What makes a small town big on culture? For the second year running, we sought a statistical answer to this question by asking the geographic information company Esri to search its databases for small towns and cities—this time, with populations of less than 15,000—that have exceptional concentrations of museums, art galleries, orchestras, theaters, historic sites and other cultural blessings.
Happily, the top towns also boast heartwarming settings where the air is a little fresher, the grass greener, the pace gentler than in metropolitan America. Generally, they’re devoted to preserving their historic centers, encouraging talent and supporting careful economic growth. There’s usually an institution of higher learning, too.
Most important are the people, unpretentious people with small-town values and high cultural expectations—not a bad recipe for society at large. As a sign on a chalkboard in Cleveland, Mississippi (our No. 2), puts it, “Be nice. The world is a small town.”
Fairfield sits in an undulating landscape with farmhouses, silos, barns and plenty of sky. A railroad track runs through town and there’s a gazebo on the square. You have to stick around to learn about things you’d never find in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, like the preference for east-facing front doors. That’s the orientation prescribed by Transcendental Meditation movement founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose followers went looking for a place to start a university and landed in the cornfields of southeast Iowa.
The Maharishi University of Management now offers B.A.’s in 13 fields, among them Vedic science and sustainable living. With students riding bikes and plugged into iPods, it looks like any other college campus, except for twin gold-domed buildings where practitioners gather to meditate twice a day.
Fairfield could stand as a case study from The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida’s book on the link between educated populations and economic development. Fairfield got the one when the college opened its golden domes, drawing accomplished people who saw its sweetness; it got the other when they started dreaming up ways to stay. “Everyone who arrived had to reinvent themselves to survive,” said mayor (and meditator) Ed Malloy.
The economy started perking in the 1980s with e-commerce and dot-coms, earning Fairfield the name “Silicorn Valley,” then launched start-ups devoted to everything from genetic crop-testing to investment counseling. Organic farmer Francis Thicke keeps the radio in his barn tuned to Vedic music; his Jerseys must like it because everyone in town says that Radiance Dairy milk is the best thing in a bottle.
But there’s more than mellow. The new Maasdam Barns Museum, with buildings from a farm that raised mighty Percheron horses, displays agricultural machines made by the local Louden Company. A walking tour passes the rock-solid, Richardson Romanesque courthouse, a Streamline Moderne bank, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired residences and myriad examples of Vedic architecture.
Artists and performers find they can afford to live in Fairfield. ICON, which specializes in regional contemporary art, joins galleries and shops in hosting a monthly art walk, featuring the work of some 300 local artists.
The striking new Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts welcomes acts from chamber groups to Elvis impersonators. The soon-to-open Orpheum Theater will offer something that is dying out in big cities—an art movie house.
Solar panels help banish electricity bills at Abundance Eco Village, an off-the-grid community on the edge of town. But it’s less about altruism than well-being in Fairfield. Take, for instance, the quiet zones, recently instituted at railroad crossings to silence incessant train whistles; newly planted fruit trees in city parks; and Fairfield’s all-volunteer, solar-powered radio station, producing 75 homegrown programs a year. “Fairfield,” says station manager James Moore, a poet, musician, tennis teacher and meditator, “is one of the deepest small ponds you’ll find anywhere.”
Visit an interactive map at the end of the Fairfield article on the Smithsonian site and click on the pins for photos and more information.
Related news coverage: Fairfield Ledger: Smithsonian Magazine names Fairfield 7th best small town in America to visit. KTVO: Fairfield makes Top 10 in list of small towns to visit. Des Moines Register: Iowa town ranks No. 7 on list of Best Small Towns to Visit.
Here is a scan of part of the two-page spread in the print edition of the Smithsonian magazine. At the top is a wonderful photo Charles “Stretch” Ledford took inside Café Paradiso of the mural in the background and a couple having coffee in the foreground. The head covering and look on the face of the lady at the table matches the shawl covering the head of the female artist in the mural behind her. They share the same sideways glance to the left, and even share the same orange color on their clothing! Stretch said: “I had my lens trained on her and kept the composition for at least 10 minutes, probably 15 +, waiting for her to turn just the right way. I have about a dozen or so shots, but knew the winner would be when she turned. Eventually she did, I was lucky enough to still have my finger on the shutter, and I made the shot.”
Tags: America's best small towns to visit in 2013, Cafe Paradiso, Creative Edge Mastershop, Fairfield Iowa, ICON Gallery, Maasdam Barns, Maharishi Golden Dome, Maharishi University of Management, MUM Sustainable Living Center, Smithsonian Magazine, The Sky Factory, travel