I grew up in a large city, Portland, Ore., which has exploded into a major metro complex over the years.
My experience with smaller communities, thus, was related to brief visits to nearby suburban towns or those that dot the landscape along, say, the Willamette Valley south of Portland.
I didn’t have much of an appreciation for the value of town squares … until I moved away from Portland in 1984. My family and I relocated to Beaumont, Texas, where I was able to pursue my career in print journalism.
East Texas is where I became acquainted with town squares, the places where county courthouses are located. They are places with mom-and-pop stores around the square. Where people congregate for coffee, an adult beverage, to just exchange some idle gossip. The sight of some old guys playing dominoes on the square in Hemphill, Texas, in Sabine County, has stuck with me for more than three decades.
I learned of the value of town squares to those communities. My wife and I moved later to the Texas Panhandle, where I saw even more evidence of how town squares give communities their identity.
These are worth mentioning because I just finished writing a story for KETR.org, the website affiliated with the public radio station at Texas A&M-Commerce. I won’t divulge what’s in the story, because I don’t want to scoop myself … or my bosses at the radio station.
I do, though, want to hail the virtues of town squares, which is the subject of the story I have written. The Texas Historical Preservation Commission doles out money to counties that ask for grants to help them pay for the restoration of courthouses that sit in the middle of these town squares.
The commission claims great economic success as a result of the grants it provides. I saw evidence of it today in a Northeast Texas community I visited in doing research for the story I have just completed.
There are other examples, some of which I have seen up close. Others’ stories are told by the officials and residents who live in those towns.
I like telling the story of the renovation of the 1909 courthouse in Canyon, Texas. The exterior of the building was spruced up and made to look as the builders intended when they erected it at the turn of the 20th century. The interior, though, is vacant, empty, nothing going on in there. Randall County had moved most of its operation out of the town square to a site on the other side of town.
However … and this is the point I want to stress, which is that the town square in Canyon has thrived anyway, despite any real activity inside the 1909 courthouse structure. Businesses have filled once-empty storefronts. It’s a happenin’ place, man!
That is the kind of story I am hearing throughout North Texas as I continue to cover the courthouse restoration issue for KETR-FM radio.
Counties have a resource available at the Historical Preservation Commission that they can use. It’s not exactly free money, but the return on that investment is, well, priceless.