Sunday, March 6, 2011

Small Towns Getting Smaller--and Maybe That is OK

My local paper, the Spokesman-Review, has an interesting article this morning: Small Towns Keep Getting Smaller:

Even as the state and its larger cities bustle with more people, more business – more everything, it seems – the small towns dotting Eastern Washington are emptying.

“It’s a shame,” said Whitman County Commissioner Patrick O’Neill. “My opinion is that the small towns of America are what made this country great.”

Small towns began dying about a century ago. They had sprouted to serve the influx of farmers, loggers, ranchers, miners, railroads and travelers. In Eastern Washington they sit about 25 miles apart, a reasonable distance for a horse and rider to cover in a day.

Saint Andrews, WA
Then tractors and new plows, bigger farms and the automobile ushered in change. The 1910 census was the last to count more rural Americans than city dwellers.

The article was inspired by the release of the 2010 Census figures and we can expect a similar set of stories from other parts of rural America, where the same forces are at work. Rural depopulation is a worldwide phenomena and more than a century old. Newspaper reports like that in the Spokesman usually focus on the "push" factors that cause people to leave rural communities--the rise of mechanized corporate farming, loss of opportunities and services in rural communities, improved transportation. I wonder though if the "pull" factors in the cities don't deserve more attention--not just jobs and education but infrastructure (Spokane got electricity more than a generation before most rural areas), culture and entertainment, and less pressure to conform than one finds in a small rural community.

One Room school  west of Waverly, WA
A few years back our summer vacation was a camping journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Trying to follow the Missouri River across the northern plains took us off the beaten path and through Ground Zero of rural depopulation (see also this map). We went through so many ghost-towns-in-the-making, places where a small band of hanger-on lived within the decaying shell of a once-larger community. Often the office was the only public service that remained (since the post office doesn't have to make money), sometimes a tavern would sit next to the post office, there might even be a gas station. A story I read in a North Dakota newspaper on that trip told about the closing of another rural school. The previous year it had had one student, a sixth-grader. At recess he would climb the one tree in the playground and daydream, one supposes about moving.

Rural depopulation is always presented as a tragedy in these stories and I suppose it is. Yet the story can also be told as a triumph, a story of human adaptability and innovation and eagerness to improve. After all it is the same set of values--a willingness to embrace risk, the desire of a better life, wanting to provide opportunities for one's children--that both brought people to the rural areas and takes them away.

[St. Andrews photograph from Panoramio user Chris Metz. I took the school photo a few years ago.]


Bill Youngs said...

Hear now Henry David Thoreau in Walden about 160 years ago on the urge, even then, on the urge to leave the out-of-the-way places:

"For the last half-hour I have heard the rattle of railroad cars, now dying away and then reviving like the beat of a partridge, conveying travellers from Boston to the country. For I did not live so out of the world as that boy who, as I hear, was put out to a farmer in the east part of the town, but ere long ran away and came home again, quite down at the heel and homesick. He had never seen such a dull and out-of-the-way place; the folks were all gone off; why, you couldn't even hear the whistle! I doubt if there is such a place in Massachusetts now."

Larry Cebula said...

Nice, Bill. and of course Thoreau wrote of abandoned farmsteads and apple trees gone wild in his Massachusetts forests of the 1820s, as farmers uprooted and went further west for better, cheaper land.

Bob Pollock said...

Interesting post, Larry. If you haven't read it, I recommend Arthur Schlesinger's "Rise of the City, 1878-1898." The lure of the city has long been powerful, and Schlesinger argued that all the great social and technological inventions of America came from the city.