There are several ways to acquire a hometown. Some you are born into, some you adopt and some adopt you. I have a friend who calls Boston his hometown even though he was born in Pittsfield. Since there’s nothing legally binding about the word, I suppose you can take your pick.
As Arenzville prepares to celebrate its 175th birthday next week I guess I’ll define hometown as the town where I have my home. When Burgoo rolls around our population swells like a tick on a fat dog and folks who’ve done little more than pass through will be claiming hometown status.
But I’ll tell you a secret. It takes a bit longer to become part of small town. You can move into Jacksonville and the next day consider yourself a Jacksonvillian. In towns the size of Arenzville it make take several generations to lose the “newcomer” status. I’ve lived here for approaching 40 years but still consider myself a transplant from Perry and Jacksonville.
In fact, I can well remember the day this young teacher stood nervously in the backyard of my home while auctioneer Jim Lakamp began to call for bids. I didn’t have enough cash in the bank to buy a decent sized tent, let alone a house, but the local banker was also a school board member and I think he wanted to spare Triopia the embarrassment of employing a homeless teacher. The auction was a blur. I remember that three parties were bidding: a family, a group of neighbors intent on protecting the neighborhood, and me. I guess the neighbors lost their bid to keep their street free from mischief because before I knew what was happening big Jim hollered, “Sold! To Mr. Bradbury!” and I found myself owning a house and a new hometown. I was numb. I politely accepted the applause of the crowd gathered and crossed the street to Hannel’s grocery store to get good and drunk on a Diet Pepsi. One of Arenzville’s local characters was sitting on the counter when I entered the store and she asked me who’d bought the house. I said, “Me,” and she growled, “It’s about damned time you started paying taxes here.” Welcome to Arenzville!
Another quirk of small town living is that a place won’t be called your place until you die. I still live in the Schone house and it will remain so until my funeral. Naming is purely ex post facto in a small town. The Smiths live on the Jones place but while the Jones folks lived there it was the Wilson place. The Smiths won’t have a place of their own until they move to the Brown place. In a small town there’s no home like place.
The tradition of small town annual celebrations is beginning to fade a bit in many of our small burgs, but I’m happy to say that the crowd at the Arenzville Burgoo hasn’t diminished over the years and with the 175th celebration on the horizon we imagine that the crowds will come pouring in for two days of thick soup, free entertainment, and a great deal of trying to remember the names of old friends. In a world that changes much too quickly, we’ll change little but the price of elephant ears and our underwear. I do fear a bit for the parade, the first we’ve had in twenty-five years. We only have three major east-west streets and considering the number of folks marching I wonder who’ll be left to wave back. We may have to take three laps around town to make it a proper parade.
I’m not sure why the Burgoo tradition has stayed so strong. Towns like Franklin also continue to keep alive the tradition of eating hot soup in the heat, but most other villages have either dropped or curtailed their festivities. Much of this loyalty can of course be credited to the fact that when you’re a little guy you have to try harder. Arenzville is indeed a little guy. The 2010 census said we occupy less than a square mile of land inhabited by 419 people. They must have counted us on a night when there was no football game. The average household size is 2.44 and I know this to be a fact. The .44 is a friend of mine. Remarkably, there were no families living under the poverty line and our median age is 40. We tend to vote Republican. Shortly after I moved to town I was called by a lady saying, “Ken, I hear you’re a Democrat. We’re having a meeting tonight at my house.” I went and joined the other seven people sitting around her living room. Four of the seven are now dead so that puts the pressure on our remaining three.
So, to my new hometown of Arenzville: Happy Birthday! May we continue to celebrate the goodness of America, the value of family, the value of friends, and the fact that with enough crackers and dill pickles you can swallow anything.