Sustainability and small-town America

This AP story caught our eye this week: Florida family gives up on small-town North Dakota. Here’s the gist: After four years of attempts to assimilate and live comfortably in close-knit Hazelton, ND, a Miami family of four has decided to opt out.

Which brings up an interesting point: While media stories tend to focus on the rural population drain occurring in small-town America, in fact there may be a force other than the desire for big-city opportunities at work: the small town’s tendency to be stubbornly resistant to change. Even when change may be key to the area’s survival.

We asked two authors with personal ties to stories such as this to comment on the issue. Carrie A. Meyer (Days on the Family Farm) teaches economics at George Mason University and grew up on a farm in Illinois. Dean Hulse (Westhope) is a freelance writer who grew up on a farm in Westhope, ND (population: about 500) and lives in Fargo. While writing from different perspectives, both provide equally insightful glances into Midwestern small-town culture and thoughts about its past, present and future.



Coincidences can provide teachable moments because not all fairy tales are intended for children. The very same week I read the discouraging North Dakota news story, I also attended a literary event and bought a memoir about an adoptee from Korea who grew up in Minnesota.

The news story involves Hazelton, North Dakota (pop: 240), and a couple from Florida who were lured to the small town four years ago by the offer of money and real estate, provided by the Hazelton Development Corp.

Michael and Jeanette Tristani and their twins (now twelve) want to move back to Miami. One reason is Jeanette’s elderly parents, who require care but don’t want to receive it in a state where the snow flies many months of the year. Another reason is the cold shoulder the Tristanis believe they’ve gotten from locals.

Of course, there are at least two sides to every story, and this one involving the Tristanis includes a petition for a restraining order against the owners of a coffee shop that competed with the Tristanis’s business. The news story reports that both businesses now are shuttered.

One of the locals summed up the Tristani affair this way: “Not everybody fits in in a small town.”

Which brings me to the adult fairy tale, included in The Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka, who is passionate about international adoption—particularly about how important it is to keep alive in the adoptee a sense of his or her own culture. For many years, she felt lost between two cultures while she lived in a rural Minnesota community with “its own self-purging system.”

In her book, Jane Jeong Trenka tells about a small mountain village where the happiest people in Korea lived. Running through the middle of the village was a “laughing” river, which the people loved. Frightening wooden statues guarded the village gates and kept out “evil things.” One day a dragon came to the village’s guarded gates and asked the tallest statue for permission to enter the village. The statue refused, and kept refusing for thirty days and nights. On the thirty-first day, the dragon (who cried silver tears) left the happy village and headed home. The dragon died en route and the laughing river “closed her arms around the dragon and tasted his kinship … [s]he knew in her heart that the dragon was not bad. She sang a smooth lullaby in her liquid voice as she gently rocked the dragon’s tired body through the night.”

Oh, to have the wisdom of the laughing river.

Having left (abandoned, some may say) my hometown, I, too, have been treated as “the other” by people I’ve known all my life. Certainly, nothing comparable to what Jane Jeong Trenka has witnessed, but enough to write the following in my book, Westhope: Life as a Former Farm Boy: “I hold a postindustrial vision of home, and of my homecoming, that is neither nostalgic nor utopian, merely untried. I see a community as accepting of new ideas and different cultures as its members are supportive of people who grieve.”

If depopulation of the countryside is a pox on our society, and I believe it is, then any barriers ensuring a status-quo homogeneity represent a placebo, not the antidote.



The issue of dying small towns in rural communities in the Great Plains is a difficult and painful one. Fundamentally there are too many towns and not enough spending power to support small businesses. When the Great Plains was settled and towns sprang up, farmers sold their crops and spent their money in the closest town. If the town was more than 7 miles away it was too far to go with a horse and wagon. Small towns produced the goods and services farmers needed — they had blacksmiths, harness makers, carriage makers, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, sawmills, and grist mills. Such towns peaked around 1900.

Even though the farm economy is pretty good these days, there are far fewer farm families, most of the things they buy aren’t produced locally anymore, and good roads and modern automobiles make it easy to drive farther to bigger towns for routine shopping.

My heart breaks when I think of the small town in central Kansas near my brother’s farm. My grandfather chaired the building committee for a new church building there in the 1970s. Church members lovingly removed the stain glass windows from the old church built in 1900 and put them in a beautiful new building. But there aren’t enough congregants to support a minister, and the town has two other churches.

As Michael and Jeanette Tristani found out, it’s not easy to move to a town in which the families have known each other for more than a century. The last thing these old timers want is a new business to run the old businesses out of business. One new business that is welcome in my brother’s town, however, is a retirement home. It’s keeping some older folks in town a few more years, attracting others from nearby towns, and providing a few jobs for younger folks.

Small towns that are closer to large employment centers can hope to attract commuters and tourists. While on book tour last summer, I was cheered to see the downtown areas of many small towns in Illinois looking more charming and less rundown than I remembered them, with busy family-owned diners on Main Street.


Further reading:
Days on the Family Farm: From the Golden Age through the Great Depression, by Carrie Meyer.
Westhope: Life as a Former Farm Boy, by Dean Hulse.
The Emptied Prairie, National Geographic.
The Rural Brain Drain, The Chronicle.

What are your thoughts? Do you have a personal story or other media article to share? Please leave us your comments.

2 thoughts on “Sustainability and small-town America

  1. What happened in Hazelton is tragic for all parties involved. What’s equally sad is that this same story plays out in communities – large and small – on a daily basis; yet only Hazelton is spotlighted. I’d also recommend that you add the “Rural Migration: The Brain Gain of Newcomers” to your Further Reading list, as a way of balancing it with some positive research. ( Much like the Hazelton story, there’s a lot more complexity to what’s happening in our rural communities than is typically reported.

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