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."
The town is beautiful. Main Street is lined with stately old homes, many of which bear plaques placed by the Historic Advisory Board in 1997 to celebrate the town's 150th anniversary.
Medford prospered in the 19th century with bog-iron furnaces, a busy gristmill, a glass factory and cranberry bogs.
The foundations of Kirbys Mill, north of town, date from 1778. In its day, the mill was an industrial center with a wheelwright, blacksmith shop, cider mill and two sawmills that supplied lumber to cities as far away as Baltimore and Washington. The mill is being restored.
Sit among daisies on the banks of the mill's pond for a picnic, or rent a rowboat and paddle out onto the smooth water. Only birdsong and insect buzz interrupt the solitude.
When it's time for dinner, head back to Main Street, where two restaurants vie for your patronage. Braddock's Tavern dates to the 1800s and features candle-lighted rooms with award-winning modern cuisine. Across the street is Cafe Noelle, named for the owner's baby daughter. Set up like a French country patio, the bistro features a surprisingly chic menu (try the filet mignon with crabmeat or margarita shrimp).
Medford will celebrate Fourth of July at Freedom Park (Union Street at Jones Road), beginning at 6 p.m. There will be family activities, a concert and fireworks at dusk.
In the summer, beaming tiger lilies grace the green-shaded lanes leading to Doylestown, eliciting a carefree, happy mood.
It's just as pretty when you enter the town's historic core, where a rainbow of flowers bedecks beautifully restored Colonial, federal and Victorian structures, most reincarnated as shops, restaurants and inns, their meticulous upkeep reflecting this Pennsylvania town's rich heritage.
"Doylestown is an authentic crossroads town that developed over time," says Linda Brinker, assistant director of the Bucks County Chamber of Commerce, who grew up in the area.
The town began in 1745, when William Doyle built a public house at the intersection of two wagon roads in the sparsely settled area (there's a Starbucks there now).
A quiet country settlement grew up around Doyle's crossroads, remaining largely undeveloped until 1810, when the county seat relocated here. Then, all manner of doctors, lawyers, surveyors and other professionals moved to the area.
By 1900, the town had 3,000 residents, but it managed to stay small.
Today, Doylestown offers excellent restaurants, antiques shops, bookstores and a vintage theater that shows independent films.
"I remember when I was little," Brinker says, "no one was around on the weekends. Everything was closed. Now the stores stay open, and locals and visitors are strolling around, enjoying themselves."
The town is also a cultural center, thanks to the legacy of Henry Mercer, an idiosyncratic, self-proclaimed artist who lived here around the turn of the 20th century.
Mercer founded the Moravian Pottery and Tileworks on Swamp Road, and his tiles were in demand worldwide. Today, you can visit the tile works, which are still in operation as a historic exhibit.
Nearby, Mercer built Fonthill, his mod-medieval, concrete dream house. A guide takes you through the maze of rooms, where windows don't match, stairways coil out of nowhere, then disappear, and tiny hallways zip this way and that.
A self-taught archaeologist who believed that someday people would be interested in pre- industrial tools and handicrafts, Mercer spent 25 years collecting 40,000 pieces of what many considered junk: broken spinning wheels, dilapidated wagons, mousetraps, even a guillotine. He built another concrete castle to house the collection, which is now the fascinating Mercer Museum.
Across the street is another legacy, left by James Michener, who grew up in Doylestown. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist was the benefactor of the James A. Michener Art Museum, a beautifully displayed collection of works that celebrate local artists and writers, among them lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, author Dorothy Parker, novelist Pearl S. Buck and others.
On Independence Day, between noon and 5 p.m., celebrate an old-fashioned Fourth of July at the Fonthill Museum (Court Street and Route 313), with music, food, games and a bike parade.
You can hardly imagine, amid the freeway sprawl south of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, that just around the corner awaits a quiet Colonial burg.
New Castle, on the Delaware River, was founded by Peter Stuyvesant, governor of the Dutch colonies in 1651.
In those days, this tiny settlement was considered highly strategic. The Dutch had barely built a fort near the river before it was seized by the Swedes. The fort changed hands between the Dutch and English several times until it eventually became the capital of the Delaware colony, and then of the state.
But being a metropolis was not New Castle's destiny. In 1777, the state capital was moved to Dover, and in 1840 the major railroad lines were routed elsewhere.
Thanks to those misfortunes, the town remains wonderfully out of the way. It's a place where historic houses and fragrant boxwood gardens mix perfectly with cozy taverns and clapboard B&Bs.;
"It's a beautiful place, a quiet place," says Richard Stimmel, owner of Cobblestones antiques store on Delaware Street.
"Not many people seem to know about it," he adds. "There aren't a lot of tourists. I recognize 80 percent of the people who walk by my doors -- everyone waves."
The best way to experience New Castle is to stroll its shady sidewalks, stepping around the protruding roots of ancient oaks and elms.
The town's most important buildings centered on a public green. The most prominent building is the New Castle Court House, originally built in 1732. It was here, on June 15, 1776, that Delaware approved the Declaration of Independence. On July 24 of that same year, the declaration was read from the courthouse balcony.
Be sure to take a tour of this fascinating place; the guides are knowledgeable about the building and the entire town.
Old New Castle emanates outward from the green, a meticulous collection of Colonial and federal houses and white-steepled churches.
"Most of the residents are people who visited as tourists, fell in love with the place and stayed -- including my mother," Stimmel says.
Some of the historic houses are open as museums, offering a glimpse into the past. The Old Dutch House on East Third Street, which dates to about 1700, is considered the town's oldest structure.
George Washington once attended a wedding ceremony at the Amstel House on Fourth Street, while the grandiose George Read II House and Gardens on the Strand is famous for its Palladian windows.
In addition, the town has several festivals that take place throughout the year, including A Day in Old New Castle in May, Separation Day in early June, and A New Castle Christmas, to name a few.
"They're small-town celebrations," Stimmel says. "For some reason, they're kept hidden. Not many people know about them."
Although New Castle is not throwing its own party for the Fourth of July, there will be festivities from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. at nearby Rockford Park in Wilmington.
WHEN YOU GO...
Getting there: From Baltimore, it's about a three-hour drive. Follow Interstate 70 west to I-68; take I-68 to Route 219 and go south about 20 miles to Oakland.
* Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, 301-387-4386; online: www. garrettchamber.com.
* Oakland's Web site is www.oaklandmd.com
* A visitor center is on Route 219 south about 13 miles south of I-68.
* For more information about Oakland's Fourth of July celebration, call 301-334-2691.
Getting there: Medford is about 115 miles northeast of Baltimore. Follow I-95 north to I-295 north to Exit 4 toward Philadelphia/Camden, merging onto N.J. Route 73 south. At Route 70, go east; at the next roundabout, turn right onto Main St.
* Historic Medford Village Business Association, P.O. Box 1363, Medford, N.J. 08055; 609-714-8811
* Medford Historical Society, 17 N. Main St., Medford, N.J. 08055; 609-654-2608
* Online: www.medfordvillage.org, www.medfordnj.com, www.medfordtownship.com.
* For more information about Fourth of July festivities, call the Medford Recreation Department, 609-654-2512.
Getting there: Doylestown is about 120 miles northeast of Baltimore. Follow I-95 north to Route 332 (Exit 30); go west to Route 413 and follow to Route 313, which will take you into town.
* Bucks County Conference & Visitors Bureau, 152 Swamp Road, Doylestown, Pa. 18901; 800-836-2825; www.bctc.org.
* For more information about Doylestown's July Fourth celebration, call 215-348-9461, Ext 10.
Getting there: New Castle is about 70 miles northeast of Baltimore. Follow I-95 north to Route 141 (Exit 5A); keep left at the fork in the ramp. At Airport Road, turn left, then turn right onto S. Basin Road. Less than a mile farther, take a slight left onto Delaware Street, which brings you into the heart of town.
* Historic New Castle Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 465, New Castle, Del. 19720; 800-758-1550; www. visitnewcastle.com.
* For more information about July 4 at Rockford Park, call 888-328-5887, or visit www. summersoundswilmington. com.