Imagine growing up in a small county with a population of 2,204 people, whose median age is 59.3. People know your name, your children’s names, your grandparent’s name, even your great-grandparents’ name, and how almost everyone is related. Even though everyone knows your business, like who’s dating who or who just bought that beautiful house on Water Street, they’ll also be there to support you through your struggles and triumphs.
It sounds like a dream, but growing up in a small town can sometimes have its drawbacks. Highland County’s land with high mountains, beautiful valleys, sheep and cattle grazing on family farms, vast woodlands, pristine scenic beauty, and rural charm appeals to many. However, because there is not much “to do,” and everyone knows their neighbors, rumors often spread at the speed of light. You also learn teachers actually don’t live at the school. You see them everywhere…the dollar store, the local restaurants, or at church, and they aren’t afraid to give your parents a quick update on how you’re doing in school or that boy you talk to during break.
However, it has its blessings, too.
1. Close Comradery in Small School Classes
In Highland, you are a member of a large, extended family. In preschool, you are introduced to your forever friends that you hold dear throughout your school years and your life. You mostly have the same classmates every year, and they become like brothers and sisters. For me, one of my best friends and I have been friends since we were born. In Highland, the roots of our friendships run deep. When you’ve spent that many years with someone, those friendships last a lifetime.
Often, you spend much more time together than just at school. You are in the same clubs, on the same sports teams, and go to the same churches and functions. Bless the poor soul who moves into the county, who now has to become a member of your class and quickly learn how to fit in with your school family. However, most of us are so excited to have a new classmate, they soon fit right in.
2. Love Isn’t Hard to Find
Our community is simply the best. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone shows up for everyone. We care for our community deeply. In 2018, I lost my grandmother, Sandy Hammer Bratton. She was an amazing woman of faith and a lover of nature. Known for her beautiful gardens and immense knowledge of horticulture, she loved all of God’s creatures and creations. She was an essence of Highland County – friendly and warm to all she met with a deep love of the world around her. In the days following her death, I saw so many of her (and my) friends and neighbors come to the house, dishes full of food in hand, ready to do whatever was needed. They cleaned the house, washed our dishes, and did the laundry. Some of her best friends and members of the Highland and Bath County Garden Clubs, began to weed her flower beds. As one of them said to me, “She would have pitched a fit if someone let her beds be eaten up with weeds.”
Although they were never asked, they showed up for us. That is something I have grown to love about Highland. When something tragic happens or disaster strikes or bad luck comes to rear its ugly head, your neighbors come to help you through it. Whether that means they sit and cry with you, or cheer you up, or wash your dishes, or weed your flower beds.
3. Learning from Living History
In Highland, you’re also more connected to the community, more specifically the generations that have come before you. Many children live in multi-generational homes, where they are able to learn from their grandparents or even great-grandparents. Highland has never been a rich county and was founded by rugged frontiersmen and women who had to be tough to survive in the mountains. So, often our ancestors had to learn to be resourceful and creative. Because of this, our community often fosters a sense of ingenuity, which honors our past. Because of this, our children often carry with them our country’s traditions and history, and that instills valuable skills for their future. As a young child, I remember being in a hot, sticky, summer kitchen with my grandmother learning how to preserve food for the winter. Because of this knowledge, our youth have a greater understanding of the world around them, our history, how they fit into it, and how to survive if the world gets rough.
4. Low Crime Rates Equal Higher Quality of Youth
Another reason I love growing up in Highland is that I’m allowed more freedoms here than I would growing up in a city or suburb. Even as a middle-schooler, I was able to walk around Monterey with friends without my parents ever having to worry. Besides, even if we had gotten into some mischief, local community members wouldn’t hesitate to call my parents. Once, I was walking on “the loop” (aka: the Highland Community Walking Trail) on the way to catch up with a group of friends at a local restaurant. On the way, my mother got a phone call from a community member making sure she knew where I was, not out of thinking I was up to no-good, but in the way our community does so well – looking out for one another. Here, people care for each other’s children as if they were their own. (And, they make sure you’re not getting yourself into any trouble!)
5. A Community that Cares for Youth
The Highland County community loves supporting local youth. For example, when our local National FFA Organization chapter wins a competition, whether at the local or state level, it is celebrated. One might hear about it on the radio, in store windows, or shared on the county Facebook page. In fact, our FFA is heavily supported by our local community. Businesses and individuals donate every year to send students to local, state, and national competitions, and our achievements are celebrated throughout the county. Every week, our local radio station, Allegheny Mountain Radio, donates air time for a weekly FFA radio report. And, our wonderful FFA advisor, Steve Heavner, selflessly benefits his students’ lives with mentorship, wit, wisdom, and sometimes tough love.
6. Our Adulthood is Shaped by Our Up-Bringing
Growing up in a small town also plays a role in shaping who we are as adults. You learn to be creative by playing outdoors, which helps you appreciate your surroundings. You learn how to get along with people, receive the gift of gab, and enjoy a slower pace of life.
Unfortunately, our youth doesn’t always appreciate our small community during childhood and teenage years. Growing up, I found it hard being from such a thinly-populated county. There was, seemingly, nothing to do, and I longed for the busy-ness of “town,” which is what we call nearby Staunton or Harrisonburg, Virginia. I wished I could live in a big city with many people and exciting choices on every corner – all full of interesting stories like those I read about in novels. I longed to be entertained by the theatres, malls, and stores. I couldn’t wait to leave Highland. Now, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Moreover, in Highland, sometimes children are told to leave the county. Those with pessimistic attitudes say things like, “This whole county is dying. Might as well get out while you can,” or “There are just no opportunities here for young folks.” However, I believe there are opportunities here for young people… IF they’re opened up to us. (And, if we’re willing to be innovative and determined enough to work for them.)
I adore living in Highland. I love its people, its landscape, and its history. But, I haven’t always been appreciative of what I have. In middle school, I didn’t know who I was. I thought I had to be someone I was not and pushed away anything and everything to do with the farm and our rural life. I wished I had been born a “regular girl” with a “normal life” in a suburb with a silly name. However, I had no idea what God had planned for me.
The truth of the matter is, I don’t want to leave Highland. This county has taught me so much that leaving wouldn’t feel right. Growing up in a small town is one of the best things. Being part of a close-knit community isn’t something everyone can say they experienced growing up. It’s taught me to be thankful for being close to family and friends, to not take blessings for granted, and to really appreciate the little things. The quirkiness of small towns shape who you are… today, tomorrow, and for years to come, and I’m so thankful I’m a small-town girl.
About the Author
Carly Thomas, a 2022 graduate of Highland High School, resides in the southern portion of Highland County. Growing up as the seventh generation to live on her family’s cattle ranch, Carly learned the importance of family, faith, and devotion to the land. She is passionate about FFA, agriculture, and supporting Highland County farmers. Carly enjoys being challenged and works in a variety of jobs from writing sports articles for her local newspaper to cooking at a local sandwich shop. She can often be found working on the ranch, riding horses with her father, or working on the next FFA activity.