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Small towns – The art and business of storytelling

Trading stories is still a lively tradition in small towns. Like most rural populations, the old timers set out their ties and tell a few good stories over an introductory beer before getting down to the business at hand. The oral histories are alive and well. Most of these older residents have a full library of stories amassed over the years, stories that improve in the retelling. The really good ones never get old.

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Having worked for a township, my husband naturally has a whole raft of quirky stories from his own experiences and from his many contacts. A natural mimic he is a sought-after storyteller, and he continually adds to his repertoire. Here are just some examples of some of his stories.

Well, you don’t see that every day!

My husband was a long-time snowplow operator, often out in the worst weather plowing the country roads in a massive snowplow with a side wing. He still shakes his head about the time he was overtaken on Highway 31 in the middle of a heavy snowstorm by a souped-up garden tractor. It was bitterly cold, but a homemade cab made of plywood and plexiglass protected its driver from the elements. The cab on the garden tractor was so small, and the snow was so heavy that he was barely able to see out of his windshield and unable to see if the driver waved goodbye or not. Roaring past him, the garden tractor was clean out of sight before my husband could collect his scattered wits. “Well, you don’t see that every day,” he laughed. The driver was a true country original – a little wacky, as they say.

Some forty years ago, my husband was visiting a small farm with a couple of show calves. He happened to glance across the old gravel road and saw an old farmer sitting on a tractor with a hay rake behind him. Startled, my husband took a second look. The farmer was wearing a white summer dress with a floral pattern and a large wide-brimmed sunhat adorned with purple and white silk flowers. Tall and slim, he was in good shape with strong arms extending out of dainty capped sleeves. He was driving the tractor at a good clip with the dust billowing behind him like there was nothing out of the ordinary about his day.

Sometimes you just have to smile…

Three shy, elderly bachelor brothers lived together for many years in an old farmhouse with a long lane on a dead-end road in a small Ontario village. Their tenant farmer recalled that one day he was sitting at the end of the laneway as one of the brothers was coming down from the house. Hopping out of the truck his landlord said to him with a shake of his head that his truck just wasn’t handling right. Upon inspection his tenant pointed out gently that he was missing a wheel on his truck. The old bachelor looked at the wheel well and, without a word, hopped back into his three-wheeled truck, turned it around and drove back all the way up the lane to the house. The tenant could only shake his head.

My husband has his own story about these same bachelor farmers. One was very proud of his home-grown vegetables. One time my husband was standing in the tenant’s yard talking and one of the brothers stopped. He jumped out of the car, opened the trunk and pulled out a three-quart basket of potatoes. He walked over with the basket and reverently pulled out a potato that was almost the size of a small pumpkin. “Look at these potatoes”, he said beaming. He handed the potato to his tenant who then passed it to my husband for inspection. He had obviously carefully picked through his potatoes to be able to show off the best one. In a spirit of mischief, my husband looked at it, held it up to his ear and rapped it with his knuckles saying in his best deadpan, “Look here, I think it’s hollow.” In shock and dismay, the bachelor asked him, “Are you some kind of potato expert or what?”. Enraged, the old would-be potato-perfectionist suddenly grabbed the potato back and stuffed it back in his basket saying, “No potatoes of mine are hollow. I’m going to go back and cut them all open just to find out.” He stormed toward his car, hopped in with his prized potatoes, and quickly drove back up the lane. His tenant, barely able to suppress his laughter, asked my husband, “Now what did you say that to him for? He’ll now set out to show his potatoes to about forty other people!” My husband just shrugged, twinkled up at him and said that he was just messing with him.

Adventures in flagging

As a young man, one of my husband’s first jobs was flagging at the side of the highway. At the time, flagmen didn’t have many rights and had to watch to see if they had to quickly jump out of the way. On one occasion, the trucks were dumping material at the side of a road about every fifteen minutes on the bottom side of a hill, so he was stuck in the middle of nowhere. Someone rolled down the window as they drove by and threw something out of the car. Something hit him squarely in the chest. At the time, he assumed that it was a sandwich. Whatever it was, deflected off him and landed in the ditch. Curious, he went to see what had hit him and discovered something moving. He picked it up and discovered that it was a kitten. He looked after it for a while until a lady came along, and then offered it to her. She took the kitten, shaking her head and wondered aloud why someone would throw a kitten out of a window.

Attributes of a Good Storyteller

What do you notice about these stories and what makes them compelling? They are all human-interest stories.  They are stories that describe quirky characters or unusual events. It is also the attention to detail.  You can almost imagine yourself there.

What you don’t see on the written page is how my husband can change these stories and their telling depending on his audience.  He changes his vocabulary and also focuses on different details. He seems to have an innate sense of how to connect with his audience, which part of his story will resonate with them and how they may react.

A naturally shy person, how did he get to be a storyteller? He practiced, in fact daily. Knowing that a good story was the way to engage people, he honed his observation skills and committed the details to memory. Whenever he met his workmates, they traded stories. Before getting down to business with contractors, he established a connection by sharing a story.  At parties, he sits at the centre of a small group of people, regaling them with his funniest stories. With the current Pandemic, he still manages to share stories by phone or via Zoom.

Is my husband a rattler or a gossip? No, the object of these stories is to relax, have a laugh or two and to strengthen connections. The stories are never malicious, more something to smile over. When someone remembers the story in the retelling, it further strengthens their shared experience. Maybe we can learn something from small-town traditions on doing business and making connections.

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Audio synthesis courtesy of © designplex.ca