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NY Post Finds Rural South Dakota in Decline; What to Do?

Professor/pol Jon Lauck makes the New York Post to comment on the decline of rural communities in South Dakota:

"This is not a mysterious process," says Jon Lauck, who has a Ph.D. in the history of South Dakota and serves as a top adviser to US Sen. John Thune, himself from the town of Murdo (pop: 488). "As technology got better and you could farm 15,000 acres of land or more, you lose people. And then the younger people move to Minneapolis or Denver for jobs. But it's sad. It's sad every time a small farm closes" [Maureen Callahan, "Great Wide Open," New York Post, 2011.10.08].

Callahan's article smells of condescension and superficiality: for example, she deems Rapid City "ridiculously clean" and "almost entirely white." Hmm... did she go anywhere other than the airport before heading out to find a few colorful rural characters to reinforce her readers' big-city stereotypes of South Dakotans?

I will certainly agree that towns like Cottonwood, McLaughlin, and Herreid face hard prospects of regaining any population and business activity. What can be done?

  1. Perhaps the state should buy up all 80 of the small towns that are on the U.S. Postal Service's post office closure list and offer them for sale to high-rolling holyrollers. Encourage churches from around the world to build housing projects, revival centers, and pastoral retreats here far away from the earthly temptations of the big city. The only condition: no more than ten percent of each town can be placed under the churches' tax-exempt status.
  2. Combine the Homestead Act with the Jubilee: Declare these small towns debt-free zones where anyone with huge debt can come set up a homestead and avoid bill collectors. Conditions: homesteaders have to build a new house or renovate an existing structure to code and work enough to generate income equal to at least 200% of the poverty level for their household each year. Do that, and the Attorney General will make sure no debt collectors enter South Dakota to harass you about your past debts. Welcome to the New World!
  3. Perhaps we acknowledge the inevitable and euthanize those 80 towns. Acknowledge that a town that can't support a grocery store, a school, and a clinic (feel free to add your own list of necessities) cannot be a functioning, healthy community. Buy out the residents, relocate them to surviving towns, and concentrate the state's limited wealth in sustaining and growing the larger communities.

Those are just opening possibilities. I welcome your further prescriptions for Cottonwood et al. Your two big questions for coffee break today: (1) Can we save the smallest enclaves of rural South Dakota, and (2) should we?

p.s.: Callahan includes in her list of destroyers of rural communities the Interstate Highway System, "or the 'super-slab' as it's called here." Maybe I'm out of the loop, but I've never heard a South Dakotan call I-29 or I-90 by that name. Have you?

Update 16:26 MDT: Bernie Hunhoff offers his observations on substandard out-of-state coverage of rural South Dakota and points to some vital progress in improving life on our rural reservations.


  1. larry kurtz 2011.10.11

    'Decline' is just one person's opinion of what is happening in the chemical toilet. Pray for Ted Turner to buy western Southern Dakota so he can help rewild the West.

  2. larry kurtz 2011.10.11

    Btw: i am compiling a list of ranches for sale that would serve as corridors connecting Turners ranches with tribal and public lands. Contact me.

  3. Michael Black 2011.10.11

    None of this is new. Schools have been closing and towns disappearing for the last 100 years.

  4. Chris S. 2011.10.11

    Anybody who's spent even a weekend here would realize that Callahan's descriptions of South Dakota are just hackneyed stereotypes--or are just plain made-up. We locals call the interstates "super-slabs"? News to me.

    Then again, she writes for the illustrious New York Post, the paper whose screaming headlines can be seen from space.

  5. Jill Callison 2011.10.11

    Be nice if she'd spelled Herreid right. But why let the facts stay in the way of a lede?

  6. Supersweet 2011.10.11

    The "slab" was a term used by concrete construction workers to describe the pouring of the highway. I worked in that capacity for two summers while in college.

  7. Wayne B. 2011.10.11

    Why not consolidate county governments while we're at it? 66 county seats seems an awful lot for 814k people, especially when we look to our western neighbor and how few counties Wyoming has.

    If we have limited resources, mayhap it's time we stop thinking having built in inefficiencies & redundancies in government is a good idea.

  8. Bill Dithmer 2011.10.11

    If you were to look back at what life was like in 1960 it might help to understand South Dakota a little better. First the state was nearing but not quite at the end of the great exodus from agriculture land to the towns and cities of the state. This started in the 30s and continued through the sixties.

    Is it any wonder that people had closer ties to the land back then? After all they probably still had relatives that lived and worked a farm somewhere in the state, and they also still had some feelings for the land they had recently either sold or vacated do to the effects of the great depression and the great dust bowl.

    There were a lot of people that left the state to find work in larger cities never to return. In fact with the exception of the census of 1950 the population of SD declined every census from 1930 until 1970 when it began to grow to its present number.

    It was during this same time that farmers started to depend on tractors and trucks to do their work. What had taken three or four people only needed one. With mechanization came a natural increase in farm sizes. From 1935 to 1982 the average size of a farm in SD grew by 267%. I find it interesting that even though SD is a rural state, 50% of our population lives in towns that have 2500 people or more. Another interesting stat is that 50% of our population lives in what is called the Eastern Corridor that runs north to south within fifty miles of I29.

    We are now a hunting state but in 1960 there weren’t any interstate highways and there was very little air travel for the purpose of hunting. That in itself meant fewer out of state hunters and more instate hunters. With the advent of both of these things came the great migration of out of state hunters that we see today.

    Economics have changed a lot sense 1960. I couldn’t find many stats for SD for that year but nationally here are some of the averages that were found. A gallon of gas $.25. Just imagine ten gallons of gas for $2.50. The average new car sold for about $2600 and a really good pickup for a lot less. A loaf of bread $.20. I can remember eating at Jeffs Truck stop in Kadoka, a burger and fries with pop for $1.00. Somewhere around here I have a box that has a Hogens Hardware sticker on it that held a brick of 22 shells, it says $5.00. There is also an empty box of shotgun shells from the same time that says $2.75. In the rest of the country an average house sold for $12,700 here in SD I would bet a little less. A new tractor cost about $10,000, and a new combine about the same. At that time SD didn’t have a minimum wage but we did have what was called average weekly wages. For 1960 it was between $17 and $20. In doing this research it was interesting, to me at least, that the minimum wage we had here for the next thirty years was exactly the same as it was in Texas.

    It was during this time period that land prices started to climb and at the same time the money spent to purchase manufactured products bought less and less. That same equivalent tractor bought in 60 now cost $100,000 and a combine nearly twice that price. Years ago there were many people that didn’t even have insurance on their farm but you wont find any that will take that chance today. In the early years you could pretty much do whatever you wanted to with the property you owned. Not any more. Now you have to deal with a whole bunch of government agencies. EPA, Army Corp of Engineers, USDA, FDA,GF&P and that is just the short list.

    At the same time the people that lived in town were taking on more job responsibility’s to make more money to make ends meet. And in turn it was taking up time that they used to spend hunting and fishing. It became so much easier to go play a round of golf or a game of tennis or some other outdoor sport then to drive twenty or thirty miles to hunt. Those people were slowly but surly loosing their ties to the land and the people that they had known that lived there.

  9. Bernie Hunhoff 2011.10.11

    I agree with Larry Kurtz. It is amusing when a writer from afar shows up and writes breathlessly about a shocking discovery that he or she makes (poverty on the rez, rural population sparsity, lack of billionaires in Buffalo County, etc.). Some years ago, a Chicago Tribune writer showed up in Gregory and the folks there thought they'd had a good visit ... but when the story came out they could hardly believe that it was written about there town.

  10. larry kurtz 2011.10.11

    Careful, Rep. Hunhoff. That kind of agreement could be used against you in a re-election bid; but bless your buttons anyway.

    Food and reproduction is what South Dakota does best, innit?

  11. UnionCo 2011.10.11

    Bill wrote a very thoughtful and interesting message, but if I may add, an additional reason the rural areas have lost farm population is because of the use of chemicals for the farm operation. In the 50s the farmer planted his corn so he could cross-cultivate to keep out the grass and weeds. A farmer could not do a good job and create a bumper crop if he had too many acres to cover. Then with the addition of herbicides, insecticides, and whatever, it was no longer necessary to take such intensive care of the crop thus allowing him to farm thousands of acres instead of just a few hundred. Smaller farmers were squeezed off the land and were no longer purchasing their necessities from the local small town.

    Speaking of minimum wage, in the late 50s the clerks in the local grocery and dime stores were paid $0.45 an hour which was not a living wage even back then.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.10.11

    Larry, the Madville Times household has discussed the prospects of some serious free-market rewilding. We are unlikely to carry out such a project on state dollars; the free market and the quixotic desires of one wealthy iconoclast may be our last best hope.

    Bill D: wonderful exposition on our economic and cultural history. That population trend seems highly significant: that decline up to 1970 corresponds to a big draining of our rural population. The growth since then perhaps represents South Dakota's becoming a different state: more Indians (their population growth rate beats ours, doesn't it? Would editor Hunhoff would see int hat change evidence of progress in health care and living conditions on the reservations?), more big-town folks, more commuters... more tourism? Maybe that 1970 turn in the trend marks a new era that South Dakotans haven't fully recognized yet.

  13. Donald Pay 2011.10.11

    Other than some for minor details I think her article is spot on. I don't find it condescending at all. It holds a mirror up to what's happening. The rotting center of the nation is not something that gets told to urban audiences very often.

    The problem is she paints a bleak picture of the future. Yeah, with the lack of vision of South Dakota
    Republican leaders, that's realistic. But it doesn't have to be that way.

    What I find condescending is the attitude of the power structure of South Dakota, which tends to view the state's wide open spaces as something to fill up with nuclear waste dumps, garbage dumps, corporate hog farms and refineries, rather than bison and wind and solar development. The state could lead the nation in "green energy." But dirty energy controls the levers of government, and the ideological conservatism means the state's rural areas will continue sinking.

    The author has written a well-acclaimed book on Lady Gaga. I believe she's an anti-union conservative.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.10.11

    Good point, Donald: we should be careful not to let our hair-trigger defensiveness about perceived slights blind us to the larger points. I do sense a slight detachment from the subject and a preconceived narrative reinforced... but those little flaws don't negate the main thesis, that rural America is emptying out, and that we need to decide what if anything we want to do about that.

    (And yes, Callahan did write the book on Lady Gaga. She points to ills of current unions and calls labor's battle against big business "unwinnable," but she also acknowledges the good brought about by unions.)

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