Emerging Ghost Towns of the Plains

Dustbowl Farm Near Dalhart Texas, 1938

Dust Bowl farm near Dalhart, Texas, photo by Dorthea Lange, 1938. Click for prints & products.

For years, newspapers, locals and especially farmers have lamented the downward spiral that agriculture has taken over the last century. I heard it as I was growing up in UlyssesKansas. I heard it in the news when I moved away from that small town. I continue to hear it on economic updates. But, what I don’t think I ever fully realized, were the ghost towns that agricultural decline has made across agricultural states.

We’re all familiar with mining ghost towns, historic cow townsRoute 66 ghost towns, and others that died industrial deaths. Many died when the railroads were removed as the population moved to automobile travel. But, the farming ghost towns are something new to me, even though I grew up in the midst of them. To consciously see these dying towns that litter the vast plains is a whole other thing all together. I mean – really see them.

My father still lives in that small town in southwest Kansas* that I grew up in, which is, fortunately for them, not one of the many ghost towns of the plains, as it has other resources such as oil and gas. (*update: actually, he moved to Missouri right around the corner from us in 2014)

As to the many other towns without additional economic venues, I’ve passed by them dozens of times on my way back for a visit, without giving a second glance, much less, a second thought.

Nekoma Playground

For whatever reasons, I am enamored with old schools and playgrounds, so often found in these emerging ghost towns. This old playground in Nekoma, Kansas sits silent today, as its swings and teeter-totters sway in the gusts of the Kansas wind. Kathy Weiser, March, 2009. Click for prints & products.

However, that changed recently as I intentionally set out on a trip across Kansas for a more in-depth look at Kansas’ small towns, many of which I have to categorize as “emerging ghost towns.” My photographer’s eye sends flutters of excitement through me at the opportunity for shots of crumbling buildings, old trucks and tractors, and boarded up businesses. My mind thrills with the anticipation of learning the history of these old settlements, checking out historic cemeteries, and as always, wondering about the people that once thrived in the paint-peeling houses, boarded up buildings, and crumbling barns.

But, on this trip, the excitement is dampened as these are “new” ghost towns. Those people that once prospered in the now decaying structures might very well be my father’s friends, they were certainly the parents or grandparents of people I know, many are still alive – living down the street watching their towns crumble around them.

Though I love to visit ghost towns and photograph old buildings, it’s so much different when you can actually relate to the people who once lived and still reside there. Definitely not the same as visiting an old mining town that thrived a century ago. My heart aches for those people who put their lives into building businesses, farms, and beautiful homes that now stand, paint peeling and windows broken without a potential buyer in sight. The farms are still there – most very big. A few “plots” are small; like the ‘ole days, but of those, their homes are generally in the same condition as the towns they are near.

Though this may the first time I’ve really noticed these emerging “ghost towns,” this is not a new phenomena. From North Dakota to theTexas Panhandle, and to the east and the west, small towns of the Great Plains have been declining in population for 75 years.

During the great days of westward expansion, the American West was born not only of cowboys, railroaders, miners, lawmen and outlaws; but, more importantly and often overlooked, were the many  homesteaders and businesses who supported them, who provided the backbone of these many dying communities.

Okaton, SD

Silent buildings stand on the prairie in Okaton, South Dakota, July, 2006, Kathy Weiser. Click for prints & products.

Rarely, do we hear about those hardy people in modern writings, but it was their work ethic and values that were primarily responsible for establishing these many Main Streets, schools, churches, and homes that too often, sit abandoned today.

The decline of the farmer began in the 1930’s after the great depression when many lost their land due to heavy debt. The dustbowl days drove more from their lands, leaving in their wake, thousands of acres of abandoned land.

On its heels; however, came progress – better machinery, hybrid seeds, large irrigation systems. With enhanced technology, those farmers who remained could handle more land than they could in the past and the farms got bigger and bigger over the years. But, the agricultural operations could no longer support all of the children, as it took less manpower, and the offspring began to move away.

When farms get bigger, there are fewer farmers on the same amount of land. This obviously affects the small towns that support them – the grocery and hardware stores, the doctors and lawyers, churches and schools. As the population falls, these operations eventually close or move to other locations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *