Almost two years ago my wife and I were driving home after having dinner in a Knoxville restaurant with former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist and his wife.  It was the Monday night before Thanksgiving, and I decided to call my then 90-year-old Uncle Joe, a retired judge, to see if he and my aunt wanted to have turkey and all the trimmings with us that coming Thursday.

My uncle and I often trade stories in these occasional conversations, and that night he told me about walking with my father to Reason Cecil’s Grocery in Helenwood to pick up some things for my grandmother.

My father and my uncle were 2 of 12 children (the first two, twins, died at birth) of Flem and Cassie Duncan.  They grew up in what would be considered bitter poverty today.  My grandfather was a subsistence farmer, carpenter, and Presbyterian lay preacher.  My grandmother taught school in years when teachers made $60 or $75 a month.

Their home was between Huntsville and Helenwood in Scott County, Tennessee, on the Kentucky line below Somerset.  Pure Appalachia, this was one of the poorest counties in the United States.  My dad used to say that they lived out just past the “Resume Speed” sign.

Uncle Joe said their visit to Mr. Cecil’s grocery store took place when he was 9 and my father was 14.  After the boys made their purchases, Mr. Cecil came out and sat on the front porch to talk to them.

While they were talking, a train came through, and Mr. Cecil said, “That engineer is going too fast; he’ll never be able to make the curve at New River.”  Moments later, they heard a terrible screeching at the river about one mile away.  They ran to the scene just in time to see men pull a cover over the engineer, who had been killed when the train derailed.

Because of the death and the massive train wreck, my uncle never forgot that day.  My reaction, though, was to a different part of the story.  I thought about the owner of a country grocery taking time out from his business to sit on the porch to visit with two boys.  What a kinder, more humane time that was.

Today, millions buy their groceries at Walmart, where they probably don’t even know the name of the manager, or at some other large chain grocery store, where they don’t have a front porch, much less a manager who would have time to sit and visit with two boys.

My father, who preceded me in Congress, used to say (I suppose half-jokingly) that the problems of the country grew worse when they stopped putting front porches on houses.  People stopped visiting with each other as much as they had.

He also once told me that the best places to campaign were the small country grocery stores, usually run by a husband and wife.  The owners knew everyone in their community and were usually well respected, in part because they often helped people who were going through hard times.  Today, most of the rural country grocery stores are gone, as are many other small businesses.

When I was growing up in East Knoxville, the city population was about 185,000—around what it is today.  But outside the city limits there were farms in every direction, with probably only about 50,000 people.

Now, Knox County has almost doubled in population, to about 460,000, as most of the farms have been turned into subdivisions.  The population of the state is booming, as people move from the high-tax states to low-tax ones like Tennessee.

In East Knoxville in the 50’s and 60’s, the main business section was called Burlington.  All the stores were named after owners who worked there.

There was Henderlight Feed and Seed, Farmer’s Hardware, Cox and Wright Grocery, Pass’s Five and Ten, Greenlee’s Drug Store, Keeton’s Jewelers, McCarty Mortuary, Ruby’s Restaurant, Ward’s electric-appliance shop, a sole-practice doctor, a shoe-repair shop, a neighborhood movie theater, a bank, and Barnes Barber Shop.

I am now 69, and have gone to Barnes since my first haircut.  My two sons and one of my grandsons got their first haircuts there, too.  I have always said the problems of the country could be solved better in Barnes Barber Shop than in the Congress.

Not far from Burlington were other businesses owned and operated by locals, such as Parker Esso (later Exxon), Sherrod Amoco, Troutman’s Grocery, and Sonners Drug Store.

Now, only Barnes Barber Shop survives, down from five barbers to 85-year-old Ernie Barnes and his daughter Debbie.  All the empty stores now front on Martin Luther King, formerly McCalla, Avenue.

Blaine Farmer, who owned and operated the hardware store, was always helpful and friendly.  When you would buy some nails (or anything else), he would always say, “That will be about 60 cents” (or some other figure).  The price was always less than you expected and always an even number.  I wonder how he settled up his sales taxes with the state.

What happened in Burlington and East Knoxville happened all over the country.  Our government grew bigger, more dictatorial, less personal, and more removed from control by the people; businesses grew bigger, less personal, and customers had to deal with people in India or some other foreign country when there was a problem.

Government contracts, tax breaks, and favorable regulatory rulings usually went to the biggest companies.  Almost every industry, especially if it was highly regulated by the federal government, ended up in the hands of a few giant corporations.

There was a time when a man could start almost any small business, and while he might not have gotten rich, he could at least make a decent living.

A poor man could start a gas station, but now it would cost him a small fortune.  Last year, a principal at a South Knoxville elementary school told me, “Congressman, you would not believe all the permits and regulations my husband and I had to go through to open a one-man sign shop.”

The Democrats in Congress passed the Dodd-Frank law several years ago, supposedly to rein in the big banks that caused the recent Great Recession.  Since then, the five largest banks have doubled their percentage of total U.S. deposits from roughly 22 percent to over 44 percent, and several hundred small banks have gone out of business.  I have been told it is almost impossible for a bank to survive now if its deposits total less than a billion dollars.

Government regulators have an easier time (and feel more important) dealing with one giant business than with 100 small or medium-sized ones.  And only giant firms can afford the staff necessary to keep up with the thousands of rules and regulations.

We now live in a country where most of the businesses in the fashionable areas of almost every city are the same.  Ours is a computerized, impersonal world, and perhaps it can’t be turned around.

But the great interest in buying more locally grown food is encouraging.  It will be a long, slow, difficult process, but I hope we can begin to make our country kinder, more humane, and less impersonal.

Those in government could and should lead the way by reducing power at the distant federal level and placing more things under local control.  We need more leaders who will try to make it much easier for businesses like Reason Cecil’s Grocery and Blaine Farmer’s Hardware to survive.