Farmville Is On A List Of Edens

Published 4:48 pm Thursday, May 16, 2013

FARMVILLE – Adam and Eve might not relate to the town's ban on public nudity but Farmville has made it into Charles Nathan Anderson's In Search Of Eden list of America's Best Small Cities.

Ranked number 27, in fact.

“A lovely downtown, outstanding colleges, and a pleasant climate earmark Farmville as one of America's best small cities. Within my top 100 cities, I rank your fair community at number twenty-seven. With thousands of American cities to pick from, yours is a position to be proud of,” the Michigan native wrote in a note to the editor of The Farmville Herald announcing the town's presence on his list.

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A list that has been 50 years in the making and seen Anderson visit hundreds and hundreds of communities, crisscrossing the nation several times over.

A ranking that the Saturday Evening Post was going to publish in 1976 but Anderson wanted to fine-tune his selections, a good thing for Farmville, which he visited about 10 years ago.

The project of a lifetime for the 74-year-old who first got the notion of a national search for the best places to live after graduating from Michigan State University with a geography degree.

A compilation that was lost in a blast which destroyed his home and killed his mother.

In Search For Eden is not something, therefore, the retired high school civics and geography teacher has taken lightly.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania tops the list that includes three other Virginia communities: Abingdon, ranked seventh, Christiansburg coming in at 42 and Wytheville listed 57.

The criteria used by Anderson in his search for Eden are the town or city, itself, the setting, the weather, identity and population patterns, accessibility, medical care, schools, living costs, employment, entertainment, the state in which it is located, and personal safety.

“Fifty years, yes, that's a long time, isn't it?” the affable Anderson said during a telephone interview from his Winter Haven, Florida home on Wednesday.

“This particular list is going to be the one and only. I thought it would have been done a lot of years ago…This year will be the one time that I expect to do it.”

Anderson is contacting a newspaper in each of his ranked communities to announce their place on his list and will go national with the ranking on line, and perhaps returning to the Saturday Evening Post or another magazine after that process is complete.”

Anderson was married as a college student and was starting to raise a family and said he and his wife “were looking for the perfect place to live.” The thought led him to a book by a Welshman, Norman Ford, about the best 50 small cities in the U.S. but it was written in the 1950s and was, Anderson felt, outdated.

Deciding on geography as a major, Anderson began to study U.S. cities and he decided to “create another book, up to date, and maybe even done a little better because of my geography background…A number of years later I had a chance in the Saturday Evening Post and Saturday Review, both wanted to publish it and I talked to them for awhile and decided I really wasn't ready yet.”

Then tragedy struck.

Twenty-four years ago yesterday “my house in Michigan blew up,” he said, of the furnace-related explosion that was so devastating it is “amazing my wife and I survived because there wasn't even a closet wall left standing in the house. I had spinal damage and a smashed foot. I was a year healing up, physically, and my mother was sitting beside me in the house and she died and along with it my book, that I had mostly written, was destroyed. So I just kind of set things on the shelf.”

The 1989 explosion blew his world apart but the quest, his crusade to travel and discover places in America that were special ones to call home played a key role in overcoming the horror of that May day 24 years ago.

As “a healing process, physically and especially mentally, I did keep on traveling a lot…and I did keep on looking at cities along the way and then eventually, a dozen years ago, I decided I got my spirit back a little more and decided I didn't want to waste what I had done,” the 74-year old Anderson said of his decision in 2001.

“I went back to work on it and (last summer) I decided I had visited everything I thought I needed to and decided it was time to go ahead and put something together,” he explained.

The original motivation for the list had been for his own family and their search for a perfect place to live, and creating a list that other young families could also use. “But as I started putting things together last summer I decided that the first people that really should know about it were really the people that live in those particular towns,” he explained of his locality-by-locality approach to making his list public.

“I thought it would be something that might be a feel good story for the people in each of the individual towns on the list, especially the upper half of the list,” Anderson said, something to take their minds off the prevailing bad news that so often fills headlines around the nation and the world. “As I thought that through I decided that the people I want to have publish it first are the editors in each of those towns. I'll let them have the information first and then I'll go ahead and put it on line in a way that people all over the country can look at it and maybe pick a place to live, themselves. And I may actually go back to the Saturday Evening Post. There are bigger magazines I could put it in…but maybe it would be a good story for them to go back and do it” after wanting to publish it in 1976.

It has been a very long journey to these places he believes are wonderful ones to call home.

“I never dreamed it would be a 50-year project but ironically it's almost turned out to be part of what has made it be such a big success…The fact that it was a 50-year study, having a human interest story that went into it, is part of what's made it as big of a success as it has been,” he reflected.

And how did he find Farmville?

“I have to look at every city in the country and in 50 years you can see a lot of towns. My family got used to the fact that I never went any place in a straight line…Any time I make a two-day trip it's a four-day trip. When (his children) were young they just got use to that being the way it was, a lot of zigzags and doglegs and I never travel the quickest way. So in the process I always try to study ahead of time any towns that might be anywhere near the path I'm going and learn all that I can about them and then separate the ones that have any chance of making the list and those are the ones I go through.

“And many times it's a matter of crossing towns off. A lot of them,” he continued, “I think they probably won't make it but I need to look at them just in case. Sometimes I'm very happily surprised. Any town in the country I've had to study and take a look at. So it wasn't an accident that I found Farmville. You're certainly a town that would be easily on the ones that I would have to take a look at, especially with your two colleges, your great climate, and pretty downtown.”

Though he estimates he visited Farmville about 10 years ago he expects, ironically, to visit again, driving through this summer as he and his wife drive from Florida back to Michigan where they live during the warm months of the year.

Ask Anderson the number of towns and cities he's visited and he replies, “many, many hundreds. I have no idea. I've been in 49 states and I've visited everything that's in my path. Many hundreds. If I took a wild guess it would be nowhere near whatever that number would be because I have no way of knowing.”

The same thing holds true for miles driven across five decades.

“There again, who knows? Over 50 years traveling, it's been endless travel and cities visited and miles traveled…I guess I could sit down with an atlas and go through it and come up with something,” he said.

Given the years and miles that have gone into his Search For Eden project, Anderson said “I think I have more knowledge than anybody else in the country on doing such a thing because I've done it longer and I have a geography background.”

He doesn't think much of people who come up with “top places to live lists” who simply input data into a computer. “You can't really do that and come up with something accurate,” he said. “I've done it the best that I can. I go state by state and I try to place within that state, one, two, three, however many (small cities), and I put them in order and then I go through and take all of the states and put them together. And then I'll take a city, and try to find one that I know is at the top and then I'll take a city and kind of run it up the ladder and see, yeah, it's better than this one, better than this one, and then sooner or later I land it in some place that's close to accurate, I think.”

Twenty-seventh best in the entire United States of America.

Farmville, Virginia.

That's the naked truth about one man's 50-year search for Eden.

Go ahead and take a bite out of that apple.

You can do that here without being cast into the outer darkness.

But you'll have to wear more than a fig leaf.