Kelley Snowden asked residents of her town to photograph the parts of town that they cherished the most. It was a first step of creating the future of Overton, Texas.
About six years ago my husband and I moved to Overton, deep in East Texas. Our move to Overton (with a population today of 2,350) was not voluntary — it was required for my husband’s job.
The first time I saw the town I gasped as I looked out the car window. As far as I could tell, it was abandoned. Gray empty storefronts greeted me as we drove down the main highway through town. It seemed to me that the only businesses in town were a Brookshire’s™ grocery and a Dairy Queen™. We joked that no doubt the town had collapsed and died after the oil boom of the 1930’s and no one had bothered to tell it. It was awful, but I was stuck here.
After moving to Overton we shopped in other towns, even for our groceries, but eventually that became too inconvenient. We started shopping in town and little by little got to know some of the residents. From these casual encounters I learned that people in Overton really love and care for their town. There is a quiet history here. For every empty storefront there is a story about who ran a business there and what happened to them.
When I first came to Overton, I looked at the empty buildings and saw economic ruin. Now when I look at them I conjure the stories told by my neighbors and friends about people who took a chance on a small business to better serve the needs of the community.
I listened and learned and before I knew what was happening I developed affection for this town.
With time that affection turned to anger. Anger at what had happened here over the years, the loss of commerce and population and what seemed to be a lack of concern about the demise of the town.
Creating a Future
I know that’s not true. People in Overton care. This town has tried to attract to industry and like many other small towns, there is even a prison here that was supposed to bring in jobs. We’ve placed signs on the highway advertising Overton to travelers and despite being home to Texas A&M Agricultural Research Extension, the Kilgore College Demonstration farm, and the Bruce McMillan Jr. Foundation.
But nothing much seems to be working.
Taking all that in, one could say that Overton is an example of what really happens to a small town when it looks outside itself for salvation.
Traditional rural economic development strategies in large part focus on the development of economic activities recruited from outside the community, including industry and prisons. This is what Dr. E. Freeman (who collaborated on this article) and I call the “deus ex machina” approach to rural economic planning. We take issue with this approach because we feel that it ignores both history and personality, devaluing the local landscape and disenfranchising the community.
Instead we believe that redevelopment strategies should directly engage residents, acting on the insight, talent and resources available in the community. Such a “boot strap” approach addresses citizen concerns while preserving the character of the town, local landscapes and engaging social history. As one citizen of Overton so succinctly put it:
“In a town like this, progress isn’t tearing down and building new. It’s remembering what we have and making it better.”
In the summer of 2010 Freeman and I ran a pilot project in Overton to find out how people who live and work in a small rural town perceive their community – what they value in it, what problems they have and what is significant to them at a personal level. We thought the findings might give us some insight into what residents not only think about their town (and why) but what they think should be done to help save or, at the very least, help improve it.
We gave volunteers disposable cameras and asked them to document their community. We asked them to picture what they valued in the local landscape, what had personal meaning and what they thought needed to be preserved. Our volunteers also completed a survey and a “photo-journal” in which they described their photographs and explained in their own words why they felt particular landscapes were meaningful or significant. (Their work is in the YouTube at the beginning of this story.)
Ten volunteers agreed to participate but only seven completed the project in its entirety. There were six female participants and one male. Some made good incomes and others did not. About half had high school diplomas. Two had advanced degrees. The average number of years that our participants have lived in Overton, Texas was 19.8.
Our volunteers took a total of 79 photographs. About half were used in the YouTube video you can see on the front page. The photos speak to national trends, such as outmigration, aging, health care and the fragility of the local economy, but they are expressed in a local context.
Out-migration and Aging: “No one comes anymore.”
Perhaps no other photograph speaks to this issue as well as the one of the now empty Presbyterian Church. Accompanying this photograph was the commentary, “No one comes anymore. All the members are gone.”
Once a thriving congregation, this church recently closed. When my husband and I first moved to Overton there would be a few vehicles outside the church on Sunday and it appeared it was still active. With time however, fewer and fewer vehicles showed up and we noticed that sometimes the lawn would get long before anyone mowed it.
Finally the church closed its doors. Over time the members of this church either became too infirm to attend services, or passed away. Eventually the congregation dwindled to the point that the church itself could no longer be supported. When the church closed its auxiliary building, built with funds from the McMillan Foundation, the structure reverted back to that foundation. While the church stands empty, the auxiliary building is now being used as office space for the Overton schools.
Access to Health Care: “This establishment means so much to me.”
The city of Overton has two physicians, two pharmacies and a health care center. The Overton Healthcare Center offers a variety of services from laboratory services to nursing care.
The importance of access to health care, especially when dealing with a serious medical condition, is chronicled in the photographs as one participant recounts her experience with the diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer. Through her photographs and commentary we are taken on a very personal journey through a life threatening illness. While many of us talk about access to health care in the rural areas, we tend to view it somewhat impersonally. The story told by this volunteer brings home the absolute importance of direct access to quality care in the rural areas and its importance in saving lives.
The Economic Landscape: “It’s too bad about the Polka Dot Zebra though.”
Approximately 30% of the photographs focus on the economic landscape of Overton, specifically the downtown area.
It has been said that rural economies are built on the backs of the small business entrepreneur and Overton is no different. The photographs recount the history of individual businesses from the successful, such as Pope & Turner (which combines a hardware store with furniture sales) to the failure of local restaurants, such as Granny’s, which despite getting Honorable Mention from the Texas Monthly in its restaurant edition, couldn’t keep its doors open.
Businesses open and close fairly regularly in Overton and how we react as a community is largely based on how long that business was open. When a long standing business, such as the Flower Corner or Kennamer’s, closes the community is dismayed. Successful businesses just don’t shut down for no reason. The catalyst may be the death of the owner or an illness in the family. Other businesses that close before they have had the time to establish themselves, such as The Polka Dot Zebra, are met with a shrug.
It is important to consider that the economic landscape of Overton and most small communities is a very personal one. These are not faceless manufacturers; these are small businesses run by local people who are not only trying to become successful but also meet local needs. Unfortunately because of the very personal nature of the landscape it is difficult for a business to remain open after the death of the owner. The business was a personal dream made real, and as such is rarely taken up by another.
Problems: Picnic tables, the pit and potholes
For a small town Overton has a very nice public park that is frequently used by local residents. However, in the entire park there is only one picnic table. One volunteer pointed out this “sad” condition.
A volunteer documented another problem in the Overton High School parking lot. In the past, there was a concrete stairway leading from the parking lot up the hill to school. Several years ago these steps were ripped out and never replaced, leaving behind a relatively steep slope to be traversed. One volunteer said she watches students “slide or stumble down” this path.
Although the picnic table and the parking lot are minor issues, both could be addressed directly by the city and the school district. While largely cosmetic problems, they were important enough for volunteers to document. Addressing both, if funds were available, would make a difference in the perception and use of local landscapes.
The most significant problem documented by volunteers was the potholes in city streets caused by the failure to upgrade water and sewer lines. This is not an uncommon problem in small towns. Unfortunately it is a very expensive one to correct.
Improving water and sewer infrastructure is as necessary for attracting businesses and families as having well maintained roads and highways. Unfortunately as state and federal budgets are cut, the likelihood of funding improvements through grants becomes increasingly doubtful and thus the cost of such a project would be borne by a local population unable to realistically afford tax increases to fund such projects.
Preservation and Potential
In addition to pointing out problems, one series of photographs identified the cemetery a potential preservation project for Overton, one that could possibly lead to increased tourist traffic. “This is history,” one photographer said of the cemetery.
Many smaller communities have embraced “Heritage Tourism,” focusing on local cemeteries. While heritage tourism is not a panacea, it does offer one route for drawing in traffic and increasing interest in a town and its surrounding area while preserving local landscapes. Perhaps this is a direction Overton may want to investigate as it searches for ways to get people off the highway and into town.
What Wasn’t Photographed
There are a lot of interesting buildings and places in Overton, but one in particular didn’t make it to anyone’s camera. This is the old American Legion post (Tandy Reid Post 362) next to the post office.
The old orange brick façade is still standing but its doors and windows are gone. Peering inside the old structure you have the impression of gazing into a wild, secret garden. None of our volunteers considered the Legion important enough to photograph although in discussion with them they all believe it has historic value. They had heard the building was about to be demolished. Believing its fate already sealed, perhaps our volunteers didn’t bother to include it among their photographs. While the volunteers agree it should be saved, no one asked for their opinion when the decision was made and they feel they have no choice but to accept the demise of a beloved building.
It is interesting to note that among all the photographs of local businesses no volunteer crossed the railroad tracks. Across the tracks stands a new office building, the Brookshire’s grocery and Jim’s Feed. The new building was constructed with private monies and stands in stark contrast to the older buildings of Overton. Our photographers focused their efforts on historic Overton, and apparently none attach any meaning or significance to this new structure. For the same reason, it is not surprising to us that Brookshire’s wasn’t photographed, as it, like the local Dairy Queen, with its bright colors and large signs, has little connection to historic landscapes of Overton.
However, it is somewhat surprising that Jim’s Feed did not make it into someone’s camera. Located in an older building, but outside the main commercial district, this feed store has been around a long time and is well known in the community.
In addition to selling feed, equipment and various sundry items, Jim’s is an after hours hangout for local men who gather to talk and swap stories without being encumbered by the listening ears of the fairer sex.
(At least that is what I’ve heard, being a member of the “fairer” sex I have never been invited to one of these gatherings, but I can personally attest that the owner is always a gentleman and very helpful whenever I go in to get something. However, I can also attest that the feed store is by its very nature a “testosterone heavy” environment and I have no desire to linger, no matter how friendly Jim is.).
Jim’s may have not made it into the photographs because it could be that our photographers had little or no occasion to frequent this business as most of our volunteers were female and not directly engaged in agriculture.
Since the summer of 2010 there have been some changes in Overton. The empty lot where the Peanut Butter Emporium once stood is being painted with a mural and is now used for public gatherings.
The first weekend of every month local talent is on display with “Music on the Square.” The creation of this public space is important for Overton as the town has no central focus or square.
The Peanut Butter Emporium was a great loss to Overton and when this structure burned the town not only lost a business but a family lost its home (they lived upstairs from the business) and livelihood. While the town was worried that the Emporium would never reopen, the same family has opened a business in a new location. This is good news not only for the town but it also firmly illustrates the resilience of the rural small business entrepreneur.
When the Flower Corner closed the public “went into shock,” given that this business had been a mainstay in the economic landscape for a very long time. The business did re-open under a new name, but rumor has it that it’s now closing its doors for good.
Finally, when Granny’s and La Cocina closed it was a sad day for Overton. However since then a new Mexican restaurant has moved into the location once inhabited by La Cocina, and another is currently getting ready to open out on the highway.
Recently it was noticed that the “For Sale” and “For Rent” signs had been taken down at Granny’s and hopefully a new business will open.
Reviewing the photographs tells us that our volunteers were frustrated — frustrated that no one had bothered to put in a second picnic table although the need is there: frustrated that a set of steps was ripped out and never replaced: frustrated that the streets have potholes, and frustrated that a structure they would all like to see preserved is slated for destruction.
Even in a town this small a population can be made to feel disenfranchised, and unfortunately that seems to be the case here. Our volunteers love their town but are able to look at it with an objective eye. They want changes made, and they want landscapes preserved. Most of all, they want things to be better.
Overton, like many small towns really does have a lot to offer, but to get things moving perhaps the first thing we need to do is listen to the people who live here. We can start small, like putting in another picnic table in the park and work our way up to the big things. Many drops make an ocean, and many voices define a community. Perhaps it’s time we started paying attention to those voices instead of hoping for someone else, from somewhere else, to notice us.
Dr. Kelley Snowden resides in Overton, Texas, where she lives with her husband on the Kilgore College Demonstration Farm. She is an adjunct professor in geography at Stephen F. Austin State University and also teaches at the University of Texas at Tyler. Dr. Emily Freeman is a social-health geographer and is now a research scientist with a company in Toronto, Canada.