This is the place

Celebrating the small town lifestyle and the characters to who make this the best place in the world

By Tim Henney
Reader Contributor

My 1957 bride and I twice lived in Geneseo, Ill., a prosperous farm town of 7,000 joyful souls in Henry County, “Hog Capital Of The World.” It might be the soybean and cornfield capital as well.

Deere & Company’s world headquarters is 20 minutes away, in Moline. A sprawling, exotic corporate home like no other. A massive Henry Moore sculpture rests beside the winding drive through 1,400 manicured acres of lawns and fishponds. I worked there. Not in the fishponds, in the building.

Geneseo is a Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover come alive. Weekly homemade ice cream socials in the park. Band concerts from a Victorian gazebo. Families and friends. Fireflies in the summer evening air. We were there in the early ‘70s because of the John Deere job. Then from 1986 to 1995 following retirement from NYC’s corporate world. Native Californians don’t often retire to humid midwestern burgs. But we did.

Geneseo and Sandpoint are the same size, but that’s about it. Geneseo lacked lakes, a ski mountain, wild blue rivers, bike trails, a zillion square miles of lush green forests, gourmet restaurants, art galleries, a Panida-type forum, a music festival, a Lost In The Fifties, sushi bars, a winery, a dog culture, a university extension site, talented local bands and a farmers’ market (they didn’t need one; most residents were farmers). Still, in 1970 or thereabouts Esquire magazine named Geneseo “America’s Happiest Town.”

What made it so happy was a winning high school football team, The Green Machine, a pint-sized Green Bay Packers. Although not all them pitchfork swingin’, hog-sloppin’ farm boys were pint-sized. The Green Machine played to boisterous, jam-packed grandstands on Friday nights under lights. If newcomers like us winced at the aroma of hog farms wafting over the field, we were told, “That’s money you’re smellin’.” Any able-bodied person who didn’t attend Friday night games was considered an un-American pinko pervert. Citizens thought the head coach walked on water. Even evangelistics, of whom there were many, were sure of it.

It’s possible that Sandpoint, the city, would be considered insufficiently macho by Esquire, a man’s magazine. But if the editors hung out in the county awhile they’d be impressed.

Testosterone-burdened young losers in big pickups roar around Selle Valley’s dirt roads at twice the legal speed limit. Macho! Some fling empty beer bottles out the window. Macho! Some have catchy signs in their rear windows. One says, “Cats: Nature’s Little Speed Bumps.” Macho! These dimwits bring to mind a lyric from “Oklahoma!.” “Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry, when I take you out in the surrey…”.  “Kids and deer and dogs better scurry, these yahoos will run over you in a hurry…”.

However, if Esquire should seek highly civilized qualities in updating its happiest town award, then Mormon headman Brigham Young had it right. He peered down from his covered wagon at Utah’s Great Basin and declared, “This is the place.” So is Sandpoint. A recent week of engaging with enthusiastic happy locals who sell things, fix things, teach things and help us along life’s way was all it took. There was not a grumpster in the group.

Bracing for the future, Jacquelynn and I are buying a modest in-town house next door to our Sandpoint family. When our time arrives to disintegrate, we know our grandaughters, Adeline and Violet, now 11 and 6, will be thrilled to have us drool on them. Better them than on some nursing home stranger. For the house down payment we sold stock. Dee, at D.A.Davidson, she of the warm smile and quiet, comforting voice, made departing from one’s dividend-paying savings almost enjoyable.

Warren Buffett would not have needed to call upon Evergreen Home Loans for the balance, but we did. Amicable, energetic April of “Team Evergreen” demanded 47,000 signatures from us. We wore our fingers to the nubs signing papers. But April made it almost a party with upbeat cheer and patience. Buying a house used to be easy. Not now.

Next morning we attended a graduation. A kindergarten graduation! No valedictory harangue about following one’s passion. No guest speaker’s personal tips for success. Granddaughter Violet’s Washington school teacher, Michelle McNelley, led her charges in songs instead. Her graduates wore butterfly outfits, the better to flutter off to first grade. Michelle’s affection for them, and for her work, was striking. Teachers like Michelle and husband Mike, at Northside, should be paid what NFL jocks, pompous CEOs, and their bonus-hoarding corporate sycophants earn. Teachers, not titans, mold young lives into contributive citizens. The economics of it are backwards.

Driving home we stopped by Perfection Tire to have a leaky tire repaired. When I was a lad The Pep Boys—Manny, Moe and Jack—sold car parts nationwide. Perfection’s trio of Heath, Dan and Les are our Pep Boys. They share a spirited camaraderie with their customers. But show biz threatens. Manager Heath is popping up on TV more often than Charlie Rose. Probably planning to hang out in Malibu with DiCaprio, Depp, Clooney and Pitt instead of in Ponderay with Les and Dan. But hold on. If you study those commercials you’ll spot Les and Dan, with canes, top hats and tap shoes, dancing the buck and wing in the background. DiCaprio started out doing TV commercials. Ronald Reagan did too, but on radio. Who knows?

Like tires, computers also lose air. When mine does I call IT maven Colin, a transplanted Brit, at Limey Solutions. I want Colin to feel at home, so I put a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta on the phonograph. I’d turn on the tube to BBC but Colin doesn’t watch TV. It’s refreshing to know someone like that. Jacqelynn and I feel smug because we  prefer PBS. But Colin and wife Mandy hoist the culture bar higher. In 1961, Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minnow called commercial television “a vast wasteland.”  Some of us think most of it still is.

As luck would have it, next day our kitchen sinks plugged up. We called plumber Jesse Bennett and he rushed right out. Jesse is in partnership with his dad and proud to say so. He’s a terrific plumber and  a pleasure to have around. Authentically cordial, he’s pleased with and optimistic about life at large. Better yet, he took a wild guess my 1957 bride and I were over 55 and offered a senior discount. With an appropriate “aw, shucks,” we agreed.

Later we were at the library. It was Tuesday, and an estimated 10,000 miniature literary giants were engaged in Suzanne Davis’s preschool story program. Suzanne’s daily multi-tasking duties swing like a pendulum between the library and a dozen or more other kiddie venues about town. She spreads the library’s good work and words to day care centers, pre-schools, free lunch programs, and every public elementary school. To wherever teeny people congregate. Sometimes her admiring pipsqueaks stop her on the street to discuss literature. Suzanne runs her programs with a twinkle in her eye and an ambassador’s zeal. Her diminutive clients flourish.

Early one morning the finches started bitching, the hummies started dive-bombing, the dogs started growling, and my bride’s horse brayed like a donkey. Joining the protest, the cats pooped in  the strawberrries instead of the weeds. Away we dashed to the Co-Op for bird seed, horse, dog and cat food. The enormous bags were too heavy for me, so I ordered my bride to lug them to the car. As she struggled with the first sack, genial employee Mike snatched them up. Mike is no spring chicken, but he’s strong. As Mike loaded the car, very merry Mary, Co-Op cashier, rushed out with milk bones for the growling dogs she saw huddled in the driver’s seat of our car. We like Co-Op. The dogs do too.

Does big box store shopping sometimes leave you longing for a more personally fulfilling encounter? Where sales folks remember your name, as in the olden days? Drop by Serendipity on First Street. If you smile, Angelina will hug you first and help you second. A fine old tune reminds us that “…when you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you…”. When you leave Serendipity you’ll be smiling and the whole world will be as well.

We’ll close this salute to the happiest town with orchids to the six gracious hostesses who admit patients to our hospital. Their efficient friendliness is soothing and, if needed, sympathetic. Collegial welcomers Savannah, Mendy, Holly, Kathy, Wanda and Sherry make starting a hospital visit almost fun. Even for a colonoscopy.

No, wait. Make that a flu shot.

Tim Henney is a Sandpoint writer and unofficial patron saint of the Reader. He celebrates his 85th birthday on Sunday, August 7. Many happy returns, Tim! -BO

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