By Dean Whittaker
Recently I had the opportunity to return to the small Midwest farm town in which I grew up. Over the past forty years I have seen the town gradually decline. First the clothing store closed, then the five-and-dime, the furniture store, a restaurant, grocery stores (it has been converted into another bar), car dealers, gas stations, and even the funeral home.
At one time, the town was mostly self-sufficient, but now it depends upon distant merchants to meet its basic needs. Once a thriving town in the middle of some of the richest farm land in the world, with engaged people actively pursuing their dreams, it is now a handful of survivors eking out a living or driving long distances to find work. With six bars, a beauty shop, a barber shop, three churches and a faltering school system, it struggles for a reason to exist. The bank has a new building from the dividends it received from the federal securities into which it invests the farmersâ€™ money. Its tellers claim there are few loans to be made locally. Perhaps they are right. The library, now operating on reduced hours, finds the books on CD to be their most popular item due to long commutes by its patrons.
What happened here, I wonder? The decline began when the major employer, an electric motor manufacturer employing 500 or so, moved production to Mexico. The factory closed its doors in the late 60’s, shutting down a job-generator that filled an economic, social and political role in the community. With its economic engine (aside from farming) missing, the town failed to support the community that had grown up around it. The leadership provided by the talented people who came to work there dispersed along with their involvement in its governance.
Do towns have a lifecycle like the rest of nature? I wonder. Is there birth, growth, maturation and decline, or is it cyclical, like the seasons of the year? Do towns become old and die? Or do they re-invent themselves and find a new purpose in life?
As I drove to the cemetery to visit my parents grave site, I noticed windmills dotting the ridgeline north of town. Could this be the beginning of a new economic engine? Will the town’s Burlington-Northern Santa Fe connection to Chicago someday carry commuters along with the coal coming in from the west? Will small-town America re-invent itself? New Urbanism, walk-able cities, the new town square, neighbors, energy, new life will it come here? Will there be a catalyst for change? Time will tell whether my home town has a lifecycle. I am hopeful, as I also saw the signs of new homes being built and re-investment being made. It will be interesting to see what the next fifty years bring.