The dwindling heartland: America's new frontier
Part 1 of a four-part series on the frontier's return.
From the front window of the American Legion hall in Lebanon, Kan., Phyllis Bell can still look across Main Street and pick out where Adams Clothing, Hobbs Variety, and Chadbourne's Shoe Shop used to stand. Right after World War II, farmers could come into town, get a haircut, buy a car, take in a movie, or shop at one of Lebanon's seven grocery stores.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Now, the commercial district has dwindled to a branch bank, LaDow Market, and a beauty shop, where the hairstyles have evolved from the beehive 1950s - and cost more. With fewer than 300 residents, the town can no longer support a high school (closed in 1984) or a grade school (shuttered in 1991). Even many of the homes sit vacant.
"When we tear down those houses, they still find dust from the Dust Bowl" - usually in the rafters, says Ms. Bell, managing editor for the Lebanon Times, a weekly newspaper.
Welcome to Smith County, home of the geographic center of the contiguous United States, the Kansas state song "Home on the Range" - and the reemergence of America's frontier. As strange as it may sound, more than a century after Americans laid to rest the notion of a frontier, it's reappearing here on the Great Plains.
Only this time, it doesn't involve people moving in, and it doesn't carry the sense of hope and progress of a nation expanding. Instead, it involves people moving out and represents a part of a nation contracting.
The region is losing so many rural people that 261 Plains counties hold fewer than six residents per square mile (an old census yardstick for "frontier"). That represents more than one-eighth of the contiguous US - an area larger than France and Germany, but more sparsely populated than any nation on earth. You'd have to travel to places like the North Pole or Greenland to find fewer people per square mile.
And the nation's frontier midsection is expanding. While frontier counties west of the Rocky Mountains are generally filling up, the rural Plains continue to empty out. Already, the frontier has pushed beyond the traditional eastern boundary of the Plains into eastern Kansas, the eastern edge of the Dakotas, and even into northwest Minnesota.
In many ways, this hollowing out of the heartland is spawning a regional crisis. Hundreds of small towns are disappearing from the map. The lack of local jobs and the allure of cities are sucking young people out like a prairie twister.
Left behind is a population edging toward retirement and businesses coping with the paradox of a dwindling customer base and a shortage of workers. Thinly funded social and government services are straining to keep up, too.
In this downward demographic spiral, poverty often spreads: Some economists believe the frontier Plains will become the next Appalachia.
Even more broadly, the spreading frontier is challenging America's sense of itself. After all, this is the place where the local barbershop and corner drugstore still exist, where neighbors really do look out for one another, and people cling to small-town values of hard work and keeping one's word. While it's easy to romanticize these places, they nonetheless represent a bedrock of American character - a bedrock that's eroding away.
"This is a region full of mainstream white Americans who played by the rules," says Frank Popper, a land-use planner at Rutgers University, who has publicized the frontier's reappearance. "If that region declines, it makes you wonder about the moral validity of the American success drive."
Yet some theorists argue that America's forgotten crisis isn't really a crisis at all. They argue that the semiarid Plains were never meant to hold large populations. Perhaps it should let its people go, they say, and cradle instead ribbons of interstate highways, big windmills, and ever fewer megafarms. Or maybe it will revert to a kind of huge outdoor zoo of the early 1800s, when settlers were few and buffalo roamed freely.
Others say the region's deeply rooted resourcefulness and entrepreneurial spirit will lead to new models of growth. Either way, the heartland frontier holds lessons for other parts of rural America. Many counties face the same pressures of decline; others grow, suddenly, into suburbs and lose their rural character.