Which Ugliest Town in America?

I first visited Missouri in early June 1977, before my now-husband and I were married. I’ve described that visit—the trip to Fort Osage and the making of gooseberry pie. But what I didn’t say in that post was that I thought his hometown of Marshall, Missouri, was the ugliest town I’d ever seen.

Saline County Courthouse, in Marshall, MO

Saline County Courthouse, in Marshall, MO

Marshall is the county seat of Saline County, Missouri. Like many county seats in the Midwest, Marshall has a courthouse in the middle of the town square, with retail stores around the square and for a block or so off the square. My father-in-law’s bank, originally named the Farmers Savings Bank before it merged into one after another of larger and larger banks, was on the corner of the town square.

But even in 1977, the Marshall square had gaps in it. Wal-Mart had moved in and drawn a lot of business away from downtown and toward the U.S. Highway 65 bypass.

I tried not to say anything disparaging to my husband or his parents. And, truth be told, there were similar small towns in the deserts of Washington and Oregon that weren’t any better. But I felt sorry for my husband, because he had grown up in such an ugly place.

Richland, Washington, from Badger Mountain

Richland, WA

Over the Fourth of July weekend that year, my husband came to visit me in my hometown, where I was working that summer. Richland, Washington, is on the Columbia River in the middle of the desert. There are a lot of tumbleweeds, and, if not for the Columbia, it would be pretty barren.

My husband-to-be flew into the small airport in Richland and I picked him up. When he got off the plane after flying across the desert, he said, “You poor kid. You mean you grew up here?”

I was quite offended. After all, Richland was better than Marshall. Despite the tumbleweeds, I loved the open spaces around town and the gorgeous sunsets. I loved the wide blue river that cut a green swath through the desert. I saw it with the familiar eyes of childhood.

I’ve since come to know Marshall quite well. The square still has vacant retail spaces, though the storefronts have changed in 35 years. Wal-Mart has moved to a newer, larger location on the by-pass, and is the best place to buy groceries in town. My in-laws built a lovely home on a golf course.

Ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And both perceptions can change over time.

When have you been disappointed by a place you have visited?

Posted in Family, History, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .


  1. A few years back I visited Newcastle Upon-Tyne, UK. My expectations were not high but unlike much of England, it is a very ugly city. We had a day there and spent a good couple of hours of it in a children’s museum. Not a place I will be rushing back to.

  2. Sometimes there is beauty in familiarity (I guess?).

    When I first moved to Emporia, Kansas, in 2000, I remember feeling some despair looking at downtown – lots of nice buildings, but they were empty or full of junk stores masquerading as antique dealers. Fortunately, during the past five years, a new generation has reclaimed those spaces and Emporia Main Street Association has really encouraged people to take pride in the space, and it’s becoming cheerful and vibrant again.

    • Diana,
      I’ve never been to downtown Emporia — only the fast food places along the highway.
      It’s nice to know Emporia is improving its downtown. Some small towns do a great job at it, and others don’t.
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. I wasn’t aware Walmart was around in 1977, Theresa. I agree, our perception can change over time. Growing up and going to West Virginia, where both my parents grew up, I thought it looked backward and redneck. As an adult, it’s one of my favorite places to visit. I don’t see poverty, I see the beauty.

    • Jill,
      Wal-Mart started using that name in 1972. If you ever get to Bentonville, Arkansas, there’s a great museum on the history of the company.
      I’ve only driven through corners of West Virginia, but I thought it was pretty when I was there.

  4. Theresa, There are towns and there are neighborhoods in cities that seem like small towns to me. I grew up for eleven years on the East Side on Kansas City that seems decent enough though not at all affluent (working class, I guess.) Soon after we moved to Prairie Village, masses of people moved to the suburbs. Today that area is crime ridden, and, I wouldn’t feel safe driving there with a Johnson County, Kansas license plate. Sad. Things do change and not always in positive ways.

  5. Pingback: Jim the Wonder Dog | Story & History

  6. Pingback: Hanford Reach: History Preserved by Accident | Story & History

Leave a Reply