News - Small Town Cool

Small Town Cool

By Rachel Heston-Davis

A “sold” sign in the front yard and a packed moving truck at the curb signaled more than relocation for Brian and Kristen Lee. Like the keys to the family’s “new” place, they marked a fresh chapter in a story about lifestyle choices. 

A Cultural Movement of Hope

Brian-Lee_FamilyEight years ago, Brian ’01 and Kristen (Huber ’02) Lee moved from East Nashville, Tennessee, to Hillsboro (then, population 6,200) in south central Illinois, to join a cultural movement of hope already in progress.

They had lived in the greater Nashville area for eight years when an emerging cultural shift toward small community life piqued their interest. As local shops popped up nearby and neighbors got to know each other, Brian felt for the first time that “our neighborhood was small enough, and the community close enough, to recognize people and to be recognized.” He and Kristen found this atmosphere fulfilling. 

So, when an opportunity arose to purchase and renovate a building in downtown Hillsboro, back “home” near Kristen’s family, the couple decided to try small-town life more fully. 

National Trend: Young Families Opt for Small Town Life 

In doing so, Brian and Kristen flouted the popular narrative bemoaning the demise of small-town America. They joined a national trend identified by University of Minnesota sociologist Ben Winchester: small-town residents who leave for the city in their 20s return later in their 30s and 40s with degrees, work experience, professional connections and families in tow. 

Brian and Kristen brought every ounce of their passions and talents to bear on revitalizing downtown Hillsboro. Brian renovated their building, turning a portion into a chic loft apartment for their family, and started the blog Small Town Cool to document Hillsboro’s rejuvenation. 

Over the next few years, the Lees encouraged other Hillsboro dwellers in renovation andBrian_Lee-Saw entrepreneurship, including fellow G.U. alumni Devin ’11 and Emilie (Garman ’10) Moroney and Matt ’08 and Missy (Weatherby ’08) Sands. Brian, Devin and Matt opened The Gold Pan: Record Store & Recording Studio in the Moroney’s own renovated downtown building. 

“All-In” Attitude

When it comes to reviving a small rural town, Brian says, positivity is huge. 

“That was actually my inspiration to start blogging. I knew there were some really cool things going on [in Hillsboro] and I felt like getting those things out in front of people could help to change the temperature of hope for the future.” 

Brian also highly recommends an “all-in” attitude. He draws on qualities fostered at Greenville University, like commitment to excellent work, to fuel success. 

“Good enough” is not good enough when you’re starting a small business or redesigning a historic storefront, Brian says; he completes every project at his top ability. He also leans heavily on habits of self-motivation and self-teaching, skills he gained at G.U. when he learned to record his own music. 

Brian_Lee-2Lower Cost of Living, Higher Threshold to Create

Like families across the nation, the Lees enjoyed trading city for town. They found a lower cost of living and a higher threshold to renovate and create, not to mention greater opportunities to really know their neighbors. 

Pretty cool!   

Visit the Lees’ blog at
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 RECORD.
Photos of Brian at work courtesy


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This story was published on August 07, 2019