SmallTownGems title for page

 

'About Us' Table of Contents:
Our Mission Statement
Our Guarantee
About This Web Site
How This Web Site Differs from Other Sites
What is a Small Town?
What is a Desirable Small Town?
What are the Best Small Towns?
Why Do We Recommend these Towns?
Why Do We Disqualify Certain Towns?
How Small Towns On this Web Site are Classified
Relocation Suggestions

Small Town Categories:
College Towns
Small Town Clusters
Theme Towns     
Towns with Bike Paths      

Misc.:
Most Popular States
How many photographs are on this website?
Complementary Website Links


North Conway, New Hampshire

 

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OUR MISSION STATEMENT

Mural in Kingsburg, California depecting historical scene of jailhouse escape.
Best Small Town of Wharton, Texas photograph of the Teepee Hotel back side of rooms with huge Indian arrows.
Kingsburg, California
Wharton, Texas

OUR GUARANTEE

Photograph of Barnesville, Georgia artistic painted historic mural
Photograph of Pella, Iowa historical village windmill, Vermeer Mill
Barnesville, Georgia
Pella, Iowa

ABOUT THIS WEBSITE       

The marketplace is flooded with advertisements for landmarks in large cities across America. These extend from the Empire State Building in New York City to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.  Travel information is readily available for tourist attractions from Disney World in Orlando to the Space Needle in Seattle.  Five-star restaurants and three-star hotels are heavily promoted.  Unfortunately, there is a hidden beauty in America that is unknown to most residents.  I’m referring to the architectural, historic and nostalgic treasures of beautiful small towns throughout the United States.   Many of these lovely travel destinations remain unknown because small municipalities lack the financial resources to advertise their towns.      ⇑ (back to top)

Photograph of Galena, Illinois historic home
Photograph of Sedona, Arizona red sandstone rock formations
Galena, Illinois
Sedona, Arizona

HOW THIS WEBSITE IS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SITES

There are many web sites that contain information about small towns in America.  Yet many of these sites recommend small towns that we consider to be less than desirable.   In fact, some of the suggested towns on these sites would qualify as federal disaster areas.  Obviously, the owners of these web sites are being subsidized by local chamber of commerce or tourism organizations for towns in desperate need of visitors' wallets. 

SmallTownGems is unaffiliated with any person or organization trying to promote their municipality.  We do not directly advertise for any business in the small towns we recommend.  Instead, we subscribe to Google Ad services, and they have full control over the advertisements.  We receive no income or gratuities from any local chamber, civic or government agency in the municipalities we evaluate.   We only recommend those towns we have visited, photographed, and meet our standards.  Our web site also contains the names of hundreds of towns that we have visited and consider unacceptable when measured against our criteria.  We are the only web site that does so.  We like to think of ourselves as the Consumer Reports of small town destinations.  ⇑ (back to top)

Photograph of Fredericksburg Texas stone historic municipal library, Pioneer Memorial Library, original coutrhouse
Photograph of Stillwater, Minnesota Mississippi River steam paddlewheel boat cruises on St. Croix River, steamboat
Fredericksburg, Texas
Stillwater, Minnesota

WHAT IS A 'SMALL' TOWN?

What metric do we use to classify these towns as ‘small’?  Most of the towns on our site have a population of 10,000 or less.  In most cases, we do not consider a town to be a 'small' one if it has a population in excess of 15,000 full-time residents. Exceptions are places like Savannah, Georgia and Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Technically, these are large metropolitan areas, but contain neighborhood historic districts or other clusters of buildings reminiscent of small towns.  Old Town Albuquerque is an example of this.  Many of the small towns on our web site have a population of two to three thousand year-round residents.  ⇑ (back to top)

            Recommended Best Small town of Morro Bay, California photograph depicting street scene looking out toward ocean.
Photograph of Stanton, Iowa Folgers Coffee water tower, Mrs. Folgers Coffee giant coffee pot water tower, giant Swedish coffee pot
Morro Bay, California
Stanton, Iowa

WHAT IS A 'DESIRABLE' SMALL TOWN?

How do we describe the ambiance or personality of the towns on this web site?  The adjectives historic, small, quaint, charming, romantic come to mind.  Or we could employ the phrases “a step back in time”, “picture postcard” or “small town Americana at its best”.  Many have historic districts, attractive store fronts on Main Street, antique shops, art stores or other boutiques, Victorian homes, bed and breakfast lodging.  Because of their distinctive quality, numerous towns on our web site have been Hollywood film locations. 

As you enter these towns, they should pass 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 there is enough capacity in your camera?
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. Wouldn't this be a safe, wholesome place to raise children?

The following criteria are used to earn our approval:

  • Distinctive Architecture
  • Part of the downtown has been designated a state or national historic district
  • Numerous commercial and residential properties recognized by the National Register of Historic Places
  • An abundance of stone or brick buildings in downtown
  • Pedestrian/bicyclist friendly. Wide sidewalks with frequently-spaced shaded benches
  • Bike or walking path
  • County seat with historic courthouse
  • Visitors Center
  • Lampposts along the main thoroughfare
  • Large fountains in green spaces
  • Luxurious tree and flower landscaping
  • Art galleries, antique stores, and specialty boutiques
  • College or university in or near the town
  • Bed-and-breakfast lodging, usually in Victorian or Bungalow-style housing
  • Gourmet coffee shops and bakery
  • Ice cream parlor and confectionery shops
  • Drug store with vintage soda counter
  • Historic opera house offering live performances
  • Free summertime concerts in the park
  • Clock towers with chimes
  • Brick/cobblestone sidewalks or streets
  • A river or canal flows through the downtown
  • Proximate to a lake or ocean
  • Clean, easily accessible public restrooms
  • Wooden picket or wrought iron fences
  • Wrought iron railings on upper-story balconies
  • Unusual scenery nearby
  • Vintage train station with antique locomotive,caboose and passenger cars offering excursion rides.
  • Iron or covered bridges
  • Tourist trolley buses and horse-drawn carriages
  • Abundant and decorative trash receptacles
  • Kiosks containing downtown map and directory
  • Historic markers along downtown streets
  • Old service station with antique vehicles   

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Photograph of Pella, Iowa engine house fire station, fire fighters museum, antique fire engine

Pella, Iowa

 

 

Photograph of Germantown, Ohio engine house fire station, fire fighters, antique fire engine, Mudlick Museum firemen

Germantown, Ohio

Photograph of Germantown, Ohio 1870 wooden covered bridge over Left Twin Creek
Photograph of Lindsborg, Kansas Willkommen Kom Igen historic iron truss bridge
Germantown, Ohio
Lindsborg, Kansas

WHAT ARE THE 'BEST' SMALL TOWNS?

There are several good books that use the phrase 'best small towns' in their titles, including The 100 Best Small Towns in America,  The 50 Best Small Southern Towns and The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America.  The 'best' small town is in the eyes of the beholder, just as the 'best' dessert is in the taste buds of the beholder.   Although we have provided viewers with some criteria we use to quantify the adjectives best and nicest, our assessment is otherwise subjective.   That is why we provide an extensive number of photos of our recommended small towns so the viewing public can 'best' be the judge.   ⇑ (back to top)

Photograph of Mackinac Island, Michigan historic Grand Hotel with horse drawn carriage outside
Photograph of Manti, Utah Mormon LDS temple, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sanpete Valley
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Manti, Utah

WHY DO WE RECOMMEND THESE TOWNS?

The small towns on this web site are not necessarily recommended for relocation or retirement.  On the contrary, if you are really interested in maintaining the charm of these small towns, please don't move there.  We have mixed emotions about listing some of these towns on our site.  On the one hand, helping these small towns attract tourist dollars will help insure their survival; on the other hand an influx of too many people could jeopardize their quaint character.  Of course, if any of these towns have their own web sites, or other means of promotion, this could contribute to self-destruction of their small town character.

If you are investigating small towns for retirement or relocation, it would be prudent to consult demographics such as crime rate, per capita income, rate of unemployment, average resale home prices, or the percentage of the population that are college graduates.  Our recommendations for best or nicest are not based on these statistics.  Our recommendations are based on what we consider to be the best small towns for weekend getaways, the best places for temporary relaxation, the best small towns for a romantic interlude, or simply to satisfy your wanderlust. We are, after all, primarily a tourism, entertainment and travel website. Instead of sociological statistics, our recommendations of small towns are based on the five physical senses (what you can see, smell, hear, taste and touch), a sense of nostalgia and romance, a sense of security (it feels safe to wander about), a sense of curiosity (the desire to explore), and the most intangible, a sense of home.   In these modern times, many of us feel victimized by the thrust into an ever-faster world of high-stress, technologically-demanding existence.  As a source of relief from these pressures, it is only natural that we would benefit from a brief escape to a simpler, quieter, slower environment, reminiscent of yesteryear.  Hopefully, visits to these small, quaint, charming, nostalgic towns will provide a respite from your day-to-day hectic routines. 
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 Photograph of Jefferson, Texas vintage historic stone Texaco gasoline gas station
Photograph of Cowan, Tennessee vintage historic Texaco gasoline gas station
Jefferson, Texas
Cowan, Tennessee

WHY DO WE DISQUALIFY CERTAIN TOWNS?

When we visit a town, and find that it is not of sufficient quality to merit our Approved List, it is recorded in our Disqualified List.  Some of the reasons for a disqualification are as follows.

1. The town is too small to offer enough amenities such as dining, shopping or lodging.

2. The town has tourism potential, but is currently in the process of renovation, often after decades of neglect.

3. The town does not appear to be safe enough for pedestrian visitors.

4. While the town may have some redeeming features, its location is so remote that we cannot recommend our viewers expend the effort to reach it.  Exceptions to this are towns such as Eureka Springs AR, Telluride, CO, and Galena, IL.  They are significantly ‘off the beaten path’, but well worth the extra miles.  On the contrary, if a small town has minimal entertainment amenities, we may still recommend it because it is easily accessible from an interstate highway. Paxico, KS is a good example. Paxico is a cute town, although it has only a few antique stores as entertainment for visitors. But it is conveniently located just 2 miles off Interstate 70. If the town were not so accessible, we would not recommend it.

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 distinction 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 that are dilapidated, or in such a state of disrepair from terminal neglect, they should be bulldozed.  An ‘old’ outhouse is still just a toilet, even if George Washington did shit there.  Unless a municipality displays an official federal or state historic district emblem (white letters on chocolate brown background), ignore the ‘historic’ baloney.

Beware of ‘Main Street’ Towns

Hundreds of small towns in this country proudly display signs proclaiming themselves to be a 'Main Street Community'. These municipalities are recipients of grants from their state governments. The purpose of this funding is to attempt to revitalize their historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts, often after decades of neglect. In our travel experiences, most ‘Main Street’ small towns are undesirable from the tourist perspective, because their infrastructure and economies are too deteriorated to be resuscitated.The following are symptoms of an undesirable small town.  To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, “You might be in Redneckville if. . . ."

  • The hottest selling item at the local convenience store is fried pork rinds - and it comes in five flavors
  • Tourists are graciously welcomed with NO PUBLIC RESTROOM and OUT OF ORDER signs
  • BAIL BOND signs appear on the courthouse square
  • Both the MEN's and WOMEN's restrooms have condom dispensers, with instructions for proper usage
  • The name of the local bookstore starts with XXX or ADULT
  • The largest directional sign on the highway into town reads SANITARY LANDFILL
  • The mayor's first name is Bubba, and his last name is an alias.
  • The sign next to the stoplight says WAIT FOR GREEN
  • Predominance of MONEY ORDERS SOLD HERE signs
  • PAWN SHOP and CHECK CASH - PAYDAY ADVANCE businesses
  • The largest employers in town are the hospital and jail
  • TAXIDERMY and DISCOUNT TOBACCO stores
  • Residences and businesses with bars on all the windows
  • Chained dogs
  • NO LOITERING and SPITTING PROHIBITED signs
  • Plywood windows
  • The one restaurant in town warns that shirt and shoes are required
  • I once saw a sign in Pennsylvania advertising FRESH COAL. If the 'fresh' coat of paint on the small town WELCOME sign was applied in the previous century, you may have just entered Toilettown, U.S.A.

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Photograph of Spring Valley, Ohio signage depicting town characteristic of disqualified small towns.
Football field sized hot springs tub with varying temperatures in best small town of Glenwood Springs,Photograph of Glenwood, Springs Colorado hot springs swimming pool Colorado.
Photograph of Put-in-Bay, Ohio Kimberley’s historic wooden Carousel
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Put-In-Bay, Ohio

HOW SMALL TOWNS ON THIS WEBSITE ARE CLASSIFIED The towns listed on our website fall into six categories.

  1. Approved Towns
These are towns that we have visited and recommend to our viewers.  A star (earns our highest recommendation) to the right of its name signifies this town earns our highest recommendation.
  1. Novelty Visit Towns

A ‘Novelty Visit’ town is a category between Approved and Disqualified. It is not an Approved town, because it usually lacks features or conveniences such as motels and eateries to adequately satisfy visitor needs for an overnight stay. Nor is it a Disqualified town, because it does offer some limited entertainment value for passers-by. Usually, a Novelty Visit site is an opportunity to stretch your legs and take a short stroll to see some interesting or unusual buildings or scenery. Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts is another type of a Novelty Visit classification, since it is not a real town. While we highly recommend it as a place to visit, it is a living museum of a 1700s town, not an officially-designated Massachusetts municipality. And lastly, there are popular tourist spots such as Old Town Albuquerque NM or Savannah GA that, due to their high population, do not qualify as small towns.

  1. Route 66 Towns

A 'Route 66 Town' is a small town bisected by Route 66 that we approve because of the nostalgic and historic appeal of roadside artifacts.
We suggest that you slow down or stop and investigate the roadside signage, businesses and other structures captured in our photos. We do not necessarily recommend other aspects of these towns, but we do approve the portion of the town proximate to Route 66.

  1. Disqualified Towns
These are small towns that we have visited, but do not meet our standards.
  1. Hall of Shame Towns
Do not stop in these towns unless you experience three or more simultaneous flat tires.  The Chamber of Commerce sign painters have apparently misspelled ‘Hysterical’ as ‘Historical’.
  1. Candidate Towns
A small town is put on the candidate list when it has been researched and/or recommended to us by others, but we have not yet had the opportunity to visit.   ⇑ (back to top)

Photograph of Mendocino, California Pacific Ocean scenic coastline Big Sur coastal Highway 1 Pacific Coast Highway PCH
Photograph of Taos, New Mexico historic Rancho De Taos pueblo adobe church
Mendocino, California
Taos, New Mexico

RELOCATION SUGGESTIONS

Our primary goal is to educate our viewers concerning the quality of the small towns we visit.  Many of our patrons use this information when planning vacations or weekend getaways. But some use our web site to investigate the possibility of small town retirement or relocation. We like to think of ourselves as a travel entertainment source. We do so by offering our opinion and providing photographs and other information about small towns.  Some viewers have pointed out (and rightly so) that while our visual evidence is helpful in assessing the quality of towns, such information certainly does not constitute a complete quality assessment of these locales.   In an attempt to respond to these comments, we have formulated the following general suggestions listed below.
  1. Be skeptical about information provided by the Chamber of Commerce or realtor concerning a small town in which they have a vested interest.
  2. A good source of honest information about a town can be found by subscribing to a website forum concerning the geographic area of interest.  We highly recommend the City-Data.com website. Statistically speaking, learn as much as possible about a small town from this site. But more important, join the City-Data forum to connect with locals in that community. Pose a question to the forum members - such as "I am anticipating a move to East Podunkville.  What it's like to live there?" There is no substitute for the experience and opinion of someone who has lived in these small towns.
  3. Telephone or (better yet) visit the Humane Society or SPCA in the county of interest.  If these organizations do not exist, this could be a 'red flag'.  Ask them about the general animal situation in the county and the existence of local laws to protect animals from cruelty (not animal control laws – those protect human beings from animals).  As Mahatma Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated".  This is also applicable at the local level.
  4. Talk to a public official about zoning ordinances.  There is usually a correlation between strictness of zoning regulations and quality of residents. 
  5. Consult demographics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
  6. In rural areas, consult with local well drillers and the Agricultural Extension Agent before you buy/build. Most have resided in the area their entire lives and know the topography, soil and water conditions like the 'back of their hands'.
  7. Speak to the Sheriff's Department or Police department about law enforcement problems in the community.
  8. Visit the area of interest during its worst weather season - Minnesota in December, Florida in July, Seattle during the rainy season and Santa Fe in its windy season.
  9. Talk to people at a local bicycle shop or walking/running club.  My experience is that they are usually well-educated/affluent members of the community.
  10. In a sparsely populated area, unless a small town is a county seat, its long-term economic viability is questionable.
  11. Subscribe to the local newspaper well in advance of a relocation.
  12. The existence of a health food store is often indicative of a high-quality community.
  13. On average, small towns with a college are of higher quality than those without an institution of higher learning

  14. In the opinion of Forbes magazine, reliable indicators of the quality of a community include:

    a) percentage of homes that are occupied by their owners (and not rental property tenants)
    b) incidence of crime
    c) percentage of the population that graduated from college
    d) charitably-inclined residents. To find out which locales are the most giving, access the website Chronicle of Philanthropy.

    According to Smithsonian magazine, a high quality small town can be quantified based on the following:

    a) Museums
    b) Historic sites
    c) Botanic gardens
    d) Resident orchestras
    e) Art galleries


    If you have any other advice to viewers before they move to a small town, please contacts us via Twitter Twitter or facebook Facebook. Thank you.

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Good luck with your search!