If prodded, I could write volumes about the changes I’ve seen in this area in the “almost” past century. I’m not quite that old, but I started visiting my grandmother here in Ellsworth when I was an infant and stayed with her regularly after that until she became ill and later died. I recall some details of what Ellsworth was like and more of what I was told about it prior to that.
The other day Ken Robson was recalling the book stores that preceded his…Grant’s, Callie’s etc. and “the earliest that was across the street”, he said. It was before his time and he couldn’t recall the name. That was Harper Bower’s, I recalled with pride. Suffering a tad from anomia, I was rather pleased with myself for remembering Harper’s name. He was a close family friend and I remember going in his store often when I was very young. One particular thing I recall was that he gave me a book and a packet of canceled stamps to start a collection. The point of stamp collecting escaped me at the time, and actually still does, but I took great pride in my new present. His wife, Lois, made wonderful kolaches and I broke a tooth on one of her cherry kolaches where she missed removing a pit. I digress.
Anyway, that was back in the early 30s when Ellsworth was a Saturday night town. People came from far and wide to shop and visit. My grandmother would prepare me for presentation on Saturday night by taking me upstairs in her house, plopping me on a stool and curling my hair with some devise that hurt and burned. I hated it but understood it was part of the Saturday night ritual associated with downtown Ellsworth. I looked dang good on the streets downtown at age five. I was her pride and joy and my sister, who did not receive the same attention, never let me forget it.
At the turn of the century, the farm families that populated the area came to town on Saturday to do their shopping, get their supplies for the week and socialize. Many would eat and stay at my grandparents hotel, The Baker Hotel. The building was razed years ago but you can read about it on my website. It was on the corner east of the present Livery Stable Museum on south Douglas. It was a long journey for most farmers, traveling with horse and buggy, so many stayed overnight at one of the several hotels. My grandmother was famous for her food and the meals she served at the hotel…a family trait that seems to have survived the generations. Ellsworth was a bustling community destined for a great and secure future.
All of this brings me around in fast-forward fashion to thoughts about the grand exodus from the Great Plains, particularly the migration of farm families. It’s sad for me to follow this trend which seems inevitable and will continue, lockstep with the times.
There was a very interesting article in USA Today on Tuesday about North Dakota and what they have done to try to stem the tide of outward migration from their state. Like here in Ellsworth, rural Kansas and the Plains in general, the blame is often laid at the lack of jobs in an era of mechanized farming, once the backbone of our existence. But the story of North Dakota challenges the idea that economic troubles are the primary force driving young people from small towns that dot 500,000 square miles of plains in the Midwest…an area almost twice the size of Texas.
Interviews with young people in South Dakota and a review of Census and economic data reveal that lifestyle…the weather, the isolation, the landscape, the inability to find a date on Saturday night..may be be the key culprit behind depopulation of the Plains. It could explain why decades of effort to stem the loss have not succeeded. North Dakota’s youth are fleeing prosperity, NOT economic decline.
North Dakota has done everything right economically: create jobs, boost wages, educate its children, keep tax rates low. The state has even successfully developed high-tech businesses…lots of them. Still, the young leave.
Kansas has done much of that as well, but all the development aimed to help keep Kansans in Kansas is directed to the eastern part of the state, primarily Johnson County and Topeka. The drain from western Kansas continues and, unfortunately, will continue until only those towns with government infrastructure will remain. I blogged that recently.
That is not to say we should give up the fight as certainly we need to keep our combat boots on and continue to forge ahead as best we can. You just can’t convince me we are going to lure people here with housing. We aren’t going to attract “industry” as we once knew it. It’s all gone off-shore, in case you hadn’t noticed. And, as an example, I just can’t agree with people who imagine Ellsworth as a “prison” town, or are worried about lights in their bedroom at night from a security area when what we need to do is use every means possible to keep the people and jobs we have in this area. A prison expansion could be a very good thing and bring positive things to our county. There are ways to mask the concerns people have expressed. We have little else working for us right now…and that with some real effort at entrepreneurship is the direction we should follow. In my humble opinion. Anything to stem the tide of outward migration.