by Dave DeMars
Our rural towns and villages are not dying, they are merely victims of the narrative used to describe them. It’s a narrative that is straight out of the 1950s, according to Ben Winchester of the Center for Community Vitality, which is part of the University of Minnesota Extension program. Winchester presented his ideas at an Aug. 17 presentation at Peace Lutheran Church in Cold Spring.
About 35 people from Cold Spring, Avon, Collegeville and St. Joseph gathered to hear Winchester present data gathered throughout the years that demonstrates the picture of the dying small town is mostly anecdotal. Most small towns are really thriving, though many are changing or in transition from the type of “Mayberry RFD” existence we fondly remember to a different kind of town.
What we think we know of small-town life is largely the result of what Winchester referred to as “anecdata.”
“Anecdata is information which is presented as if it were based on serious research, but is in fact based on someone’s opinion and what they wish was true,” Winchester said. “Everything I present today is going to be based on solid research.”
Winchester describes and documents the kind of change that was and is taking place in area small towns in Nebraska, Texas, Wisconsin and in Minnesota in such places as Sartell, St. Stephen, Sauk Rapids, Rice and St. Josephusing a data-driven approach.
Back in the 1950s, most of the rural small towns were fairly isolated and were still highly dependent on agriculture. Many of the kids who graduated from high school left for the big city, causing what some rural-life biographers described as a “brain drain.” But Winchester disputes that contention, saying what was going on was a normal evolution that was part of globalization brought on by changes in technology. Three areas Winchester said were especially affected were the following: agriculture became highly mechanized, roads and transportation were greatly upgraded, and education expansion and promotion created new vistas of possibility.
The 1950s saw the establishment of the interstate highway system under President Eisenhower, and Winchester said that was a major event in the life of small towns. No longer were small towns isolated and more or less self-contained units. Now they became part of the larger world, and that brought changes of all sorts. Small-town life and main street was restructured, schools were consolidated, small-town hospitals were closed, regional medical centers sprang up, and rural towns saw the closing of many churches.
“Post WWII saw for the first time rural residents were able to get a college degree,” Winchester said. “The G.I. Bill allowed veterans to get a college degree for free. And we do know rural Americans are over-represented in the military.”
Small towns also saw the closing of many small businesses such as grocery stores, hardware stores, gas stations and other small-town institutions.
“These mainstays were ultimately doomed to fail because of the improved transportation system,” Winchester said. ”Small towns lost a lot of wealth. But for every gas station that closed in a small town, there was one that closed in the metro, too.
So change that happened in small towns also happened in large cities, Winchester said. It just wasn’t as noticeable because of the number of gas stations in the metro areas. Because of the changes in roads and transportation, we saw the establishment of regional centers of commerce – places such as St. Cloud, Willmar, Fergus Falls, Worthington and Marshall.
Lots of school consolidation took place in the name of efficiency and opportunity. Bus transportation became part of the American way of education.
“In 1990 there were 432 school districts in Minnesota. By 2010, there were only 337,” Worthington said. “This was hard because towns were struggling with identity issues because ‘we are losing our high school.’”
But kids don’t care about that very much, Worthington said. Kids seem to adapt better than adults.
“There are structural things going on in every discipline and every area across the country,” Winchester said. “Most recently it’s been post-office closings.”
All of the information is grist for the narrative mill about small-town life disappearing. To illustrate, Winchester told the story about a metro-area newspaper that decided to do a story about the impact the loss of a particular post office would have. The reporter used one quote in particular that skewed the narrative in a negative direction.
“The post office is the social hub of our community,” Winchester quoted the reporter. “I don’t know what we are going to do without it.”
Then he asked how many of the audience ever went to their local post office as a place for social gatherings.
“I never go to the post office to hang out with my friends,” said Winchester, drawing a big laugh from the audience.
It’s not that rural towns are dying, it’s simply that they are changing and becoming more diversified as a result of the restructuring. But the media doesn’t do a good job of reporting the changes taking place, Winchester said. The big-city media report things like murders, tornadoes, plant closures and other depressing events. If there were any uplifting stories, they went unreported or were buried inside, Winchester maintained.
“If there were good stories it was like ‘Jane SoandSo started a business in Watkins and I can’t believe she did that,’” Winchester said, drawing another laugh.
Winchester said that in Minnesota only three towns have been dissolved during the last 50 years. The last town to do so was the town of Tenney – population 3. They voted to dissolve and join nearby Campbell.
In fact, rural Minnesota has seen an 11-percent population increase since 1970, Winchester said. What has declined is the percentage of persons who live in a rural place. That has happened because as more of the population moves to a rural area, the area is no longer considered rural, and it is reclassified.
So rural areas become more urbanized, Winchester said. Urban areas have grown wider, not taller. As urban areas grow, rural areas shrink, and yet a large portion of the population has a preference for rural life. As more families seek a rural life, that life disappears, the area changes and becomes more urbanized.
Movement to rural areas
Winchester said the reason people are moving to the country is because of a perceived improvement in the quality of life. But the new small-town folks have distinct differences from those who lived there in the past.
Winchester cited the following differences in newcomers to rural towns: 68 percent have bachelor’s degrees, 67 percent have incomes of $50,000 or more, 51 percent have children in the household, many are leaving career jobs or are underemployed. One other interesting fact is 36 percent of newcomers are actually not newcomers; they are simply moving back to their roots after having gone away.
Winchester said the average American moves 12 times in a lifetime, and that number is increasing. We are becoming more mobile and thus more diverse as a people.
That is important, Winchester said, because it changes the social, political, religious, work and social-interest makeup of the towns to which the newcomers move. Long-established organizations, such as the chamber of commerce, the Kiwanis, the Lions or Women of Today either change to accommodate new-member interest or wither into non-existence.
To measure the change, Winchester looked at the demand for people to fill leadership positions in town organizations such as government, and non-profit institutions. What he found was surprising.
“In the U.S., while the population increased 10 percent, the number of non-profits increased 32 percent,” Winchester said. “These non-profits and government agencies reflect the need for leadership, for the need for people to step up and serve.”
While the need for leadership exists, the way in which people are relating and getting involved in the non-profits is changing, just as the make-up of the population changed, Winchester said. In part this is true because social organizations have changed. They now cover wide geographical areas, have narrowly focused goals, have diverse social interests and make use of technology like social media.
“People move to a town for what it is, not for what it was,” Winchester said. “Where would these small towns be if they had not had these people moving in for the past 40 years?”
Were it not for immigration and the movement of people from place to place, what would become of our economies? Winchester dealt with the needs for goods by newcomers to an area and how that need translates into purchases of goods, purchases of homes, and the transfer of receipts from one generation to another, and from one group to another.
“The model is who is moving in, who is moving out and who is moving over?” Winchester said.
The new economy
We are on the verge of a new economic narrative, Winchester said, and the characteristics of this new economic narrative are different than that of the past. And this narrative will affect and is affecting all rural communities throughout the country.
The new economy has the following characteristics: brick and mortar does not equal economic success; it’s more people focused with more self-employment and more (1099) consultant work for short periods of time; there are more diversified jobs and occupations; more multiple-job holding, job sharing and self employment; recruitment revolves around more than just job and work-related benefits. People in the new rural economy want a kind of emotional fulfillment as well as dollars from their jobs.
Winchester said based on data he has examined, there is going to be a severe labor shortage in the future and he believes that analysis of why looks at the wrong items to explain it. If small towns want to thrive, then they must understand how they will need to change to accommodate those people who would like to move there. They must look to the future, not the past.
It isn’t just building housing for workers or even raising the minimum wage. It’s creating a satisfying environment within which people can live and thrive rather than just be counted as a warm body.
The bottom line for rural towns is a simple one, Winchester said.
“The bottom line is people want to live and move here for what you are today and will be tomorrow, not what you may have been.”
Author: Janelle Von Pinnon
Von Pinnon has been publishing the St. Joseph Newsleader since 1989, the Sartell-St. Stephen Newsleader since 1995 and the Sauk Rapids-Rice Newsleader since 2015. She graduated from Minnesota State University-Moorhead with degrees in mass communications (with an emphasis on print journalism) and biology. She lives in southeast St. Cloud with her husband and two children.