The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2013- page 7 | Travel | Smithsonian
(Illustrated maps by John S. Dykes)

The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2013

From the blues to the big top, we’ve picked the most intriguing small towns to enjoy arts and smarts

7. Fairfield, IA

Fairfield, IA
(© Charles Stretch Ledford)

Fairfield sits in an undulating landscape with farmhouses, silos, barns and plenty of sky. A railroad track runs through town and there’s a gazebo on the square. You have to stick around to learn about things you’d never find in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, like the preference for east-facing front doors. That’s the orientation prescribed by Transcendental Meditation movement founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose followers went looking for a place to start a university and landed in the cornfields of southeast Iowa.

The Maharishi University of Management now offers B.A.’s in 13 fields, among them Vedic science and sustainable living. With students riding bikes and plugged into iPods, it looks like any other college campus, except for twin gold-domed buildings where practitioners gather to meditate twice a day.

Fairfield could stand as a case study from The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida’s book on the link between educated populations and economic development. Fairfield got the one when the college opened its golden domes, drawing accomplished people who saw its sweetness; it got the other when they started dreaming up ways to stay. “Everyone who arrived had to reinvent themselves to survive,” said mayor (and meditator) Ed Malloy.

The economy started perking in the 1980s with e-commerce and dot-coms, earning Fairfield the name “Silicorn Valley,” then launched start-ups devoted to everything from genetic crop-testing to investment counseling. Organic farmer Francis Thicke keeps the radio in his barn tuned to Vedic music; his Jerseys must like it because everyone in town says that Radiance Dairy milk is the best thing in a bottle.

But there’s more than mellow. The new Maasdam Barns Museum, with buildings from a farm that raised mighty Percheron horses, displays agricultural machines made by the local Louden Company. A walking tour passes the rock-solid, Richardson Romanesque courthouse, a Streamline Moderne bank, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired residences and myriad examples of Vedic architecture.

Artists and performers find they can afford to live in Fairfield. ICON, which specializes in regional contemporary art, joins galleries and shops in hosting a monthly art walk, featuring the work of some 300 local artists.

The striking new Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts welcomes acts from chamber groups to Elvis impersonators. The soon-to-open Orpheum Theater will offer something that is dying out in big cities—an art movie house.

Solar panels help banish electricity bills at Abundance Eco Village, an off-the-grid community on the edge of town. But it’s less about altruism than well-being in Fairfield. Take, for instance, the quiet zones, recently instituted at railroad crossings to silence incessant train whistles; newly planted fruit trees in city parks; and Fairfield’s all-volunteer, solar-powered radio station, producing 75 homegrown programs a year. “Fairfield,” says station manager James Moore, a poet, musician, tennis teacher and meditator, “is one of the deepest small ponds you’ll find anywhere.”


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