Across Great Plains, empty schools, shops

Population decline is stretching services and forcing closures in rural towns

A few miles from the Canadian border, Sherwood, N.D., (pop. 255) boasts half a dozen businesses, three churches, a post office, and no pay phone. It's a place where residents not only leave their keys in the car downtown, but keep the engine running. Even motorcyclists wave to cars rushing by.

So when talk surfaced this spring of merging the boys' high school basketball team with arch-rival Mohall, the less-than-friendly response surprised locals.

Everyone knew something needed to be done. Next fall, Sherwood High School will have only 13 boys. Barring an unexpected influx, that number will dwindle to seven by fall 2003. The two schools already "co-op" football, baseball, track, volleyball, and golf.

But the idea of losing their own basketball team struck a sensitive chord in both communities. Would seniors get enough playing time? What would be the team name, the team colors?

Such thorny disputes are symptoms of a larger blight that is spreading through rural towns across the American Great Plains: population decline. While parts of the United

States have seen staggering growth during the past decade, as shown in the latest census figures, the nation's rural midsection is being squeezed by a steady decline - and nowhere harder than in North Dakota.

Although the state as a whole eked out a meager population gain during the 1990s - thanks to a handful of growing suburbs and native American reservations - rural North Dakota lost chunks of people. Of the 53 counties in the state, 47 saw their populations fall. The five biggest losing counties each saw more than one-fifth of their populations evaporate over 10 years.

The decline, intensified by a bad farm economy, is stretching services, forcing closures, and pulling at the community fabric. Enough schools have closed around the state that recreational-vehicle groups rent them out as weekend meeting places. Locals talk about burnout from working on too many civic committees. Of the state's 88 nursing facilities, 40 percent reported last August that they had stopped accepting new patients because they couldn't find people to staff them.

"It's kind of a financial death sentence when you stop admissions," says Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association in Bismarck.

But North Dakota's challenges run deeper than numbers alone. It's mostly losing young people and middle-age adults, says Richard Rathge, director of the North Dakota State Data Center in Fargo. Ironically, senior citizens are moving back to the state, many returning to family and friends after the loss of a spouse or some other life-changing event.

For Bob Roberts, it was retirement from the Postal Service in Seattle. "I just wanted a change of scenery," he says. So he and his wife, Elaine, who grew up in Sherwood, moved back to ride bicycles, watch the grandchildren, and, on this particular day, do some yard work. "It's smaller and quieter" here, Mr. Roberts says, leaning on his rake.

Robert Johnson, a commercial real estate broker in Alaska, found himself sitting alone in Anchorage and also decided to come back home to Sherwood. He now substitutes at the high school for the shop teacher, a farmer who has to be in the field during spring and fall months.

"We are grateful to have [senior citizens], don't get me wrong," says Vance Undlin, vice president of Citizens State Bank in Mohall and chairman of the county job-development group. "But they don't spend as much as the middle-age and younger people."

One resident who doesn't seem to mind the solitude is Bill McGinty, who moved to Sherwood from California last October to start a new life. After hearing about the community of Sherwood from a friend, he packed up, traded in his Cadillac for a pickup, and bought a large house and five acres for $90,000 (something that would have cost $1.7 million back home). He sells collectibles and other items over the Internet and is interested in buying a local business.

"No crime, no pollution, no traffic, and the nicest people you ever met in the world," says Mr. McGinty. In fact, he hopes the cold winters will keep others from moving in. "You know what winter is, don't you? Repellent."

But city officials are less sanguine about the lack of activity.

"I remember, Saturday nights, you would want to be in town by six o'clock to get a parking space on Main Street," says Mayor Allan Engh, owner of the local hardware store. Now, "the grocery store has trouble staying open. Our store is down. People like to move to a small town, but you have to have the basics."

On the other side of the town's wide main drag, the post office still operates and a former farmer has opened up an insurance agency. Across from Mayor Engh's hardware store, his sister runs Nettie's Diner, which attracts a good crowd at breakfast and lunch (a hearty breakfast special is $2.75). For any serious shopping, however, residents have to travel 65 miles to Minot.

The situation isn't all bad in Mohall, either. Although the county seat lost its drugstore and its auto-parts shop, the grocery store in town recently expanded, as did a local telemarketing firm.

And after several meetings, Mohall's school board last month decided not to merge basketball teams with Sherwood. "It will happen," predicts Garrett Titus, superintendent of Sherwood Public School. "The only holdup will be the name and the colors."

At the moment, team names can get a little confusing. The merged baseball team practices in Sherwood, so the players are the Sherwood-Mohall Wildcats. But the track and volleyball teams practice in Mohall, so they're the Mohall-Sherwood Yellowjackets.

The football team dodged the issue by calling itself the Renville County Roughriders, but it soon got bogged down in a controversy over school colors. Some older residents complained that the uniforms - with only Sherwood royal blue and Mohall black - didn't represent tradition. So the team now plays in uniforms with all four colors.

"We didn't care," Mr. Titus says. "One of the kids said: 'I don't care if it's pink as long as we can play.' " But the superintendent hopes to get his way when the basketball programs merge and pick a name. "Doesn't the Renville County Roughriders sound better?" he asks.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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