Washington — The 1970s were good to Box Elder, S.D. This small but vigorous town, located on a branch of the Cheyenne River in the Black Hills, increased its population 425 percent between 1970 and 1980.
Crab Orchard, W.Va., was a laggard by comparison. It merely doubled in size over the same period. But they're installing 1,000 new mail boxes down at the Crab Orchard post office, to keep pace with the area's expected future growth.
These two towns are not unusual. More and more Americans are moving to small communities, according to the summary of official 1980 census population statistics released July 7.
The number of people living in places with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants increased 30 percent during the decade, says the United States Census Bureau. By contrast, the population of the biggest US cities grew only 1.9 percent.
While New York City's population shrank during the '70s, the number of residents in Spackenkill, N.Y., increased from 2,725 to 4,848. The boom city of Houston, Texas, grew 30 percent, but the boom village of Houston, Miss., grew 40 percent during the decade.
This population shift doesn't mean that many US residents are opting for the rural society of town squares, general stores, and afternoons off for fishing, say census officials. It does mean that the fastest-growing places in the US are small bedroom communities on the outer edge of suburbia.
Box Elder, S.D., for instance, has no town square. It's located on the not-very-pastoral Interstate 90. Convenient to both Ellsworth Air Force Base and Rapid City, it has grown because commuters found it an affordable place to live.
''Almost all the housing here is rental, for the air base,'' says Dinah Lefler, Box Elder's finance officer. ''Trailer courts. Everybody lives in a trailer.''
Crab Orchard, W.Va., is itself a ''suburb'' of Beckley, the local county seat. Beckley is not exactly a metropolis (pop. 20,492), but its topography rules out future growth, so newcomers are spilling over into Crab Orchard, six miles down the road.
''We've got roughly 1,500 families now,'' says Gerald Godfrey, Crab Orchard postmaster. ''The government's projecting growth of 1,000 families, so we're putting in new post office boxes.''
Aside from the popularity of small communities, the Census Bureau's 1980 head count revealed few startling shifts in US population growth patterns. The country's citizenry grew 11.4 percent during the 1970s, reaching 226,504,825 by 1980. The West and South were the fastest growing areas of the US, while the Northeast hardly grew at all.
Tables ranking the largest US cities graphically depict this shift of population to sunnier climes.
Of the 10 largest US cities in 1900, only one - San Francisco - was Western or Southern. By 1980, five Sunbelt cities - Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, San Diego, and Phoenix - had cracked the Top 10.
By contrast, the gritty mill and mining towns of US industrial heartland have fallen far. In 1900, Fall River, Mass., was the 33rd largest city in the US. Today, it doesn't even make the top 200.
Census's dry statistics, viewed the right way, also hint at the differences in life style between Eastern and Sunbelt cities. The large cities of the Northeast all have densely packed populations - New York has 23,455 residents per square mile. But in the vast reaches of the West, where picking up a quart of milk often involves a drive on the freeway, populations are spread more thinly. Dallas has only 2,715 inhabitants per square mile, for instance.
More than one-third of the US populace lives in but five states: California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New York. Only two states, New York and Rhode Island, lost inhabitants during the 1970s.
Quick! Which state has the most incorporated cities?
Nope. It's Iowa, with 955. Overall, there are 9,393 cities in the US, says the Census Bureau.
And if you think that the least populated county in the US must be somewhere in the upper reaches of Alaska, you're wrong. It's Loving County, Texas, with a grand total of 91 residents.
10 most populous cities* 1900 1. New York 3,437,202 2. Chicago 1,698,575 3. Philadelphia 1,293,697 4. St. Louis 575,238 5. Boston 560,892 6. Baltimore 508,957 7. Cleveland 381,768 8. Buffalo 352,387 9. San Francisco 342,782 10. Cincinnati 325,902 1980 1. New York 7,071,639 2. Chicago 3,005,012 3. Los Angeles 2,966,850 4. Philadelphia 1,688,210 5. Houston 1,595,138 6. Detroit 1,203,339 7. Dallas 904,078 8. San Diego 875,538 9. Phoenix 789,704 10. Baltimore 786,775 * In 1980, no cities in Alaska or Hawaii made the Top 10.
10 most populous Where they cities in 1850 ranked in 1980 1. New York, Pop. 515,547 1. Pop. 7,071,639 2. Baltimore, 169,054 10. 786,775 3. Boston, 136,881 20. 562,994 4. Philadelphia, 121,376 4. 1,688,210 5. New Orleans, 116,375 21. 557,515 6. Cincinnati, 115,435 32. 385,457 7. Brooklyn, 96,838 Now part of New York City 8. St. Louis, 77,860 26. 453,085 9. Spring Garden, Pa., 58,894 Now part of Philadelphia 10. Albany, N.Y., 50,763 164. 101,727
10 most populous Where they cities in 1980 ranked in 1850 1. New York, pop. 7,071,639 1. Pop. 515,547 2. Chicago, 3,005,012 25. 29,963 3. Los Angeles, 2,966,850 Not ranked, 1,610 4. Philadelphia, 1,688,210 4. 121,376 5. Houston, 1,595,138 Not ranked, 2,396 6. Detroit, 1,203,339 31. 21,019 7. Dallas, 904,078 Not ranked, 10,358 in 1880 8. San Diego, 875,538 Not ranked, 731 in 1860 9. Phoenix, 789,704 Not ranked, 3,152 in 1890 10. Baltimore, 786,775 2. 169,054