On the basis of this story out of Morland, KS (population 150, or thereabouts), the answer seems to me: community determination (citizens forming a local foundation to purchase and keep operating the one grocery store left in the area), hard choices (the foundation’s money partly came from the sale of empty school buildings, which resulted from the few remaining local students being sent to the Hill City school district, 25 miles away, since Morland couldn’t support most classes or athletic teams any longer), state policies (which provided the rest of the seed money through a revitalization program), and federal dollars (the money which the state provided had come from the much-derided federal stimulus package of 2009). Will all those components together be enough to keep sufficient commerce flowing through this tiny town to enable it to survive the depopulation and consolidation taking place throughout the Great Plains? In the long run, probably not. But still, 13 years ago, The New York Times featured Morland as typical of the dying farming towns throughout America’s middle. And yet, it’s still there. Perhaps, with the continued determination of citizens who are willing to sacrifice for the sake of holding on to something they find beautiful (and also, though some of Morland’s residents may be reluctant to admit it, with the continued financial support that willing community members can build upon), it may last another 13 years yet.

9 COMMENTS

  1. If you take a special subsidy to keep your town alive, you’ve killed your town. Federal support = federal control = you are just a cog in the big machine.

    But more importantly, if you take away local schools, you kill the local community. Which has been the intention, whether it’s the way the Soviet Union or United States took indigenous children away from their communities to be taught in boarding schools, or whether it’s the way they closed and consolidated the schools of any small-town kulaks whose communitarian independence of thought and action were seen as a threat to the central state.

    One of these days I’m going to post my collection of memorials to long-gone communities in Indiana, i.e. memorials to local schools that are no longer there. These are photos I’ve taken on bicycle rides. One I came across last fall was very appropriately placed on the edge of the town cemetery. But here is another I came across on a different ride: School Memorials

    Keeping a store going is important, too, even if not nearly as important as a school. I’ll file the information about this store with my collection of information about agricultural/rural cooperatives.

  2. John, I’d suspect that Faye Minium, the longtime Morland resident mentioned in the article who worked long and hard to build the local support and secure the funding to re-open the store, and who works to keep people shopping there so it’ll remain open, wouldn’t appreciate being called “a cog in the big machine,” but who knows? I don’t disagree with your larger point about schools, though: holding on to some connection with local public schooling is probably the absolute make-or-break point for small towns. But deciding exactly how to hold onto that isn’t always obvious. As I argued on Front Porch Republic years ago, school consolidation is sometimes an unavoidable reality in this migratory, economically changing world, and when confronted with such hard choices, it might be that the parents remaining in Morland actually made the best, most community-minded, decision available to them in sending their to another school district.

  3. If you in fact do care about midwestern small town economy, you would be well advised to read the book “Methland” by Nick Reding. Global agri-industrial tactics, citizenship, and the challenges of maintaining civilization under difficult circumstances are addressed in this well written book.

  4. Small towns, like large cities, began wherever they are, because there was a reason for people to settle there, and a way to make a living there. If that raison d’etre is gone, for malicious selfish reasons or for unavoidable reasons, but people have come to love the community that existed there, then some new way to make a living there, rather than elsewhere, must be found. A grocery store refurbished by a foundation and running on volunteers is a stop-gap measure, although it may well bridge the gap between imminent decline and future potential.

    Some years ago I observed that there was a company called Great Plains Software. I knew nothing more about the company then, and I don’t know if it still exists, but the concept struck me, hey, you don’t have to be in California or New York to write and distibute software. You can plunk down in some small dying town in the middle of the Great Plains. There are a fair number of kinds of work that could just as well be done in some small town in Kansas, or Iowa, as in New Jersey. It does take some conscious effort to locate real work in dying communities rather than in encroaching exurbs, and for that reason, the effort made by the foundation is a good start — but only a start.

    As for schools, perhaps the community could run K-3 locally, then have a relatively accessible junior high (I’m showing my age here) with a few other K-3 small towns closer than Hill City, and then maybe bus them all to Hill City for high school. Or, as new enterprise brings more families, start up the schools again. Several years ago when I was in southeastern West Virginia, the elementary schools all had interscholastic sports teams with each other, because the high schools had been consolidated on a county-wide basis, and the towns wanted their own teams to root for. The elementary schools was it. It was interesting watching quarterbacks running down the field in slow motion on tiny little legs, and think they are never going to make it, then look at the tackles running after them on equally small legs.

    How do these communities become “Methland”? Because there is no other enterprise in town.

  5. John, I’d suspect that Faye Minium, the longtime Morland resident mentioned in the article who worked long and hard to build the local support and secure the funding to re-open the store, and who works to keep people shopping there so it’ll remain open, wouldn’t appreciate being called “a cog in the big machine,” but who knows?

    I don’t expect she would appreciate it. Most folks, when they quit their small business or farm and go to work for the man, don’t appreciate being reminded that they’ve become a cog in the machine, either. However, most people will, at the right time and in the right company, admit it. I wouldn’t expect things to end well if we can’t deal with that bit of self-knowledge.

    I don’t disagree with your larger point about schools, though: holding on to some connection with local public schooling is probably the absolute make-or-break point for small towns. But deciding exactly how to hold onto that isn’t always obvious. As I argued on Front Porch Republic years ago, school consolidation is sometimes an unavoidable reality in this migratory, economically changing world, and when confronted with such hard choices, it might be that the parents remaining in Morland actually made the best, most community-minded, decision available to them in sending their to another school district.

    Yes, sometimes it has to be done. When our country was conquering the native communities, some people wanted to resist to the bitter end but others didn’t think it practical. The latter tried to find some accommodation to the new dominant society. But even though surrender may have been a collective decision, what was happening was still destructive of community, and still hurts to this day.

  6. BTW, if front-porchers want to help keep local things alive, they should generally favor what is often derisively called a “crazy patchwork of state and local regulations.” It looks like the fracking industry may be pushing for a state takeover of the permit system for sand mining permits in Wisconsin, because at least one local government (Trempealeau County) is putting a brake on permits. Whatever they are for or against fracking, I hope porchers would not favor replacing local regulations with state ones, otherwise local government becomes nothing but an administrative arm of the more central governments. (One unfortunate byproduct of our national decision that issues of racial discrimination could not be left to the states is that we’ve got into the habit of centralizing everything else, too. )

  7. Gorentz makes an excellent point about state and local regulations. The currently dominant Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature have moved to centralize power in Madison, taking discretion away from local communities, and then to centralize power in the executive branch, across the board in a whole range of government functions. Its not exactly a “Tea Party” agenda. The test for the Democrats, whenever they get a majority back, will be whether they have the courage of any convictions to end gerrymandering by putting districting in the hands of an independent commission with a constitutional mandate for compact districts… or whether they jump at the chance to regerrymander to suit themselves. Power corrupts… as all the people who ran on a “term limits” platform demonstrated when their third term was up.

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