The Secret to This Small Town’s Revival Is Making Everyone Want to Live There

Mount Vernon, Texas, could have become just another fading outpost. Folks in town weren’t about to let that happen.

Ostertag FamilyBuff Strickland for Reader's Digest

They say everything is bigger in Texas. While that may be true, some of the best things in Texas are quite small. Case in point: tiny Mount Vernon, a town of just under 3,000 people tucked in the state’s northeast corner, about 100 miles from Dallas. You probably haven’t heard of it, unless maybe you like to fish for bass and know about Lake Cypress Springs, twice named the prettiest lake in the state by D Magazine. But if you do stumble upon Mount Vernon, you might just get a notion to stay.

That happens a lot around here, and it’s worth noting how remarkable that is. Across the country, small towns have become an endangered species. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, half of rural communities have fewer residents today than they did in 2000. But the population in and around Franklin County, where Mount Vernon is the county seat, is projected to grow by 7.4 percent in the next five years. What’s the source of Mount Vernon’s magic? Actually, there are a few.

One is the boomerangs—folks who grew up here but moved away, only to realize they missed their hometown’s unique sense of community. “My husband and I lived in Austin for a decade before I convinced him to come home with me,” says Lauren Lewis, a manager for a local restaurant and construction company. “I missed having that sense of place that comes with living in a town where you know everyone. Many of my closest friends have parents that are my parents’ friends, and our grandparents even hung out together. We grow strong roots here!”

Tom Wilkinson was born in Mount Vernon 87 years ago and moved back after he retired from his career as a college English professor in Dallas. Like many of his neighbors, Wilkinson can trace his ancestors back to the pioneers who settled here in the 1870s. And like many, he values the simple life you can’t easily find in the big city. “People are still polite; they hold the door open for you,” he says, “especially if you’re old and crotchety, though I like to think I’m not crotchety.”

But there are plenty of new names in the Mount Vernon booster club, and they’ve given the place a jolt of energy. Greg Ostertag landed here after 11 seasons in the NBA, mostly with the Utah Jazz. The towering seven-foot-two-inch former center grew up near Dallas and had settled in Scottsdale, Arizona. But he told his wife, Shannon Ostertag, on their very first date that he wanted to move back to Texas and become a gentleman farmer. (They both smirk at the term gentleman, as Greg likes to goof around and turns up in a few highlight reels getting into it with Shaquille O’Neal.) Shannon, a native Californian, had never even been to Texas, and she’d never lived in a small town. Her first glimpse of Mount Vernon was on the Internet.

“It’s got this great school system and this little Mayberry downtown,” says Shannon. In Scottsdale, her son, Trevor Ruelas, went to a high school that had more kids than the entire population of their new town.

Mount Vernon has the kind of big hearts you tend to find in a small town. For instance, when the local constable was diagnosed with cancer last year, ten-year-old Lola Mc­Kellar set up a lemonade stand to raise money for his treatments. In 2015, when a 350-year flood sent water rushing into local homes, an army of volunteers showed up to get a wheelchair-bound neighbor and his wife to higher ground, then came back to help rebuild. On the beams, volunteers wrote Bible verses: “He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.” (Psalm 40:2)

Preserving and honoring the past has been key to helping Mount Vernon survive. The Ostertags and a few other families have restored and reopened some of the empty storefronts, including the old barbershop, built more than 100 years ago. After a nine-month renovation, it became a coffee shop called Watermelon Mills, named for the barber, William “Watermelon” Mills, who always had a pot of coffee on for his customers.

“When we opened, people would come in and point to a corner and say, ‘That’s where I got my first haircut,’” says Shannon.

The Ostertags also bought the old general store, M.L. Edwards & Co., and turned it into a combination ­bistro/boutique/event space. (Shannon even persuaded her ex-husband, Henry Ruelas, to move to town and head up the project.) Wander in on any given day and you might find a book club discussion, a Coffee Ladies meet-up, or a work session for the local genealogy group among the tables of people chatting over cups of coffee and plates of food. The space won an award from the Texas Downtown Association for best historical restoration for a town with fewer than 50,000 residents.

“I can only describe it as a butterfly effect,” says Amy Briscoe, who owns the local gym and a funky resale shop called the Emporium on Lower Main. “Once the Ostertags started investing, everyone else started stepping up their game—me included! Awnings were getting painted, storefronts were getting shined up, repairs that had long been forgotten suddenly got remembered. We saw a newfound sense of pride start to bloom.”

While Mount Vernonites have a healthy appreciation for their past, they embrace the new too. In 2006, a recruiter for the local hospital was trying to lure Dr. Jean Latortue, a Haitian native who had become a general practitioner in upstate New York. He and his wife, Marie Coq-Latortue, agreed that Mount Vernon, which they could barely find on a map, was not for them. But the recruiter kept pushing, even buying them plane tickets so they could see the place for themselves.

The couple’s plan was to show up and say thanks but no thanks. “Our minds were made up,” says Marie. But once they got to town, something surprising happened. “Before we knew it, in unison, my husband and I responded that we would think about it,” says Marie. They moved to Mount Vernon several months later. “God had a bigger plan, and we were part of it,” she says. When the hospital closed in 2014, the doctor couldn’t bear to leave his neighbors without medical care, so he opened the Franklin County Rural Health Clinic, with Marie heading up the local assisted-living facility.

“You can come to a small community like this and your individual effort actually makes a huge difference,” says Shannon.

Michael and Kathrine Lee chose Mount Vernon as the home base for their Pure Hope Foundation, which helps victims of human trafficking get a fresh start. The Lees bought a building to make a safe house for young women, and they are closing on a bigger property so they can help more people. “A lot of towns might push away from what we’re doing,” says Kathrine. “But here everyone has been amazingly supportive.”

mount vernon texasBuff Strickland for Reader's Digest

In fact, when Michael pulled up in a U-Haul with a houseful of furniture donated by a local store, he got more than just a warm welcome. “The house we bought is right off the town square,” says Kathrine, “and he’s trying to figure out how he’s going to unload it all. The next thing you know, all the men from the bank walked over and asked, ‘Do you need some help?’ And in their suits and ties, they unloaded the furniture. It really is the definition of community here.”

When Shannon looks to the future, she has a vision for her adopted hometown. “I would love for Mount Vernon to have a square full of cars because all the businesses are open and people are hustling and bustling,” she says. “In my generation, kids would graduate high school and then leave because there were no jobs and no entertainment or culture. I would like for these kids that are approaching adulthood now to not leave. Especially mine.”

These days, there’s a lot going on, says Main Street Alliance manager Carolyn Teague. A new café is opening on the square. A film crew made a movie featuring hometown legend Don Meredith, a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s. Down the road, the Lowe’s distribution center is hiring. Sales tax revenue for the downtown has increased more than 275 percent in the past four years.

Now, Amy Briscoe says, “our downtown is the perfect balance of quaint small-town charm with a progressive something-is-about-to-happen vibe”—just as Shannon and others had envisioned.

“Trevor said to me, ‘Mom, I wish we had moved here when I was younger,’” says Shannon. “And I was like, ‘You know what? You’re right, buddy. I wish we would’ve moved here earlier too.’”

The Ostertags also made some improvements to their own home. One project they took on with the help of our colleagues at Family Handyman and Taste of Home was building an outdoor shed that doubles as a kitchen. Check out how the shed was built and how Taste of Home stylists made sure the design was not only welcoming but also functional.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Jody L. Rohlena
Jody L. Rohlena is a senior editor at Reader's Digest.