There are dissertations dedicated to town studies, but with a little upfront research and a willingness to use the Basics below, you can give an impressive description of a town and get more out of your visit.
- Know at least some basic history of the town, such as when it was settled who settled it, and any past events that affected it, such as a war battle or natural disaster.
- Know the basic demographics, like its population, ethnic and/or religious majorities. Censusviewer.com is a good source for quick demographics for small towns. For populations over 6,000, try City-data.com.
- What are the town’s major industries? Look for factories, farms, forests with young trees, or businesses that seem one-sided (such as rows and rows of automobile dealers, or numerous signs for outdoor sports). Obviously, if the town is next to a lake, beach or mountain, it will usually cater to tourists. A town with a college is accustomed to accommodating residents and visitors.
- Look for clues to the town’s origins. Railroad tracks usually indicate that the town was a central stopping point for old railroad companies, especially if there is a depot. Water sources were important for both agriculture and river transport of goods. Natural springs are often hidden, but they were a good source of fresh water as well as a popular base for resort communities. If you don’t see any such clues, then the town was possibly a stop along an old wagon trail that was eventually paved.
- Look for clues that out-of-towners are welcome. A strong presence of group-oriented local businesses (restaurants, shops, churches) can indicate a more social atmosphere. If the town saw fit to install a “Welcome to Smalltown” sign, then at the very least they’re glad to let you spend money there.
- Gauge the safety and security of the town. If you are uncomfortable even getting out of the car, look around for reasons. Are there safe paths for pedestrians or bicycles? Is there an obvious presence of “eyes on the street” or law enforcement? Are there exterior lights? What are the operating hours of the local businesses?
- Look for clues about the town’s financial state. Are the streets and parks clean and maintained? Check public facilities such as libraries and coffee shops to see if they’ve cut back their hours or labor force. Are there many vacancies, rentals or For Sale signs?
- Be familiar with the town’s current events. Look for public meeting notices, local news sites or city council meeting agendas. A school consolidation, successful festival, or new landfill can have a substantial impact on a town’s mood as well as its future.
- Talk to People: The most important aspect of a town is its people. Even the most obscure town will have a couple of residents happy to talk to you, as long as they trust your intentions.