What’s The Difference Between A Small Town And A Tiny Town?

Warning: Populations may be smaller than you think.

Main Street, Jonesborough, TN

Courtesy Jonesborough Tourism Department

Towns are the heartbeat of the South. They’re the places where we kids still ride bikes to the corner store for an after-school treat. They’re where neighbors are always happy to lend a cup of sugar or invite you in for a glass of tea. Most importantly, they’re the places where we grew up and the places many of us now choose to call home.

But as with most things, there’s some discussion about what exactly constitutes a town. Merriam-Webster defines a town as a “compactly settled area usually larger than a village but smaller than a city.” The designation, while short and sweet, leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It tells us what a town isn’t, but it’s less clear about what a town actually is.

As Southerners, we’re intimately familiar with towns and are more than happy to fill in the blanks. Towns, like Southerners, come in all shapes and sizes. And it’s important to remember that size is relative. By Uncle Johnny’s account, the bass he reeled in last weekend was at least 10 pounds—even if Aunt Becky insists it was closer to 5. The same rule applies to towns. What seems itty bitty to one Southerner may register as a major metropolis to another. That’s why we believe towns belong into two categories: small towns and tiny towns.

For us, the distinction is based on population size. A small town can be home to 40,000 people, while a tiny town caps out at 10,000 residents. Tiny towns may have a single school and a lone stoplight, while small towns could feature distinct neighborhoods and host their fair share of big box stores and national chain restaurants.

In this year’s South’s Best reader awards, we took a break from talking about Southern cities and instead shone a much-needed spotlight on the smaller locales that make the South sparkle.

Our 50 Best Small Towns list covered charming destinations from the coast of Mississippi, to the heart of Texas, and everywhere in between. In our coverage, we discovered a huge variance in what we think of us as a small town.

The list included small towns with relatively large populations like Hot Springs, Arkansas (population 38,114) and Dunedin, Florida (population 35,949). There were in-between places like Boone, North Carolina with 18,000 folks and Oxford, Mississippi with 26,430. And then there were those teeny tiny towns where population size didn’t exceed triple digits. Places like Leipers Fork, Tennessee, where there are 650 year-round residents, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia where there are just 269. And then there’s Round Top, Texas, which recorded just 93 people in its census report.

So yes, there’s a rather large population discrepancy between small towns and tiny towns, but one thing that’s not affected by size? That magical small-town feeling. It's knowing that everyone knows your name, but more importantly, that everyone has your back. There may not be a lot to do, but there sure is a lot of love.

Need one more distinction between a small town and a tiny town? If you’ve ever named your hometown only to be met with blank stares from people not familiar with your neck of the woods, you’re probably from a small town. And if you’ve ever encountered the same phenomenon only with someone who lives in your home state, then chances are you’re from a tiny town.

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