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A Broken Heartland

Glasser, Jeff. "A Broken Heartland." U.S. News and World Report, 7 May 2001, 16-17, 19-20, 22.


Larson, N.D. – The white steeple of St. John’s German Lutheran Church lists from the weight of its rusted half-ton church bell. The 93-year-old church’s pews, pulpit, baptismal font, and, most important, congregants have vanished. At the end of a deserted Main Street, tumbleweeds obscure the Great Northern Railroad tracks where trains once routinely carried the world’s first durum wheat to trade centers of the Midwest.

Across from the tracks stands the Larson Hotel, its paint peeling, it’s roof about to be patched with the discarded aluminum newspaper printing plates. It is now home to a disable construction worker and his family who moved here from Pennsylvania last fall, saying they could only afford to live in the middle of nowhere. An empty lot away sits the X-treme North Bar and Barely South Restaurant, a last-chance saloon with a rich history of bourbon and burlesque.

Welcome to Larson, population of 17, the least populated place in one of the nation’s fastest-declining counties. Burke County, N.D., lost 25.3 percent of its population in the past 10 years, falling from 3,002 to 2,242, according to the 2000 census figures released this spring. Its neighbor, Divide County, shrank by 21 percent, from 2,899 to 2,283, during the same period. The two counties are littered with dozens of Larsons, Northgates, and Alkabos – virtual ghost towns that grew up as gas stops for steam trains and died along with the railroads. Larson has withered to the point where none of its residents – including the candidate – bothered to vote in last June’s election for alderman. Four miles down state Highway 5 in Columbus, all that remains of the 74-year-old brick high school are 700 commemorative letter openers hand carved by the town elder out of its maple floors and given away as mementos. To the north, dozens of Canadian oil rigs, coal mines, and a SaskPower plant loom in the distance, a mirage of economic activity 25 miles away but a country apart. To the west, past forgotten little houses on the prairie, Crosby’s cemeteries have so many fresh mounds that it looks like badgers have dug there all winter. “We’re going to have to start importing pallbearers,” jokes Crosby farmer Ole Svangstu, 55, noting there were 48 more deaths than births last year.

Ghost towns. Up and down the Great Plains, the country’s spine, for the Sandhills of western Nebraska to the sea grass in eastern Montana, small towns are decaying, and in some cases, literally dying out. The remarkable prosperity of the last decade never reached this far. Nearly 60 percent (250 of 429) of the counties on the Great Plains lost population in the 1990s, according to a U.S. News analysis of the new census data.

The emptying out of the nation’s rural breadbasket was all the more surprising considering the population resurgence in cities and suburbs. The nation as a whole grew at a robust 13 percent. The 10 states of the Plains, too, expanded by 10 percent overall, a 672,554-person increase fueled by the growth of cities like Billings, Mont., and the tremendous urban sprawl that swallowed the countryside adjacent to Denver, Austin, and San Antonio. Some larger rural areas in the Plains also blossomed from their natural beauty as recreation areas, but the picture was bleak in counties with fewer than 15,000 people, where 228 of 334 (nearly 70 percent) of the counties regressed. “It’s like the parting of the Red Sea,” says Fannie Mae demographer Robert Lang, a census expert. “There are rivers of people flowing out of the [rural] Plains.”

The degeneration of a large swath of this country’s midsection – covering a 317,320-square-mile area spread over parts of the 10 states – has not seeped into the conscience of urban America. City dwellers might still perceive small towns as refuges from society’s maddening stew of gridlock, smog, and crime. Where else can a visitor leave a car unlocked, not to mention running, on a quick trip to the post office? Farmers in small towns are considered the ultimate entrepreneurs, “our national icon of autonomy,” as Yale Prof. Kathryn Marie Dudley writes in Debt and Dispossession: Farm Loss in America’s Heartland. But, as Dudley points out, the contemporary ideal collides with the harsh economic reality.

The problem is seemingly intractable. Once thriving mining and railroad commerce are distant memories. The farm economy has been in a state of contraction for at least 30 years. Forty-two percent of Midwestern farmers, the dominant economic group, earn less than $20,000 annually. A lack of Plains industry limits other opportunities for professionals. Jeff Peterson, 53, Burke County’s sole lawyer, sighs wistfully as he explains why he packing it in after 26 years. “There just aren’t so many people for clients now,” says Peterson. “There aren’t even enough to justify having county judges. Nearly everyone else has already left Burke County, bailing out when their farming and oil and gas jobs dried up in the late 1980s and early 1990s.” Peterson says he will have to write off his $120,000 office building. So far, he has found no takers for his $135,000 house. “This wasn’t a smart place to invest in,” he says.

Manifest destiny. That was always the case. From Thomas Jefferson’s stewardship of the Louisiana Purchase, which included present day Burke and Divide counties, sprang forth the concept of America’s “Manifest Destiny” to inhabit all the nation’s land. In 1862, congress passed the Homestead Act, giving immigrants free 160-acre parcels called “quarters.” Northwestern North Dakota was one of the final places homesteaded. At the turn of the 20th century, the region filled with Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Belgians, and a few Germans. The territory was so forbidding that it had no tress, so the pioneers built sod homes on a virgin landscape, described by novelist Willa Cather as “nothing but land, not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”

Postmaster Columbus Larson’s settlement on the western tip of Burke County split in two with the coming of the railroads. Half set up in front of the Great Northern tracks at “Larson,” half 4 miles to the northeast next to the Soo Line at “Columbus.” By 1930, every quarter in Burke and Divide was inhabited, with what would be a peak 19,634 people on the land. Crowds gathered on Saturday nights at the Opera House in Larson to dance the polka and listen to traditional Norwegian yodeling. Colorful vaudeville troops headlined the marquee at Columbus Theater. Lawrence Welk and his dance band played his signature “champagne music” there. Bootleggers peddled liquor during Prohibition, and the Larson Opera House was the place for bawdy pantomime. Occasionally the townspeople gathered on Main Street and fearfully watched local young men test their strength against that of bear for cash prizes (provided they won).

In the “dirty Thirties,” pioneer women placed wet bedsheets over windows to keep out dust. The perseverance and courage of the settlers – lionized by Cather in her novel O Pioneers! – were tested as the soil crumbled in a series of crop disasters. Most of Larson’s 114 residents left the Dust Bowl behind in search of an easier life. Columbus continued to boom in the immediate post-World War II period, though, with coal miners, power-plant workers, farmers, and a few oil roughnecks keeping the place full. The town peaked with nearly 700 people in the early 1950s. Then the coal mines closed, and the local power plant shut down. Advances in technology improved crop yields, so far fewer people were needed to farm the land. A series of government conservation programs prompted hundreds of local farmers to retire to Arizona, exacerbating the exodus.

In 1972, Columbus still has 20 businesses. Larson was hanging on with six shops, including Witty’s grocery store and Ole Johnsons’s gas station. Virtually all are gone today. Columbus, with just 151 residents, has one café and a farm tool supplier, both set to close later this year. The only eatery left in Larson is the X-treme North Bar and Barely South Restaurant, which may also close. “The handwriting’s on the wall,” says Harold Pasche, 80, a retired farmer from Larson who now lives in Columbus. “Every little town in this whole area here is going down.” The collapse of the retail trade in Columbus and Larson mirrors a national decline. From 1977 to 1997, the number of American grocery stores fell by 61.2 percent, men’s clothing stores dropped by 46.6 percent, and hardware stores slipped by 40.6 percent, according to the Census of Retail Trade. Ken Stone, an Iowa State University economist specializing in rural development, says small-town Main Streets are going the way of the railroads. “There’s very little way to bring [them] back,” he says.

On the farm, net income is projected to declining 20 percent in the next two years because of a worldwide depression in commodity prices and higher energy costs. Without government intervention, 10 percent of farmers could not survive one year, says former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. He calls federal farm subsidies “rural support” programs and fears “economic devastation in large parts of rural America” if the government nixes them. Yet President Bush’s budget package does not allocate any disaster money for farmers, who in the past three years received $25 billion in extra federal relief. Despite Glickman’s warnings, there is little room in today’s debate for Jeffersonian programs to resettle the Plains. People simply do not want to deal with harsh winters and broiling summers. “It’s still a loser in [Plains] politics to say, ‘Let them die,’” says Frank Popper, a Rutgers University land-use expert. “You’ve got an ongoing aversion, a denial of what’s going on. But every year there are fewer farmers and ranchers. Every year they are losing their kids.” In 1998, Popper and his wife, Deborah, also a professor, dreamed up a radical alternative for the rural Plains: a vast “Buffalo Commons,” in which the federal government would return the territory to it pristine state before white settlement, when the buffalo roamed and the prairie grasses grew undisturbed.

Where the buffalo roam? Farmers hated the idea. But in the decade that followed, thousands of miles on the Northern Plains have reverted to “wilderness” areas with buffalo herds and fewer than two people per square mile. “I actually think that this is the last American frontier,” says Larson’s town treasurer, Debra Watterud, 53.

That leaves places like Larson and Columbus with even fewer totems of their town histories. The latter held its final Columbus Day Parade in 1992, when Pasche drove his treasured 1932 Chevrolet Roadster down Main one last time. At the last major civic gathering in 1994, residents scooped up bricks and floor planks from the soon-to-be-demolished high school. Doug Graupe, 56, a Divided County farmer, argues that the remaining residents have an obligation to their ancestors to persevere. “Economics shouldn’t drive every decision,” he says. “Do you have to have money to have a good quality of life? … People in small towns are always there to help others, to raise kids. You have a sense of community.” Graupe and other in the region are excited about a $2.5 million pasta processing plant that they’re planning to build in nearby Crosby, but not everyone’s confident it will succeed, given the perilous demographics and the area’s previous failed attempts at renewal.

In Larson, Debra Watterud proposed shutting down the town after the no-show election because of the level of interest was low. Her father-in-law, retired farmer Myron Watterud, 76, opposed the idea. If Larson deincorporated, he said, who would pay for the lights (which consume half the $3,000 town budget)? The town would disappear from maps. No one would ever bring it back, a possibility that’s hard to fathom for a man who has spent his life here. His daughter-in-law agreed to table her suggestion, but Myron Watterud says he’s “scared” to watch the town in the approaching darkness of its final demise. “If the leaders of this town saw what happened,” he says, “they’d turn over in their graves.”

Reprinted with permission of U.S. News and World Report.

Residents attend church in Noonan, N.D., which is among the nation’s disappearing villages.
Ambrose, N.D., is one of the places in the Plains that grew up and are now fading with the railroads.
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