Welcome back. This week I’ll take you to a few interesting small towns, all worth a visit and look around. When we travel, we enjoy venturing off the beaten trail to find those out of the way places that prove to be interesting in their own way. These are towns that are usually too small for a Walmart and most often are miles away from an Interstate highway. There’s usually a locally owned grocery store, a couple of local restaurants, a hardware store, and a few other shops. There’s a city hall, fire and police departments, and sometimes the county courthouse as is the case in two of the three towns we’ll stop at today. Let’s get started on our journey.
First up is the town of Metropolis with a population about 6000, the largest of the three towns. It’s located at the very southern tip of Illinois on the north bank of the Ohio River. Across the river bridge is the Kentucky town of Paducah. My visit was in 2019 on the way to New Orleans for the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival. The big quilt show was on in Paducah so my Traveling Partner negotiated a couple of days to attend the show. I was happy to oblige. We set up camp in the Fort Massac State Park on the outskirts of Metropolis. Each morning I would deliver my Traveling Partner to the quilt show and I’d enjoy the day to myself; reading, photographing and exploring.
One morning, I spent a few hours checking out Metropolis and soon learned how the town got its name. After the nearby Ft. Massac was built, a merchant and land-owner founded a town with the thought it’s location on the Ohio River would become a transportation hub. They then fittingly gave it the grand name of Metropolis. Little did they know that over hundred years later Metropolis would be the name of the city where the fictional character, Clark Kent (AKA Superman) would toil away at the Daily Planet newspaper. In 1972, the State of Illinois would declare Metropolis the “Home of Superman.” Soon fans began arriving to see the large statue of Superman standing in front of the county courthouse. Some would stick around to attend the annual Superman Celebration held each June.
Across the plaza from the statue is the Super Museum and Gift Shop. The museum brags that they have the largest collection of Superman memorabilia in the world. I didn’t tour the museum but did poke around the gift shop. I can attest that they do have a large selection of doodads and novelty items with the Superman logo that I’ve ever seen.
If you are passing near Metropolis on I-24 or a fan of Superman, it’s worth a stop to see the statue and check out the store. I should note that a few blocks from the courthouse is a statue of Lois Lane, Clark Kent’s love interest at the Daily Planet.
The next interesting town we’ll visit is Marfa, Texas, population about 1700. Located in the high desert plains of West Texas, Marfa is the county seat of Presidio County. It’s about 60 miles south of I-10 and 40 miles from the Mexican border, pretty much out in the middle of the prairie. It’s a cow town, as the second photo taken from the cupola of the courthouse shows. But it’s much more than that.
Our visit took place in January 2018 when we made a two-month trek through the southwest. I learned about Marfa by watching 60 Minutes. Yes, that Sunday evening CBS news magazine. The segment appeared on Sunday April 14, 2013 and was titled “Marfa, Texas: The Capitol of Quirkiness.” After watching that show, I told my Traveling Partner that if we ever are near Marfa, we’ve got to stop. And we sure are glad we did. Our first stop was the visitors bureau where we had the nicest talk with the lady that runs the place. She told us about the history of the area and what to see while we were in town.
She told us about the Marfa Lights located east of town. These are also known as the Marfa Ghost Lights, attributed to paranormal activity. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stick around to watch for those unusual and ghostly lights.
Then she told us about all the modern and minimalist art studios and galleries around town. The short story goes something like this: a modern artist came to Marfa from New York City. He was tired of the crowds and noise, looking for peace and quiet. He found it Marfa. He bought the old World War II army airfield and setup shop. His arrival in the 1970’s attracted other artists and soon there was this healthy and thriving art scene mixed in with the cowboys, an unlikely combination. We visited a few of the modern art galleries, one in a reclaimed gas station.
Then we went to the old airfield to check out the museum and exhibits by the New York artist. One example is in the photo below. In a large field, these concrete squares sit on the prairie. I don’t get it but hey, he made me look! And he made Marfa a Mecca for modern art.
Our last look at Marfa came twenty-six miles out of town. In the middle of nowhere is Prada Marfa, an art installation of $1000 shoes and $2000 handbags. It sits on a straightaway flat stretch of highway that encourages speed. We almost drove past it and could see skid marks on the highway where drivers hit the brakes to stop for a look at this unusual site. Created by a couple of German artists in 2005, this small building attracts visitors from far and wide.
That’s my short take on Marfa. Makes you want to visit, doesn’t it? Click here if you’d like to watch the 60 minutes program that perked my interest in this quirky art/cow town.
The last interesting small town I’m featuring this week is Lemmon, South Dakota, population about 1200. It’s perched just a mile south of the North Dakota state-line in Northwestern South Dakota. We stopped in Lemmon in June 2018 after picking up The Eldest and The Son-in-Law in Ames, Iowa. We were headed across South Dakota to North Dakota to visit family and attend a family reunion. It was about lunch time when we drove off Highway 12 into the central business district looking for a place to have a picnic lunch. We pulled alongside what looked like a park. About that time it started to rain, a rare occasion out here on the Great Plains. We had our lunch inside the trailer we were towing. Then went to check out the park between rain showers.
The park is actually the Lemmon Petrified Park, the largest petrified wood park in the world! As a kid, I remember finding pieces of petrified wood when walking on dirt paths on the farm. Once, we found a whole petrified tree when the nearby Lake Sakakawea was real low. The next time we went searching for it, it was covered with water. Petrified wood is actually wood turned to stone. The cell fibers of the wood are replaced with mineral deposits. Petrification happens when the tree is buried in sediment or volcanic ash. It’s way more complicated than that short explanation, google it if you are interested in the scientific details.
The area around Lemmon is loaded with petrified wood. In the 1930’s, one of the town fathers created the park that is filled with tons of petrified wood, petrified grass and concretion cannonballs. When he died, his heirs donated the park to the city. There is a museum and gift shop on the grounds. The friendly volunteer staffing the museum was a retired local farmer. He told us that he had lots of petrified trees and stumps on his farm.
After touring the museum, we stopped at the nearby Boss Cowman Square where there’s a statue sculpted by John Lopez, a local scrap metal artist. The statue is of Ed Lemmon, the cattleman town founder. The mural, by two Nigerian artists, depict a cattle drive across the Missouri River. It’s interesting to note that the eye of the lead longhorn appears to follow your every movement. Kind of spooky but the mural is super cool.
Well folks, this does’t for this week. I hope you enjoyed your brief visits to three interesting small towns in the United States. I know there are more, I’ll feature them in the future.
Until next week, happy virtual travels!