Death Of A Small Town

Bob Weltin, a burly and bearded North Dakota homeboy with the oil-stained hands of a working man, squeezed tight on a cup of coffee in the Chocolate Shop on Main Street in tiny Bisbee, N.D. So much in his life has been slipping away. Weltin, 43, is the mayor of Bisbee, a town that gave him his childhood: movies at Pettsinger's Theater, root-beer floats at Brannon's Drug and Soda Fountain, groceries at Dick's Red Owl. All that is gone now. There isn't a doctor or lawyer in Bisbee anymore, or a plumber. The priest at Holy Rosary Catholic Church left town; parishioners can no longer afford to support a pastor. Even the police department closed. The population dropped more than 30 percent in the last decade. There are now but 227 hearty souls hanging on for life in Bisbee.

But Mayor Weltin won't be one of them. He is stepping down from his post in September and moving away. There reaches a point in the decline of a town, he explained apologetically, "where it just doesn't work anymore." Besides everything else, Weltin says he wants to move closer to a medical center. His 13-year-old boy, Brendan, has heart troubles. His 18-year-old son, Jordan, died of cerebral palsy in June. Weltin stared away for a moment, then put down his coffee cup and started talking about the weather. The winds can howl wickedly across the northern plains. Even a strong man can stand for only so long.

Hundreds of little towns on the Great Plains are teetering on collapse. About half the counties on the plains lost population in the '90s--some to levels lower than during frontier days in the 1800s, when pioneers rolled westward in covered wagons. Outside these isolated little places, it's hard to know whether many people really care. In the suburban ethos that prevails in 21st-century America, the death of so many hick towns elicits barely more than a shrug.

The land of white picket fences was never idyllic. But as these towns become further hollowed out, the spine of America today is becoming older and poorer. Economist Karl Stauber told a conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank that rural poverty is generally higher than urban--15.9 percent, compared with 12.6 percent. Nearly 23 percent of rural children live in poverty, compared with 19.2 percent of urban children. "The rural ghetto, if it is allowed to continue and expand, will be a powerful symbol of failure in America and of American culture," said Stauber. "It will mean that America accepts the idea that success and prosperity should be allocated based on race and location, rather than being available to all." He and other rural advocates fault policymakers in Washington for focusing only on farmers--direct subsidies to agriculture last year totaled more than $25 billion--even though most people in the countryside do not farm. These advocates say the federal government should aid rural businesses, bolster state and community colleges and promote immigration to counties that are begging for warm bodies.

The Bush administration has shown little interest in crafting a plan for the survival of withering little towns, said Mark Drabenstott, a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City, Mo. "We write farm bills every four or five years, but we don't have a rural policy," said Drabenstott, who directs the Center for the Study of Rural America. "So many communities are asking: where is our next economic engine?"

Small towns that do prosper these days tend to be those with the stunning natural features of the Rockies--ranchettes in Montana go for millions--not the plain-Jane farm towns of the corn belt, said Calvin Beale, a demographer for the Agriculture Department. "Mountains and lakes," Beale said, "are seen as amenities."

Places like Bisbee have a different kind of beauty. E. B. White waxed lyrical about the flat fields and endless horizons in North Dakota. Lately, bird-watchers have been coming to the state to gaze at the geese. But they're not staying year-round and buying houses that now sell for as little as $2,000 in Bisbee and other towns in the state.

It has never been easy to live in a place that gets too hot in the summertime (over 100 degrees), too cold in the wintertime (gallows humor here: "40 below--it keeps out the riffraff"), and too flat all year round. Rand McNally once forgot to include North Dakota in an atlas of the 50 states. Aware of its image problem, some politicians are pushing a measure to change the name of the state. They urge dropping the "North" from North Dakota. "The thinking is that maybe it won't sound quite so cold," said Terry Jorde, a bank president in Cando, the seat of Towner County, which includes Bisbee.

As a way to try to survive, counties on the plains are putting aside rivalries and trying to cooperate, rather than compete. Since the high school in Bisbee is too small to field a football team, it forms a cooperative with other schools. So it's the Cando-Bisbee-Egeland-Starkweather team that plays the Adams-Edinburg-Edmore squad. But it means that teams must travel farther to find an opponent. The players from Bisbee sometimes journey 160 miles for a game. Wayne Lingen, who is the superintendent of school districts in Cando and Bisbee, said the makeup of the cooperatives is different for each sport. "And then it's still another combination for the girls' sports," said Lingen. "It can be very confusing to try to keep rivalries straight."

There is more than rivalry to worry about. Lingen points to enrollment figures that underscore the bleak future for his school. The high school, which includes grades seven to 12, has 69 students. But the grade school, kindergarten through sixth, has only 31. The decline is sharp and fast. And nobody here is fooling himself. There is some brave talk at Dutch's tavern, especially when it gets crowded on Tuesday nights for bingo. But for the most part, people are smart enough--and honest enough--to know that someday, maybe soon, their town is going to die.

The Chocolate Shop, the only restaurant in town, loses money every time it opens the door. It stays open as a gesture of goodwill by its owner, Sylvia Schmidt, an elderly, well-to-do woman who remembers another Bisbee, a place that bustled and preened and made a little noise on a Saturday night. "You can't imagine what it was like," says Schmidt, with eyes that still manage to sparkle.