All across the country, tucked away on pastoral rural roads unknown to the travelers on the busy thoroughfares are pristine tight-knit communities so detached from the outside world, it seems impossible they have not been disturbed all this time.
Dairy Creek is one such place. To label Dairy Creek as a town, a hamlet, a village or what it is commonly called, a dispersed rural community does a disservice to Dairy Creek. The definition is much deeper. It is a sense of place and a state of mind. It is a group of people with much in common. It is a heritage and a culture whose geographic boundaries are arranged by Mother Nature, not a Government entity. It can be defined as unique or shall we say purely Dairy Creek although there are many such places all with the same attributes.
Coming from the big city I notice many aspects of Dairy Creek that are unfamiliar yet very welcoming. First, that unspoken lack of trust you feel of those around you in the big city vanishes. Here everyone knows one another and they never meet a stranger. The fact you’re there makes you a part of the big family that calls Dairy Creek home.
Second, I know they work hard but work does not seem to dictate every step of life in Dairy Creek. In the city you plan your schedule. Work dictates these plans and the sheer rapid pace of life makes a schedule just an element of life. In Dairy Creek, work seems to take a backseat to neighbors, friends and family, Maybe it is the safety net the community provides, knowing you can count on your neighbors. Maybe it’s the fact that the big city has so many activities that tax your paycheck so frequently that you’re merely surviving. In the city an act of kindness or generosity is talked about and praised. It is in Dairy Creek too but the acts are more frequent versus the rare event worthy of all the praise. I mean, if you don’t lock your doors in the city, you might be cleaned out while you were away. Do they even have locks in Dairy Creek? I wonder. In Dairy Creek, your neighbor has a name and is watching your back.
Dairy Creek is a family, not blood related, but related by place and commonality. I can think of no other way to describe it. In this respect, this family gathers frequently to visit, grab a bite and in smaller groups to enjoy a segment of life collectively.
Dairy Creek is 209 homes spread around 25,762 acres with one church and several small groups that usually meet in homes, a community building, a school and 13 storefront businesses. They are connected by what I like to call tire tracks. These are single lane gravel roads where sometimes grass grows in the middle in summer. The roads end at the small streams and drivers simply drive through the creek. This is not an issue since there is plenty of rock and gravel to keep you from getting stuck. Dairy Creek is not on a highway which may be why it does not appear on maps.
Dairy Creek is a farming community. There are 65 farms, ranches, dairies or vineyards in Dairy Creek. In fact, it is hard to find anyone that does not at least have a garden or flower bed.
The secret the people of Dairy Creek do not keep is the Saturday morning Farmers Market and Arts and Crafts Market. As many as 500 visitors roam the little roads each week going stand to stand and in nicer weather can grab barbecue made by the volunteers at the fire department at noon on Saturdays, dining at the picnic tables out by the Dairy Creek swimming hole and slab. It is safe to say Dairy Creek’s population more than doubles on Saturday mornings.
The people mostly survive by making money from the land. There are dairies, orchards, farms and gardens. Most of the families have small farms and sell to visitors who seek out the peaceful pastoral setting of Dairy Creek. But the farm tells only part of the story. Families have passed down the talents of their ancestors making this a fairly artistic community. Typically called arts and crafts, many have the talent to create homemade products, expertly crafted, that are prized finds for visitors. Those visitors are the type you’d find at the arts and crafts fairs and antique shows who relish the idea of buying some handmade bath soap, a crafted piece of iron they hang in their home to give their décor a homespun flair or the handcrafted table, sturdy and well constructed but with visible signs of being a one of a kind. The people of Dairy Creek know how to cook too. They churn out edible delights so far removed from the chain restaurant there is no comparison. Maybe its because the food itself is made with pride and a distinctive personal touch, so carefully prepared it can carry the name of the cook.
Saturdays seem to become ‘play days’ for the community. Summer evenings, folks with grills and ice chests gather at the swimming hole. The grills cook up goodies while the community comes together to swim and visit while enjoying a spur of the moment pot luck dinner. Some play music. Some play cards or dominoes. Some just talk. It’s a time of relaxation and coming together as a community that resemble more of a family gathering than anything else.
Sunday mornings about 50 to 75 people gather at the only church building in the community to worship. It was a denominational church but today it is void of a title and gathers people of several mainline denominations. In true Christian form, a couple of other denominations get to use the building to hold their specific denomination service every other week at a time when the church building is normally empty. All in all there are about 8 different denominations represented in the community and about 5 options for worship any given week. You might find them meeting at the community room, school or even at a home. One service is held in a barn of all places. Plainly put, these represent only a handful of people who have not burdened themselves with the expense of their own building.
Dairy Creek has a school as well. They have resisted consolidating with other districts and sought interesting solutions to keep the school functioning. Relatively new to public education among smaller schools is taking classes via DVD. The student can email the teacher, asking questions and tests are printed via files sent by the internet. Basic instruction is classroom oriented with an in class teacher. As the principal and acting superintendent put it, you have to get creative in your educational offerings when your school enrollment is only 79 in kindergarten through 12th grade and the teaching staff is only 10. As he put it, they are lucky to have good students who embrace the level of responsibility such options require. After all, each student deserves a well rounded education. The teachers have a tendency to have been educated at the school and return with their degree to instruct the next generation. The school must be doing something right. Most students can qualify to enter college after graduation. We were told the student can have some choice on their education by exploring personal interests further. In fact, with class sizes at around 5 to 8 students, it is easy to incorporate this and as seniors, they take a four week period to explore their specific interest including a couple of weeks of hands on experience as an intern.
Before you think a heavily congested square full of traffic and few parking spots, one has to realize Dairy Creek is dispersed. The storefronts only account for some of the business community. The local auto mechanic works from a garage by his home. Many folks have a small building next to their home that serves as their business or second line of work. Even some businesses are in homes themselves. The beauty salon is in the converted back porch of a home. A women’s clothing store is in a vacant bedroom, as is the local flower shop. Most of the farms have a stand and almost everyone with a farm has another part-time business to keep them going outside the growing season even though a few have greenhouses and grow throughout the year.
During the growing season it is not rare to see the roadways dotted with produce stands and signs for fresh eggs and the like. It’s a fertile countryside that allows a good living for the people of Dairy Creek.
Variety can sure describe the agricultural community. From the two dairies and the handful of grape growers, there’s peach and apple orchards and even a freshwater pearl farm. There’s mohair goats and beef cattle, free range chickens and acre upon acre in gardens and small farms. Even a local man bottles water from his spring. Many of the farms, while not with organic certification, follow most organic principals.
All of this means activity is frequent here. Lots of people visit one another, buying goods directly from the grower. Others prefer go to the local grocery store.
The local grocery store, Morning Glory Market, named for the morning glories and vines growing on one side of the bricked building, was purchased by the Harrisons about 15 years back. As time went on, carrying standard groceries became more costly and the owners sought the local community to stock the shelves. Fresh produce that can be frozen for out of season is in the frozen food section. The local beef cattle operator provides fresh meat. The owner enacted a scheme of ‘local favorites’ where anyone could get a health certificate from the county and prepare their signature dishes for sale on the grocery store shelves. An aisle of mostly canned products (think canning jars) and a small frozen foods section has local recipes ready to buy. Local raisers provide the eggs and the local dairies offer the milk and other dairy products including ice cream and butter. Among the other offerings are handmade soaps and shampoos, the local bakers fill the bread and pastry aisles. Plus, you can still grab a Hamburger Helper or Betty Crocker cake mix.
Living in such a rural setting can be a bit unnerving. In one community I lived, there was a pretty out of control guy. He got away with stuff others would be locked up for but without any local police presence and the personal knowledge of the guy, everybody let it slide for the sake of the family. In many rural settings binge drinking, drugs and reckless driving are rampant and never controlled. For some reason Dairy Creek escapes all this. Youth were asked about such things and the answer was plain: do something like this and your parents knew all about it by the time you got home. One even said her boyfriend was driving fast to make curfew at his house and really got it when he got home because somebody recognized his pickup and called his folks. “You don’t get away with nothing here even if you‘re an adult.”
Lots of folks say small town living is tough because everybody gets on your nerves. You fight like dogs and cats and the rumor mill makes it worse. Sure, there’s a rumor mill in Dairy Creek but getting to the source is too easy so rumors get squashed quickly. It seems the attitude of locals is more of restraint than action when it comes to bickering. Maybe people look more to the positive than the negative. As one seasoned lady put it, “Growing up here you learn to handle marriage really well. You have to accept people’s shortcomings and just accept them, letting them just roll off your back. With a little practice it gets easy, so by time you marry, no matter what your husband does, you can deal with it pretty easily”. Perhaps that is why divorce rates are lower in rural areas.
There’s lots of ritual here. People gather at the Coop every Saturday morning about daybreak. Anthony raises earthworms so he is up early for the fisherman. His wife scrambles up some eggs from the chickens out back and folks drink free cups of Joe and watch the sunrise on the porch, then buy some fresh scrambled eggs for breakfast while talking about the weather and whatever else crops up.
Beth is up early in the growing season. She has about 10 deliveries of fresh cut flowers to deliver and the young couple that owns the Family Cow is driving the fresh milk to the market. The rack is stacked at one farm and the blackboard says how many hours went into growing each item for sale. You pay what you want for what you take, dropping your cash in the coffee can. Shannon and the girls are pulling out fresh pastries to sell right from the oven. Marie is churning butter and her girls will prepare lemonade for visitors to the farm stand. Carrie readies her handmade soaps for her table for the Arts, Crafts and Antiques crowd as Andrea gathers her ‘Dazzle Kards’ and Tracey takes her ‘Texas Tanks” out to display on the porch. Deb is gathering her merchandise including her herbs in 4 inch pots.
After the 8 to Noon Farmers Market and Arts & Crafts Market which is not held in a central location but more like the popular community garage sale where customers and browsers go place to place. By noon the smell of barbecue permeates the air near the swimming hole as the volunteer fire department is ready to feed the crowd some slow-cooked barbecue with all the homemade fixings, all for a donation.
By mid-afternoon a number from the community gather at the swimming hole and by evening an endless buffet of food awaits everyone as does more visiting and fun. Most will see one another the next morning for Church and they’ll likely meet again over friend chicken or hamburger steak, fresh veggies and fruit plus some tasty deserts at the Old Dairy Barn, an after church tradition.
One of the school board members said growing up in Dairy Creek was great fun. Kids had free run of the place. The biggest rule was to be home for dinner. You could always get a little money mowing a yard, picking some crops and such. You were welcomed as an extended family member everywhere. “Heck, I hardly knew to knock on a door before entering somebody’s house and I hardly knew they had a front door. Everybody knew you and you spent time with the kids and adults too. It was really different from the culture shock I got going to college. I was so far behind in life experience compared to my peers but the enriching life I had in Dairy Creek kept things from getting out of hand. I had been taught right. I had nothing to prove and knew I was there to get an education. Funny thing, when I found my girl, she fell in love with Dairy Creek and I returned home after college. Some kids from the big cities think you miss out on lots of life in such a little place but I think they’re the ones missing out. Sure, I didn’t go to concerts and see the latest movies at the theater but I still don’t think I missed out.” He went on to describe life further, describing the twice a year trips to the city to buy clothing before school began and just before Easter. There were visits to larger towns around to get things you could not get locally. He said he was amazed at the attitude of the people. They shopped locally to support the local business. Regular visits to Walmart were not the norm. For the few that did make the shopping trips out of town, they were mentioned as not being as committed to the community and it was explained to him that neighbors helping neighbors was how towns survived although the prize, a tight-knit, healthy community was rather lost on him until he was older. Likely this issue was resolved by one smart thinking local. They make trips to nearby towns daily, getting merchandise and prescriptions for locals and bringing them to the people, a true service for the older folks.
Another characteristic is businesses tend to run on Dairy Creek time according to another member of the community. For example, the local feed and farm supply store is only open 6 hours a day 3 days a week but everybody knows his number and can make an appointment. A be back soon sign is not unusual at a business. You simply call or look at the Old Dairy Barn to see if the owner is gabbing with friends between jobs. Then there’s places like the gourmet coffee shop that is also the local used bookstore open only 9 hours a week with good reason, it is owned by a school teacher. Some businesses like the store, restaurant and gas station are always open during posted business hours. It almost seems as if business or work is not allowed to interfere with life but is slipped in the schedule wherever it fits.
Locals mentioned the roads. One said he remembered being stuck at school because of heavy rain. No kid wanted to be in school when they didn’t have to be. A local deputy knew a guy with a big dump truck and once the rain let up, the kids got to ride across the high water in the dump truck. He said he thought that was cool.
Speaking of roads, the biggest problem: neighbors talking from their vehicle as another car approached. The other issue is kids on bikes riding down the middle of the road. It seems there have been no accidents, just a close call or two.
Today Dairy Creek is much like it was years ago. Lots of clapboard houses and modest houses, sometimes with white picket fences, well kept yards that flourish with neat flower beds in spring and summer. Fields of bluebonnets appear in good years each spring. Life is still leisurely and the people are productive. It’s not a dying town but one that still has vibrancy and is full of life. It seems Dairy Creek, while far from being hidden, is hiding in plain sight. One frequent visitor that buys crafts for a shop in a nearby town said thousands of people pass the green sign with white lettering saying Dairy Creek with an arrow but if they do remember seeing the sign, they never became curious enough to follow the arrow to discover what lies down County Road 2.
Dairy Creek is truly a rural American treasure and finding it is likely much like finding yourself in the Twilight Zone without the fear and terror and no Rod Serling stepping out unexpectedly. I mean to say, you know how you so innocently discovered yourself in Dairy Creek, the thing you try to wrap your head around is that line on the road where the hustle and bustle of the outside world meets the laid back pace of life in Dairy Creek.. When you‘re in Dairy Creek, what‘s just over that nearby hill seems so far away.
In an attempt to promote and to persuade locals to shop in town, the community, via the Farmers Market, developed a local coinage. Visitors can expect to receive Dairy Creek coins as change and local retailers accept and give Dairy Creek coins as change.
The idea was hashed to be part advertising to get the visitors to return and part a local business support concept, noting lower big city prices were tempting to the local population, so a reminder to support your neighbor jingling in your pocket is a nice reminder to support the place you call home.
The coins and scrip have been quite successful with several releases in the recent past.