Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rural Nebraska - The Vultures are Circling

The old homesite is overgrown by weeds and sunflowers

The summer heat was oppressive as we pulled into the old homesite. It had been 25 years since anyone set foot in the place. Overgrown by weeds and giant sunflowers, the decrepit structure stood defiantly. Several turkey vultures were flushed from their roost and managed to catch an updraft in the still air. It was a bad omen. When these birds are circling, death is imminent. Rural Nebraska is dying.

Last weekend we departed from Colorado to attend a family reunion in Southwestern Nebraska. The early pioneers of my family homesteaded on the rolling prairie near McCook and worked the fertile land in the Republican River Valley. My childhood summers were spent at "The Farm" exploring the hills and tree rows in a quest for adventure.

We hadn't been back in a long time so I was excited to see the many relatives who still live in the area. I also wanted to revisit the old stomping grounds and get some photographs. Everything seemed smaller and quieter. A devastating drought has turned the hills brown and dried up the swimming ponds. Things were not the way I had remembered.

The region has been losing people for 70 years. The younger generation is not taking over the farms and businesses are not surviving. The factories are abandoned because they're too remote and not profitable. The stores are gone because the customers have left and huge discount chains have moved in. There is very little to keep the small towns going as they're struggling to stay alive. Rural Nebraska now contains several of the nation's poorest counties.

The rise of agribusiness has created federally subsidized mega-operations that have destroyed the traditional family farm. A strategically placed Wal-Mart can be devastating to the merchants trying to eke out a living in one of the smaller, rural counties. If the current trend continues, Nebraska will lose even more farms, stores and schools.

Most of the remaining jobs are dependent on farming but economists believe that must change in order for the struggling communities to survive. Stores that are successful sell the essentials such as gas, quick-stop groceries and coffee. Development experts think the future of rural America depends on small companies making unique products, artisans selling local crafts and historical attractions luring curious tourists.

It was a great time to be a kid. We wandered through the pastures, learned to ride horses and caught toads by the moonlight. Often we'd go into Lebanon and shoot hoops or grab a bottle of pop. It was a thriving community back then. Today, this part of the country is desperate for some good luck. I'm praying for a comeback but from what I observed, the vultures are circling.

We learned to ride horses at the farm

The area is dependent on farming

Buildings are abandoned

The younger generation is not taking over the farms

Rural Nebraska is dying

We used to play hoops

Main street Lebanon is a ghost town

I'm praying for a comeback



10 comments:

  1. It must have been a beautiful place to grow up. What strikes me about this post is that the vultures are not just circling over the rural Nebraska region, but also here in the northeast. We pass by towns ourselves in upstate NY and in Vermont. Buildings are neglected, barns are falling down and towns are nearly abandoned. There are very few businesses there other than the necessities. These places look like such nice, quiet, quaint places to have lived and grow a family, though now they are in such disrepair and despair, I don't know how the people who are still living there make a living.

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    1. In the rural parts of Nebraska it can be difficult to make a living. The three poorest counties in the US are in Nebraska and 7 of the 12 poorest. The bigger towns are increasing in population and Mega-Farms are producing more food more efficiently. It's just hard to see the small towns slowly weathering away.

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  2. Good pics of the old homestead. I remember the house well. We had good times there. It's hard to believe our Great Grandma lived there 30 years ago.

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    1. Thanks, it was great to get back and see everyone. I thought the tour of all the old places was fun but everything seems to be slowly fading away. Lukas had fun soaking Kobe with his water guns and hunting for frogs at the Spencer's pond. We need to make it an annual tradition.

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  3. Can one ever go back home again? It can be shocking to go back to the place where you're from, if it's changed so much. A community requires people, and if people aren't committed to being there, it's an uphill battle. A place like rural Nebraska could benefit from a farm land trust, like they are trying to do on Maui. We have opposite issues (high land prices), but the desire to preserve rural farmland and the lifestyle is also there. A creative group of thinkers who wanted to undertake a project to bring brain power, people, and ideas back to rural Nebraska and create home grown self-sufficiency projects could be created, but takes time and commitment also. It seems like Nebraska would be an excellent place for projects and businesses that celebrate classic ideas of American self-reliance, the "can do" spirit, folk art and maybe a creative arts and folk arts center on brew your own moonshine, make your own shoes, canning and preserving, that kind of thing (could draw in tourists, and preserve local jobs). Mary Jane Butler's farm based in Idaho could be a model for that kind of rural lifestyle. Another great inspiration is Natalie Chanin of the Alabama Stitch project which employs many rural homeworkers.

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    1. Courtney, thanks for such an eloquent, intelligent comment. You seem to have a lot of knowledge about this kind of situation. It was fun to return and see family members but it was concerning to see how depopulated the area has become. The bigger towns in the region are doing fine, even thriving but the smaller communities are turning into ghost towns. I love some of your creative ideas and hopefully others will read your comment and learn something from it. Nebraskan's definitely have a "can do" spirit so I'll never bet against them. I would just hate to see the trend continue because I think if this country ever loses it's Midwestern character we'll be the worse for it.

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  4. Awesome pictures and article, Dan! Thank you. Those memories of exploring with you and your brothers those summers are some of the best I have!

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    1. Chad, it's good to hear from you! We missed you at the get together but your dad told us stories about how well things are going. Those were great memories - swimming in the ponds, riding motorcycles and the UFO encounter. It's beautiful country back there and we had a great time. Things are different but that comes with age. Some of the smaller towns seem to be struggling but McCook appears to be thriving. Please check in once in a while, I like to document some of our adventures. I know how much you like Colorado.

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  5. Hello Dan. It must have ben a beautiful, full-of-life place in its day. Such pity that homely places like these fade away and all the wonderful happenings go with it. The younger generation are flocking to BIG city and small towns are becoming Ghost towns. Thanks for the share. All the best, Sal.

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    1. Thanks Sal, it was a great place to visit during the summers as a kid. Lots of memories. It's still beautiful country and I'm glad we made it back. Hopefully things will turn around for the smaller communities.

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