Magazine article The Christian Century

Lament for Small Places

Magazine article The Christian Century

Lament for Small Places

Article excerpt

Eighty-plus years ago, Granddad and Grandma Clapp moved into the Oklahoma Panhandle and established a farm. The farm was still in the making when the great dust storms of the Dirty Thirties engulfed the region.

Grandma and Granddad persisted. They remember dunes forming in the fields and how Granddad would ride his steel-wheeled tractor over them, trying to cultivate the soil. Sometimes the dunes were so steep that the tractor tipped over. During the worst of the dust storms, the family would huddle inside the house and hold damp cloths over their noses and mouths. Despite such conditions, they prevailed. Eventually the drought passed, and then oil was discovered beneath the fields. Finally, the family prospered.

Today the family farm is no more. It lasted two generations, from its founding to the point when Clapps no longer lived there and worked the land. My uncle was the last holdout, and he moved away more than a decade ago. I migrated from Oklahoma to Chicagoland in 1979, and by now have lived more of my life near Chicago than on the flat, sweeping vistas of my birth.

My wife grew up in the same area, on another farm that has since been abandoned. The little hometown where we went to school (and where my maternal grandparents operated a grocery store) survives, but the bank, movie theater, grocery store, drug store, hardware store, lumber yard and most other businesses have vanished. Not only have the businesses died, but many of the buildings housing them have collapsed. If Main Street were a smile, it would be a thoroughly gap-toothed one.

This is a familiar story not only in northwestern Oklahoma but throughout the Great Plains. The Great Plains is a predominantly agricultural region at the heart of America's breadbasket to the world, sprawling from west Texas up into Montana and North Dakota. And for the past eight decades, the Great Plains region has been hemorrhaging population.

As Wil Hylton wrote recently in Harper's Magazine, many cities on the plains have grown, but "rural communities across Kansas and Nebraska, Montana and Texas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas have shrunk each decade since the Great Depression. In Kansas alone, more than 6,000 towns have vanished altogether. Nearly a million square miles of the American heartland currently meets the definition of 'frontier' used by the Census Bureau more than a century ago. …

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