation along with applying for grants or raising money locally were much more difficult. As one town manager noted, “Those are great things to talk about, and everybody feels good doing it, but implementing things becomes very hard.”
Small-town festivals are largely organized and staffed by local volunteers, which means that the meetings during the year at which planning occurs provide occasions for sharing information about other community developments and exchanging gossip with neighbors. As is true of other aspects of small-town life, festivals are changing as a result of demographic shifts and different means of communication. The towns we studied with declining populations were finding it more difficult to organize festivals, but other communities were attracting visitors by advertising on the Internet and in state tourism magazines, and were supplementing local traditions by hosting antique car displays, tractor pulls, and craft fairs. Small towns are also benefiting from regional celebrations in which they can participate, such as festivals that combine events up and down a river, or commemorations of an early expedition or along a pioneer trail.
At their best, festivals spark community spirit because emotions run differently than on other days, and because people physically come together and participate in common activities. The lightheartedness plays an important role. Men sport top hats and beards, and women don prairie dresses or wear Victorian-era jewelry. Children wear costumes, much like they would in any community on Halloween. The difference is that the town is symbolized as the focus of the event. Beneath the fun is a layer of serious commemoration. These are our war heroes, first settlers, volunteer fire company, teachers, or youths.
Just as national holidays do, small-town festivals provide opportunities to define and redefine the community. In emphasizing the town’s first settlers and early citizens, residents who have lived there for generations can imagine that the community especially values its old-timers—and perhaps feel that it should pay more attention to preserving its past. Festivals also serve as occasions for assimilating new citizens. In our research, we saw this especially in towns with large numbers of recent immigrants. On the one hand, old settlers’ picnics and pioneer days permitted one definition of the community to be remembered. On the other hand, Cinco de Mayo festivals, celebrations of Mexican Independence Day, performances by Mexican American dancers and Guatemalan marimba groups, and tables with eastern European and South Asian food suggested a changing definition of the community.
For better or worse, community festivals selectively emphasize some aspects of reality and neglect others. Just as weddings and funerals do in families, they present the community in its most favorable light. Acrimony is temporarily set aside. Festivals are not the time to worry that the town’s population is diminishing or be reminded that growth is significantly altering its ethnic composition. Whole sections of the community— minorities, the poor, and newcomers—may be left out. Celebrations work because they are clearly demarcated from everyday life. They punctuate time with levity, lifting spirits above the ordinary humdrum, adding color, drawing people loosely together, and perhaps most important, giving them something to talk about. This is why festivals so often commemorate the town’s history. In collective memory, the festivals both retell and become part of that history.
Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University.
This article is excerpted from Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future by Robert Wuthnow. © 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.