Friends and family gathered at the wedding reception for Madison Swisher and Derrick Sowers (middle) who wed in June at the Overbrook Fairgrounds.

The view from Main Street in a small town

Kids are passing around a baby raccoon at the wedding reception.

RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarFlower girl Trysten Sowers, 4, was joined at the wedding reception for Madison Swisher and Derrick Sowers, by Rascal, her pet raccoon.

The groom’s mother, Cathy Sowers, rolls her eyes.

“That’s Rascal,” she explains. “I came home one day to see a Styrofoam box in the kitchen. Opened it up and there he was. I was, like, ‘What the…?’”

Her husband, David, who had found the orphaned raccoon, really was not intending to bring Rascal to the wedding party until he learned The Star was showing up to look at life in a small town.

“There you have it,” his wife says. “Small town.”

Then she asks me: Why pick us?

They’ve been asking that a lot. “Not much goes on here,” they point out. No breaking stories, I agree. There’s life, death, but few headlines.

The Star wondered, though, how a small town endures in 2013. So the newspaper suggested I find one sleepy speck on the map and spend plenty of time there this year.

Pundits have been writing America’s small-town obituaries for decades, and the recent recession delivered more trouble. Yet towns hang on for reasons that seem hazy from a distance.

Many of us have connections to small towns and want them to last if they can, even though more than 80 percent of Americans today dwell in the cities and suburbs.

Still, the Sowers family and others want to know, why pick Overbrook?

For starters, the town’s century-old motto — emblazoned on two water towers — darned near demands it:

“Don’t Overlook Overbrook.”

The town is neither idyllic nor backward. It isn’t booming. It’s not busting, either, and its heartbeat is strong.

Roughly 1,000 people choose this place 30 miles southwest of Lawrence, and some families have stayed through parts of three centuries.

And in almost every way, it’s a small town that feels like one, offering scenes that hardly ever play out in the city.

Laundry tumbles unattended in the dryers at W & W Laundromat. Often a customer will forget and return the next day to find the clean load on a shelf, folded.

As dawn broke before the Sowers wedding, dozens flocked into town for a “poultry swap,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

And the nuptials of Derrick Sowers and Madison Swisher reflected even more about the rhythms of small-town life (beyond Rascal being on the guest list).

RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarThe just married Madison Swisher and groom Derrick Sowers arrive at their wedding reception held at the Overbrook fairgrounds in Sowers' spiffy new all terrain vehicle.

The bride didn’t wait to finish college to get married. The groomsmen had been tight since early grade school — so tight they called the groom’s father Dad, even if he wasn’t theirs.

The newlyweds climbed into Derrick’s all-terrain Razr to drive from the church to the reception at the fairgrounds, which would’ve gotten them pulled over in the burbs.

Also, where else can couples claim their wedding was attended by nearly a fifth of the local population?

The dancing goes on as darkness consumes the water tower at the party’s edge. The motto fades to black for another evening.

“Don’t Overlook Overbrook.”

Next morning, many residents will rise before the sun.

They know what I’ve learned: In times that seem to be against them, small towns stay alive only because people want them to.

With her trusty John Deere riding mower, Pat Martin rises with the sun to make her rounds up and down Overbrook's main drag, to make sure the flowers are well watered. She stayed particularly busy during recent summer droughts.

Well, it’s home

So there’s Pat Martin, 78, climbing aboard her John Deere mower to ride to the four-block stretch that passes for downtown Overbrook.

The mower pulls a 55-gallon barrel in a homemade cart. Martin fills the barrel with water from the volunteer fire station spigot and motors to each flower pot on the main drag to soak the petunias.

Cliff O’Bryhim, around sun-up, starts butchering meat at Overbrook’s only grocery. The town needs him to show. Residents talk of how O’Bryhim’s Thriftway, a third-generation fixture, almost single-handedly keeps the business district afloat.

What a shame that Cliff’s sons don’t want to take it over.

Rotary meetings start at 7 a.m. every Tuesday. For retired banker Max Friesen — longtime town treasurer, fire chief, Scoutmaster, church choir director and unofficial patriarch — one more notable achievement was to be notched this summer:

Sixty years of perfect Rotary attendance.

Another group, Overbrook Pride, meets at 7 a.m. monthly, on third Saturdays. Eight or nine stalwarts show, including Martin.

At the May gathering, she reported on her neighbors’ tasks in planning the Santa Fe Trail Festival in September:

“Carol Baughman is showing off quilts. Bill Shipp is doing bingo. The Girl Scouts are doing funnel cakes. Ed Harmison will talk about the Santa Fe Trail.”

The mayor will serve biscuits and gravy.

These, of course, aren’t professional event planners. No paid staff handles the details of procuring 12 gallons of gravy to go with the mayor’s biscuits.

It takes work to keep a little town ticking in 2013.

Businesses here struggle. Schools consolidate and disappear, off to other communities. Fuel costs for driving to a job 30 miles away keep climbing.

The locals have long prayed for a physician to settle in and replace Doc Ruble, who retired in 1993.

Fundraising is a constant: The 4-H, the Scouts, Overbrook Pride, high school band, Christmas displays — to be an Overbrookian means getting hit up. And don’t think it goes unknown if you say no.

Still, one sunrise after another, they put in the work and choose to stay.

For many, it’s because the parents live just down the road, or a sibling lives next door.

For second-grade teacher Angie Portlock, working in the same school that she attended — and where her mother also taught, and a son is now enrolled — has real meaning.

Or consider Allene Hesseltine, known as “Pug” throughout her 91 years.

RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarDoris "Tommy'' Marshall (left) and Allene "Pug'' Hesseltine

Her great-grandfather co-founded Overbrook in the 1880s. Her 93-year-old sister — Doris Marshall, or “Tommie” — resides at the Brookside Retirement Community, the largest employer in town.

The distant relatives of Pug and Tommy, by bloodline or marriage, might be any longtime resident of Osage County.

Pug has lived nowhere else but for a few years in Kansas City, where she worked for a wholesaler during World War II.

When I ask what has kept her here, she flashes a quizzical look I found common when asking that question.

“Well, it’s home,” Pug said. “It’s family.”

Besides, “People from all over remember that slogan, ‘Don’t Overlook Overbrook,’” she said.

They do?

“They sure do. You mention where you’re from to people in the cities ... and that’s the first thing they’ll say: ‘Don’t Overlook Overbrook.’”

RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarOverbrook, Kansas was founded in 1886, and is located along the historic Santa Fe Trail, about 30 miles south of the capital city, Topeka. And nearly everyone you ask about the small town, knows the old saying "Don't Overlook Overbrook.''

Certainly, the townsfolk have done yeoman’s work trying to pitch it.

The message is on a mural splashed across a machine shed that commuters to Topeka pass every day on U.S. 56, an undulating, two-lane blacktop.

When Wade Sisson launched a “Don’t Overlook Overbrook” Facebook page in 2009, it drew more than 300 friends in 10 days.

Unfortunately, most were expatriots who had moved on, and today the motto serves as much as a plea to Overbrook’s own: Don’t take your hometown for granted, or it’s apt to shrivel over time.

The older residents say they won’t allow it. Many of them worry, though, that future generations might.

“Younger people aren’t into joining clubs and attending meetings,” said Gerry Coffman, one of Overbrook’s most active volunteers.

Small-town life is not for everybody.

Growing up in Overbrook, Kelly Lehman’s family was as close as any. Close enough to include “double relatives.”

Her mother’s brother had married her father’s sister. “Double aunt, double uncle,” she said. “Their offspring are my double cousins.”

It was hard to leave them all, including her sisters, who stayed to pass their upbringing on to their children.

But as Lehman, 35, explained to me in an email from Denver, she wanted to live around big-city amenities, “different foods, ethnicities, religions, people of a different mindset ...

“Diversity was just not something found in Overbrook.”

Although that’s changed a bit since she left.

Tradition in flux

A lot has changed about small towns since perhaps you left your own.

The main streets don’t look very main anymore. The retail action for many small communities is out at the interstate exits.

Which Overbrook doesn’t have.

And yet, about 13,300 out-of-the-way towns nationwide survive with populations of fewer than 5,000.

In Kansas, 80 percent of the incorporated cities have just 2,000 people or fewer. The tiniest has a population of five.

Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow suggests small-town people share a simple reason not to be where the economic and cultural clamor is.

“They hate sitting in traffic,” said Wuthnow, a Lyons, Kan., native and author of “Small-Town America,” a new examination of the lifestyle they favor.

Many prefer tradition over change — not that the latest technology has overlooked Overbrook. In some cases, the digital age helps them live there.

RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarFrom his office computer, Kevin Stone, pastor of Overbrook Bible Church, stings together his own Christian radio broadcasts and answers for online readers from around the globe, questions about faith.

From his office computer, Kevin Stone, pastor of Overbrook Bible Church, can answer for online readers from around the globe questions about faith via his side job with International.

At the BP, where the ol’ boys gather for coffee with their biscuits and gravy, retiree Larry Woodson thumbs his smartphone to prove his talking points.

Joggers here wear earbuds, like anywhere.

Students at Santa Fe Trail High School, 6 miles west of town, sit on the hallway floors during breaks with their heads down, tweeting.

Not that everything’s gone digital. Landline numbers are easy to jot down here, because almost all begin with the same four numerals: 665-7....

That means you only need to memorize the last three digits to phone your neighbors.

Conrad’s Bar and Grill has a juke box that can take requests from cellphones. But the restaurant still won’t take credit cards.

Nor will the barber, who rings up $11 haircuts on a hand-cranked register that goes ka-ching and displays the price on tiles.

At the livestock sale barn, ladies take cash only to serve a popular community lunch on Mondays.

That’s where I first heard about the patriarch.


“You ought to talk to Max,” said Rita, the cashier. “Max Friesen.”

She pointed him out when Friesen walked in — a man in a purple K-State sweatshirt, stooped at 85, with short white hair and rosy cheeks.

He ordered a slice of made-from-scratch pie baked two days earlier in the kitchen of Lois Harris, 93, known around here as the pie lady.

Friesen could’ve boasted of his own achievements.

Running the Kansas State Bank for 30 years. Co-founding the retirement center. So devoted to perfect attendance with Rotary International, on vacation he’d pull into meetings in Europe and not understand a word.

He didn’t mention that at the lunch.

Instead, Friesen, the consummate booster, spoke of how wonderful Overbrook is to commuters who covet a quiet, country life on the greener edges of the Flint Hills.

And he introduced me to others.

“Butch Foster, come on over and talk to The Kansas City Star,” Friesen said to a man in coveralls at the counter. “Butch’s family goes back to the Civil War.”

Foster, 63, maintains roads for the county. As he stepped from the counter, he said:

“Max, you’ve been calling me Butch since I was 10. My real name is Jim. Or James.”

Friesen slapped a hand on the tabletop: “I didn’t know your name was Jim!”

Nor did some others in Overbrook. Jim Foster later would attribute the staying power of his childhood nickname to the nature of small towns:

Traditions die hard.

“That nickname,” he said, “wouldn’t go away if I held a funeral for it.”

Barber Paul Mohler, who operates his shop on Overbrook's main drag, cuts the hair of Ben Winans, while Dustin Brownlee and his two sons, Dorian Schallock 13, and Dalan Brownlee, 4, wait their turn.

Around town

Head west on U.S. 56.

Hang a left at a sign that reads “Jack’s Cafe: Food & Fuel,” serving breakfast but not run by a Jack in a quarter-century. No fuel pumps anymore, either.

Slow to 20 mph.

You’re on Maple Street, though the locals don’t usually call it that.

To most it’s “main street,” or the main drag. It is a wide, sun-soaked avenue boasting two of Overbrook’s most sacred possessions — the municipal swimming pool and a library under expansion.

Another huge point of pride: Only three banks in all of Osage County weathered the Great Depression (14 failed) and two of them still do business on main in Overbrook.

Main also features an ancient City Hall, post office, Conrad’s, farmer’s co-op, O’Bryhim’s Thriftway and The Quilt Connection, which attracts out-of-towners on Saturdays.

Nothing stays open 24/7. Not even fast-food chains have found Overbrook.

Casey’s General Store is the only joint serving pizza.

The business district is pretty much dead all afternoon, save for the grocery store, because most residents of working age have commuted to their city jobs.

“It’s not like people are walking up and down buying ice cream sodas, I tell you,” said the town barber, Paul Mohler.

Just one barber chair. In a back room, he keeps a couple dozen wheelchairs and walkers for customers to take home if they ever need them.

One commemorative signpost dubs Maple, or main, “Pat Martin Blvd.,” a nod to the woman who drives the flower-watering cart.

RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarWhile waiting in line at the Overbrook elevator, Landon Hege, 10, climbed up the back of the semitractor trailer to snatch a hand full of soy beans to munch on. He and his grandmother, Gail Hopkins (left) were bringing a load of beans into town from a farm east of Overbrook.

Street names are seldom spoken, though, in places this size.

“I know where everybody lives,” said Mary Rappard Anderson. “I’ll just tell you to go three blocks that way, turn left and Wade’s house is the second one down.

“Why do I need to know the street names?”

(Incidentally, it was outside the home of Wade Sisson — author of a book on the Titanic — where residents last winter awed over a giant snow sculpture of the doomed luxury liner. It sunk as it melted.)

On many front yards, households display family names carved into stone markers. The first names of all six members of the Fleming family are burned onto wood shingles dangling out front.

Unthinkable in the city, for fear of flim-flammers and abductors.

Also unthinkable: Doors on some houses haven’t been locked in decades, the homeowners swear.

At least one Elm Street home built in the 1920s, lovingly cared for and loaded with valuables, has two ground-floor windows that open and shut but can’t lock.

No latches — maybe none in 90 years, far as the owner knows.

He shrugged at the thought of an intruder slipping in: “The neighbors will look out for us” when the family is away on vacations.

On weekday mornings at the Casey’s, commuters grab energy drinks while their cars idle outside, unlocked.

Lock a car in town and the locals know you are from a city.

Turns out that safety, according to polls by the University of Minnesota’s Extension Center for Community Vitality, is among the big reasons families still choose small towns.

“The No. 1 reason is slower pace of life,” said Ben Winchester, a research fellow there.

“No. 2, safety and security. No. 3, lower cost of housing.”

Religion is a mighty draw, too.

On Sundays, about 600 people from several counties flock to Overbrook for a contemporary service at Grace Community Church.

They include a large contingent of motorcyclists, the “Prairie Fire Riders” of the Osage County Christian Motorcyclists Association, many of whom serve as ushers in their riding vests.

When worship is underway, more people fill the Grace sanctuary and Overbrook’s two other churches than occupy the rest of the town.

RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarSpectators line the main drag to take in a parade which is held each summer at the conclusion of the annual four-day fair.

Class dismissed

Census numbers from 2010 tell a story, but not the whole one.

Ninety-seven percent of the residents are white — typical for little Kansas towns. About a quarter are age 65 or older.

Median home value was $115,000, and 10 percent of residents received food stamps, both slightly lower than the statewide average.

The black population, well, tripled between 2000 and 2010 — from one person to three, because of white families adopting youngsters of color.

Eleven people in 2010 reported being of mixed race.

Now there are at least 12. Ashley Fischer, who is white and grew up in Overbrook, in 2011 delivered a daughter named Taegyn, whose father is black and lives elsewhere.

“Honestly, (Taegyn’s acceptance) hasn’t been an issue, since I’m from here and everyone knows my family,” said Fischer, a teacher engaged to marry a local man.

Also, she believes, small-town mores have evolved with the larger culture, intertwined as we are by mass entertainment and satellite news.

“I don’t think the kids really notice that she’s darker,” she said.

When I sought to pick the brains of young people, the Santa Fe Trail School District could not have been more welcoming of my request to visit some classes.

It was the opinion of Kristy Dekat’s journalism students that social standing is not much of an issue in small towns. It’s in the larger cities that the rich and poor live separately.

“Small towns,” one student said, “really don’t appreciate snobs.”

A longtime teacher said the wealthiest person in Overbrook “might be the guy in the dirtiest coveralls sitting in the barber chair.”

I brought this up with the barber, and he suspected that could be true. But it was hard to know, he said, because few are fool enough to crow about their riches in a town of 1,000.

While working on a customer, Mohler said people are wise to be humble and get along with their fellow Overbrookians because they can’t avoid living with them:

“Let’s say Bob has a flat tire. So you stop and help. Well, I might be telling myself, ‘I thought I didn’t like Bob.’ And, really, I don’t.”

But still Mohler helps, knowing he’ll be seeing Bob at the grocery store.

Even disagreements about politics are treated with humor by the ol’ boys at the BP.

“Jon here just went to his proctologist, and they found his head,” said Republican Woodson about the guy across the table, Jon Wilhite, a former Democratic state legislator.

Elk Township, where Overbrook is located, votes about 65 percent with the GOP.

But among the eight ol’ boys drinking coffee, there is common ground in disliking their own parties’ leadership: The Dems don’t care for President Barack Obama, and the Republicans gripe about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

Most early mornings on the outskirts of town, a group of men from the Overbrook area gather regularly at the BP Gas & Convenience Store to chat about current events and goings on about town.

Know thy neighbor

You hear it a lot in small towns — “Everyone knows each other’s business,” people say.

But it’s not all true.

The ol’ boys at the BP, for example, reached for their smartphones after I mentioned that a state website lists at least six housing units in town occupied by convicts registered as sex offenders.

On main, florist Linda Kennison recalled the goof she made when assuming to know somebody, a local, who stepped into Overbrook Floral shortly after Kennison and mother Ilo Downs launched the shop in 1986.

The Overbrook man bought flowers for Valentine’s Day. A few weeks later, when his wife walked in, Kennison asked: “Did you like the flowers your husband got?”

Well, the wife hadn’t received flowers. And their marriage didn’t last.

“I learned then and there — never, never again,” said Kennison.

Others were curious to learn that, according to a 2010 study, small-town residents fall into three broad categories, each with distinct perspectives and backgrounds.

In her Ph.D. dissertation, “Habits of the Heartland: Small-Town Life in Modern America,” sociologist Lyn C. Macgregor zeroed in on the community of Viroqua, Wis., population 4,000, about 90 miles outside Madison.

There, she identified the Regulars, the Alternatives and the Main Streeters.

RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarPeople from throughout the area come to Overbrook to take part in the poultry swap, which is held two Saturdays a month, from May through October. "We'll get chickens sheep, goats, baked goods, crafts people. Just a little bit of everything,'' said Pat Martin, the event's coordinator.

They dwell in Overbrook, too.

The Regulars include the Goodyear twins, Todd and Tadd, lifelong residents who help when something needs excavating.

Police Chief Ed Harmison — “Hard-ass Harmison” to some, “Harmless Harmie” to others — qualifies as a Regular because he knows local history and which residents are plain trouble. He’ll bolt from a nice dinner with his wife when duty calls.

A fellow Regular said of Harmison: “In small towns, you get only two choices in law enforcement — Andy or Barney. Those are the only two. We’re lucky to have Andy.”

The Regulars are blue collar, mostly.

And, as a rule, they aren’t wild about change.

“Butch” Foster (or Jim) sees the push for growth as threatening something special.

“Small-town people typically treat land as an acquisition, not an investment. That’s a whole different philosophy from the city, where everything is seen as an investment.”

So what if Overbrook’s population stays around 1,000, Foster asks. Is that a problem? It’s already beginning to feel to him, and to many other Regulars, not as tight-knit as the place they knew 40 years ago.

“When I graduated from Overbrook High in 1968, I knew at least two-thirds of the people who lived around here,” he told Friesen at the sale barn lunch. “Now I might know … 25 percent?”

The people Foster is least likely to know are the Alternatives.

Cheryl Miller is one. She moved to town last year.

Having grown up in Michigan cities, Miller came to Kansas to work a state job. Budget cuts presented an early-retirement option, and Miller left Lawrence to follow “my quiet voice,” to downsize and escape the traffic.

“I never lived in a small town in my life,” she said. But with the Internet and the phone headset she wears, she can teach “teleclasses” in marketing and social media.

She bought a house built in 1875, planted 13 fruit trees, started canning tomatoes and growing beans. She has a dream of turning the three-car garage into a community theater, showing documentaries.

Miller didn’t plan on this, but it feels right — sustainability, back to nature:

“I’m hoping there’s going to be a resurgence of those simpler values, and we’ll see people move back to places like Overbrook.”

Hoping for the same are the Main Streeters — the third small-town group identified by sociologist Macgregor.

Growth is good, the Main Streeters believe, but it requires a lot of teamwork. Many of the Main Streeters, including Friesen, weren’t born here. So some have to overcome the “newbie” tag.

“Oh, yes, I’m still a newbie,” said Marilyn Anderson, active in Friends of the Library. “And I’ve lived here since 1976.”

Main Streeters put in the long hours of planning that a community needs to keep things from sliding.

Those who sit on the town council, which meets monthly, know that sessions can drag for upward of five hours.

Five hours, unpaid, to almost midnight — talk given to tedious things like alley drainage, sewer-line issues and backflow regulations.

Or to critical things such as the swimming pool. Who’s going to teach the kids to stay safe at the pool?

That would be the Rotary Club, a weekly assemblage of Overbrook’s Main Streeters.

Mayor Don Schultz –– an ex-Marine, smart, drawling, dry-as-dust funny — took time along with six other Rotarians to visit Overbrook’s K-2 school and get the pool safety message across.

“Do you all know what’s down there on the corner, that hole in the ground?” Schultz asks a group of 20 kindergartners.

RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarJosh Anguish, 15, went heels over head while completing this flip for lifeguard Lauren Erickson at the Overbrook swimming pool.

“The swimming pool!” they reply.

“And, hey,” Schultz says. “Have any of you been out to City Lake Park to fish?”

A boy’s hand shoots up.

“My family went fishing there. We caught a dolphin,” the boy says.

“You did? You know I wondered where that dolphin went.”

But on to pool safety.

Ol’ boy Wilhite is Josh the Baby Otter.

In a school lockerroom, he sweats in a woolly costume with enormous feet and an otter head the size of a bean-bag chair. Wilhite is 78.

Josh the Baby Otter will serve as a lesson to stay with adults in water, to learn to float with your mama and papa otters.

But while kindergartners love being high-fived by a huge dancing otter, he doesn’t quite know why he volunteered for this gig.

After the first of his four performances of the day, he unzipped the costume and stripped off his Rotary T-shirt.

“Man, that’s hot out there,” a dripping Wilhite told his spotter, Vic Robbins, a fellow Rotarian who took time off his engineering job to help with the suit.

Still, the kids learn something that might spare them from a tragedy. That’s why the Main Streeters are here.

Once booming

One other time a newsman picked Overbrook and gave it a fleeting 90 minutes of national fame.

October 1957.

That’s when NBC’s Dave Garroway, host of TV’s “Wide Wide World,” arrived to report on efforts to modernize medical care in small towns.

The star of the show was Overbrook’s new young doctor, James Ruble.

The main drag boasted Doc Ruble’s new clinic, three car dealerships, a newspaper, clothier, hardware store and one of the oldest family-run pharmacies in Kansas.

Overbrook had only 500 folks then, and it boomed for a while.

Farm couples came dressed up on Saturday nights to dine and dance. On weeknights, they rooted for the basketball team.

They were Gophers. The high school bonded everybody, and it set intense rivalries with the Colts of nearby Scranton, Kan., and the Vikings of Carbondale.

But state budget pressures and tiny class sizes could not be overlooked. The three districts reluctantly consolidated in 1969 and a new high school, home of the Chargers, arose from a cornfield west of Overbrook.

“Yes. There are still some hard feelings about that,” said Wilhite, who served on the local school board at the time.

The population began to idle at about 1,000 in 1980.

RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarSpectators line the main drag to take in a parade which is held each summer at the conclusion of the annual four-day fair.

Then longtime shops, including the pharmacy, started to fold. The closings coincided with the rise of big-box stores in Topeka, Lawrence and Ottawa, each just a 30-minute drive.

Four years ago, consolidation advanced further. Overbrook lost its middle school, and the Gophers vanished altogether.

“Basically, we were going broke,” said Santa Fe Trail district superintendent Steve Pegram.

The children now start schooling at Overbrook’s K-2, then hop buses to attend third and fourth grades in Scranton, five through eighth in Carbondale and finish up in the high school that sits all alone in between.

Now, from kindergarten through graduation, they’re the Chargers.

“The kids are fine with it,” Pegram said. “A number of the parents, not so.”

Some moved. Some switched to home-schooling.

Other things have changed, too.

Former resident John Shepard of rural Osage County, back in town one Saturday for a community-wide garage sale: “When I grew up here, this was the most wonderful place in the world.”

On a bench at the fairgrounds, longtime resident Kathy Coffman listened as Shepard continued.

“Then you had these people from Topeka and Lawrence moving in, these commuters,” he said. “For them, it probably seemed like they were out on the farm!

“But those people brought their city rules with them. They come here and say, ‘We’re going to zone you.’ You need to fix up your property. Well, I live where I want. I’ll zone you.”

Coffman let him vent. “Things change,” she said. “You either adjust to change or, I guess, you get out.”

Shepard threw up his arms. “Hello? That’s me. Got out.”

Things do change. In recent years, town leaders even tweaked the motto: “Don’t Overlook Overbrook — A Town with a Great Future Built on a Trail of Past Success.”

True, there’s been success.

The consolidated school district every year meets federal Adequate Yearly Progress requirements. And the Brookside Retirement Community recently won its third-straight nurshing home award, given annually by the state of Kansas to just a few facilities.

And that’s about as big as the news gets here.

(Strike that. Just this month, a false story on a satirical website placed an annual Gourmet Dog Meat Festival in “the modest hamlet of Overbrook, KS.” The bogus post went viral, prompting calls from around the nation.)

One day in 1991, some real news hit.

“You ought to read Max Friesen’s autobiography,” a local librarian suggested. “He writes about that day.”

Sure enough, Friesen invited me to his split-level home to lend me his last copy of “To the Max,” the 85-page story of his life.

It is a three-ring binder of memories, describing his warm friendship with Doc Ruble’s family, the hunting trips and profitable investments they made together.

Chapter 17 is titled “Attempted Bank Robbery.”

It tells of how two men wearing ski masks slipped into the Friesen home — it was unlocked — and tied up Max and wife Dee. They demanded a code for entering the vault at the local bank where Friesen was president.

Friesen told them the vault was programmed not to open at certain hours.

Frustrated, the home invaders rooted around the house and didn’t find much of value. They took the couple’s car.

Turns out that one of the culprits was an acquaintance of the Friesen family who had figured that a businessman of Max’s caliber must be oozing in valuables.

In small towns, that is a miscalculation.

All he had was junk, one man told the court that sent him to prison.

Friesen wrote: “I always thought that (the robber he knew) would look me up after he got out, to apologize in person, but he never did …

“This ends the robbery story, but I want to repeat again and again how much admiration I have for our law enforcement people who were able to crack this case!”

The consummate booster.

Hundreds attended the funeral of Max Friesen, a retired banker and longtime town treasurer, fire chief, Scoutmaster, church choir director and unofficial patriarch. He was buried next to his wife of 60 years.

Dying famous

“Everybody dies famous in a small town,” sings country artist Miranda Lambert.

It’s true.

Outside O’Bryhim’s grocery, a marble bench memorializes LeOra Woodruff, who worked there well into her 80s, in addition to cleaning the post office and First Security Bank, just to stay active.

This summer, town Councilman Jon Brady and his son donated time at City Lake Park to install a bench in memory of Blair Flynn, who fed the geese each morning.

A plaque at the swimming pool honors Nina L. Schlink: “Life-long resident, rural school teacher, farmer and lover of children.” In 1957, she willed $50,000 to get the pool started.

Each loss leaves a hole. Some leave a crater.

In July — just before he was to be honored for 60 years of perfect Rotary attendance — Max Friesen fell on a farm field he owned.

Medical technicians from the volunteer Fire Department came to his aid. At the hospital, Friesen seemed to be on the mend with a new pacemaker in his chest.

But he took a turn. He died a few days after calling a fellow Rotarian from the hospital to say he wouldn’t make the Tuesday meeting.

“The closeness we have in a small community, it hurts when you lose someone,” said Mayor Schultz. “It really hurts.”

Hundreds attended his funeral at the United Methodist Church, built in 1983 on land Friesen donated.

Two fire pumpers waited outside to lead the procession to the Overbrook cemetery, where Friesen had served a half-century as treasurer.

Pickups wedged in the parking lot or on the grass belonged to laborers taking time off their landscaping and construction jobs. Not many mourners showed up wearing neckties.

A grave was dug next to Friesen’s wife of 60 years, and just a few gravesites north of his good friend, Doc Ruble.

Speaking at the funeral, his son Stan broached the subject on everyone’s mind. Who will be the go-to people to tackle the things that give a community purpose?

“We can all help to fill those shoes,” he said.

And the crowd stood to applaud.