How we appear to ourselves is rarely how others perceive us. This is doubly so when trying to infiltrate any form of gathering of “locals,” a weasely term that at once distances the bulk of attendees from a smaller fraction of those relegated to outsider status. Freelance writers and reporters are familiar with the sensation of standing out from the crowd, of sly sideways glances and sometimes intense scrutiny, and a recent meeting at a small town in Republic County was no exception. Fortunately, my presence was trumped by a pair of documentary reporters from the BBC’s Washington, D.C. branch and another reporter from Atlanta, so I was merely a sideshow.
The funny thing was how easily I recognized them. It wasn’t just the microphones and video recorders that set them apart—their attire and demeanor were painfully obvious. In the case of the BBC reporters, one wore a tan leather jacket more suitable for the fashion district and the other pointy loafers of European styling. I had them pegged as Brits long before we were introduced. The Atlanta reporter was polite, soft-spoken and black, and with an accent of foreign origin.
My own dress certainly wasn’t a match for the farmers and cattlemen but at least I had the benefit of home turf, more or less. It reminded me, though, of Wil Hylton, a freelance reporter I’d met at a Kansas Farmers Union convention in Great Bend two years ago. He, too, stood out, with a floppy felt hat and an intensity that was almost disconcerting, and clothing that seemed a little too upscale.
We were both there to cover a talk by Frank and Deborah Popper of Buffalo Commons fame. Hylton told me he was writing an article for Harper’s magazine, my favorite periodical, so naturally I eagerly awaited each new edition for his take on the meeting. It was a long time coming, but this summer it appeared with the somewhat extreme title of “Broken Heartland: the looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains.”
Typical Eastern elitist exaggeration, I sniffed, followed by an increasing appreciation for his thoughts. He opens with a quote from Thomas Hart Benton on the futility of human effort on the Great Plains and proceeds to the Poppers’ suggestion that prairie residents embrace their own decline by converting their lands into a sort of wilderness. According to Hylton, Kansas alone lost more than 6,000 towns since the Great Depression, and from a recent excursion across half the state my wife and I saw a dozen communities that were little more than ghost-towns-in-the-making, as I called them. Most were holding on with everything they had but the conclusion was inevitable.
His figure, while startling, corresponds to similar data from K-State’s Chapman Center for Rural Studies, whose interns are working on a multi-year research initiative called “Lost Kansas Communities.” The goal is to document towns of less than 500 residents, to unearth historical records and, when possible, to interview former or current residents.
It also corresponds to my own research as we charted the course of my wife’s great-grandmother’s covered wagon exodus from Blue Rapids to Arkansas. Historical topographic maps dating to the early 1900s detailed dozens of small communities whose very names have been forgotten. For all the animosity raised toward the Poppers when they introduced their findings, depopulation isn’t a theory—it’s a fact.
It came to me in a sort of revelation that I’d witnessed the opposite effect in burgeoning metro areas. During my childhood Albuquerque spread across the Rio Grande Valley and onto the West Mesa, and later as an adult I watched the Denver metropolitan area fuse into one traffic-choked gauntlet stretching from Castle Rock to Fort Collins. Here it’s emptying out except for the larger cities, with most towns showing population declines since the Dust Bowl if not long before.
Last week I spoke to the owner of a preservation company who said she was having difficulty acquiring grants for a small town in Marion County. “I keep getting told, ‘Why bother? The town won’t be there in ten years,” she said.
The town’s population zenith was in 1920, when it boasted 2,455 residents. A decade later it plunged almost 40 percent, and since then has had something of a rollercoaster with influxes and exoduses. In every case, though, gains were offset by greater losses; the city now has 1,210 people. In my small segment of north-central Kansas, that constitutes a major, if not the major, population center for the entire county.
I’m not wringing my hands at the news, however. After seeing firsthand the debilitating effects of unmanageable growth, the depopulating, collapsing Great Plains is where I belong, and anyway reflect a sort of mirrored image of my own declining years. I’d rather be here at the great emptying than at the unconstrained filling.