Ice cream parlors and Sunday drives, wraparound porches, soda fountains and bicycle parades: The pleasures of small towns are by no means a thing of the past.
Although urban dwellers caught in the rush of modern times may not have strolled down a Main Street lately, the best of small towns still evoke nostalgic feelings of seemingly less complicated times.
With the Fourth of July just around the corner and the nation in the mood to celebrate, we visited four regional communities with plenty of individuality and small-town charm (not to mention museums, shopping and lovely sights).
In Oakland; Medford, N.J.; Doylestown, Pa.; and New Castle, Del., they might roll up the sidewalks at midnight, but that's all part of the fun.
Snuggled in the Alleghenies of far northwestern Maryland, in an area that has been called the Switzerland of America, tiny Oakland in Garrett County doesn't give up its charms all at once.
It's a working town with a fringe of fast-food outlets and gas stations. But there's much more to this place than first meets the eye. Wander along tree-shaded side streets, gracious Victorians where generations of families have lived, charming little churches and pocket parks, and you can feel the sense of community.
Take East Green Street or East Alder Street off Route 219 south to the downtown area. There, you will be greeted by practical storefronts -- Family Dollar, Rudy's Clothing -- and brick sidewalks, all close to the gleaming, neoclassical courthouse.
The county seat, Oakland has a large historical museum, where relic-filled rooms describe the area's past. The town began soon after the B&O Railroad came through in 1851, catering to cultured city visitors with ornate hotels and an agreeable summer climate.
Later, when the automobile changed the way people traveled, the area fell on hard times, but tourism picked up again with the creation of several popular state parks and nearby Deep Creek Lake.
"We've got a good life here," says Bud Peed, a volunteer at the Garrett County Historical Museum. Peed talks about "good friends, work, church, and the outdoors. You've got to like the outdoors."
For those who enjoy skiing, boating, hiking, swimming -- even scuba diving -- Deep Creek Lake is like a dream come true.
Nearby Swallow Falls State Park boasts three waterfalls -- including Muddy Creek Falls, the state's largest -- with a riverside trail linking the trio. Herrington Manor State Park has a great swimming beach, while New Germany State Park, with its towers of pines, offers some of the best cross-country skiing in the region.
Peed explains how families have lived in Oakland for generations, and how being an Oak- lander is a birthright.
"There's one man who moved here when he was 2," he says, "and died age 101." The man's obituary called him a non-native of Oakland.
St. Matthews, a handsome sandstone church on East Liberty Street built in 1868, is nicknamed the church of presidents because Grant, Harrison and Cleveland all attended services here while taking summer vacations in Garrett County.
The charming old Queen Anne train station is being restored, and don't miss the Towne Restaurant on Alder Street. It's a popular hangout with blue vinyl tablecloths and cheeseburgers for $1.90. While you are eating, you may hear talk of the new Wal-Mart scheduled to open on the outskirts of town this fall.
Oakland's community spirit shines brightly during its Autumn Glory Festival -- Oct. 12-15 this year -- one of Garrett County's largest events.
"Autumn Glory is the essence of small-town atmosphere," says Rob Schilgwadhter, whose great-grandparents moved here generations ago.
"People line up along the streets to watch a big parade with floats and an Autumn Glory queen."
A celebration that won't wait until autumn is the Fourth of July. Oakland's festivities begin at 8 a.m. at Broadford Lake Park. There will be concerts, boating, swimming, fishing, volleyball and picnicking, and, of course, fireworks at dusk.
Pull into historic Medford on the edge of New Jersey's Pine Barrens, and you will be struck by the quiet:
No car horns, no traffic jams, nothing to remind you that Philadelphia is a mere 15 miles away. What you will find are glorious houses -- federals and Queen Annes with nicely uneven brick sidewalks, flowery, Victorian-style lampposts and a variety of antiques shops.
"Medford has not lost its soul to the suburban sprawl which has consumed some towns," observes Craig Issod, Webmaster of www.medfordnj.com, which serves as a community forum for ideas and debate.
"Medford has a bustling village area where fine shops and restaurants line our original and historic Main Street," Issod says. "This is no Disney World replica, but the real thing. All the shops are owned by the merchants -- no chain stores -- and the pace of life is definitely slow."