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.

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.

"We need a new vision for rural America," says Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb. But "so many people have gotten so discouraged about what's going on here that they've given up.... The biggest risk we face is resignation."

* * *

Here on the heartland frontier, resignation and innovation, decline and entrepreneurial drive are engaged in epic battle. They're already leaving their mark on places like Smith County.

Even though they tore down the big sign by the highway years ago, you can still find the geographic center of the lower 48 on a rise of land between a field and a dairy farm. Flags flap above the 62-year-old stone monument. Years ago, a local man donated a miniature chapel (seating four) for the site, where visitors still leave messages on scrap paper:

"We finally got to visit this spot!" "Would like to visit here again." "I want to thank everyone for being so nice."

But the place exudes benign neglect. Across the road, a motel that once catered to tourists sits shuttered. The dairy farm - famous in its time because it was built in a day by hundreds of volunteers - no longer milks cows. Just as the center of the US moved north and west when the nation added Alaska and Hawaii, so America seems to have moved on and forgotten about this patch of heartland.

Even the local residents are leaving. In 1950, Smith County boasted 9.9 people per square mile - which was 50 percent denser than Clark County, Nev. (home of then modestly sized Las Vegas). By 1990, Smith County had lost nearly half its population and fallen into frontier status. Today, it retains only 5.1 people per square mile - on a par with Namibia, the largely desert nation in southern Africa.

Smith County's decline stems from the same factors that have depopulated the rest of the heartland frontier. Better technologies have made it possible for fewer people to do the existing work, and few new industries have moved in.

For example: Smith Center, the county seat, is nearly holding its own, thanks to a handful of manufacturers and a steady base of government and other service jobs. But farm consolidation cleared out the countryside decades ago and keeps emptying out larger and larger satellite towns.

"Even as early as the turn of the century, people questioned what happened in the Great Plains," says Dan Licht, author of "Ecology & Economics of the Great Plains," a 1997 book about the grasslands. "The response has gone through phases: at first, anger. Then it was denial. Now, it's getting to despair or maybe almost an acceptance."

The strange thing is: Decline doesn't feel like despair out here. Aside from traumatic moments - the bankruptcy of a farm or the closing of a school - depopulation happens so slowly it's barely noticeable.

In fact, step across the thresholds of any of Lebanon's still-functioning buildings, and it comes alive. On a Saturday morning in December, for example, Bell is helping her daughter, Gloria Snow, run a fundraiser in the Legion hall. Mrs. Snow, now of suburban Kansas City, wants to open a history and genealogy museum in the boarded-up high school to attract tourists. The town donated the building, but the structure needs work. Snow's husband has spent hours fixing a skylight that was broken into.

"We're trying to get some federal grant money," Mrs. Snow says. "But it's pretty tough when you are a handful of people and [the volunteers are] all busy."

Indeed, no self-respecting suburbanite would call the pace of life here slow. Bell, who lays out the paper and writes most of the stories, leaves soon after lunch for an appointment. Her husband, Joe Cheesman, trundles off to the surprisingly modern library across the street to play Santa to more than 20 children. Gladys Kennedy, one of Lebanon's oldest residents, has made jelly and a quilt for the fundraiser. She mans the cash box and tomorrow night, despite her long affiliation with the Lebanon Christian Church, she's joining the local Methodists for caroling around town in a hay wagon. She's also led a Girl Scout troop for six decades.

In all that period, when was Lebanon's best time? "Right now," Mrs. Kennedy says, emphatically. "People think they need to be in a bigger place. [But] how long does it take to get to the steakhouse? Or the doctor's?... I think we've got everything we need."

* * *

Next door, a crowd is gathering at LaDow's, purveyors of everything from deli ham to Christmas cards, for the $4 lunch special. There, Paul and Susan Coleman - Lebanon's newest residents - get to know their neighbors. (Actually, it's hard not to get to know them because LaDow's can only fit three tables. So diners slip into any available chair, no matter who's sitting next to them.) The couple, married this summer, retired early and moved from suburban Denver this fall to soak up the quiet and fresh air of the Kansas prairie.

"It's a beautiful small town," says Mrs. Coleman. "Everybody knows each other. Everybody cares."

Mr. Coleman putters around in his giant workshop behind his house and goes hunting at sunset almost every day in season. His only regret: The nearest McDonald's is 60 miles away.

"People are getting fed up with cities," he says. Right before he moved here, "people came up to me at work and would say: 'What's it like?' I would say: 'It's quiet. There's no traffic. You don't hear rock music.' They would say: 'I would really like something like that.' I would say: 'It's there for the taking. You don't have to prequalify.' "

Yet so far, no one has taken him up on the offer. "I don't want to romanticize it," says Calvin Beale, a US government demographer who has visited two-thirds of the nation's 3,100 counties. "No country can afford to let an area become semi-depopulated because of economic problems without understanding why it's happening and what may be some of the alternatives that would address some of these problems."

The new frontier

The American frontier never really disappeared. It's simply that after 1893, when historian Frederick Jackson Turner made a famous speech declaring it "closed," the frontier notion died. Most people assumed the nation's empty spaces would fill up.

Yet it didn't happen quickly. As late as the mid-20th century, the United States still boasted 403 counties with fewer than six people per square mile (an accepted 19th-century definition for "frontier"). These frontier counties lay as far afield as the Florida Everglades and the Oregon coast, although most were concentrated in the intermountain West and the Plains.

Since then, most of the country has been filling up. Florida no longer has any frontier counties. Arizona has only two (down from nine in 1950). Five frontier counties still lie east of the Mississippi River (one each in Maine, Mississippi, and New York, and two in Michigan).

Only in the Plains has the frontier phenomenon expanded. (Alaska is excluded from this analysis, as its sparsely populated regions were never settled in the first place.) In 1950, you could still drive from Omaha, Neb., to Denver without passing through a frontier county. No longer. This semiarid territory now contains two-thirds of the 377 frontier counties in the contiguous US - up from half in 1950.

The land in this depopulating region is still owned and mostly farmed. But it feels as though it's moving backward in time and space. Its white population is declining, while its native American and buffalo populations are on the upswing.

And the new frontier is pushing eastward, not westward. At midcentury, seven frontier counties in South Dakota lay east of the capital, Pierre. Today, 17 counties do.

Two forces, however, are skewing this change. First, the spread of the region's two largest cities - San Antonio and Denver - as well as others is transforming once-rural counties into growing metropolitan suburbs. The second influence is the growth of the Sun Belt.

Indeed, America's preference for warm climates has muted the population decline in the southern Plains. Texas has added only seven frontier counties since 1950. North Dakota, meanwhile, has added 20, which has pushed two-thirds of its territory into frontier status.

The result is a jagged, upside-down triangle of depopulation, showing spottily in south Texas, then gaining a consistent tip on the Mexican border at Terrell County, Texas, and expanding steadily as it moves northward. At its widest extent - on the Canadian border - the frontier stretches 660 miles in a nearly unbroken line from central Montana to the western tip of Minnesota.

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