Amid Dying Towns of Rural Plains, One Makes a Stand
December 1, 2003
By Timothy Egan
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Superior, Nebraska - When death comes to a small town, the school is usually the last thing to go. A place can lose its bank, its tavern, its grocery store, its shoe shop. But when the school closes, you might as well put a fork in it. So it was in Hardy, one of many last-gasp towns in Nuckolls County, Nebraska, along the Kansas state line. A rock memorial, overgrown by grass and weeds, rests like a tombstone under sagging football goal posts. The stone marks where the Hardy school used to be, where the wind carried voices of children -- the joyous static of tomorrow.
This year, Nuckolls County, population 4,843, lost another two schools, to budget cuts and declining enrollment, perhaps dooming another pair of towns to Hardy's fate in a region that has seen nearly two-thirds of its population disappear since 1920.
But here in Superior, whose slogan is "An oasis of the Great Plains, in the middle of everywhere," and which claims to be the exact same distance from Los Angeles and New York, they have made a last stand.
From the Dakotas to the Texas Panhandle, the rural Great Plains has been losing people for seventy years, a slow demographic collapse.
Without even the level of farmers and merchants that used to give these areas their pulse, many counties are also losing their very reason to exist, falling behind the rest of the nation in nearly every category as they desperately try to reinvent themselves.
And now a broad swath of the nation's midsection seems to have lost something else, as well: its optimism. Polls show a quiet crisis in confidence, the one thing that had seemed a part of rural American DNA. More than ever, people feel powerless to control their lives and pessimistic about the future, according to the annual University of Nebraska poll of rural attitudes.
"Will this be the last generation to inhabit the rural Great Plains?" asked Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit research group in Walthill, Nebraska. Few people in Nebraska -- which has seven of the nation's twelve poorest counties -- scoff at the question.
Some of the same signs of despair and breakdown that wore out aging American industrial cities in the 1960s have come to the rural plains. Among teenagers, there is now a higher level of illicit drug use in rural areas than in cities or suburbs, recent surveys indicate. The middle class is dwindling, leaving pockets of hard poverty amid large agribusinesses supported by taxpayers.
Government attention has only consolidated the trends, people in the small towns of the plains say, by subsidizing mega-farms that rarely create local jobs or contribute to merchants in the region.
Arguments about the miracle of the American breadbasket -- harnessing market efficiency and technology to produce cheap food in stunning abundance -- may resound globally, but they ring hollow locally. The rueful view here is that subsidies, however sensible in the macroeconomic sense, are gutting the plains ever more.
With its population down to the 2,000 level that is often considered the threshold for a functioning regional center, Superior, the anchor of Nuckolls County, has vowed it will not catch the death chill of nearby Hardy.
But the town's struggle to stay alive shows how -- even with the best of civic intentions -- it is difficult to fight forces that have humbled much of rural America.
People here taxed themselves to create an economic development fund. They put in a fiber-optic network for telecommunications. They shored up their high school.
They zoned thirty acres at the edge of town for industrial use, graded it and put in utilities.
At the center of the proposed industrial park sits the empty shell of a brand new building, built with the help of $145,000 in state money, on spec.
Just outside of town is a paved and well-lighted runway, although only a lone crop duster, flipped in a storm, rests upside-down on the tarmac.
They touted their small-town virtues to urban-weary prospects.
"Deer season is year-round if you drive a car," was one joke.
They spruced up some elegant old homes, a downtown historic district, and created an annual Victorian festival around a Superior native who married a British lord long ago and became nobility: Lady Vestey.
They put together a PowerPoint presentation, boasting of a union-free labor force in a town where a solid three-bedroom, two-bath home sells for less than $50,000.
"Industry could come in here and produce their products pretty cheaply," said Joe Jensen, who runs the public utility and is on the economic development committee. "And with all the things going on with genetic manipulation of agriculture, we think we're pretty well-positioned."
And so they wait -- for jobs, for business, for a future.
They wait -- for families with children, for people to volunteer at Little League, for a new restaurant.
They wait -- for benefits that were supposed to come with Internet commerce and a shrunken globe to drift out to the middle of everywhere.
But there are plenty of people in this town and throughout the rural plains who say all the spec buildings and cheap labor incentives are futile, misleading gestures.
Hundreds of counties [nationwide] have followed Superior's path, and their industrial parks and new buildings sit empty.
In nearly seventy percent of the counties on the plains, there are fewer people now than there were in 1950.
Population continued to plunge in the 1990s and has fallen even faster since the 2000 census.
For counties close to cities or near Interstate highways, the prospects are good, and population and jobs are generally growing.
But most everywhere else -- about one-sixth of the landmass of the United States -- populations are at modern lows, and the wage gaps with cities are at record highs.
"You don't have young people taking over the farms, and you don't have businesses staying," Mr. Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs said.
"Even the parents are telling the kids to get out. There is very little to keep many of these towns going."
The state and federal governments continue to put money into Superior and other diminishing towns, trying to stem a demographic force that can seem like a pull of gravity.
The hospital, the town's largest single employer, is using federal loans to finance a $6 million expansion. Poor health, in the graying flatland counties, is one growth industry.
The governor has praised Superior as a model for all of dying rural Nebraska. But if they can't make it here, people say, they can't make it anywhere on the prairie.
A Thriving Economy Vanishes
Not long ago, people in this spirited town on the Republican River made things the rest of the world wanted to buy.
There was a cheese factory churning out mozzarella from the milk of Nebraska cows for Pizza Hut toppings, a big cement plant at the edge of town and dozens of small stores offering the forgotten retail art of personal service.
These operations provided good jobs and a middle class for Nuckolls County.
They are all gone.
The factories are empty -- too remote and not profitable enough, the owners said.
The stores are dead, unable to compete after customers moved out and discount chains -- like Wal-Mart, 60 miles away, off the Interstate in Hastings -- moved in.
Over the last generation, Superior has lost two car dealers, four clothing stores, a shoe store, a drugstore, a locally managed savings and loan, a J. C. Penney store.
In Superior's autumn, another landmark is struggling to stay alive: the weekly newspaper, The Superior Express.
"Thirty years ago, when we'd go around and take pictures for the fall football issue, there were ten high schools in the area," said Bill Blauvelt, 57, the owner and publisher. "Now there are only three. For us, this may turn out to be the worst year ever for loss of revenue."
Mr. Blauvelt, whose great-grandfather came to Nuckolls County in 1870, said he was the end of the family line. He has no children and doubts he could find a buyer for the paper. When asked about the future, he shrugged.
"I don't have plans," Mr. Blauvelt said. "This is the problem for many rural businesses -- there is no plan for the next generation. And that's the problem with Superior now, we've lost the movers and shakers, the support structure of a middle class that makes things happen."
Like most of the rural Great Plains, Nuckolls County is old, white and relatively poor.
One of four households makes less than $15,000 a year, according to census figures.
One of four people is older than 65.
Most of the jobs are tied to farming, though the hospital is the biggest employer, with 148 workers.
The county is 99 percent white.
In many ways, Nuckolls County is not unlike any other rectangle of open space in the American midsection.
Over the last half-century, when the United States added 130 million people and the population grew by 86 percent, rural counties in eleven Great Plains states -- those counties without a city of at least 2,500 people -- lost more than a third of their people.
The farm-based counties, and those away from interstate highways, lost the most.
In the 99 counties with the highest percentage of residents older than 85, all but two are in the Great Plains.
Two forces common to rural America have transformed Superior.
One is the collapse of the family farm and the subsequent rise of agribusiness.
A hundred years ago, more than 30 percent of American workers earned their income from a farm.
Now it is a little more than 1 percent.
The big farms are getting richer, fattened by federal subsidies, and the small farms are disappearing.
The United States grows more food now than it did 50 years ago, on about 25 percent less acreage, and with a fraction of the workers it once used.
The other force is the Wal-Mart effect.
The day a Wal-Mart comes into a midsize town, Mr. Blauvelt said, the town newspaper loses about 40 percent of its advertising revenue. But at least the paper has a fighting chance to stay in business.
For local stores, it is no contest.
A recent University of Nebraska study found that in fifty-two rural counties in the state, the locally based share of the retail pie fell by fifty percent over the last twenty years.
The stores that do survive sell [the] basics: gas, quick-pickup groceries, coffee. Or they find a niche, selling local crafts, say, or wine.
"With the current trends showing no sign of reversing, we will eventually be left with a lot of places without schools, stores or even government," said Dr. John C. Allen, director of the Center for Applied Rural Innovation at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
"We will depopulate much of the Great Plains -- and it won't stop there."
Over all, the population of the Great Plains has increased since 1950: mainly in the metro areas, as the farm counties empty out. The rural counties are the ones that seem terminally ill.
But in every death there is rebirth. Some people are trickling into Superior and other prairie towns.
They tend to be returning natives, nostalgic for home, looking for a life that is hard to find in the big cities.
"Our greatest asset is the psychological loyalty of people who left here," said Dr. Don Crilly, a retired vascular surgeon who returned to Superior ten years ago from the San Francisco Bay area. He and his wife, Sylvia, moved into the biggest house in town, a plantation-style mansion that had been owned by Dr. Crilly's father.
The town welcomed them, they said. They were charmed by the easy pace, the friendships, the lack of cynicism.
Mr. Jensen, the utilities manager, also returned for social reasons. He was lonely during all the years he lived in suburban Phoenix, he said.
"I'd come home in Arizona, close the garage door behind me, get some slab of meat out of the refrigerator and go put it on the grill in a backyard enclosed by a cement wall," Mr. Jensen said. "That was my life."
But these are exceptions. The trends go the other way.
Nuckolls County is projected to lose five percent of its population just in the next four years, state officials said.
And, perhaps more surprising, most people in small-town Nebraska are not happy with where they live, the University of Nebraska poll of 3,087 people in 87 counties indicates.
Only eleven percent said they were satisfied with where they lived.
"This is a huge shift from earlier polls," said Dr. Allen, who has conducted the poll for a number of years.
"In some of these rural counties, we've lost 40 percent of the 18-to-49-year-olds. This is where your entrepreneurs come from. Those are your optimists, your future."
For Young People, Few Prospects
The parking lot of the Subway sandwich shop, the only chain eatery in town, teems with high school students trolling for action.
Their biggest complaint is that Superior is boring. Amanda Thompson, a freshman, belongs to the 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America. Like her grandfather, a veterinarian, she loves animals. But she doubts she will stick around.
" I kind of want to stay here and take over my grandfather's business, but Superior is so boring," Amanda said. "There are no cute guys. Since it's such a small town, people drink a lot."
Among this group of friends, only Quentin Colwell, a senior, said he planned to stay in Superior. He has a job on a pig farm that pays $8 an hour, and that's his future, he said. "I'm stuck here," Quentin said.
The students said they thought there was a plot among the adults in town to keep young people out and maintain Superior as a retirement community.
The adults say just the opposite: They are desperate for new people, especially the young.
"People live a lot longer here," Sylvia Crilly said. "Or, as the joke goes, it just seems that way."
The students' complaints mirror rural attitudes statewide. In small towns, people are happy with their family lives, their church, their friends. But nearly ninety percent of people surveyed in rural Nebraska said they were dissatisfied with their community restaurants, stores and entertainment.
On the flip side, Superior has many things that the rest of America has lost. A full dinner of chicken-fried steak and fixings goes for $6.50. Home gardens produce beefsteak tomatoes that are two pounds and 16 inches around. The new library closes for supper, then reopens.
Lives Mired in Poverty
When Sylvia Crilly moved to Superior, she said she was surprised by the open secret of rural America.
"As an urban person who lived within blocks of the East Oakland ghettos, I have been just shocked by some of the poverty I have seen here," Ms. Crilly said. "Some of these people are just drowning."
She noted that twenty-six percent of children younger than five [years of age] lived in poverty in her community.
During the greatest economic boom in modern American history, the late 1990s, the income gap between city and rural workers opened wider than ever.
People in rural counties of the Great Plains make 48 percent of [the income that] their metro-area counterparts make.
That compares with 58 percent in 1990, according to one study.
Nebraska has the three poorest counties in the nation, with per capita income barely $6,000 in the worst one, Loup County, according to the federal Commerce Department.
And the report shows even more Nebraska counties moving toward the bottom.
For these communities to survive, they will have to loosen their dependence on farming, many economists say.
If not farms, then what?
The state has been helping with grants for small-town industrial parks. But companies sniff and go elsewhere, to counties with mountain views or even better tax incentives.
"You can go to any county in Nebraska and you'll see the same thing -- these empty industrial parks," said Mr. Bailey of the rural affairs center.
"The idea is if you build it, they will come. But they don't come. And the state does people a real disservice by making people think they will."
A question for the majority of Americans who live in cities is why the emptying of the heartland makes a difference. Dr. Allen said the nation's character suffered when it became a one-sided country of urbanites.
"You take the center out, and you really lose something," he said.
Economists say that history -- mined for tourists -- and small companies making unique products are the future for rural America.
Superior's boosters see both its isolation and history as potential assets.
A winery will soon open in town, producing a taste of the middle of the country, from grapes not grown on either coast.
As for history, the little town of Red Cloud, just to the west, has prospered from its claim as the home to Willa Cather.
Hardy, the dying town just to the east of Superior, has nothing similar to fall back on.
"We've taken ownership of our community seriously, and we're not going to see it die," said Sherry Kniep, the economic development director of Superior.
But if this is death, it is slow, and not without surprises along the way. Mr. Jensen fell in love after returning home to Superior.
"The girl I had the big crush on in high school wouldn't give me the time of day," he said. "Then I met up with her again at our 30th reunion and -- guess what? We got married."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times
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