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Exeter celebrates 100 years of small town charm

Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio

It’s Saturday afternoon, and the normally quiet park in the middle of downtown Exeter is packed, nearly shoulder to shoulder with people enjoying kettle corn, something called the tornado potato, and of course, a little barbeque.

“This is the barbeque chicken plate, it’s six dollars and it’s fantastic!,” says Wanda, an Exeter resident.

“There’s also some pulled pork over there that people are really waiting in line for and the bratwurst over here by The Dorksmen, if you want a really homemade bratwurst, that’s the place to go.”

So what are all of these people doing, well, besides eating? It turns out they’re actually celebrating a birthday.

“This is 98th annual Exeter Fall Festival, so we do it every year, second Saturday in October,” says Here’s Sandy Blakenship of the Chamber of Commerce. And this year we’re celebrating our centennial, Exeter was incorporated 100 years ago, so all year we’ve had a big party, everything that we’re already doing we’ve incorporated the centennial so we celebrate all year.”

Exeter sits nestled among acres of citrus groves at the base of the Sierra foothills, just a couple of miles south of Highway 198. It’s a small town, with a population of just 10,334, with quiet well kept streets, and a quaint downtown, where the tractor dealership and mercantile store sits next to fashionable shops and cafes. It’s a place where small town America is still alive and well, but it’s not a living history museum, says Blankenship.

“We change with the times. We’re not stuck in a time warp. A lot of people kind of refer to us like Mayberry. I don’t believe we’re stuck in a time warp. We do advance and we are moving with the times, but I think it will be just more of the same, because again it’s the people that live here who make Exeter so special, so as long as we have them, I think it will stay the small town charm we have now.

And it’s that small town feeling that is important to many residents, like Linda Durrough.

“For me, it’s the whole aspect of being in a small town community. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone is friendly. For the most part I have almost never run into anyone who is totally rude. The school system here is good. I like the safe feeling of being here in Exeter. It’s just a wonderful place to live.”

While many other small Valley towns have experienced tough times in recent years, even before the recession, Exeter has actually done rather well. Most of the downtown area storefronts are filled, and businesses continue to grow. Mayor pro tem Robyn Stearns says that’s no accident.

“A lot of other communities our size have had a lot of problems. And so we just feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to escape that and do a good job and really care about what’s going on.”

Other neighboring communities have witnessed the slow decline of their own “main street” commercial districts, as newer big box developments and subdivisions on the edge of towns have taken hold. Stearns says a lot Exeter’s success has to do with the city’s slow growth policies.

“Growth is natural and we have to grow, but it’s in a timely fashion and it’s controlled and that’s the difference. We don’t open up huge subdivisions with thousands of homes going in all at once. It’s all done on a smaller scale. And one of the reasons that it’s helpful is just the way the economy is now, lots of towns have tons of foreclosures, we have a few, and our home prices are better because of that.”

In the mid 1990’s however, the future didn’t look so bright. Downtown businesses were suffering and things were starting to look a little shabby. Local business woman Jo Ann Dodson remembers those days well.

“The murals came about because our town was just like every other town. We could see a slowdown financially. We thought, ‘what could we do to get people to come to Exeter?’ So we got committees together and said let’s start doing murals.”

Soon colorful murals began to adorn the walls of downtown buildings, depicting little bits of Exeter’s rich past, from colorful orange crate labels, to historical scenes of the town. The murals helped to create an attraction, drawing visitors off Highway 198 two miles to the north, tapping into the stream of tourists visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Stearns started the now popular Wildflower Cafe in 1991. “When I first opened we didn’t have any murals and our downtown was like a lot of little small downtown. We had the locals, but we didn’t really have a lot of out of town people coming and shopping. Now we do. I would imagine that most of the downtown stores say at least fifty percent of their customer base is out of town. They come, they do some shopping and then they go home. And that is great for our community.”

The changes aren’t lost on Jim Rumelhart. He grew up in Exeter in the 1970’s, and now lives in Cincinnati.

“It’s really exciting to see the murals and the improvements they’ve made over the city, and I never get tired of looking up into the mountains and foothills. It really is a beautiful [thing], something to be proud of.”

So as the city celebrates its 100th birthday, what does the future hold? Some, like Linda Durrough have concerns about Exeter losing its small town charm. “I’ve worried about that myself, but I think because everyone wants Exeter to stay a small town community, we might be able to keep it that way.”

Others though se a bright future, like this festival goer, and 2004 Exeter High graduate, Bree.

“I’m optimistic for Exeter, I genuinely am. Just because my family came here generations and generations ago with nothing. You can profit, there’s always a way to get out of the hole. With a strong community supporting local businesses, I think we’ll do great.”

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of Valley Public Radio. During his tenure, he's helped lead the station through major programming changes and the COVID-19 pandemic, while maintaining the station's financial health. From 2010-2018 he served as the station's Director of Program Content. In that role, he also served as the host of Valley Edition, and helped launch and grow the station's award-winning local news department. He is a Fresno native and a graduate of California State University, Fresno.