August 8, 2014

Readorama: ‘Small Town Dreams’ tells stories of Midwest names you’ll know

“Small Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America,” by John E. Miller, shows a time when little communities generated memories and energies that erupted into movies, books and even amusement parks. Miller speaks at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Library.

One of the mysteries of the 1962 film version of “The Music Man” is the how excited River City residents got when the awaited shipment of instruments arrived.

Today, it would just be the FedEx or UPS truck. Then, the boxes likely would be unloaded from a car of a passing freight train.

But in the film, it was the thrill of a Wells Fargo delivery … just one of the dabs of undiluted nostalgia captured in “Small Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America,” by John E. Miller.

Composer Meredith Willson’s reinvention of the Mason City, Iowa, of his boyhood — dreamlike, with winking satire and exaggerated caricature — is one of the essays devoted to 22 men who grew up in small, early 20th-century communities.

Later, as successful artists and entrepreneurs, their memories took form in novels, Broadway musicals and even amusement parks.

Walt Disney was well into middle age when he began planning Disneyland, which included his literal re-creation of the main street of Marceline, Mo., where he spent several years as a boy.

Disney’s streetscape was far different than what Sinclair Lewis described in “Main Street,” his 1920 novel. Lewis, Miller emphasizes, never put roots down himself, wandering from community to community (including Kansas City, where he researched what became his 1927 novel “Elmer Gantry.”)

But Lewis later insisted his cremated remains be returned to Sauk Centre, Minn., where he grew up.

While Willson’s River City included roaming barbershop quartets, it also included gossiping, henlike town ladies. The composer, Miller said, left Mason City not long after finishing high school, apparently to escapea dysfunctional family.

“I can only infer that he must have been suppressing a lot of negative feelings about his family,” said Miller, a history professor emeritus at South Dakota State University.

“Just like most of these other guys, he certainly expressed ambivalence about his hometown.”

One question: Why just guys?

Miller maintains he wanted to focus his project in a specific way: 20th-century men from the Midwest. For the record, he’s written three books about “Little House” author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“I look forward to writing about small-town women,” he said.

Miller speaks at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more information, go to

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to

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