Small towns: Unique and exciting

Small Towns

By Kathie Starkweather, former staff member

Small towns can be places of art and culture showcased in unique and exciting ways. Folks assume that only cities have such opportunities, but our project shows that assumption is not correct.

We looked at community-supported art as one way to bring attention to arts and culture in the small towns of Decatur, Lyons, and Oakland. These towns then worked together to organize and lead the Byway of Art Tour held Sept. 30, showcasing these cultural gems in a thoroughly enjoyable way.

The Byway of Art began in 2014 with an “outdoor living room” experience where couches, coffee tables, lamps, and snacks were placed on each town’s main street. Folks stopped by for a cup of coffee and sat to talk about their town: what they love, the history, and what their community meant to them.

Ideas for public art pieces were developed from those first community conversations, and shared with folks in each town. Decisions were made and projects got underway.

Rural Legends Trolley

Decatur residents wanted to create a storytelling trolley. In the mid- to late 1800s, pictures showed the town had sophisticated transportation with a postcard of a trolley traveling down Broadway (their main street). 

During their outdoor living room conversation, we learned the trolley was actually a myth to attract new people to town. 

The picture of the trolley had been superimposed; no actual trolley ever existed. But, one exists now and continues the legend of the trolley. The venue is used as a place to read, tell stories, display local art, and more.

Lycka Till

Oakland is rich in Swedish history and wanted to honor that. 

Lycka Till, a mobile stage with a backdrop of a Swedish fishing town was designed, built, and dedicated. (Lycka Till is Swedish for “Break a Leg” and the perfect name for a stage for performers.) Opening night drew more than 100 people who were delighted to watch a live, Swedish-style vaudeville show with jokes, music, singing, and even a little bit of dancing. 

The stage is available to the community, and has already been reserved for several events this summer. It will be used for many years to come, showcasing the arts.

Storefront Theater

Lyons chose to honor a movie theater that was built years ago, and has now been renovated into a venue with unique features. 

An old storefront was turned into bleachers. The faux storefront folds out to accommodate the bleachers that roll out onto the sidewalk, and a mobile movie screen is brought onto Main Street. Movies have been held there all spring and summer, complete with free popcorn. The theater has drawn folks from other towns and beyond.

Byway of Art Tour

People were excited to take part in the Byway of Art Tour, and we consider the event to be a success.

We heard stories from participants who had never been to Decatur, for example, and had no idea the village had an art gallery. One was already planning another visit. 

People visiting Lyons were wowed by Cosmic Film Studios and the art show at the Andromeda Gallery. 

The stop in Oakland featured dinner and a bake sale. Folks filled the street as they enjoyed the Swedish vaudeville show on Lycka Till.

We saw community pride grow, faces of people reflecting their enjoyment of each piece of art, and interest to go back to those towns. That’s community development at its finest.

Top photo: A postcard from the 1800s showed a trolley traveling down Decatur’s main thoroughfare. Through conversation with the residents, we learned the trolley was a myth; the photo was faked. As their community’s project, a trolley was installed in a greenspace on their main street. The venue is used to tell stories, display local art, and more. Here, local author, Mary Connealy, presents to visitors. | Photo by Rhea Landholm

Bottom photo: Residents of Oakland are proving small towns really do have it all. This summer, they unveiled Lycka Till, a mobile stage with a backdrop of a Swedish fishing town. Brian Depew, Center Executive Director, and Deb Anderson, Community Lead, officially dedicate the project during the Byway of Art Tour in September. | Photo by Rhea Landholm