Years ago, in the early days of our backroads photography, Ruth and I spent all of our time meandering on country roads as far away from the city as we could get. We even tended to avoid small towns, especially after spending “a week in Burlington one day,” which I’ll explain in a minute. This story will feature photos from various small towns we have photographed (none of which are from Burlington because we were so busy trying to find our way out of town that we didn't stop to take any pictures).
There are three reasons for us to venture into town. The first reason is to find a restroom. We often joke about how much easier men have it in that department. The second is to fill the car up with gas. The third reason, and this only applies in the winter or when there is a long-lasting torrential downpour, is to get something to eat. Most times, we have lunch in a park, eating food out of our cooler.
Anyway, we headed into the town of Burlington, Wisconsin one day, probably to find a restroom. When we were ready to leave town, we tried to find a particular highway that would take us back out into the country. But we ended up going around and around and couldn’t find our way out of town.
Burlington, by the way, had a population of maybe 10,000 people, so you would think it would have been easy to find our way. But there are several things that complicated the situation. The Fox River runs through the center of town and there is a star pattern of highways that all converge near the river. And, if my memory serves me right, there were one-way streets that prevented us from going in the direction we thought we should go.
After passing the same ice cream stand several times, we decided to soothe our frustrations with a cool ice cream treat and try to figure out what to do next. One thought that crossed our minds was that we should have tried harder to find a country park with a restroom. Looking back on it now, it’s very funny to us, but it wasn’t funny then.
Now that we have “Irwin,” our trusty GPS companion, we make it a point to travel through the small towns. Often, we’re in search of any historical gems that have been taken care of over the years. Small towns have netted us some great subjects, such as old-fashioned theaters, hardware stores, general stores, feed mills, Coca Cola and Bull Durham signs, soda fountains, bank buildings with burglar alarms, etc.
One thing we try to do, if possible, is to explore small towns at the break of day when there are few parked cars in front of these old subjects and we can take advantage of the best lighting of the day. It is also, unfortunately, a good time to be viewed suspiciously by the police, especially when I am crouched or even lying in the street trying to get the angle I need for the best photograph.
Thankfully, we don’t arouse suspicion too often, and we end up with some very nice small town images. Last fall at first light on a Sunday morning, we explored the town square of Baraboo, Wisconsin. Baraboo is the home of the Ringling Brothers Circus and the historic Al. Ringling Theater, which has been described as “America’s Prettiest Playhouse.” This theater has been painstakingly restored, along with the “Mighty Barton Organ,” featuring 597 pipes, plus drums, bells, bird calls, and thunder.
Next time you take a road trip, wander off the main highway and check out a small town or two. You never know what treasures you’ll find if you take the time to look around.