Sheila’s Story — “The Secret Sauce”

Since 2010, RealSmallTowns has been reporting on small towns with good energy and a strong drive towards a resilient future, as evidenced by commitment to people and place: strong land ethics; alternative energy initiatives; commitment to local food, businesses, and art in all forms; cooperatives and collectives; social justice work; and a vibrant sense of community.

Originally focused on travel, I later came to realize that the travel-site format was constraining and did not really capture the heart of my endeavor —that is— telling the story of community. The towns on my site capture my imagination because they are vibrant and creative, not necessarily because they are the most desirable destinations for travel. RealSmallTowns is focused more on the people living in a town than those who go to experience it. Many of them are wonderful places to visit, but to me the most important measure is “What is living like for the locals?” Is there a collective sense of fun? Is there creative problem solving? Are people willing to pitch in to get a creative idea off the ground?  Are they willing to support local endeavors —even if other more perfect or cheaper options are available elsewhere? Does community interest trump individual or financial interests from the outside? Is there a strong commitment to place? Is there love?

As an extension of the RealSmallTowns mission, The Secret Sauce was born out my interest in bringing more animation to the work, demonstrating the vibrancy of these particular places through personal story, and creating a more lively discussion of the meaning of community. It is, after all, the individuals who live in these places —their passion, commitment, creativity and connectedness — that ultimately breathes life into any community and makes it a good place to live. For the most part, these are stories of ordinary people with ordinary resources. They are stories of spirit. They are stories of dedication. They are stories of reciprocity. And they are stories of hard work. The Secret Sauce is my effort to tell these stories of everyday people in an effort to show that every one of us has the opportunity to make a difference. We can change the world with thousands of tiny, everyday acts and a commitment to what matters.

The title of this blog was given to me by one of my dearest friends as we were discussing all of the things that make our small town a great place to live –it’s the secret sauce! Of course I have my own personal experience with this magic, and for that, my gratitude is immense. There are simply too many people who have helped me with the odyssey of my own personal life, not to mention this particular project. I cannot name every one by name, you know who you are. I am, and always will be, tremendously grateful for your support. Truly. There are a few, however, who I would like to mention particularly. First, I naturally need to thank my very large family. My husband who has been on a profound journey of body, mind, and soul since the summer of 2013, but still manages to be sweet and supporting of my dreams and goals; my children, family of origin, and dearest friends who have been loving and strong support through this family journey of transformation, and who have bolstered me on a daily basis. Second, I need to thank all those who have willingly agreed to enter into this project with me – who have trusted and allowed me to tell your personal stories. It is a wholehearted act of generosity and faith, and for that I will be forever grateful. Finally, I need to personally thank Kate Fitzgerald, Richard Bock and Gino Whitaker. Kate, for her steadfast enthusiasm for this project, even when I have wavered, and for always being willing to read my work and help me make it better. Richard, for his generosity of both time and goods, as he has freely shared many of his superb photographs with me and is always the first in line to talk me through the many technical difficulties I regularly encounter, and Gino for his patient and expert guidance as he has walked me through every aspect of my new vision. The giving and receiving, the creativity, the love and encouragement…it is THE SECRET SAUCE!


Sheila Sherwin,




  1. Sheila – you nailed it with the term Secret Sauce! It is an excellent description of “that something” the community of Viroqua has to make it so pleasing to reside here. Thank you for putting one of my favorite sayings into action “Vision Becomes Reality” when creating this website.
    Keep on keepin’ on!

  2. I look forward to reading your blog “The Secret Sauce”!
    Real small towns… we may live in them, drive through them, or visit them… Lately, I have read articles of resurgence and new life being brought back into “forgotten” towns by a generation of young families who appreciate and respect the people and the past, and who are creating a sustainable future, all ingredients for the secret sauce!
    Thanks Sheila!

    • Thanks Betsy and Paula! It really is inspiring work as I dig in and see the myriad ways that commitment to place and a willingness to step forward can make big differences. My hope is that as this collection of stories builds and gains traction, it will inspire others who may need a boost in confidence or the belief in self to know that we all have a gift to give and together we can create something meaningful.

  3. I just subscribed to “The Secret Sauce” (love that name) and am very happy indeed that I did. The authentic stories about people in the community are heartwarming and real. I feel proud to live in Viroqua and to be a part of all that’s bubbling around here…the Driftless Cafe, The Ark, the local organic farms, the Coop, and not least your beautiful stories, Sheila. I look forward to what’s coming. Thank you! There’s much more in this area that I’m grateful for, so much more!

    • Thank you, Malkah! It is indeed uplifting work for me, and I hope I can do justice to so many inspiring stories!

  4. This looks wonderful! Looking forward to seeing more and perhaps contributing in some way. Ira and Ellen of The Otter Creek Art Retreat

    • Great Ira and Ellen! I am currently working on adding a format to encourage reader contribution and would love to hear from you!

  5. Hi Sheila- We met you in Salida last spring at a local thrift store. We just completed our third Strangebyrds CD, Devil’s & Desires and would like to send one your way. We live in & operate our music studio in Rollinsville, CO, one of the smallest towns you’ll find in the Rocky Mountain Region 😉
    Our very best,
    Cari & Ray

    • I remember! Wanderlust is such a unique meeting place, much more than your typical thrift shop. I would love to learn more about Strangebyrds and Rollinsville too!


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