Crowdsourcing: Northwest Americana


Oh great and powerful Interwubz I beseech thee for help,

I’m working on a thing that centres on small-town America, specifically in the Pacific Northwest. My experience of America is limited to films and a handful of American cities. While I want to retain a filmic feel I want to modernise and update a bit at the same time and make things a bit more genuinely relatable.

Can you help?

  • What sort of businesses and services would you find?
  • How does local medical care work? Clinics? Individual doctors?
  • What sort of crime and local legends are there?
  • Climate?
  • Street names?
  • What kind of work do people do? Are there still ‘one business towns’?
  • What pieces of old Americana remain? Ice cream/soda parlours?
  • Local mechanics?
  • Small shops or just a 7/11 or a gas station store?
  • Do kids still go out ‘exploring’ and riding bikes?

Anything and everything you can come up with that you might think would be useful to me would be great.

5 responses to “Crowdsourcing: Northwest Americana

  1. I don’t know about small towns in the Pacific Northwest, but I grew out in a small town in the rural Southeast and still visit there reasonable frequently, so I can speak to that. My experience with small towns in the West suggested they were broadly similar. Taking your questions in order for towns of 800-5000, not near an interstate highway:

    – Gas stations (most convenience stores, but often one or two depending on the town’s size of the local variety you might see on old TV shows with the colorful local owners), small over-priced and shabby furniture stores, a local bank, a drug store, small regional chain grocery stores (Piggly Wiggly, IGA, in the south), a local restaurant, possibly a local fast food sort of stand. Businesses related to the local economic activity–i.e. agriculture mostly. Beauty shop or barber shop.
    – Medical care is generally individual doctors, though those are dying off in favor of what’ are essentially “docs in a box” run by regional medical centers in small cities 40-50 miles away.
    – Crime are the typical things, just less of them. Drunk driving, drug-related offenses. Vandalism, theft.
    – Climate where I grew up in Southern Georgia is hot and humid. The Pacific Northwest is different, obviously.
    – Dogwood St., Main St. (very common), Church St. (very common), Eight Mile Road, Lilly Pond Road, Pioneer Ave., Park Ave. Where two lane remnants of the U.S. highway system cut through a two they might only be known by their highway name. Some rural roads are known by their numerical state road designations (e.g. “Highway 41”, “278”, “22”, etc.)
    – Agricultural and services. There are one business towns, but fewer than there once were.
    – Most of these are decaying, crumbling downtown edifices. In only a few places do they remain open.
    – Yes.
    – Not many small shops, really, though a few. Regional chain “dollar stores” are common and convenience stores or drives 40 miles or more to towns with more stores and a mall.
    – They did in the 70s and 80s. I don’t know so much about now, but I imagine they do. There are just many fewer kids as the average age of these areas is rising, as younger people move away for more oppurtunity elsewhere.

  2. What sort of businesses and services would you find?
    A lot depends on the size of the town and the area of the country. A logging area would have a small engine supply store, maybe a hardware store, and possibly a saw mill. I’m assuming “very small, like well under a thousand in population. For instance, a tourist area would have a hotel, a bait store, maybe a “general store” and a taxidermist. Just about any small town would have a gas station, a chain restaurant or two (Dairy Queen is very common) and possibly a diner (not a chain restaurant). There might be a bar or liquor store (for the hard stuff. gas stations or groceries or general stores will sell wine or beer). . There will be a lot of “stores” operated by one person, maybe out of a home… stuff like a vegetable stand, vehicle repair, gunsmith, cosmetics, even stuff like tax preparation or computer repair. There could be stuff like piano teachers/tutors, fishing or hunting guides and the like. A lot of very small towns will have a post office and possibly a police/sheriff office or even jail. In a tourist area, there will be nicer restaurants, one or more bars (possibly a townie bar for locals and a separate tourist bar). There will be souvenir shops and maybe a gun shop. There could be camp grounds or RV (recreational vehicle) parks with their own showers and general store. There could be sports vehicle or snowmobile rental places. There could be stuff like rock stores (fossils and minerals) or even collecting sites. There could be zip lines and hiking trails. There are some antique shops (be just glorified junk shops but not necessarily).

    How does local medical care work? Clinics? Individual doctors?
    A lot of small towns won’t have resident medical care, and may have to drive 50 miles to a county seat, where there is probably a clinic and possibly a small hospital. Lucky small towns could have a general practitioner (GP) nearby. A general store or even a gasoline service station could sell over the counter medicine and first aid supplies, but probably not prescription drugs (i.e., no nearby “chemist.) So for a new prescription, it’s a drive to the county seat. If there’s no rush, a lot of folks will use mail order.

    What sort of crime and local legends are there?
    The most common crimes will be traffic-related (speeding and reckless driving tickets may be all that keeps the local police going. Drunk driving is a bif deal. Speed limits will drop from 80 mph or 35 at the town line to facilitate this). There will be hookers, most likely working out of their homes or wherever sells alcohol. Especially in the Pacific Northwest there will be pot farms, anything from a small “personal” operation to a giant farm run by organized crime. There might be some illegal moonshine stills, but more likely a methamphetamine lab. Nearby farms are probably using illegal immigrant labor. Not all local government officials or police are corrupt, but that’s always a possibility. A lot of the previously described businesses are essentially operating in grey market or black market and don’t pay their taxes. “Big City” crimes like robbery, pick pocketing, and murder are all rare.

    Depends on the specific area (check “weather underground”) but you can count on cold winters (lots of snow) and cool-ish summers (lots of rain — parts of the PNW are genuine rain forests).

    Street names?
    Main street. Streets named after trees. Streets named after (American) presidents. Streets with Indian names (Umpqua is very popular for some reason). There’s probably a “ridgeline road” around and possibly a numbered “farm market road.”

    What kind of work do people do? Are there still ‘one business towns’?
    See the comments on business and services. There are indeed “one business towns.” Examples might be tourism, logging, transhipment warehouses, or (in special circumstances) mining. By the coat some towns are mainly dedicated to fishing (or fishing and the tourist trade). In a tourist area there might be public restrooms with some kiosks of pamphlets that describe nearby attractions or businesses.

    What pieces of old Americana remain? Ice cream/soda parlours?
    Most of this is tied in with tourist areas. In a typical tourist-oriented town there’s probably a “town square or just a portion of main street with touristy stuff (restaurant, antique store, sissified general store, and yes, probably an ice cream/coffee shop). (It’s spelled “parlor” here but more likely will just be called a “shop.”) It’s a safe bet however that this may look 75 years old but may have been built and retrofitted five years ago. There’s probably one or more “historic markers” that describe old time events, point out historic structures, or commemorate famous folks who lived or visited the area. There might be a “roadside marker” that discusses the geology, ecology, or anything else interesting.

    Local mechanics?
    There is often somebody around who can do car repair, but in a smaller town they might not have a garage. In this case, you’d have to call for a “wrecker” or tow truck from somewhere nearby (or not too nearby). Auto clubs like AAA (“Triple A”) can help identify the reliable or semi-reliable ones).

    Small shops or just a 7/11 or a gas station store?
    Depends on the size. There might be a small convenience store but in a smaller town there won’t be a chain store like 7-11… More likely something locally owned or operated.

    Do kids still go out ‘exploring’ and riding bikes?
    The quick answer is “yes,” although odds are they have access to the Internet and maybe even a smart phone. So there may or may not be much to “explore.” They might even ride their bikes to a library (but not go in) or find some person with a wireless connection that isn’t encrypted so they can surf the net. Odds are they really just want to play videogames.

  3. Grew up in a small town in the Midwest, but the above commenters have it right. The only thing I can add is that small towns tend to have only one church of denomination of local choice.

    • This is different in the South. Small towns (at least those 1000+) tended to have more than one church–Baptist, Methodist, and then black and white. Smaller towns smaller than maybe 700 didn’t tend to have churchs at all. There were no Catholic churches in towns short of say 20,000 or so.

  4. I agree. In Texas at least a town of 1,000 would probably have four or five churches: maybe more if there are a lot of immigrant workers. Not sure about in the PNW. I bet you could do some quick looks using Google maps and get some counts. I’m thinking of one particular central texas town that has a polulation of about 350 and has three chirches, but I think this is exceptional, even in the “Bible Belt.”

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