Nostalgia is a powerful emotion: part joy, longing, and gratitude, all bundled up into a warm embrace that reminds us how our past influences our present. Today, I packed up the Christmas tree ornaments, and I felt nostalgic. Each ornament represents a different time in our lives, even the ones my mom bought new and gave us for our very first tree. They had no meaning until they were hung, and with one hook on a branch, they became a part of our personal history.
I’m not into designer Christmas trees—the ones you see in windows of department stores where all the balls are carefully coordinated to match whatever they are trying to sell. I prefer a tree that has its own identity, one based on the history of the baubles that hang on its limbs, that make it stand out as different and special.
I’ve been thinking about history, about the role history plays in making decisions. I’ve been thinking about the past and its impact on the present, about the balance of what we hold on to and what we let go.
Thomasville, Georgia got me started. In early November, I stood in line at a clever little coffee shop off bricked, historic Main Street. I was there helping my client, Kelly Brewer artist, at Plantation Wildlife Arts Festival. I’d been through Thomasville decades ago on the way to the beach. I remember my husband listing every college and professional football player who found his start at Thomasville High School. To me then, those facts were the only thing of note about the tiny town with barren broad streets, boarded up boutiques, and empty, deteriorating warehouses, Walmart two miles down the road. Thomasville was known for football.
Thomasville is known for much more than football. Ask any of the locals, and they will tell you about “the end of the line.” Early 19th century, Thomasville was the final terminus for the railroad heading south towards Florida. It was as far south as the train could go. For northern, affluent industrialists, Thomasville was their winter resort, their Boca, their Longboat Key. Over time, they found that quail hunting was fun and that buying land was cheaper than staying in hotels, so the hunting plantation culture began—horses, wagons, dogs, trucks, guns, birds. You get the picture. It’s “Garden and Gun” on steroids. Centuries later, the hotel era is gone, yet Thomasville has a thriving cultural landscape that includes a redeveloped downtown, bustling tourism, and a Center for the Arts that attracts national artists and directly impacts hundreds of children each year. Past makes for a pretty good present if planned and balanced in the appropriate ways.
I wondered how Thomasville did it. How did this little, southern town in the middle of nowhere, no longer “the end of the line,” maintain its charm? “All it takes is money,” my husband likes to say. For sure money helps. Thomasville’s wealthy plantation owners are dedicated patrons. Legend has it that during the depressed early eighties, a plantation heiress bought a stretch of downtown buildings and made them rent-free for local, small businesses. Her money stimulated growth, and great, little boutiques still line Main Street Thomasville.
It took more than money though. Thomasville’s vitality is not just about the money. It’s about generations of thoughtful visionaries who are patching the past to the present in a positive, balanced way that preserves and protects while distinguishing it from the many main street towns all over the country.
I could go on and on with great examples of small-town reinvigoration. My mom just won a big award for the role she plays as Chamber of Commerce Director for a small town in North Georgia. She will kill me for touting her without mention of my all-time, favorite, small town. It is not Highlands, Gatlinburg, or Thomasville. It is Blue Ridge, Fannin County, Georgia where the story is similar to Thomasville but without all the money. The mountain folks in Blue Ridge have been smart and scrappy rather than smart and rich, balancing the past with the present and building an economically self-sufficient small town in the foothills of the Appalachians. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. It works because smart people paid attention to their history, put energy behind making it who they are, and people go there (in droves) because it is special.
What did these communities keep and what did they let go that made it all work? And how do we tap into the most important aspects of our own histories to move our towns, businesses, schools, and selves forward? I have some theories, but I’ll save them for another time.
We have seen the other side of this, the small towns that become unbranded, anonymous suburbia, cloaked invisible by giant strip centers. For years, I traveled with my kids to soccer tournaments in Ohio and Indiana where on any given weekend I had no idea where I was. Folding chair on the sidelines of a rectangular, flat, green field, I was flanked by corn stalks, Panera, Starbucks, Dick’s, and a Target. I’m not bashing corporate America. Corporate America has done a great job of building their brands. It’s those small communities who have relinquished their history and identities for jobs behind a counter that I’m worried about. I’m not sure they will make it in the end. What did they give up, what could they have kept, and why?
Standing in the Pantheon in Rome, Italy is a humbling situation. This is where I stood 48 hours after leaving Thomasville. The Pantheon is 1,892 years old. Pebble Hill Plantation in Thomasville is 122 years old. I’m grateful both still exist. Yet, as I looked up at that impressive Oculus, the opening in the Pantheon’s dome, I wondered how it lasted so long. Who decided it should and could stay in that vast closet of temples and churches in ancient Rome? Was it balanced, smart decision-making or just plain luck? Imagine Rome without the Pantheon. That would have been a tragic branding mistake.
Our Roman apartment was two blocks from the excavated Roman Forum (the Romans didn’t tear stuff down; they just built more stuff on top). In a trendy area with fashionable shops and restaurants lining a narrow cobblestone street, our apartment was chic, renovated with contemporary furnishings and artwork, baths, and light fixtures. Juxtaposed against the thick wooden ceiling and heavy, antique front door, the modern design was perfect. The designer kept some of the past and blended it with the future, smart and balanced, just like Rome, Italy, a city I would visit over and over and surely will never forget.
It’s time to go back to work. A year ago, I collaborated with a client school on branding a capital campaign. We brainstormed a tight message, wrote the copy, and sent it off to the designer for a new, unique logo. When we rolled out the visuals to the steering committee consisting of current and former parents and alumni, they hated all of the new designs. “It looks like healthcare,” one person said. “Where are our colors? It doesn’t look anything like us,” another one complained. They were right. We had moved too far away from our history in an effort to look like we were moving forward.
Christmas tree ornaments, Thomasville hunting plantations, Blue Ridge mountains, the Pantheon, and a well-branded capital campaign all have something in common. Their identities and their successes are steeped in an appreciation for their unique histories. They benefit from the vision of smart, balanced people who allowed for the future by keeping what is most important and letting go of what was no longer needed.
It’s time to clean out my closet. I have skirts from twenty years ago, ones I bought when I sold a line of women’s clothing called Etcetera. High quality, they have lasted through many days at work. I can’t let those go. Call me nostalgic, but I’ll keep them for 1,892 years. They are a symbol of how I got here, a part of my professional history and personal brand that is important for me to remember as I move into my next decade of growth. I’ll add a new blouse to modern-things up, but that which distinguishes who I am must stay, metaphorically speaking of course. What to let go and what to keep…It’s a balance where history (or herstory) really does matter. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. If you pay attention in a balanced way, it just may save your business, your town, your school, and even you.