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Country of People with Ideas

 

This new book, from the University Press of Kansas-I like the idea, but protest the title, Survival of Rural America. To me, “survival” sounds like hunkering down, weathering the storm. That’s not my experience of what’s going on, nor is it really the subject of the book. The book, by Richard E. Wood, is about doing things, about people taking in hand the future of their communities. If you live in a prairie town and want to see it become or remain vital, this is a book to read.

Everyone around here is familiar with the general situation: the consolidation of agriculture and society, the decline of population, the loss of enterprises and communities. Sometime near the end of the 20th century, although the situation did not reverse, it softened, and possibilities opened up. Many towns began to recover, or at least stabilize.

This development was, as Wood points out, “highly idiosyncratic.” Politicians and visionaries have their ideas about how to “save” country towns, but the people doing the saving are, in fact, the people in the towns. They have ideas and commitment. The results are not wholly successful, but they are promising.

The communities chronicled by Wood are mainly in Kansas. When he strays from there, sometimes the information is shaky; for instance, there is some misinformation about the Enchanted Highway leading to Regent, North Dakota. Likewise, Wood is on unfamiliar ground when he goes historical. He portrays the prairies as politically placid, whereas in fact, they have been quite the opposite.

So, the thing to do is to read his book closely for the experience of the active and interesting communities he has studied. The book is rather brief, and so I actually would like to know more about towns like these.

Such as, Tipton, “the town that refused to die.” Tipton lost its school, which often is the kiss of death for a prairie town. The citizens, however, thereupon organized a private school and carried on until they once again received funding from the consolidated district (which wanted the pupils back for the sake of base funding).

Or, Atwood, in northwest Kansas. There the citizens realized that chasing outside firms and begging them to come to town was less productive than working within to make their town better and more competitive. They involved women in community development, cultivated entrepreneurs, and restored the Jayhawk Theater-and incidentally, the restoration of movie theaters, according to my personal knowledge, is a sign of community revival evident from Texas to North Dakota.

Or Lucas, which has made itself, beginning with S.P. Dinsmoor’s fabulous Garden of Eden, a center for grassroots art. Or any of the towns that, contrary to the pronouncements of academic critics, have bootstrapped their communities by offering free building lots to newcomers.

Wood’s book offers no foolproof formula or grand plan for restoring rural communities. The message is, there is no such thing. Prairie towns come back through the ideas, commitment, and hard work of people in the towns. Some towns have the right stuff, and with luck, will come back. Others do not, and will not. How about yours?

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