Today, let's visit a small town. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Summer of 1949 in the town
of Loomis, north central Washington state: I worked
with the Bureau of Public Roads, laying out a
forest access road into the eastern Cascade
Mountains. Loomis was then home to some 300 souls.
It'd once been the center of a turn-of-the-century
gold rush with thousands of people. Now it was
twelve streets, a grocery store, a gas station, and
a mechanic's shed. On weekends we went up into the
dank, abandoned mines in the hills behind the town.
We walked along neglected rails through the
tunnels, prying out lumps of iron pyrite -- fool's
That road is still there. I doubt that any of the
same people, with their intertwined lives, remain.
Mostly I remember Margaret, a middle-aged widow who
made ends meet by feeding our road crew, farm
style, and sending us off each day with sandwiches
wrapped in wax paper.
Loomis was an America few of us get to see. Barren
beauty all around. Rattlesnakes when you didn't
step carefully. Hundred-and-twenty-degree heat in
the high-altitude air. And quiet -- soul-settling
quiet -- whenever you shut your mouth. I did
mathematics for recreation.
Now I've found Dennis Kitchen's book, Our
Smallest Towns. Kitchen crisscrossed America
with a panoramic camera visiting tiny towns,
rounding up the citizens and photographing them.
Garrison Keillor's introduction calls these towns
so small that "The bride has to sing at her own
wedding." Only four of his towns are larger than
Loomis was back then. Most have fewer than a
A few of Kitchen's towns are novelties, like Hoot
Owl, Oklahoma, with no people at all. But most are
real towns, alone in the landscape. The photos show
groups of twenty or a hundred people -- old and
young, ethnic mixtures, all looking proudly at the
camera. Like loomis, Ophir, Utah, population 22, is
the remnant of a mining town. Ophir boasts a
firehouse and a city hall. A man created Mustang,
Texas, population 27, by building a trailer park.
He needed a town to get a permit to build a big
Most of these towns are remnants of dreams. A
highway moved, a railway abandoned, an ore vein run
out. The people are stubborn -- not to be brushed
aside. People who, for the most part, have figured
out how to live close to one another's foibles.
I spent that summer in Loomis missing life in the
city. Yet a part of my young psyche feasted on
remoteness, on contact with Earth and sky, reliance
on inner resources. I began to understand, one
August day, when two bearded men and four mules
came down out of the mountains. They'd entered that
vast forest near Bellingham in the spring and spent
all summer clearing the Forest Service trail with
axes and machetes. To be that alone, free and
independent was a wonderful thing. Back in
populated Loomis that evening, those men lay upon
my mind. The lights winked out in the scattered
houses, and I dreamt about a night sky over the
inaccessible reaches of the Cascade Mountains, far
from this suddenly crowded town.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds