Farmington resident and West Hartford businessman Bart Russell loves America’s small towns, all 34,000 of them. So much so that he spent 36 years as one of the nation’s most prominent spokesmen and advocate for “little towns,” those with populations of less than 30,000. He worked as CEO of the National Association of Towns, president of its National Center for Small Communities and was former head of the CT Council of Small Towns. But now he has a new project. He has established “Everything Small Town” a kind of online, one-stop center for everything and anything to do with small towns across the nation. And as part of that, he and his wife, Rorie, are heading out Sunday for their first “Discover Small Town American Tour.” The couple invited people across the nation to share what is best in their small towns- super sights, interesting residents, places to eat, attractions and more, and have put together an unusual and unexpected road trip itinerary that will take them to the best of some of the nation’s small towns between California and back again. But before the two hit the road, Bart Spilled the Beans with small-town girl, Java.
Q: What is it about small towns that intrigue you so?
A: I spent 36 years advocating for small towns, advocating, lobbying speaking at state organizations about federal issues, legislative areas and those sorts of things. I always had a passion for these places and the people who lives in these places. Once I stepped down from those positions, I was free to roam about the country. I am fascinated by people who give it a go in these small towns. It’s a chance to spend new found time in the trenches in these places, get to know the younger generation of people who are ready to rock and roll and want to make stuff happen in their towns. I want to spotlight then so other people will come.
Q: So what was the impetus for your “Discover Small Town America” tour?
A: I really wanted to launch a platform “Everything Small Town,” a virtual place for people and government who have a stake in these 34,000 communities. It occurred to me one of the best ways was to make it real would be to actually get out of Connecticut and go to these places. The idea led to just an amazing amount of interest in the countryside by people who have heard about the tour and wanted to showcase their community, business and stories. USA Today travel division talked to us about collaboration. Now we see this trip as a free-standing event that could be an annual tour and a way in which we get down to grass roots, meet people and see their communities up and close and personal. What better way to make it real?
Q: When do you leave and where will the trip take you?
A: We leave June 16 and will be on road for six or seven weeks. We are heading east to west using I-40 as the main corridor and I-70 coming back. We don’t have a lot of structure. We are going to start by going to Gettysburg because of its 150th anniversary and its historical significance. It’s a good way to start.
Q: Where are some of the places that invited you to stop there?
A: A small town in Logonier, Indiana with a highly-rated B&B located in the middle of a cornfield, Greenville, Ohio where locals argue has the best homemade bagels and the 230-person community of of Cuba, Kansas called by one big city newspaper “a town of doers.” We also plan to stop in Moore, Oklahoma which was just devastated by the tornado and do what we can to help them out. We are going to Plainville, Kansas to meet Chuck Comeau, owner of Dessin Fournir Companies, the luxury furniture maker “of the stars” including Oprah, Elton John and Janet Jackson, and Siloam Springs, Arkansas, with a downtown built up along the meandering banks of spring-fed Sager Creek, and listed on the Smithsonian’s “20 Best Small Towns in America”. And then there’s Lucas, Kansas which has what folks there call the “blingiest public restroom ever.
Q: Were you surprised to receive so many small town invitations?
A: I was surprised by the remoteness of some of the places and the energy and enthusiasm of the places that heard about our trip. There is a lot of down-home pride out there. They are excited about their communities. I believe these places are wonderful. I remember flying to the West Coast and you look down and you see these little dots and farms carved out of the landscape. We have a patchwork quilt of a country made up of thousands of those little dots.
Q: So is this a trip about seeing or eating?
A: A little of both.
Q: And in what grand car will be you be doing this road trip, and how many miles do you expect to rack up?
A: We will be traveling in a spacious limo, a Toyota Prius. We’ll be traveling about 8,000 miles but I like to drive. It will be like a scavenger hunt of cool places no one has ever heard of. “It’s not your grandmother’s cross country trip! We’ll be blogging during the trip at discoversmalltownamerica.com Come along!