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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Great Plains

Air Date: Week of

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The steady shrinking of rural communities across the Great Plains has been underway for decades. But in many areas the exodus has reached critical proportions. Clay Scott reports from North Dakota.


CURWOOD: A century ago, homesteaders flocked to the Great Plains, lured by the promise of free land. They came from places such as Scandinavia, Bohemia, and the Ukraine. They were encouraged by the government, which wanted to settle the prairies. The railroads also promoted settlement, hoping to make money hauling grain from the region that was intended to become America's bread basket. The immigrants persevered, year after year, planting wheat where native prairie grasses once grew. But much of the land was poor and prosperity always just out of reach. Little by little, the communities they carved out of the prairies began to wither, as people left for the cities in search of work. From Canada to New Mexico the shrinking of the rural plains communities has been under way for decades. But in many areas the exodus has reached critical proportions. Reporter Clay Scott has the story from North Dakota.

SCOTT: The Bethel Lutheran church is a modest structure, but you can see the steeple for miles, white against the late summer fields of golden durum wheat. The door is unlocked. There are no signs of recent visitors, no footprints in the dusty aisle between the pews. In the unmown cemetery, three dozen hand-carved headstones mark the graves of immigrant homesteaders. "God bless our darling daughter," reads one, in Norwegian. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." A truck rattles down the road, kicking up a trail of dust. The white haired man behind the wheel slows at the sight of an out-of-state license plate, then pulls to a stop. His name is Ellsworth Jacobson and he is eager to tell a rare stranger stories of the old days.

JACOBSON: Born right here in Wild Rose, and I lived on the farm all my life, 1925. So I haven't gotten very far although I have traveled around some, but not too much. But I know I used to like to ride with my dad, in a sleigh, to Wild Rose, ten miles away, and freeze most of the time, or walk behind the sleigh to keep warm. I don't know why I done it, I didn't have to, but I just wanted to go.

SCOTT: Ellsworth has lived here all his life, until a month ago, that is. That's when he and his wife Eunice decided they were too old to keep up with the rigors of farming in western North Dakota, too old to live in such isolation. They moved to an apartment in the town of Williston, two hours away. Today is his first visit back since the painful decision to leave.

JACOBSON: And I guess that's about the hardest thing I ever done. I spent my entire life here, and I was proud of what I'd done, it isn't so much, but I was still proud of it, and it's hard to leave it, it really is. But I don't know what the answer is, I just don't know.

SCOTT: Ellsworth and Eunice Jacobson, children of immigrants, are now part of a growing out migration from the farm communities of the Great Plains. In western North Dakota some counties have lost up to a quarter of their population in the last ten years. The landscape here is dotted with abandoned farm buildings, while dozens of once thriving towns have all but dried up. Places like Zahl, where only fifteen people remain, in a town that once had three banks, four churches, two lumber yards, a livery stable, two bars, two grain elevators, and a general store. It's an exodus that shows no sign of slowing down.

AUCTIONEER: Selling choice by the jar, on the marbles. Twenty-five, thirty dollars, [auctioneer patter]--Choice, by the bottle.

SCOTT: On a recent Sunday, in the town of Westby, more than 100 people have come from as far as 75 miles away, drawn by the excitement of an auction. They are also here to pay their respects to 86 year old Alice Wittmeyer, the latest to leave the community. She sits in a lawn chair, hands folded in her lap, watching impassively as her possessions are sold off one by one.

AUCTIONEER: Ten buys, ten dollars.

SCOTT: These are items she won't need in the nursing home she's going to: antique marbles, a German chamber pot, a .22 caliber rifle, two fox belts, a kerosene lamp. Auctioneer Butch Haugland, also a full-time high-school teacher and wheat farmer, is busy most weekend at sales like this one. He knows as well as anyone how quickly the Northern Plains are changing.

HAUGLAND: If it continues the way it is now one more generation, and there's not going to be much left out here but two or three big farms. I think that could come pretty quick. It's pretty scary.

SCOTT: It's not so much the natural landscape that's being transformed out here--those who leave don't abandon their farms, they sell or rent to other farmers, so the land is still in production. But, with mechanized farming methods, it takes far less labor to work the land. In the 1930s, North Dakota had 86,000 farms, with an average size of about 500 acres. Today, there are fewer than 30,000 farms, but the average size has nearly tripled. Larger farms mean fewer people. Demographer Richard Rathge, from North Dakota State University, explains the impact of that trend on Plains communities.

RATHGE: Now, as agriculture changed from a fairly labor intensive industry to a capital intensive industry, what happened is we drove away the labor. Now, when we displace farmers we also displace those who serve the farmer, which include the small businesses, from retail to agricultural products and what have you, and it's a downward cycle.

SCOTT: One of the towns caught in that downward cycle is Ambrose, just south of North Dakota's border with Saskatchewan. It was once a bustling place with four churches, a cinema, a beauty salon, even a florist. As recently as the 1960s hundreds of people still lived in Ambrose. Today, only 20 are left. One of them is 53 year old Jon Ness.

NESS: The farm I lived in town here, and there was around 300 people that lived in town, and there were several families with children. So we played and had a great time, in a Norman Rockwell setting, and it was excellent. It was vibrant.

SCOTT: Like most people here, Jon Ness has more than one job. He teaches science at Divide County High School and works with learning disabled children. His wife is a teacher's aide, and both of them work on their 1400 acre farm where they grow wheat, flax, peas and lentils. Despite the difficulty, he says, he loves the farm life he grew up with. But he also makes an unusual admission: that much of the land he and his family have stubbornly worked for generations never was suitable for farming; that agriculture here was doomed from the start.

NESS: You don't want to tell a farmer, you're done. You don't want to tell somebody that this ground is kind of iffy, you shouldn't probably have been farming it in the first place. So we knew, we know. We're not stupid out here. We're all fairly educated people. But when it's that close to home, it gets emotional. Nobody wants to be told that the end is near.

SCOTT: But, in contrast to the shrinking towns and the aging population, there is a remarkable renewal on the prairie, a redefining and strengthening of community. Like the days of the early homesteaders, the focal point is often the church, the same traditional, unadorned service brought here by the immigrant pioneers.

WOMAN: Blessed are you, Oh Lord our God, King of the universe.

CONGREGATION: ...you have formed us.....

WOMAN: You feed the hungry and the small children--

SCOTT: Today, Wild Rose First Lutheran Church is meeting outdoors. For medical reasons, church member Chris Gillun is unable to travel, so the scattered congregation has driven out to her farm. Sixty people sit in collapsible chairs on the edge of a wheat field. Most of them are elderly: the women in flowered dresses; the men, with cowboy hats held on their laps.


SCOTT: After the service, Chris Gillun, one of the few people here under 50, talks about what she calls the reawakened sense of community on the great plains.

GILLUN: Everybody has this frontier attitude that I think is still alive today, and that is that you don't have to be a victim of circumstance but you can persevere.

SCOTT: When Chris fell ill earlier in the year, her neighbors planted her garden for her. When another farmer broke his leg during planting season, those same neighbors got together and put in his crops. And, the people of Wild Rose raised enough money to build a grocery store for their town, the only one for an hour's drive in any direction. But even with their brave optimism, almost everyone here acknowledges that much more is needed to keep their communities intact. In towns like Ambrose, Zahl or Wild Rose, there's a grim sense of inevitability about the change taking place.

On a warm night in Ambrose, Jon Ness leans against the wall of a deserted building on the deserted main street and talks about a way of life he says he knows is coming to an end.

NESS: I'm a musician, I used to play in a band, and we still do once in a while, but we've been relegated to funerals now, because there's not enough people to even have a real good gathering. So, it's those kind of things you really miss: the memory of old friends, and gatherings, and being taught to dance by a big-busted woman, you know, when you're a little kid, and at a barn dance. That's just not going to ever happen. And our kids are never going to enjoy that community.

SCOTT: It's a community that's almost certainly on the verge of disappearing and it's unclear what, if anything, will take its place. That's something the homesteaders could never have imagined, out here on the Plains that were to have been American's bread basket, where the rain was said to follow the plow. An anonymous farmer-poet gives voice to the enthusiasm of that time, a time when prosperity seemed only a harvest away: Have you not all heard of Ambrose, the town that's on the Sioux, where the land is very fertile and we all have work to do? Where we raise the big potatoes, a peck in every hill, cabbage, carrots or tomatoes or anything you will? Where the crops have never failed us and the prospect's looking grand for another bumper harvest on our 20 dollar land?

For Living on Earth, I'm Clay Scott, in Divide County, North Dakota.




North Dakota State University - Photographs from the Northern Great Plains - 1880-1920">


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