A journey across America’s heartland
to find the future of small towns
BY DANIEL BLUE TYX | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 06 | PDF Version
I grew up in a small town in Middle America. I also left. For both these reasons, I found myself feeling personally attacked when post-election articles began appearing in my Facebook feed. I had seen these social ills firsthand — depopulation, underemployment, poverty, brain drain, xenophobia, addiction. Yet the part of me that grew up rural resented the barrage of negativity, much of it from reporters who wrote as if they had never stepped foot in a small town before.
I decided to set out on a road trip; not to rural places that were supposedly “dying,” but to those that weren’t. I wanted to find places reinventing themselves in the face of challenges rural communities are facing everywhere — the globalization of agriculture, the loss of family farms, the advent of big box stores and online retail.
The search was also intensely personal. My father and my father-in-law had both been diagnosed with advanced Stage 4 cancers. My wife Laura and I always said we would move closer to home if needed; perhaps that time was closer than we thought. We had long joked about a quasi-mythical Town X, some forward-looking, diverse community within easy driving distance of our parents. Both of us liked the idea (in theory) of living in a small town — but we also couldn’t imagine living in the same homogenous small towns we grew up in. After more than fifteen years away, we had ample worries: Where would we work? Would we fit in? What might our kids experience in school? Having lived for the past fifteen years in South Texas, where 90 percent of the population is Hispanic, we were especially concerned about the rise of anti-immigrant vitriol.
Did Town X exist? And where to begin looking? From my family’s yearly travels from Texas to my mom’s house in Iowa, I knew a few places to check out. I soon contacted rural nonprofit leaders and journalists who kindly sent me dozens of suggestions.
I mapped out a route based on geography and intuition. After dropping Laura and the kids off with my mother in Kansas City, I set out in my Hyundai sedan with little more than my tent and a cooler full of cucumber sandwiches. I went looking for a vision of what the future could look like for rural communities, hoping along the way to gain a clearer picture of my own.
GREENSBURG, KS | POP. 771
“Greensburg,” the billboard a few miles outside town read: “Small Town Reimagined.”
In many ways, Greensburg had no choice but to reimagine itself. On May 4, 2007, an EF5 tornado destroyed 95 percent of this remote town in southwestern Kansas, claiming the lives of 12 residents. Less than a week later, then-governor Kathleen Sebelius announced Greensburg’s intention to rebuild itself as “the greenest town in rural America.”
I had heard about Greensburg on NPR, yet I was skeptical of its eco-claims. “Greenest town” didn’t fit with my vision of Kansas as one of the reddest states in the nation.
Stacey Barnes, Greensburg’s tourism director, helped prove my suspicions wrong. We met at the circular structure that housed the Big Well Museum. “If people had heard of Greensburg before the tornado, this is what they knew,” Barnes said, leading me to the well at the museum’s center. Dug by hand in 1888, it measured 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide, the town’s only source of water. Fifty years later, having outlived its usefulness, the Big Well became one of America’s first roadside attractions. Today, you can climb down a spiral staircase almost to the bottom.
Barnes suggested I take the bike tour of town. “Just bring it back here when you’re done with it,” she said, leading me to a rack of single-gear bikes outside the museum. No fee, no deposit, no ID required. To guide me through Greensburg, I downloaded the town’s tourism app.
Stop 1 was the Big Well. Stop 2 was the Tornado Memorial, a granite marker engraved with the names of those who died in the storm; nearby, another stop was a haunting concrete staircase to nowhere left behind at what was once the First Christian Church.
Most of the tourism stops were environmentally efficient buildings. Seven in Greensburg had achieved LEED Platinum certification, the government’s highest standard in energy efficiency. (Before the tornado, Kansas didn’t have any.) I pedaled to each, reading the framed posters listing sustainable design elements — green roof, solar panels, rainwater collection. I felt as though I had wandered into a post-apocalyptic utopia in which everything was constructed from the ruins of something else: city hall from bricks salvaged from the power plant; the K-12 school from distressed wood saved from Hurricane Katrina. Even the playground slide was fashioned from a repurposed stainless-steel pipe. The entire community was energy self-sufficient, and then some.
One third of the electricity generated by 10 town-owned wind turbines — stop 15 on the tour — powered all of Greensburg. The remaining energy was sold as credits to out-of-towners.
How had this eco-transformation happened? “We wanted to think like our ancestors thought for us — to make a community that lasts lifetimes,” said Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixson. We met at his ranch-style home that had replaced a three-story Victorian lost to the storm. Dixson was voted into office after the previous mayor, like more than half of the town’s residents, moved away after the tornado. He’d helped shepherd the green initiative from vision to reality — but it wasn’t always an easy sell. “There were some lively discussions with all that connotation we had in rural America of East Coast/West Coast stuff infiltrating us,” he said. Dixson himself shared the climate-change reservations of many of his constituents. “I’m a firm believer that we as humans have an impact on our environmen, don’t get me wrong there, but let’s have a thought process that’s not doom and gloom and scare tactics,” he told me. “There’s no such thing as proven science.”
While Dixson’s climate skepticism appeared to confirm my own earlier incredulity, that hadn’t stopped him from making an argument that was vintage High Plains pragmatism: Becoming “the greenest town in rural America” would save money and attract jobs. “When you make a business case for being green,” he said, “it works.”
Dixson believes that going green has yielded another, perhaps less expected, benefit: More young people. Many, I imagine, were looking for the same amenities as Laura and I — a safe, inclusive, progressive community. Stacey Barnes, the tourism director, was one of those young people. She is also Mayor Dixson’s daughter. Barnes moved back from the college town of Lawrence after the tornado. (“I got my job before my dad got his,” she told me, brushing aside any ideas I might have had about nepotism.) Now, she lived with her husband and two children a few blocks from her parents.
“If the tornado hadn’t happened, they probably never would have moved back to Greensburg,” Dixson said. He was speaking not just about his daughter, but other young people who have put down roots. “But this was their town, and they wanted to be part of the rebuild. I don’t know of any of them that has regretted coming back.”
BIRD CITY, KS | POP. 432
I’ve been in ghost towns before, but never a ghost prairie.
“If you look around, you see the remnants of a house up there,” Jeter Isely said. The Bird City farmer traced his finger along an imaginary line up a gravel road. It bisected an endless sea of wheat. “The next one there is empty and long gone. The school’s long gone,” he told me. “There’s two or three people who live on that block, and it’s twelve-and-a-half miles around on the road.”
The string of abandoned homes in America’s breadbasket illustrated a basic challenge facing rural America: As big corporate farms gobble up greater amounts of land, fewer people live there. Highly automated production is good for bottom lines, but the associated depopulation is devastating for communities that relied on farmers and their families for generations.
The High Plains Food Co-op, of which Isely is president, aims to reverse that trend. The co-op transports organic produce and meat from rural hamlets like Bird City, where there’s plenty of land but little market, to cities like Denver, 200 miles west, where the opposite is true. The co-op may just make small-scale farming viable again for a new generation of farmers.
Like Greensburg’s Mayor Dixson, Isely presents an unlikely leader in the fight for sustainability. Wiry and intense, he’s a former agrochemical company executive. “I’m not going to say it was a ‘very large, evil corporation’ or anything like that,” Isely explains: “I just don’t believe it’s the best way to farm.”
Warning me to watch out for rattlesnakes, Isely led me on a tour of the Y Knot Farm and Ranch. He and his wife Nina started Y Knot a decade ago after Isley took early retirement. He showed me the rescue horses his daughters rode as teenagers, his organic wheat field and the trees he had planted as windbreaks and to conserve moisture — measures that he hopes will better the per-acre yield of his conventional neighbors.
Joined by the Isley’s daughter and granddaughter, we walked to the cow pasture to see his herd of Belted Galloways. Nicknamed “Oreo Cows” because of their black bodies with a single white stripe down the center, they produce beef with more protein and a fraction the fat of feedlot cattle. They get plenty of exercise and a healthier diet grazing the Kansas prairie, an unforgiving habitat for which the Belted Galloways are particularly suited, having been bred to thrive in the similarly harsh Scottish heath.
Products like Y Knot’s beef, as well as the organic produce Nina grows in their hoop house, fetch premium prices in Denver. The hard part is figuring out how to get it there. That’s where the Co-op comes in, running what amounts to an online grocery store. Restaurants, grocery stores and individual customers can choose from some 700 items delivered by Co-op volunteers once a week. There were logistical challenges. The Co-op had to find or build cold-storage drop-off points and rent refrigerated trucks. It also tracks every product from seed to market, all in an attempt to make the bottom line add up. Yet the Co-op is nearing its goal of selling $1 million in goods per year. Crucially, High Plains has gone from a handful of family farms at the outset to more than 50, many of them young farmers just starting out.
A big storm was brewing in the western sky. Nina invited me to stay for dinner, then for a night in the spare bedroom. Unexpectedly, I had a warm shower, a home-cooked meal and a real bed. I felt like I had entered Little House on the Prairie, a book I had recently read to my five-year-old daughter. In the book, as on this blustery prairie night, Laura’s Ma and Pa were forever foisting bighearted hospitality on obtrusive strangers in their little house far, far from the nearest neighbor.
CODY, NE | POP. 157
The sign at Cody’s city park where I camped summed up the town nicely: “Village of Cody: Too Tough to Die.”
You had to be tough to make it out here. Nebraska’s Sandhills region was “long considered ‘irreclaimable desert,’” according to a plaque near the Dismal River scenic lookout. Eventually, settlers found a use for the grass-covered sand dunes as grazing land, although fences and farms divided the legendary open range.
I was in the heart of cowboy country. Yet here, where the ruggedest of individualism reigns, I found it wasn’t just individual residents who were tough, but the collective village.
Walking inside the Circle C Market just off the highway, I was greeted by Bentley Jenkins, a blonde teenager in a green hoodie and black Chuck Taylors. Letters stuck to the wall behind her announced: “It’s more than a store. It’s our future.” Because the Circle C Market is almost certainly America’s only town-owned, volunteer-built, student-run grocery store made out of straw bales.
“The kids do everything,” said Tracee Ford, the teacher who helped start the Circle C. Students do the ordering, stocking, managing, and bookkeeping; everyone takes business and accounting courses on site. It’s not Whole Foods, but it has the basics, plus a milkshake machine and fresh produce from a nearby below-ground greenhouse that started up to supply the store. Mainly, you don’t have to drive 38 miles to Valentine to get a gallon of milk, precisely what Cody’s residents did for a decade after its last grocery store closed.
After Ford and a colleague thought up the Circle C at a teacher in-service, they convinced the school superintendent to go along. Then came the state of Nebraska. The land along the highway in Cody was owned by the Game and Parks Commission, having turned the derelict railroad into the Cowboy Trail for horseback riders and cyclists. When the school district inquired about a lease, Nebraska declined, not wanting to set a precedent. In response, Ford rounded up students and community members and drove to Lincoln for a Game and Parks board meeting. The students did all the talking. They got a 99-year lease.
Everyone pitched in during the construction. Ranchers donated straw, and half the town showed up to bale. Vocational technology students framed the building. Elementary students stood on sawhorses to do the squishy stucco work. “It was easy to get buy-in when all those little kids were involved,” Ford said.
As we walked through the store, we were interrupted by Kyle Rosfeld, a dead ringer for the town’s namesake —Buffalo Bill. “I’m on my way to Valentine to pick up groceries,” he explained. Only in a place as far-flung as Cody does a grocery store need to run for groceries. But that’s why the previous store had failed—no supplier would make the trip. Ford cut a deal: A grocer in Valentine would put in their order so long as someone from the Circle C sorted out the purchases. Once a week, Rosfeld drove over with a vanful of students.
Later in the day, I stopped by Rosfeld’s shop, the Sandhills Boot Company. He made custom-made boots straight out of the 1800s — no nails, no plastic, no glue, just wooden pegs. He pulled up a pant leg so I could see the pair he had on, bearing the signature of Willie Nelson. Willie is a customer.
Rosfeld and his wife moved to Cody because of the Circle C — they liked the idea of their kids being part of a project bigger than themselves. His eldest son, who helped frame the building as a high school student, was now an electrician. His eldest daughter took enough dual-credit business coursework to graduate with her high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Rosfeld believed that working at the Circle C helped his children grow in ways that would not have been possible within a traditional school curriculum.
That was precisely what Tracee Ford had in mind when she conceived of the Circle C. “A lot of these kids who have done this, they have a built-in confidence to be able to make decisions and take a little risk,” she said. Back at the Circle C to say goodbye, I lingered at the front door as we talked about my own family. Ford extended an invitation. “We have great schools here,” she told me: “You would always be welcome.”
PORCUPINE, SD | POP. 1,062
Hahanni Waste’, the first speaker greeted us in Lakota. As the entire staff of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowded conference room, a young man lit a bundle of sage. He carried it around the circle, hands wafting smoke to nostrils. Meanwhile, everyone from senior administrators to teenagers on the workforce crew expressed a gratitude for the day.
The ritual recalled the origins of Thunder Valley, which grew out of a spiritual circle of young people interested in reconnecting with ancestral practices like the Sun Dance, a rite of renewal for the Lakota Sioux tribe. Over time, that circle had evolved into a vision for a “regenerative community” on 34 hillside acres inside the Pine Ridge Reservation. There, a few miles north of the city limits of Porcupine, Thunder Valley imagined not just a new town, but a different society.
Community engagement coordinator Andrew Iron Shell showed me the work in progress. Concrete foundations were laid for seven houses in a circular arrangement, or “pod,” according to Lakota tradition. Walls were up on the first three structures; all seven were scheduled to be completed by fall. Each house was already purchased by an owner who had completed homebuying and financial literacy classes. As with Habitat for Humanity, owners also put in sweat-equity. But here, owners helped with every house in the pod. “It’s a barn-raising process,” Iron Shell said.
At Thunder Valley, how the buildings are constructed was equally important as what was being built: a community in every sense. All construction workers on site were young women and men, between 18 and 26, who had signed up for Thunder Valley’s workforce development crew. Many had no prior construction experience, so architects designed the houses as easy-to-assemble kits. Since many hadn’t finished high school, Thunder Valley offered an after-hours GED program. “In the white world, you might say that profit margin is the bar of success,” Iron Shell said. “But here, it’s that kid showing up every day even though we know what kind of hard life they have.”
Houses weren’t the only work underway at Thunder Valley. A solar array had been installed in April, and a community garden was yielding its first harvest. According to Thunder Valley’s 10-year plan, currently in year three, the community will eventually encompass dozens of single-family homes as well as an apartment complex, Lakota-immersion school, health clinic, fitness center, retail space and powwow grounds.
Thunder Valley’s larger mission is to build a model for uprooting what Iron Shell calls “intentional poverty”— the result of hundreds of years of destructive policy making. On the reservation, the unemployment rate is 80 to 90 percent. Per capita income is $4,000 per year, and life expectancy is second lowest in the Western Hemisphere, better only than Haiti.
Before I left Pine Ridge, I caught up with soon-to-be-homeowner Alan Jealous. He was in line for green chili pork burritos at a van that pulled up for lunch. A workforce development alum, he had stayed with Thunder Valley as a construction team leader. On top of the 40 hours a week he works for his job, he puts in another 26 hours in sweat equity. At home, he has a 4-year-old son and a daughter due later this year. He hopes by then they’ll be moved into the family’s new home.
“I stay pretty busy,” Jealous said. “For what it’s worth — my family having a stable home and a roof over their heads — definitely, I’ll put my body on the line for that.”
SCHUYLER, NE | POP. 6,106
At the Schuyler Grocery downtown, a big cardboard “WELCOME” sign hung from the ceiling alongside colorful star-shaped piñatas. Carlos Lucar, the store’s owner and a native of Peru, was at the register. Stocky and soft-spoken, with reading glasses sliding down his nose, he greeted each customer by name.
Lucar called to mind shopkeepers of another era. When I was a boy, my father — a rare, small-town, stay-at-home dad — used to pull my brother and I in a red Radio Flyer wagon downtown nearly every day. He didn’t learn to drive until I was in third grade. He didn’t have to. Everything we needed — groceries, hardware, bank, books — we found at downtown shops much like Lucar’s.
Those businesses in my hometown are gone now, replaced by antique stores, kitschy coffee shops and a Walmart at the edge of town. It’s a story repeated across rural America, but not in Schuyler. Here, a quick scan revealed three grocery stores (two Latino and one African), a movie theater, beauty salon, clothing store, two restaurants and an ice cream parlor. Downtown Schuyler offered anything you needed, plus good conversation, although it might be in Spanish or Arabic.
Like most new immigrants to Schuyler, Lucar first worked at the nearby Cargill beef processing plant, which has some 2,200 employees. He arrived in the mid-1990s, right as the plant was expanding and the local labor force shrinking. Today, Latinos in Schuyler number roughly 4,000 — 70 percent of the town’s population. There are growing Sudanese and Somali communities too. As more immigrants put down roots, entrepreneurs like Lucar have sparked a downtown renaissance.
Still, Lucar faced hurdles starting his grocery. He didn’t qualify for bank loans and struggled to obtain the necessary licenses and permits. That’s where the Latino Business Center, a project of the nonprofit Center for Rural Affairs, came in. Juan Sandoval, the center’s director, helped Lucar obtain credit to buy freezer cases and bakery equipment, and helped him register a limited liability company. “Banks are looking for two years of credit history. We are not looking for that,” said Sandoval. A native of Venezuela, he immigrated to Nebraska with his family in 1999. Unlike banks and most government agencies, the center also lends to immigrants with refugee, asylum-seeker, temporary-protected or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. Although they take on clients whom banks regard as high-risk, Sandoval proudly shared that the program’s all-time default rate is zero.
Walking downtown with Sandoval, we ran into another of his clients, Manuel del Cid, the Honduran owner of Best PC Repair. Like Lucar, del Cid started at Cargill. “It was really hard work,” he said. “Eight hours standing in the same place, doing the same thing—and sometimes two shifts in a row.”
Del Cid’s computer repair shop was growing, and he had recently branched out into graphic design and printing. But for a few months after Donald Trump’s election, del Cid had wondered if he could stay in business. “People didn’t go out. They didn’t buy anything. Lots of people just left,” he said. The fear hit particularly close to home in Schuyler, site of one of the largest immigration raids in U.S. history. In 1995, 133 workers were arrested and deported after they showed up for a nonexistent “emergency” night shift coordinated between federal officials and Cargill management. For del Cid, the fear provoked by Trump’s election was a reminder that his business, like all of Schuyler, relied on the plant; most of his customers worked there.
I circled back to Lucar’s grocery to pick up a few provisions on my way out of town. Lucar’s daughter Karla was with him behind the register, helping with the accounting. She was on summer vacation from the University of Nebraska, where she was pursuing a master’s degree in computer engineering. “Back in Peru, I already had my own business,” Lucar said as he rang up my purchases. “If we are looking for a better future — the American Dream, you could say — we’re not going to reach it for ourselves. It’s for our children.”
LYONS, NE | POP. 851
The last stop on my itinerary transported me from the farms and hills of eastern Nebraska to an alien landscape.
I met Bill Hedges, better known around Lyons as Cosmic Bill, at the door of Cosmic Film Studios, the production company he created in the town’s old movie theater. Inside, Hedges had constructed a life-size spaceship, along with an alien planet set crammed with paper-mâché boulders and campy sci-fi oddities like cowboy robots and plants with eyeballs. “Here in eastern Nebraska, we don’t have any places that look like—you know, an alien planet,” Hedges said. “So I had to make it myself.”
The theatre held sentimental significance for Hedges. Not only had he watched late-night showings of B-movie sci-fi flicks there, but he had worked as the theater’s projectionist as a teenager. When the building went up for sale after a second life as a furniture store, Hedges had just retired from the postal service and was looking to turn his lifelong filmmaking hobby into a full-time enterprise. Now, he was producing a web series called Cosmic Cat starring Penny, a feline he adopted from the Omaha animal shelter. Penny was being trained for film stardom. “She’s coming along,” Hedges explained. And in case Penny never takes to sword fighting, Hedges said, he’s built a remote-controlled cat to serve as back-up.
Cosmic Film Studios is one of several ventures in what Lyons residents have christened the Creative Corridor, a long-term effort to transform the town’s historic-but-vacant storefronts into community gathering spaces, all with a focus on the arts.
“How can we reimagine Main Street infrastructure, recognizing that these buildings aren’t going to be retail again?” posed Brian Depew, the executive director of the Lyons-based Center for Rural Affairs. Depew joined Hedges and I at the film studio. “What can they be that keeps the central focus and identity that comes with Main Street in small towns?”
I had first met Hedges and Depew the night before at the Andromeda Gallery next door. It was another of Hedges’ projects. After he purchased the former beauty salon for $9,000, he began hosting monthly art exhibitions. As the town’s creative types began gathering at the gallery openings, Hedges suggested a weekly meeting. The standing date became known as the Wednesday Night Group.
On the Wednesday I visited, the group numbered fifteen people of all ages and walks of life, including a bus driver, retired farmer, librarian, poetry scholar, artist and two Center for Rural Affairs staff members. There was no formal agenda, just people talking around a plate of cheese. Someone suggested an Uber-like service for rural seniors; someone else proposed a tiny house motel. There was talk of buying the old bowling alley, which was slated for demolition and planning for upcoming Fourth of July festivities.
“Sometimes rural people tell ourselves we don’t have interesting things to do in our towns,” Depew said the next morning as we walked with Hedges on an impromptu tour of Main Street. He pointed out empty buildings and projects the Wednesday Night Group had brainstormed for them — a community art studio, lofts for visiting artists, a rural studies library and archive, a center for intergenerational learning and exchange. “I believe that’s not true,” Depew said, thinking it over as we walked: “And I believe it doesn’t have to be true.”
We stopped at a nondescript storefront where orange cones had been laid out to block parking. Hedges disappeared into a narrow alleyway. “Clear out there?” he yelled. A motor whirred into action. The shop’s entire brick façade slowly descended like a drawbridge, revealing a projector screen and a set of high school gymnasium bleachers.
The Storefront Theater, as the project is known, was the brainchild of conceptual artist Matthew Mazzotta. He had traveled to Lyons in 2014 with the idea of doing an art installation, though exactly what kind of project would be up to the town. Mazzotta arranged couches and lamps in the middle of Main Street into an outdoor living room. Curious passersby were invited to sit and chat about what they wanted for Lyons. Two themes kept coming up: People wanted Main Street to be a hub of social activity again, and they missed the old movie theater.
So the Storefront Theater was born with the help of a local farm equipment manufacturing company that did the fabrication. The first film to show there was Decades, a documentary about the history of Lyons written and directed by Bill Hedges. He enlisted the entire town in the production. Residents were actors and extras, and people donated period clothes and classic cars. The police department even shut down Main Street to film a 1960s segment that featured cruising teenagers in a drag race.
More than 250 people showed up the night of the premiere. They sat together on bleachers in the middle of Main Street, watching themselves and their neighbors reenact the town’s history on screen. They were also part of creating a new future; for one night at least, people were back on Main Street.
As we arrived at the offices of the Center for Rural Affairs, our conversation turned to what that future might look like. Depew was realistic about the difficulties facing rural communities like Lyons. As much as local leadership and vision matters, he said, that alone isn’t enough to reverse long-term trends of economic decline and social fragmentation. “A lot of the challenges facing rural America have to do with big trends around public policy — including trade, tax policy, health policy,” he told me. “Every rural community is on a fundamentally unfair playing field.”
I was soon heading back to my mother’s house in Iowa. I mulled over what Depew said as I drove through Lyons one last time. If I hadn’t been on the lookout for rural reinvention stories—if I had never spoken with Hedges or Depew or the Wednesday Night Group — what would I have seen in Lyons? The vacancies and the kitschy coffee shop? Definitely. The film studio and the art gallery? Maybe. The Storefront Theater, or any of the Wednesday Night Group’s projects still in the dreaming phase? Certainly not. Simply driving through, I might have seen only the same problems I read about on Facebook after the election. These problems were real, but they didn’t tell the whole story.
As I drove into eastern Nebraska’s infinite cornfields, my thoughts turned inevitably to my future. Had I found Town X? Actually, yes; I had found lots of them. But maybe that wasn’t the right question. Maybe it mattered less where my family ended up than what we actually did once there.
Because at least one thing had become clear: It wasn’t just rural places that were reinventing themselves, but the people who lived there. Watching the corn roll by, I realized that if I ever moved back, I too was going to have to reinvent myself.
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