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How Do We Save Our Small Rural Towns?

Most of us are familiar with a small town scene that looks less vibrant than we'd like.


The big roads put in a by-pass.  Casey's and Kwik Trip mean nobody stops at Joe's Gas Station anymore.  The bank got bought out by a regional and hours are down.  The Post Office is only open 4 hours a day.  Two implement dealers went out of business and the other got bought out by a big guy in the next county.  The COOP got swallowed up by a big guy.  The little business that built radiators for John Deer laid off 50 and the other 50 jobs are going to Mexico next year.  The cattle hauler switched to grain and now hauls to the river because the railroad doesn't stop at the elevator anymore.  And, oh yes, the school district consolidated.  And consolidated again.  And is thinking of consolidating once more.  The grocery store?  It's now in the Casey's.  There's a Dollar General in the next town and  WalMart in the one past that.  Your wife can stop because it's on her 35 miles commute to work.


What can we do?  Is it too late to do anything?


Around here, commuting is here to stay.  Some boutique restaurants are going in where it's within driving distance of a bigger town.  Nursing homes and health care facilities are an expanding business.  There are still some small mechanics that people trust and keep in business.  Service industiries like lawn care and garbage collection are around where once we'd have done this ourselves.  


It's hard to get really excited about how to get ahead in a small town.  What kind of job do you take to earn enough to send your kids to a decent community or 4 year college, and where do they go if they once leave?  


Are the towns you know winning or losing?  Remember, if they are not winning, they are losing - there is no staying the same.

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48 Replies
Veteran Contributor

Re: How Do We Save Our Small Rural Towns?

However, there is staying the same, like it or not.  The biggest town nearest me has around 13,000 people, pretty much the exact same population it had 50 years ago.  The

population in the rest of the county has increased, but nothing you could call a boom.  In most rural areas that are heavily dependent on ag business, the population

(as well as many other things) don't really change.  Kind of like a 40 acre pasture; it will support a certain number of cows, a number that doesn't really change that much.

You can change forages and maybe increase the stocking rate some or install a grazing system and increase it some more, but the cow numbers pretty much stay the same.


I've ridden a motorcycle all over this country and the general trend is always the same; businesses move to the outside of town while the city center fizzles out.  The same

applies to areas that were the "new" city edge 50 years ago, now they are the one with deserted shopping malls.  About the only place downtown stays alive is in the dinky

little towns in the middle of the country where things never change. 


We've had the same thing in this area, where there were 8 implement dealers when I was a kid there are now 3, but of course those 3 now sell the brands the previous 8 sold.

If I want Oliver parts, I go to Agco.  Minnie parts?  Agco.  Massey? Agco.  New Holland, Ford, Case or IH?  Case-IH.  But when I was a kid there were hundreds of small farmers

while now there are but a handful who farm the same thousands of acres the little guys did.  Yes, they've pulled up railroad tracks around here within the last 20 years, but the

same thing happened in the 1870's when it became unprofitable for some lines to remain.


How do you save small towns?  The only thing I can say is to keep the local school.  As long as there is a school, those little town survive.  When the school goes, you can

be assured that the town will be on a downhill slide to oblivion.

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Small Town Schools

You bring up an interesting point on the small, rural schools.

I graduated from high school in 1961.  There were 16 in my graduating class, of whom 14 got a diploma.  Math ended at algebra II.  We had to beg for a physics class.  No chemistry.  We were somewhat lucky in that we had young teachers who were the wives of grad students at the local university.

When I went off to college, what a shock.  I was unbelievably unprepared.  The lack of science and math skills has been a nuisance to this day.  

In the 50's and 60's, the unifying elements were the church and the school.  The School consolidated with two other - then yet another - school.  The churches are dying out.  The school is the onlyl unifying element in the community.  And what is the activity that the local community rallies around?  Sports.  If you are not a sports star or somehow supporting the sports team, you are an outsider.

When I got out of the Army and came back to the farm in the '90s, I put my kids, who had been attending German schools, in the local school.  They were miserable.  These kids had traveled around Europe and spoke two langauge but were not "in".  A few years later we transferred them all to the local big city school.  They thrived.  They found friends from various cultures, took all the hard math and science classes and generallly blossomed.

What's the take-away to me?  When we focus on small rural schools and extol their sports program, we are reliving our childhood and holding our community together on the backs but not the brains of our children.

I learned another thing very quickly.  You can move to a better school a whole lot faster than you can improve the one you're in.

I was very afraid that when the kids went to the big school they'd be swamped and swallowed up.  On the contrary, they thrived with new friends and really good teachers.

Now, one chjild works in Honolulu, one in Dallas and one in Munich.  Can't get much farther from home.  But there is nothing at home for them.  And if there was, the local community was not welcomign when they came; why should they want to return to it?


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Re: Small Town Schools

Back in the late 50s Purdue led a statewide effort in Indiana to encourage school consolidation. The backdrop was the national panic over Sputnik and fear that the US was losing the science educaton race to the Soviets.


My guess is that consolidation happened in IN more universally and faster than other MW states but there were other reasons too- enough density that transportation budgets didn't overwhelm other savings, a more homegeneous population (not like some states where the majority in certain townships are of one national origin, religion, etc)*.


Overall I'd rate it a limited success. The schools are probably better, on average, than they'd be otherwise although far from excellent, on average, and it is one reason why IN farm property taxes are relatively low.


The last of the generation that went through the battles over that are passing away and except for a few people who need to look hard to have something to be angry about the communities have pretty well been redefined by school districts.


The thing that occurs to me now is that technology has made the old Township School an entirely valid model again. With broadband you could teach very well on a smaller scale. But of course it is near impossible to put the whole project in R once the momentum is rolling. 


It would require fewer, but better teachers- generalists who could support online learning rather than specialsts. Arguably fewer administrators. Less support staff, fewer bus drivers- all meaning fewer jobs from the institution that is a major employer.


As far as pie in the sky about how to revive small towns I'd say qualty of life, strong and unique educational opportunities and BROADBAND- because the kind of jobs that used to support those towns aren't coming back.


probably helps a lot to be within at least an houts drive of decent shopping etc. too.


Sounds pretty radical, and inimical to some vested interests, for the ideas to gain much traction many places before it is too late.


* I imagine most people know an area like this. In our district there is one township at the center of a pocket of very good soils, no towns, many very strong and very proud family farms. Those people have never gotten used to losing their township school (even though they hate paying taxes) and generally remain a tribe apart.




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BA Deere
Honored Advisor

Re: How Do We Save Our Small Rural Towns?

Alot of things at play, the small Iowa town of <1,000 served it`s purpose back in the day..the cafe, blacksmith, hog buying station, grocery store and of course no town is so small that it can`t support a bar.  A small town grocery has problems, they can`t stock fruit and a variety of meats in most cases, only the staples.  So a Caseys comes in and can be a cafe and gas station and grocery too, if the town is lucky to be on or just off a well travelled road.  The heck of it is, there`s a Walmart type store in Iowa every 30 miles and people think nothing of driving 30 miles, they probably work in the bigger town anyway.


But I see small towns having a really good restaurant and bike riders will make that as their destination, their parking lots are full, probably double the population when they are open.  And a couple sand volleyball nets with the accompanying scenery doesn`t hurt either 😉 


Some towns try to fill a niche by having a music festival and that sort of thing.  Forest City, Iowa is a good example with the "Treetown music concert" and now Winnebago International Travelers are there.


Also wineries in small communities are destination attractions.


Maybe in the future, those that`ve left will come back to rural towns after they`ve found fame and fortune in the bright lights big city.  I know places like Boise Idaho are booming with high tech jobs.  trouble with Iowa, we can`t sell our climate and skiing  😉

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Re: Small Town Schools

I've been lurking for a while and thought this is a thread I should probably hop on and speak up.  I grew up country in a family of dairy farmers and row croppers during the 80s and watched my county get squeezed hard.  Not seeing much of a future and much nudging from my folks, I buckled down in school and ended up going to college to never return to my hometown beyond family events and the occasional Christmas.


Since then, its the same story that is rampant across this board.  Namely Walmart and the oligarchs has moved in, small business has been gutted, the medium businesses have been acquired or relocated to more urban surrounds and most of the people that have opportunity leave.


I've been heavily considering moving back to the country and starting a business in addition to my job but there's certain things that are needed to make either of these happen.  Fast, low latency broadband is an absolute must for me.  Like many in the tech industry, I can live and work wherever I chose provided there are adequate pipes.  


Broadband is also needed for the business I'm considering so that we can receive and process orders from around the world.  Additionally, it'll need 800a 3ph power, 2" natural gas line and daily volume UPS pickups.  It'll also require workers who are versed in using industrial controllers and technology.  In the suburbs or cities these things are easy but after decades of being ignored, it is a struggle to check these boxes in rural areas.


My personal feeling is that rural America simply needs a hand up to become competitive.  Some basic infrastructure and lots of industrious people would return to the small towns that made this country great.  Just look at the homesteading, tiny house and locavore movements and you'll find millions of people that are pining for a simpler life than what cities/exurbs can offer.  Places with clean air, growing your own food is a given and there's plenty of elbow room and neighbors willing to lend a hand.

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Re: Small Town Schools



You'd also have to $%^&can Hoosiers as we know it, i.e., the importance of sports as the way the community defines itself.


As we have produced not a single solitary major league athlete and very few D1 scholarship athletes* I don't think it would be a huge loss.


And actually the route to those things is more AAU and other stuff than just school sports, for those families who choose to pursue that.


*mostly women, as Title 9 has offered up more opportunities there.



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Re: Small Town Schools

Also the bricks and mortar problem- hard to unbuild schools once you've built them, particularly with a 20 year bond issue.

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BA Deere
Honored Advisor

Re: Small Town Schools

Well, the hardest animal to kill is a school mascot and with open enrollment "just because you build it, doesn`t mean that they`ll come".    Schools around here have been consolidating and I see both sides of it, some crumb munchers have a over 1 hr bus ride, some big families make up half the kids on the bus.


There have been schools so small that if you`re a boy and wanted to play football..good news, you`re starting!  🙂 But small schools aren`t fair to the kids either, I see schools locally that are really suffering in the Biology department.  A kid wanting to be a doctor or medical field really has to scramble to handle biology 101 at university.  Also their ACT and SAT scores can suffer affecting scholarships.


Each district has their own challenges, but some communities the teachers and the coop manager are the highest paid citizens of the town by 3 times...not saying that is necessarily bad, but it does showcase the income inequity of small communities.

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Re: Small Town Schools

A big hit or miss whether you've got somebody who can teach higher math and science.


Some can, some can't.


I'd say that Khan Academy or something of the sort is a better bet but it requires somebody on the ground who can help you with the homework.


Somebody who can assist and oversee across the spectrum of math and science is worth a lot of money but it falls outside the current paradigm.



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