We drove about forty-five minutes northwest of Des Moines to visit the town of Boone, Iowa, and check out the Boone and Scenic Valley Railway. This famous museum (featured in the PBS series on great North American excursion railways) preserves Iowa’s railroad heritage, offering rides on steam, diesel and electric passenger trains. They are best known for their dinner service, and a two-hour round trip through some of the more rugged and beautiful parts of the state of Iowa.
Well, it turns out that trains only run once a day (at 1:30 p.m.) on weekdays, so we missed our opportunity to ride that day. We’ll be back tomorrow, though, as the trip out is far from arduous. And Boone is an interesting town.
In Fathom Five, I describe an establishment in small town Clarksbury called Luigi’s Pizzeria and Bait Shop of bearing decoration “having moved of its own accord from dated to retro”, and Boone bears some similarities. The downtown core seems bigger and more developed than you’d expect from a town its size, and most of that development appears to have occurred during the fifties and the sixties, as you can see from the design of the storefronts. The look of these establishments would have been called dated ten years ago, but is now charmingly retro.
There is also a sense of the town clawing its way back from hard times. It’s a bustling little burg, but it clearly lives and dies on the fortunes of the railway that runs through it. And those fortunes are fickle. There are many towns in the American Midwest which boomed with the advance of the railroad, only to fade as the traffic dried up. Eventually the rails were taken up and what remained were shells of tall brick buildings too large for the population surrounding it. These aren’t ghost towns, per se, but that odd half-haunting where the prosperity of the past is at odds with the lazy pace of the present.
Fortunately for Boone, the trains still travel through there. Every ten minutes, in fact. The town was on the Chicago and Northwestern for a while, and I know that the company went bankrupt, which probably explains why the downtown development feels arrested. But Union Pacific bought up the line and now runs looooong trains along the two tracks. On main street, we watched as a number of cars abandoned the lineup as one long train going in one direction through the level crossing was met by another long train going in the other direction, bearing the unwritten message: “you’re going to be here a while.”
For this reason, the town is train crazy. The Boone and Scenic Valley Railway somehow managed to raise the $300,000 required to commission the construction of a brand new steam engine from the factories of China. The town is also the stop of Thomas the Tank Engine in September, where it is said that over 10,000 children ride the train over two days.
But back to the retro downtown core. For better or worse, this is what’s in my head when I think about creating fictional small towns. Though I was raised in the heart of downtown Toronto, and know far more than I would be like about the car-oriented suburbia that surrounds every city, the picture in my mind of a prosperous home town looks a lot like Stratford or Elora. This is the case with my mother’s fiction too, as seen in The Spiral Maze and The Ruby Kingdom. These small towns have all of the amenities you’d expect that would make them desirable (a close-knit community, a quiet burg) or undesirable (everybody knows your business; a boring place), but what makes these towns appeal to us is their sense of history. Unlike suburbia, they’ve been around for a while, and you can see it in the turn-of-the-century brick buildings in the downtown, and the stores that haven’t been redecorated for a while. There’s been hardships, which is why these venerable old buildings are here, rather than being threatened with demolition to make way for something bigger. It’s a sense that you can say, “if these buildings could talk, what stories would they tell.”
It never hurts to give the sense, when you’re telling a story set in a small town (or anywhere), that it isn’t the only story that could be told.