Understanding Place Attachment to the County in the American Great Plains

By Smith, Jeffrey S.; McAlister, Jordan M. | The Geographical Review, April 2015 | Go to article overview

Understanding Place Attachment to the County in the American Great Plains


Smith, Jeffrey S., McAlister, Jordan M., The Geographical Review


Settlement in the American Great Plains started in Kansas and Nebraska on the eve of the Civil War and spread throughout the region as railroad companies laid tracks heading west. Pioneers from Pennsylvania, the Ohio River Valley, and Europe moved into the region, creating small farming communities that dotted the landscape. In Kansas, the population grew by 403 percent between 1870 and 1900 (USBC 2011). Moreover, in 1885 the Sunflower State had the largest percentage of European-born population in the United States (12 percent) (Kansas Statistical Abstract 2011).

The 818 counties that comprise the Great Plains are a curious hodgepodge of shapes and sizes (Wishart 2004). A handful of counties cover very large areas (Cherry County, Nebraska--6,010 square miles; Chaves County, New Mexico --6,075 square miles). Most counties in the Great Plains, however, are relatively small in size (approximately 1,000 square miles) and square or rectangular in shape (especially in the central and southern Great Plains). County configuration suggests that state governments in this region were more concerned with quickly establishing political units that would encourage population settlement than drawing boundaries that fit with the natural environment.

During the early 1900s, most counties in the Great Plains grew in total population. After arriving, however, many small-scale farmers quickly realized that land promoters had deceived them (Wishart 2013). The region lacks abundant rainfall, rendering the land ill suited for small-scale dry-land farming (Webb 1931); many pioneers left soon after their crops failed (Mather 1972; Shortridge 1995) ? The Dust Bowl of the 1930s compelled even more settlers to abandon farming and leave the region (White 1994). Since World War II, the total population in the Great Plains has decreased dramatically; over two-thirds of all counties in the region have lost population, with some counties losing between 60 percent and 80 percent of their permanent residents since 1900 (Popper and Popper 1987). The population density in many counties has dropped to less than five people per square mile (Lavin and others 2011). Throughout much of the Great Plains the population has become so sparse that only one or two sizeable communities exist within most counties (Wishart 2013). As such, in the rural plains the county seat is commonly the most important urbanized place within the county and residents regard the county seat as the primary symbol of the county.

A number of people, including scholars and government officials, are beginning to question the logic of having so many small counties in such a sparsely populated part of the country (Nasser 2009). Clark Archer suggests that the number of administrative units in the Great Plains defies practical logic and there is considerable redundancy in governmental services (2004). Increasingly, the idea of county consolidation is being considered. Just as rural school districts throughout the United States have been forced to consolidate for the past half century due to dwindling student populations, now some counties may be facing the same fate. Beginning in the early 1990s, numerous North Dakota state senators have proposed consolidating the state's fifty-three counties into fewer political units. In 1996, Mark Krause examined the potential repercussions of county consolidation and found that combining counties would save the state $12 million annually in most government expenditures (Krause 1996). More recently Paul Burger and Jason Combs (2009) conducted a preliminary study that examined the costs and benefits that would accrue to the state of Nebraska if it were to reapportion its ninety-three counties into twenty Consolidated County Centers (CCCs). Other states with dwindling rural populations are also considering combining counties so as to reduce government expenditures (Nasser 2009). County consolidation became a particularly hot topic during the Great Recession of the late 2000s as conservative candidates campaigned on the platform of fiscal austerity and greater responsibility in government spending (Economist 2011). …

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