The intricacy of what pop culture latches onto is a fascinating subject. It could be its own article or even its own book. One thing American pop culture loves is small towns. Populations continue to grow and urban sprawl slithers its concrete tendrils far and wide. However, the small town still holds sway over us. It’s why after countless reboots and retellings we still agree Superman was raised on a small farm. It’s why main character Leslie Knope’s undying and pure love for Pawnee, Indiana, made Parks and Recreation one of the most beloved sitcoms in television history. Now I can’t tell you what went through those writers’ heads while making these things. However, I do live in the small town of Marshall, Michigan, so let me offer some insight.
Let me start off by dispelling a somewhat common misconception about small towns. We’re not all a bunch of dumb hillbillies who think iPhones are witchcraft. We know things! I talked to Mayor Jack Reed, who emphasized Marshall’s commitment to keeping pace as technology continues to press forward.
“A lot of things like our Fibernet [high-speed internet], downtown businesses, and types of restaurants we bring in; all of those things are geared for the people we want to have come here and move here with their young families,” he explains.
Marshall and other small towns don’t forget their past, though. When living in a small town, you don’t have to go looking for history. It is all around you. Marshall has over 800 historic homes, so we know what we’re talking about. Some have original owners you may have never heard of. Some are a bit more famous like The Cronin House, the inspiration for John Bellairs’s terrifying novel The House With a Clock In Its Walls. Well-known or not, every house and every person in Marshall have a story to tell.
The businesses Reed talks about also have stories to tell. I’ve already written about Dark Horse Brewing Company and the Morse family’s strong ties to this community. I also talked to Ian Gilyard-Schnaitman, owner of Quality Engraving Services. This is a staple in the Marshall downtown. His story is one dedication to a hometown that is found in all small communities.
“The summer after high school the owners at the time wanted me to help them build fair trophies,” Gilyard-Schnaitman remembers. “After the fair was done they asked ‘Do you want a part time job?’ and I said sure. That part-time job turned into a full-time job. Almost ten years ago I bought the place.” Gilyard-Schnaitman is also part of another small town tradition of fascinating and easily traceable family histories. Members of the Schnaitman family have run businesses and been prominent citizens of Marshall for generations. This includes the 1901 construction of the building that Gilyard-Schnaitman now works in.
Of course, I can’t pretend that small town living isn’t without its quirks. One of the funniest parts of the aforementioned Parks and Recreation is the highly combative town halls, full of citizens of all varieties loudly expressing their opinions. While this is naturally played up for television, there is a kernel of truth in it. Marshall recently held a fundraiser for the creation of a new park. The conversation surrounding it was intense. You couldn’t open the paper or walk down the street without hearing or reading someone’s opinion on the merits of the park. And trust me, every single person had an opinion. As Mayor Reed points out though, the level of communication you can get between generations and groups of people in a small town is simply not replicable in a big city. This winds up being an advantage.
Gilyard-Schnaitman also pointed out there’s not much to do in the way of traditional entertainment for younger generations (there’s no shopping mall and the local theater only has two screens). However, Marshall more than makes up for it with other appeals. There’s Dark Horse for those over 21 and a ton of museums for all, including the American Museum of Magic. There is also a thriving fine arts scene. While there are real downsides to urban sprawl, it also means Marshall is a prime location. Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids are all within two hours of Marshall. This makes the small town a perfect home base to explore much of what Michigan has to offer.
Whatever age or interests you might have, small towns have something for you. If you live here you’re going to know your neighbor and know all the good spots to go to. If you’re only visiting, you will be met with a smile and will readily receive directions to the great spots. Mayor Reed suggests wandering amongst the historic neighborhoods. Gilyard-Schnaitman suggests a drink at Dark Horse before relaxing at the Brooks Memorial Fountain at the center of town. Both of those are fine ideas, and we’ll have many more suggestions if you’re ever in the area. Chalk it up to small town charm.
What other small towns in Michigan should we cover? Let us know in the comments!