It may be because the newness of our country and the fragile character of our early structures have prevented the accumulation of inferior, ugly, and uncomfortable houses, as the nucleus around which later building has crystallized; it may be from circumstances which have prevented the isolated residence of the better classes of our people; or it may be the result of accident. Whatever the reason, it is beyond dispute that the United States is par excellence a land of beautiful villages. North, south, east, and west, there are plenty of hideous conglomerations of poor-looking houses, with an absence of every element of beauty; but there are thousands of other villages scattered all over the land, which are full of the evidences of good taste in their regulation and in their management.
As a rule, these more attractive features are very much modified by the presence of badly-kept private places or neglected public buildings, and by a general air of untidiness. Still, the foundation of attractiveness is there; and nothing is needed beyond a well-organized and well-guided control of public sentiment, to remove or to hide the more objectionable features, and to permit such beauty as the village may possess to manifest itself.
The real elements of beauty in a village are not fine houses, costly fences, paved roadways, geometrical lines, mathematical grading, nor any obviously costly improvements. They are, rather, cosiness, neatness, simplicity, and that homely air that grows from these and from the presence of a home-loving people.
To state the case tersely, the shiftless village is a hideous village, while the charm which we often realize without analyzing it comes of affectionate care and attention.
There are villages in New England, in Western New York, and all over the West, even to the far side of Arkansas, which impress the visitor at once as being homelike and full of sociability and kindliness; which delight him, and lead him almost to wish that his own lot had been cast within their shades. These are chiefly villages where the evidences of public and private care predominate, or are at least conspicuous. A critical examination would, in almost every case, develop very serious evidence of neglect, unwholesomeness, and bad neighborhood.
Within a few years, beginning, I believe, in Massachusetts, the more thoughtful of those whose affections are centred in their village homes have united in organized efforts to make their villages more tidy, to interest all classes of society in attention to those little details the neglect of which is fatal, and to make the village, what it certainly should be, an expression of the interest of its people in their homes and in the surroundings of their daily life.
The first of these associations of which I have any knowledge (though, as such work is unobtrusive, there may have been many before it) was the "Laurel Hill Association" of Stockbridge, Mass. It takes its name from a wooded knoll in the centre of the village, which had been dedicated to public use. The first object of the association was to convert this knoll into a village park. Then they took in hand the village burial-ground, which was put in proper condition and suitably surrounded with hedge and railing. Then the broad village street was properly graded and drained, and agreeable walks were made at its sides. Incidentally to this, the people living along both sides of the streets were encouraged to do what they could to give it an appropriate setting by putting their own premises into tasteful condition and maintaining them so. The organization worked well, and accomplished good results. The Rev. N. P. Eggleston, formerly of Stockbridge, in a paper on village improvements written for the "New York Tribune," thus describes the collateral work and influences of the Laurel Hill Association:—
"Next followed the planting of trees by the roadside wherever trees were lacking....