A very small town that is typically regarded as dull or boring. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “a small or rural town; a town where nothing important or exciting happens.”
This expression, first recorded in 1857, presumably alluded to a town so small that a single horse would suffice for its transportation needs. Or, perhaps, that only one horse was available for hire. These days, it might refer to a town with only one traffic light. But, of course, a small town could have dozens of horses or traffic lights and still rate the term, ‘one-horse town.’
The shorter phrase, ‘one-horse,’ first appeared in print in the 1730s, meaning “Of a vehicle or machine: drawn or worked by a single horse.” By the mid-19th century it had gained a wider, metaphorical use, and was applied to things that had no connection to actual horses. As explained by Charles Dickens in his magazine All the Year Round (1871):
‘One-horse’ is an agricultural phrase, applied to anything small or insignificant, or to any inconsiderable or contemptible person: as a ‘one-horse town,’ a ‘one-horse bank,’ a ‘one-horse hotel,’ a ‘one-horse lawyer,’ and so on.
One of the earliest recorded uses comes in a poem ‘The One-Horse Town,’ published in Graham’s Illustrated Magazine (Philadelphia) and offering the chorus: “In this mean little, green little one-horse town.”
Young people who live in small towns tend to try and escape them as soon as possible, wanting to experience the outside world. But other people idealize one-horse towns, regarding them as cheerful, peaceful, familiar places where the residents are friendly. Such towns can also be highly insular, viewing newcomers with extreme suspicion. However, the residents are often supportive of each other, lending assistance to neighbors in need.
Settled in 1849, and first called Reading’s Bar, where Major Reading discovered gold, the name of the location evolved to Clear Creek Diggings to One Horse Town or One Horsetown to finally Horse Town or Horsetown, of California. Legend has it that Jack Spencer’s old gray horse was the only one around, thus the name. It didn’t take long for the settlement to outgrow the name and become a 36-acre town complete with plank sidewalks, two hotels, several stores, a butcher shop, blacksmith shops, bakery, football, a hand ball alley, Catholic church, newspaper, and — wait for it — 14 saloons. It was, after all, a gold-mining town.
A note in the Weekly Champion & Press of July 27, 1861 reads, “The citizens of Horsetown, California have raised the Stars and Stripes on a tall pole near the bridge over Clear Creek, and just beyond the flag and staff they have erected a gibbet with this inscription: ‘Salute the Flag unconditionally or hang.’”
Now, I’d call that very insular. And downright unfriendly. Definitely “one-horsish.”