Reprinted from the LA Times
Trying to Save a Town and a Neighborly Lifestyle
By DAVID LAMB
March 17, 2002
LOUP CITY, Neb. -- It came as no
surprise to anyone here in Sherman County when the latest census showed that the
population had plummeted 11% in the 1990s. Even the editor of the weekly paper
said the news had been inevitable and that dwelling on it--in print or
otherwise--didn't serve any useful purpose.
In Rockville, one town over,
postmistress Marie Arthur saw the news as confirmation of what has been going on
in the small rural towns of the Great Plains for years: "We don't have much left
here." Indeed, out on Main Street, only two commercial buildings remain: her
post office and, next to a shuttered bank, Jane's Tavern.
Kugler, whose office wall is adorned with a life-size poster of John Wayne,
didn't pay much attention to the report either; he's been busy investigating the
county's first murder since 1941. With 3,318 residents, or less than six people
per square mile, Sherman County was one of nine in the United States to revert
to "frontier status" in the 2000 Census. (The term was coined in 1890 to
distinguish "civilization" from unsettled land.)
For some folks here,
there is an acceptance of the inevitable: The rural counties of the Great Plains
have lost one-third of their population since the peak of the 1920s. While the
1990s saw the nation's population expand by 13%, nearly 60% of the Plains'
counties grew smaller as the old died and the young left to seek opportunity
elsewhere in nonfarming careers.
But in places like Loup City (population
1,104), residents are marshaling resources to try to save their towns--and the
neighborly lifestyles they offer.
Last year, deaths outnumbered births in
Sherman County, 44 to 36. The population in Hazard has fallen to 78, the high
school has closed and the primary school enrollment stands at 12. Ravenna's
graduating high school class had 68 students in 1971, 32 in 2000.
year we're losing 10 or 15 kids, and a school obviously can't go on like that
forever," said Dwaine Uttechi, the superintendent in Ravenna, which is in
adjoining Buffalo County. "When you get down to about 40 students in high
school, you have to ask if you can still provide the social interaction and
other necessities kids need. But people fight hard to keep their schools. They
think, 'If we lose the school, we lose the town.' "
To try to stem the
tide, more than 100 Nebraska communities have set up tax-deductible foundations
to underwrite local projects. Loup City has used bonds to build a new high
school and swimming pool, and one couple's $250,000 donation went toward a
community center and two ball fields. The town of Ord instituted a 1% sales tax
for development. Ravenna raised $2,000 for a child-care center by holding a bake
sale and spaghetti dinner.
The proprietor of Jane's Tavern breathed some
life into Rockville by importing Maine lobsters; she sold 36 to diners one
recent Saturday. A summer lobster festival draws thousands of visitors to
Rockville, which calls itself the "lobster capital of Nebraska."
people in the small communities have a sense of hopelessness," said Tom Osborne,
the district's Republican congressman and a former University of Nebraska
Cornhuskers football coach. "But I tell them there is real potential here. All
the land in Nebraska is good for something. We don't have wasteland. We don't
have a lot of federal land. And with the Ogallala Aquifer, there's accessible
and bountiful water under all this land."
In an attempt to create
opportunities and incentives for young people to stay, Osborne is promoting
increased computer literacy, expanded access to broadband technology and the
idea of local scholarships that provide a college education for students who
agree to return to their community for a set number of years. Partly as a
result, almost every town now has its own Web site, including tiny Hazard, which
currently is profiling Tom Croston, a lifelong resident who is 92.
1987, two Rutgers University teachers--land-use expert Frank Popper and his
wife, Deborah, a geographer--offered a radical solution for the development of
the Plains' troubled rural counties: Turn them into a "buffalo commons" on which
bison could roam free again. Their plan called for the federal government to
return the land to the way it was before white settlers arrived.
and ranchers were so outraged that the Poppers for a time needed police
protection when giving speeches in the Great Plains. Their idea smacked of East
Coast academia, and the gentlest message they received from townspeople was that
they should go back home and take care of New Jersey. (Since then, with the
depopulation of rural counties continuing at a steady clip, the hostility has
"Sherman County is a small-scale confirmation of what we're
talking about--that the American frontier is returning," said Frank Popper, who
notes that Ted Turner runs bison over Plains' acreage larger than Delaware.
"Clearly Plan A, with huge federal subsidies underwriting aging populations,
falling water tables and troubled economies, didn't work. It's time to try Plan
B: ecotourism, prairie restoration, cultural and historical preservation and
marketing bison products."