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December 2003 Volume 9 Number 4
Amid Dying Towns of Rural Plains, One Makes a Stand
Amid Dying Towns of Rural Plains, One Makes a Stand<< back
By TIMOTHY EGAN
December 1, 2003, New York Times
[S]UPERIOR, Neb. — 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, Neb.,
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 70 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
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, Neb. Few people in Nebraska, which has 7 of the nation's 12
poorest counties, scoff at the question.
Some of the same signs of despair and breakdown that wore out aging
American industrial cities in the 1960's 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 30 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
"Industry could come in here and produce their products pretty cheap," 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 have followed Superior's path,
and their industrial parks and new buildings sit empty.
In nearly 70 percent of the counties on the plains, there are fewer people
now than there were in 1950. Population continued to plunge in the 1990's
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 10 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 11 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
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 52 rural counties in
the state, the locally based share of the retail pie fell by 50 percent
over the last 20 years.
The stores that do survive sell 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
"Our greatest asset is the psychological loyalty of people who left here,"
said Dr. Don Crilly, a retired vascular surgeon who returned to Superior 10
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 5 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 11 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
" 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
"People live a lot longer here," Sylvia Crilly said. "Or, as the old 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 90 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 26 percent of children younger than 5 lived in poverty in
her community. During the greatest economic boom in modern American
history, the late 1990's, the income gap between city and rural workers
opened wider than ever. People in rural counties of the Great Plains make
48 percent of what 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? Factories? 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
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."