Heartland strong: Road trip through Middle America reveals resilience, pragmatism, and diversity

More and more, white Middle America is being repeopled with newcomers of color, bringing a workforce to agricultural jobs, a vibrancy to decaying towns, and a mix of welcome – and suspicion – from older residents. 

Doug Struck
Families and friends watch the judging at the Moffat County Fair in Craig, Colo.
Doug Struck
McKenzie Schneider (l.) and her friend Katie Jo Knez feed Katie Jo's pigs at the Moffat County Fair in Craig, Colo.

La Juanita is packed. Under a mural of a farmer in a sombrero, three Asian teenage girls sit in a booth giggling with their white friend. At the next table, an ethnic pea pod of workers ogle overflowing quesadillas, arguing about sports. Spanish, English, and Hmong words slide within sentences and leap between tables.

And this is Iowa. 

The presidential election a year ago produced a somber map of the United States, colored red and blue. The blue states were mostly clustered on the East and West Coasts, with a broad brush of red between. President Trump’s volcanic presidency has cemented the image of an urban elite and rural heartland frothing at each other over politics, culture, and heritage.

Mr. Trump’s election was delivered by these “flyover states,” cast as places of angry whites, frustrated at being left out of the economic recovery, besieged demographically, ignored politically, and stuck in shrinking small towns with vanishing jobs.

These problems exist. But they are not etched in inevitability. There are exceptions – exceptional people trying to buck the trends, and exceptional places that are succeeding. More than a few small towns are figuring out ways to stop their economic slide and to grow. More and more, white Middle America is being repeopled with newcomers of color, bringing a workforce to agricultural jobs, a vibrancy to decaying towns, and a mix of welcome – and suspicion – from older residents. 

To meander on a 6,712-mile drive across the US on routes mostly painted red is to rediscover a heartland that is often not what the rest of America thinks it is. It is not monolithic. There are places refusing to be an emptying and failing “other” America. They are places of inspiration, optimism, and hope.

Exhibit A might be Storm Lake, Iowa, where half the population is Hispanic, black, or Asian and where schools are stuffed with children speaking 30 languages.

The town of 10,000 (locals say 14,000) is in northwest Iowa – solidly within Trump country. It is the picture of an idyllic Midwest: Dappled trees break the heat in summer and the town hugs a sparkling lake. Avenues are lined by homes with wide porches, and kids wander in blissful confidence about town. Cars stop midstreet as drivers chat with senior citizens in sneakers out on their evening walks.

Midwest towns like Storm Lake are seen as an endangered species. Rural areas cover 72 percent of the nation’s land but host only 14 percent of the population. “Nonmetropolitan” populations began to stagnate in the 1940s and have gradually declined since. Smaller, more rural populations have fallen more precipitously: 1,350 rural counties have lost residents in the past six years, while only 626 showed any gain, according to the research arm of the US Department of Agriculture.

Doug Struck
A tractor-trailer knifes through a pillow of fog in rural Nebraska.

But Storm Lake is different. Across from the town water tower is a Buddhist temple for more than 500 Laotian refugees who came here in the late 1980s. Rust’s Western Shed, the quintessential small-town clothing store, no longer just rents tuxedos for prom night and weddings, but displays quinceañera dresses. The high school valedictorian speech a couple years ago was given by a young woman who had first come from Mexico to Storm Lake speaking no English.

“Just because somebody doesn’t speak English, it doesn’t mean they aren’t bright,” says Carl Turner, superintendent of schools. Eighty percent of his 2,500 students are ethnic minorities, and the first language of 60 percent is not English.

For years, Storm Lake’s workers – almost all white men of European stock – slaughtered pork at the meat plant on the edge of town. It was hard work, but paid $30,000 a year, a solid middle-class income then. In 1981, the plant closed, citing competition, putting 500 people out of work. When it was reopened a year later by Iowa Beef Processors, wages had been slashed to $6 an hour, productivity demands were higher, and fewer than 30 former workers had been rehired, according to Mark Grey, a sociologist at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Instead, the assembly lines were filled with immigrants who came for the jobs and did not complain about the pay.

The first group were Laotians, brought by a single respected patron from an earlier church-sponsored group of resettled Vietnam War refugees, according to Professor Grey. They were followed by waves of Hispanics, Mennonites from Mexico, Micronesians, Burmese, Africans, and others.

The resentments that followed the job upheavals have softened, and Storm Lake officials have stepped up to try to help the newcomers. The influx is now mostly accepted as the pain of necessary change, those officials say.

“It’s a pretty amazing place, for this to be in northwestern Iowa,” Dr. Turner, the school superintendent, says at his office in the center of town. “I tell new teachers they will never work harder and never learn more than they will here.” 

Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register/AP
A teacher works with students at a school in Storm Lake, Iowa, an immigrant hub.

The schools weave English as a second language courses throughout each day’s classes and have rigged up a system for high-schoolers to earn a year’s worth of college credits before they officially graduate, in part to help students who lack the legal documents to apply for colleges, loans, or financial aid.

Emilia Marroquin came to Storm Lake 16 years ago. She was born in El Salvador, spent 10 years in Los Angeles, and moved with her husband because they heard there were good jobs in the packing plant, and, she says, “we were looking for a safer place for our kids.”

“It was a shock. I came in November in the middle of a blizzard,” she recalls, now laughing at the memory. “Nobody spoke Spanish, and I didn’t speak English. We were living in a motel and I didn’t know anybody.” She lasted only a couple days on the exhausting, chilled meatpacking line. She quit – her husband stayed at the plant – and she plunged into English classes. She is now finishing a four-year college degree. 

She chats while sitting in a tiny school chair at the town’s new Head Start program building, where she works as a community liaison. She just finished enrolling the child of a Sudanese arrival. “They need a person they can trust,” she says of people like the tall, lanky man who had come to her office, clutching a sheaf of official documents for his daughter.

“Those who stay feel they have job security, their kids’ school is safe, and it’s a safe community,” she says. “It’s a place where they can do things that they never thought of before, like owning a house, having a car, having a job that will give them good wages.”

If the newcomers bring problems, they would wash up at the foot of Mark Prosser, Storm Lake’s burly chief of police. But “in 28 years, I can probably count the hate crimes we’ve had on one hand,” he says.

The force makes an ambitious outreach effort to the communities, with mixed success. Their potluck dinner flopped: “We learned that in other cultures you don’t invite someone to a meal and then ask them to bring the food.” 

And they don’t round up the town’s citizens to check their papers. Mr. Prosser shrugs at the question of how many are here illegally – he’s heard from one-third to one-half. But “we’re not in the immigration business,” he says. “I honestly have not even had that conversation for two or three years. It’s not an issue.”

Prosser, too, is bullish on the town’s diversity. “Sure, there are problems. But let’s be clear: The pros so outweigh the cons – it’s not comparable. Storm Lake is so young, so colorful, so vibrant compared to other Iowa communities. What kind of problems do you want to have – the problems of dying or growing?”

Other rural towns are seeing a similar influx. Hispanics, blacks, and other races made up 82 percent of what growth there was in rural areas between 2000 and 2010, according to an analysis by Daniel Lichter, a sociologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

But the dagger in the heart of many small towns is the loss of industry. The Department of Agriculture says rural areas lost nearly a quarter of their manufacturing jobs during the 2000s.

There are towns trying to overcome that. Peru, Ind., was born almost two centuries ago, first as a trading post with the Miami Indians and then as a way stop on the Wabash and Erie Canal. It became a railroad hub when the canal was filled in, and thrived as the county seat with an Air Force base and several auto parts manufacturing plants. But the base and the plants were mostly closed by the 1990s, the town’s population shrank to 11,000, and longtime businesses gave way to shops selling electronic cigarettes and fireworks – a familiar death spiral for rural towns.

Gabriel Greer is the mayor. He is only 35 years old and owns a small construction business. He’s also a Democrat. “Donald Trump won hands-down here. I won hands-down here. Hard to square,” he acknowledges, sitting in his office in City Hall.

One reason is townsfolk are buying into his refusal to let Peru wither away. He and a small cohort of mostly young businesspeople are trying to save the town. The trick, he believes, is not the traditional one of courting the odd industrial plant to bring new jobs.

“ ‘Jobs first’ is not how it works anymore. What we are fighting now is a battle for people,” he says. “People now decide where they want to live, and start looking for a job from there. The jobs will follow.”

Mr. Greer notes there are five medium-sized or larger cities within about an hour’s drive offering employment. “Then the question is, where do you want to live?” Small towns, with cheaper and bigger homes, low crime, kid-friendly streets, and a strong sense of community may persuade many people to put up with a longer commute, he says.

Or eliminate it altogether. “There’s a lot of people working jobs online, and they can live wherever they want,” says Steve Dobbs. He moved with his wife, a lawyer, back to her hometown of Peru six years ago. They set up offices in the old Montgomery Ward store, and Mr. Dobbs started renovating the boarded-up storefronts to put lipstick on an aging downtown.

He sees signs it is working. The plywood is coming down, windows are being repaired, and a few new businesses have opened. In fact, the US Census Bureau says the rate of new start-ups in rural areas nationwide is nearly double that in metropolitan areas.

“We are definitely coming back,” says Sandra Tossou. She left a fast-paced culinary career in five-star restaurants to return to Peru, where she reopened an old bakery and now has a dozen workers. Facing down a towering cake with an icing bag, she says it was the right choice. “We’re part of the revival. It’s the young entrepreneurs who have to have the drive to make a comeback.”

The country looks different from the heartland. Middle America is a seductively vast tableau where people are shaped by natural elements – soil, water, wind, and space. The people in the heartland are more defined by the boundlessness of those characteristics than laws. Rules from Washington often seem an insolent din from afar, naive to the dictates of the land. Parents here raise their kids with an ethos of endurance, not complaint. They labor to overcome problems, not to circumvent them. They see religion, not government, as the only force equal to the power of the land and the weather and the miseries those sometimes bring. They honor consistency, not discord. 

To the people of the heartland, the coastal denizens who fly over don’t know what’s below and don’t understand it. They pull down the window shades in their airplane to watch a movie.

But the very vastness of Middle America is drawing new industries. In Nebraska, corn is king. The countryside is a mosaic of huge circles of cornfields – grown around the radius of giant pivoting sprinklers – set within the squares of traditional property lines.

Yet from O’Neill, Neb. (pop. 3,700), you can take roads due east for 10 sections (as square miles are measured on farmland) and then due north for nine sections to find the state’s newest bumper crop – wind turbines. 

Doug Struck
Wind turbines sprout on the grasslands of Nebraska, coexisting comfortably with cows.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy planted 200 turbines here at the Grande Prairie Wind Farm, an army of mechanical giants that loom over the landscape like the Martian invaders in H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds.” Shawn O’Connor is the senior manager who oversees the wind farm for Vestas, the Danish turbine manufacturer. He is a US Army-trained engineer whose background is in coal. He has run coal plants and helped build them. He says he realized they were industrial dinosaurs.

“I had a lot of career left. I wanted something that would grow,” he says. He calls the turbines “masterful creatures.”

He is right about the growth. Mr. O’Connor’s 200 wind machines will soon seem modest compared with the 1,000 turbines being erected in the massive Wind XI project in next-door Iowa, part of that state’s plans to abandon fossil fuels entirely.

O’Connor walks into his office with a job seeker who is wearing a hard hat and safety harness. Before a person is hired, the candidate must pass a climb test: Scale a ladder 300 feet to the top of the tower and traverse the “nacelle,” the pod at the hub of three 177-foot blades.

“It’s not for everyone,” O’Connor says. When the wind blows, the turbine sways a bit, which can be unnerving at 30 stories high. O’Connor likes to hire local farmhands for his crew of 20 technicians. They respect safety, understand big machinery, and “show up for work every day,” he says. His technicians start at $17 to $22 an hour, not bad in a rural area where jobs off the farm are hard to get and usually pay meager wages.

Not far away, Jared Sanderson and Tim Peter are working at a grain silo set amid cornfields studded by the turbines. In every direction, giant white towers support blades that cut the air. Neither farmer minds the turbines.

“I’d rather have that than the leak from an oil pipe,” says Mr. Sanderson, referring to the ongoing controversy in the state over the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Do the machines mar the aesthetics? “There’s nothing to look at here anyway,” says Mr. Peter, grinning. The men say farmers get about $10,000 a year to put a wind turbine on their land, and the blades are high enough that they can till the soil under them. The cows seem to approve, too: On hot days, they will line up single-file in the slender shade of a turbine tower.

Other new industries are cropping up in Middle America, not all welcome. Pueblo, Colo., made steel for the country’s westward expansion and was known as “the Pittsburgh of the West” until the price collapse of the 1980s. Its bruised economy is now reviving in part because of marijuana. Twenty-nine states have legalized pot use in some form; Colorado was the first to approve recreational use. Pueblo has one of the largest outdoor fields of marijuana – 21,000 plants and expanding – in the country. 

Pueblo’s citizens continue to argue about the crop – Isn’t it a gateway drug? dangerous to your health? – but the city reaped $3.5 million in taxes and fees from the pot businesses last year. A year ago, Beverly Duran, director of the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation, selected 30 high school graduates to each receive a $1,000 college scholarship. This year she gave all 210 students who applied for scholarships $2,000 a year for college, thanks to pot taxes. At the school awards ceremony, “the excitement and the look on the faces of the students was incredible,” she says. “It was the look of hope.”

Other towns in Middle America are hoping a change in Washington will bring new vigor to their main streets and monthly incomes. Across the state from Pueblo, in northwest Colorado, lies Craig (pop. 9,500). This is red country – Trump won the county by 82 percent. Ranchers graze cattle on dry, cinnamon-brown land dotted with sagebrush. Historical photos show gunslingers and huge cattle drives. The local museum keeps Native American displays on one side and cowboy displays on the other.

The scene at Craig’s annual Moffat County Fair seems relaxed. Worn boots and cowboy hats are standard uniform. Men and women deftly navigate around the grounds on horseback, willing their animals with gentle nudges and tugs. People wave hello.

Still, “it was a little scary before the election,” says Katrina Springer, president of the fair board, who grew up on a sheep ranch. Passions run deep here: At the center of town is a store dedicated to survivalists. “Prepare for the worst,” the sign in the window says. “Hope for the best.” Yard signs proclaim “Coal Keeps the Lights On,” in defense of the thick seams of the Yampa coal field underlying Craig.

It is impolite to ask ranchers here how many head of cattle they have – it’s like asking how much money they have in their bank account. Nor does one inquire too pointedly about the size of their ranches. Many ranchers graze their cows and horses on federal land, and their relation to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a touchy subject. By that calculation, they saw President Barack Obama as against them and see Trump as for them.

Standing by the auction lot fence at the fair, Shandy Deakins, who grew up in Moffat County, says the Trump election has eased anxieties in the area. “I feel that we have a voice now,” she says.

“Absolutely,” agrees Shane Ridnour, who works with show cattle. “We feel way more secure. In the last eight years, they were really going after coal. People back East don’t understand the benefits of coal and ranching. The BLM was trying to take away land that ranchers had used for years.”

“That’s the thing about this president,” says Mr. Ridnour. “He wants us to succeed.” 

A few, quietly, are not so sure. By the craft exhibits, Susan Domer takes a moment from extolling the virtues of knitting – “your kids and husband think you’re busy working, but it’s relaxing” – to contemplate her town. 

“Craig needs another industry,” she says. “When I was 18, I put Craig in my rearview mirror. I was going to take the world by storm.” Now more than five decades later, she is back, not out of defeat, but by choice. “It’s home. People here have common sense. They’re raised that way.” But she sees the challenges of living in rural America. “I have one granddaughter who sees what I see,” she reflects. “But she can’t afford to live here because there’s no job that will pay her [enough].”

Still, Craig is just 42 miles away from Steamboat Springs, a thriving tourist hub. The tools of change are there for rural America – a national infrastructure of good highways, a growing system of internet and virtual work, a variety of new professions that can thrive outside cities. The question for many small towns is whether they can overcome the image of isolation that the residents themselves embrace but outsiders are wary of.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, knows something about changing perceptions. It was the poster town for neo-Nazis in the 1970s and ’80s. Now it is booming with new residents and a steady tourist trade drawn by a stunning lake and Swiss-mountain scenery. 

Lita Burns came 16 years ago to take a job at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene. It was “incredibly white,” she says, and she and her children – of Hispanic origin – were distinct oddities. A dozen years later, Ms. Burns, now head of the Human Rights Education Institute, was trying to hire Hispanic faculty at her college.

“They wanted to know if it was safe to bring their families here,” Burns recalls. “I said ‘yes, the world is changing.’ ”

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