Why Turkey, Texas is One Small Town That Won’t Die

by Joanne Steele on April 19, 2011

Ed and I traveled through Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, the panhandle of Texas, and Oklahoma on our way to Arkansas for the workshop series I’m presenting on internet marketing.Turkey, Texas

Our goal was to visit as many small towns as possible.

We were dismayed by the condition of many of the very small towns we drove through. Storefronts were boarded up. Once thriving towns were reduced to a few houses and maybe a gas station.

“Why are small towns dying?” I asked.

The recession can be blamed for some of the destruction, but the conditions of buildings indicated that towns were losing ground for many years.

Here’s the answer I came up with…

Small towns generally exist for one purpose – in farming and ranching areas, they serve the surrounding farms and ranches. In industrial areas they grow up to provide services to nearby mines, or manufacturing.

With agribusiness swallowing up small family farms, and factories and extraction industries downsizing or closing, these small towns no longer have a purpose, and they slowly disappear.

For some small towns, repurposing is the answer.

We saw a few small towns that are not going down without a fight!

Turkey, Texas is such a town.

We visited the town museum and viewed photos of the town in the 1940’s when it was hard to find a parking place.

The townspeople are anxious to bring back that prosperity. They have a favorite son whose fame is helping. Turkey Texas is the hometown of famed originator of Western Swing, Bob Wills.

Here’s what’s working for Turkey Texas

Every year over 10,000 western swing lovers converge on Turkey, Texas for two solid weeks of music and dancing. RV parks are full. Restaurants are booming. The few little shops are packed with customers.

And then everyone goes home until the next year.

…Except for a few hundred enthusiasts who return once a month for western swing music jams. But currently, people come, enjoy a dinner prepared by one of the local service organizations and leave.

These monthly events happen in the evening when little shops are not open.

How can Turkey, Texas turn these events into prosperity, and what can you learn from Turkey, Texas?

The people who come, both for the two-week festival and to the monthly music jams love Bob Wills and Turkey, Texas. They might have been asked to contribute to the future of the Bob Wills museum in town, but they have never been asked to participate in the future success of this town.

People who love to visit small towns, like to contribute to the success of the towns they visit. You can use that connection to help save your town.

  • Ask your visitors to spend money locally.
  • Ask them to become a part of your community by considering opening a business in town.
  • Ask them to come back again soon, and give them a reason for doing so.

We loved the time we spent in Turkey, and if we lived closer, that “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear?” would have made a big difference.

We loved the general store that had the best cowboy boot selection we’ve seen. We loved the little B&B, and the restaurant where we ate the same meal the cook was having when we walked in the door.  Nobody asked us to come back.

Turkey, Texas and most small towns can’t survive on a single event a year. But if Turkey took full advantage of those monthly activities, and if your small town had some way to attract visitors once a month, you might.

The key is taking full advantage of the customers who are in town when they are in town.

Our Turkey, Texas general store owner wasn’t open in the evenings for the monthly events, because, as she said, “People aren’t coming to shop.”

Everyone is ready to shop if given the right incentives!!

First – be open when your customers are there. Your business hours should be set for your customer’s convenience, not yours.

Second – offer some specials. Take a page out of the K-Mart playbook and give them a “Blue Light Special” to get them in the door.

Third – know what your customers want and have it on hand. This is something the general store owner is already doing very well!  Those boots, those jeans, those Bob Wills tee shirts were perfect. And with a little incentive she could be making a killing once a month!

And finally… Do the small simple things that will help your town survive NOW! Don’t wait for some pie in the sky grant. Don’t wait, hoping that things will change when the economy changes. Look at what you have to attract some visitors and new residents NOW!

It’s our time. Small towns have never had a better opportunity to turn themselves around.


1 Lara Dickson May 3, 2011 at 9:39 am

Three words you use seem paramount for towns like Turkey, TX and so many others around the US: Repurpose, incentives, and events. Resort towns that are only seasonally busy could take your same advice and reinvent themselves for the off season.

2 Joanne Steele May 3, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Lara, you are exactly right. Looking at towns that are successful in doing this, there seems to be seasonal teams of enthusiastic people so the hard work doesn’t fall to the same group season after season.

3 Connee Luttrell April 28, 2011 at 1:15 pm

I am a new at being a chamber director. I am sorry to say I will miss your workshop near me. But your articles are inspiring. I was wondering if I could use the one about Hot Springs in our chamber membership newsletter. Keep the helpful ideas coming!! PLEASE!

4 Julie Hatzell April 24, 2011 at 10:44 am

Thank you for this article and so many of your other articles. You have given the merchants and residences of Quincy, CA. a burst of new energy and hope for the future! We have just recently begun a facebook group page: Quincy CA Revitilization Project and are starting to look at turning our town around with the ideas and information you have and other websites like the Main Street Program and the report “Small Towns Big Ideas”.
Julie Hatzell /owner of the Alley Cat Cafe in Quincy.

5 Joanne Steele April 26, 2011 at 7:31 am

Thanks Julie,
Quincy is a real gem of a small town, and all it will take is the determination and focus of a few people like you. Keep up the great work.

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