Acclaimed authors feature Winters

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By Woody Fridae Special to the Express Winters is one of about 40 towns in the United States that James and Deborah Fallows have featured in their new book, “Our Towns.”. They had visited Winters a couple of times during an odyssey that lasted nearly five years. Rebecca and I met James when he was the keynote speaker at the “Sustainable Cities” conference in Yosemite, in 2015, a time when they were in the middle of a journey criss-crossing America. At the time, he was calling the project, “American Futures,” a quest that examined what small and struggling cities did to stay solvent and keep their charm in the face of challenging economic times. James and Deborah were flying their single-engine plane across America, with the quest to see what makes small towns maintain their character without selling out to huge residential growth and the big-box economy, or simply drying up and becoming a ghost town, as so many do. He challenged the audience of about 80 representatives of towns and counties in California to tell him a story. “ Tell me what makes your place unique, and what you have done to keep it viable.” I told James (in front of other city and county elected leaders) about how in Winters, we gave up trying to compete with towns that seek the Walmarts and auto dealerships, and had quit looking to build large residential developments to serve as a bedroom community in some other city’s economic engine. Instead, I told him, we are looking to become a destination; to make the charm of our town our calling card. (It was the old, “Roseville versus Calistoga” growth model we’d debated at the planning commission and in council chambers.) After his address, we met with James and Deborah in Yosemite conference center and invited them to come and visit Winters. They were intrigued and did agree to come a couple of weeks later. When they did visit us, they were somewhat reluctant to take our word for the platitudes we had heaped upon our town. But they really took the time to see for themselves. They met with the PTA, the Winters Friends of the Library, the Chamber of Commerce, a group of business owners, the City Manager, some local farmers and many, many others. What people might not have known is that James Fallows is a senior writer for the Atlantic Monthly magazine and an author of dozens of books and magazine articles. His wife, Deborah Fallows, a linguist and author in her own right has written books and written for the New York Times, The Atlantic, National Geographic and many other magazines. Many in Winters may have assumed that they were just two of so many tourists that happen across our town, curious about what makes us tick. While the title of their book, “Our Towns,” might conjure up the melancholy angst of Wilder’s play, instead James and Deborah searched for the authentic and vibrant part of each city they visited. “What makes this town go?” the would ask at each stop. Their story is a quest to find out how towns deal with difficult times, how they change with the times, and how they do so while keeping the values they cherish. They were looking not just for how small towns survive, but how they thrive. “With all its first-impression charms, would Winters turn out to be much more that a copycat extension of the wine country an hour or so to the north, or a too-polished day-trip destination for the food and tech folks from San Francisco, barely 90 minutes west? “John Pickerel, a restaurateur and entrepreneur who moved to Winters to found the Buckhorn Steakhouse in the early 1980’s answered the question before we posed it. ‘The Playhouse, the restaurants, the fancy bike shop, the wine outlets—they can attract people,’ he said. But the foundation of the local economy is remains agriculture. ‘This town looks and feels like a Midwestern town that just got dropped in California.’ He added, ‘and it’s one of the highest-producing agriculture counties in the entire world—we’re off the charts.’” (James Fallows, pg. 306) On a second visit, Deb, (as she preferred to be called) spent most of her time meeting high school students and teachers, digging deeper to get a pulse on the educational community here. “Almonds and agriculture are serious business for even the children growing up in Winters. At Winters High School, nearly half the students are enrolled in agriculture classes. The options include an intro course in the history, economics, and production of California agriculture; ag business and management; farm practices and operations, including how to use and manage machinery; animal and plant science. Lots of kids participate in the Future Farmers of America (FFA), with programs that incorporate public speaking, report writing, parliamentary procedure, and agriculture leadership training. Students in floriculture were already creating arrangements for a local business’s Christmas party.” (Deborah Fallows, pg. 308) These interviews did get published in the online version of the Atlantic monthly. But during their visits they had mentioned to us about making this project into a full length book that would be published in some elusive time in the future. I regarded it as a “maybe.” Maybe the book would be published. Maybe we would get mentioned, maybe not. But we enjoyed meeting them and telling them our story. Now, three years later, “Our Towns,” has been published, with wide acclaim. Winters is not just mentioned, but it is featured in an entire chapter. And while the “Winters” chapter is only ten pages of a 400 page book, it reassures us that we are not alone in our struggles to maintain our small town character while trying to remain solvent and prosperous. The book suggests that while our country may currently be lost in rancorous national politics, the heart of the nation can be felt here at a local level. Although we may differ on religion or party alignment, at the microscopic level, the pulse of activity and the very DNA of our nation are strong and vibrant. Its blood flows through the children we raise here, the projects we build, and the debates we overcome, here locally. Winters, as seen through their eyes, is an integral part of the national body, building character, creating vitality, and maintaining a dynamic purpose, here in Winters at a local level. Their co-authored book, “Our Towns,” was released for nation-wide distribution Monday, May 7 on Amazon and other major retail book distributorships.  ]]>

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