Hearing Voices: Listening to Small Places

When the economic power of a small rural community declines, there’s still value in the social history that defines a place. Researchers at an East Texas university help communities preserve and pass on what’s most important about the places they’ve called home.

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Drive the back roads of rural America and you will find them: small communities, maybe only a house or two, clustered at an intersection or following the highway.  

Some of these places will have names and even a dot on the map. Others will simply appear as a wide spot in the road.

The houses may or may not be inhabited and may stand side-by-side with decaying barns or other structures.

Up the road there may be a small cemetery surrounded by a chain link fence whose gate is held together with a rusty lock.

This is one part of the ebb and flow of development – whether rural or urban. In the countryside, we’ve all seen these places, but we keep driving.  Watching the homes recede in our rear view mirror, we don’t give it another thought. Because somewhere up the road we will see it again, another small place left to time as its people left to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

So it’s easy to keep driving and never look back. It is easy to call these places “dead” or “dying.” It is easy to shrug and say, “What a shame.”

But the fact is when we do this we are stripping these places of their value. We are denying them their history, whatever that may be. We are telling any current or former residents, “You don’t matter.” These small places are one part of the fabric of rural America. Although they may be a bit threadbare, their stories need to be told.

By reclaiming their history, we are keeping them alive for future generations and contributing to the larger understanding of our own heritage.

The goal of Voices from Small Places is to preserve and document the history of small places (population of 100 or fewer). We believe we have designed a way to help communities preserve their history and make it available to the public. The effort is a pilot project of the Center for Regional Heritage Research at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Our model includes four components:

  • We use “photovoice.” We give cameras to current and former residents and ask them to take pictures of places that have value for them. We ask them to explain in a journal why they took the pictures they did, collecting both a written and photographic record of personal remembrances all directly tied to place.
  • We conduct oral history interviews asking in-depth questions about life in the community, how they made a living, their adventures, how they had fun, and what happened over the course of time.
  • We conduct a site survey photographing, describing, and documenting every structure we can see from the road, thus preserving the built landscape as it currently exists.
  • We ask community members to loan us documents, photographs, and objects relevant to both their personal history in the community and life in the community in general. We scan these materials into a digital collection available to anyone who wants to look. These collected materials (when read in conjunction with county histories, local newspapers and other “official” records) produce a multidimensional history of the community, putting it back in the larger historical context.

We are currently testing this model in Arcadia, Texas (population 51), located in deep East Texas. On the project’s webpage you may read about Arcadia and watch an introductory video on the project and the community. Photos and journal entries from the photovoice component are also available, as a well as a short video that highlights some of the places most frequently photographed and discussed in the photovoice journals. Soon we will post the oral history interviews, and we are beginning to develop the digital collection. 

The project is funded entirely by donations from Arcadia community members. That fact in itself should remind us that rural residents value these communities. Our hope is that Voices from Small Places will help others see that value, too.

Kelley Snowden is an adjunct professor who teaches geography at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She is also a research associate with the Center for Regional Heritage Research at SFASU. 

 

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