NEWTON, KAN. — As a Santa Fe freight train rumbles into town, heat waves ripple above the flat, wide, Main Street of Newton, Kan.
Old redbrick storefronts stand straight and stark against a blue sky. Beyond the railroad tracks, fields of cut wheat straw, and tasseled corn stretch toward the windblown tallgrass prairie.
On the Fourth of July, this is the kind of place Americans regard as their sentimental center of gravity. It is a town where old-timers still gather for coffee each morning at the local diner, and police respond to reports of dog bites and stolen yard ornaments.
Look more closely, though, and the Norman Rockwell timelessness of Newton evaporates as quickly as children's wet footprints on the hot sidewalk near the municipal pool.
Indeed, as this Midwestern town joins America in celebrating its birth this week, people here are struggling with how to preserve Newton's identity - and the unique freedoms that come with belonging to a close community.
Like many little towns on the prairie, Newton is being buffeted by social and economic crosswinds in many ways as profound - if not as dramatic - as those of pioneer days. From demographic shifts to globalization to the invasion of the mall culture, it reflects, in many ways, the changes facing much of America at the start of a new millennium.
"Newton is equally vulnerable to everything," says Treva Brunner, a lifelong resident who works for the city ambulance service. "We used to think we were protected, but we're not."
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Flames flicker along the edges of a charred black field, burning off the last wheat stubble from the winter crop outside of Newton. Farmer James Wulf surveys his 900-acre farm from a pickup truck, sending up a cloud of dust on the dirt road.
"Right now, most of us are looking for some rain," he says, sweaty from a morning of spraying soybeans. Low prices and bad weather have made the past few years hard for Mr. Wulf and other Midwestern growers, sending many into debt and sideline jobs.
Still, Wulf says he likes being his own boss too much to seek a return to the days of government price supports. "Freedom to farm has been fantastic," he says of the 1996 bill that promoted free-market agriculture.
"A lot of people are pushing to return to [old price supports]," he says. "I'm hurting too, but I'd rather gut it out and ride the boat back up."
From railroaders to grain farmers to mom-and-pop operations on Main Street, Newton residents are feeling a degree of adversity today as they confront new forces - from world trade and the information revolution to unprecedented population mobility.
Like Americans as a whole, people here are less sanguine about the economy than they were a year ago. Still, they remain more optimistic than not about the direction the country is headed. And, like Wulf, residents here are for the most part facing their problems with the kind of can-do pragmatism that has made the United States famous.
With red-white-and-blue flags fluttering on Main Street after the Saturday morning parade, Phil Anderson mans the cash register at Anderson's book and office supply store, Newton's oldest retail business. With creaking wooden floors and a pressed tin ceiling, the store still stocks dip pens from the 1920s and manual typewriters.
Mr. Anderson, whose family has run the store for five generations, worries about the past decade's erosion of businesses on Main Street as residents increasingly drive to outlying malls to shop. "The demise of the ma and pa stores like ours is a shame," he says. "You lose the personal touch."
Still, Anderson has not given up. He has diversified into used office furniture and is trying to compete with lower prices and exceptional service - such as free deliveries of items as small as pens.
Perhaps most troubling to Newton folk is what they see as a decline in traditional morals, and a loss of small-town identity and cohesion - especially as the town increasingly serves as a bedroom community for Wichita, which lies about 40 minutes south along Interstate 135.
Residents say an influx of outsiders and a decline in American morals has led to a creeping increase in drug usage, sexual promiscuity, and other problems among local youth.
"There is no stigma put on anything anymore," says Mrs. Brunner, as she sits in a lawn chair listening to an open-air concert one evening at Newton's band shell. Still, she points to the young people in the orchestra as a sign that the national pendulum is swinging back toward more wholesome, conservative ethics. "It's not all gloom and doom," she says.
Ironically, efforts by town officials to invigorate Newton's economy have often clashed with old-fashioned values and local nostalgia. In a region where many small towns remain dry, Newton's city leaders stirred criticism a few years back when they voted to legalize liquor by the drink in a bid to attract new restaurants. Last month, citizens successfully fought as "un-American" a city plan to tear down the softball stadium and build a recreation complex that would bring in outside sports tournaments.
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Newton has long lived at history's crossroads. Founded in 1871 as the meeting point of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad and the Chisholm Trail, Newton had a rowdy beginning as Texas cattle drives brought in cowpokes, gamblers, "soiled doves," and desperadoes.
"When my grandfather was county sheriff, Newton was a wild and woolly place," says Gladys Brewer, a Newton native whose grandfather, H.H. McAdams, patrolled Harvey County in the 1870s. Gunfights broke out in saloons and gambling dens, earning Newton infamy as "the wickedest town in Kansas."
Making matters worse, a grasshopper scourge in 1874 ravaged crops and drove away many early settlers.
But when the cattle drives and gunslingers moved west to Dodge City, Newton rebounded, aided by a large influx of Mennonite farmers who were fleeing religious persecution in Russia and Prussia. The devout immigrants brought not only sturdy values but also high-yielding "Turkey Red" hard winter wheat, which helped make Kansas the world's "breadbasket."
Down a dirt road just south of town, farmer Millicent Claassen shows a visitor a pair of her late husband's bronzed cowboy boots and recalls her early wheat-growing years. "I did the mule driving. I was my dad's boy," says Mrs. Claassen. She still drives a tractor and cuts a field more smoothly than her grandsons, she boasts.
A large group of Mexican laborers for the Santa Fe also helped build Newton. They lived first in dirt-floored "tie" houses, made from railroad ties.
Sylvia Sandoval, whose family has worked for the railroad here for three generations, is one of the fast-growing community of 2,200 Mexican-Americans in Newton, which has a total population of 17,000.
Sitting in a folding chair watching a traditional Mexican-American fast-pitch game in Newton's Washington Park, Mrs. Sandoval recalls the discrimination and other hardships that her family endured in the town.
"We had to sit in the back rows when we went to the movies on Main Street, at the Chief or the Roxy theaters," she says, cracking sunflower seeds. Catholic churches in town were basically segregated, she says, with the "upper class," or white congregants, attending St. Mary's, and the Mexican-Americans belonging to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
But the Mexican community shared the values of hard work and a strong family ethic with the Mennonites and other settlers, and gradually the dividing lines have blurred over the years.
"For me, this is home," says Sandoval. "There's still nothing like a small town."
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Newton does, in fact, still offer magical moments that keep residents upbeat. One evening after a flag demonstration, people gather under the stars to watch the 1945 movie "The Harvey Girls." It tells the story of the young waitresses famous for bringing coffee, beefsteak, and civilizing influences to the West through a restaurant chain built by Newton entrepreneur Fred Harvey along the Santa Fe line.
As Judy Garland stands on a caboose in a light blue dress singing the opening song, a real train whistle sounds in downtown Newton, and for an instant, under the moonlight, the past and present become one.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor