When small-town glow outshines big-city glitter

Rick Sharp, who grew up on a farm two miles south of town here, thought he was leaving for good when he took a big-city sales job in nearby Des Moines a few years ago.

After trying a few other jobs, including being a rodeo clown, he decided to put down roots once again in Beaman, where the total population (best estimate: 220) is smaller than many big-city apartment buildings. Here he manages a wooden toy manufacturing company in which most of the employees are over 65 and friends of his grandparents, a fact that suits him just fine.

"I don't like the anonymity of big cities," he says. "To me it's a thrill to walk down the street here and run into people I know. . . . If I need something here at the business I can just holler out the front door and get all kinds of help. And If I get a really big order for something I can share the news, and because wehre in Beaman, everyone here is just as pleased as I am about it. It's a very steady, comfortable town. It fits."

These days more and more Americans, who like Mr. Sharp have grown up in rural areas and left for urban jobs, are finding there is a special appeal about small-town living that often lures them back. Even veteran city dwellers who have never spent time in the country, except on vacations or driving through, are deciding that the apparent advantages of rural living are such that they want to give it a try.

Most demographers confess they were totally surprised in the early part of the 1970s to discover that the rate of which people were moving to rural areas far exceeded the rate at which metropolitan areas were growing. This trend has continued strong and shows no signs of abting. The latest available census data include that between 1970 and 1978, the population of nonmetropolitan counties increased by 10.5 percent or almost twice the 6.1 percent growth rate recorded for metropolitan counties.

The reasons for the back-to-the land movement range from the search for more simplicity and a higher quality of life to the availability of cheaper housing and expanded job opportunities. A major factor, according to Calvin Beale, who heads the population studies division of the US department of Agriculture, is the decentralization and westward expansion of manufacturing jobs. He notes that the rate of growth of nonagricultural jobs in rural and small towns is almost that in metropolitan areas.

At the same time, says Mr. Beale, median family income of those living in rural areas or small towns is about 20 percent less than residents of urban areas.

In many ways, rural and small-town growth mirrors geographically the national trend in population growth. It is particularly strong in the Sunbelt and the Western states. Yet there also has been rapid rural growth in such areas as the Ozarks and the Appalachians (the revival of coal mining has played a role) and in nothern New England and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In many cases, the head of the family commutes to Boston or Detroit for work and returns only on weekends.

Although every region of the country has experienced the rural growth phenomenon, the degree varies. Nonmetropolitan growth in the Plains and Corn Belt states has not been as strong as in many other areas. While loss of people to the cities is less there than in the past, according to Beale, many small towns face a major challenge in just keeping the population stable. Small villages of fewer than 500 people often have the most difficult time.

For some, that very challenge galvanizes them.

"About 10 years ago we were bombarded with the message from the media and university extension people who came here that we would porbably be gone in another 10 or 15 years," recalls Carol Koshmeder of Grafton, Iowa, a town that has managed to hold its population of about 250 steady over the last decade.

After a town meeting attended by almost everyone in town, residents decided to make a determined efforts to improve Grafton by getting involved in Iowa's Community Betterment Program, a self-help concept of the Iowa Development Commission. Similar programs are being used in many other Midwestern states.

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