And, what is left, as the children move to the cities in search of jobs and the merchants relocate their businesses elsewhere? Abandoned buildings and homes with no potential buyers, and the elderly who have spent their lives in the community and want to stay. Eventually, they too will pass, again leaving no buyers and the town, without the commitment of hard-working and enthusiastic residents fades more and more.
I spoke to a gentleman in this predicament who had recently abandoned his spacious house and was now living in a trailer home. “Why,” I asked, to which he responded, “I can’t afford the upkeep on the old place. It was cheaper to buy the trailer.” One cannot argue individual needs, and most of these little towns don’t have “enough to offer” in a historical perspective to qualify for any type of historic preservation grants or funds.
Amazingly, some of these small towns, however, have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and survive by remaking themselves into “boutique communities” with their historic buildings occupied with antique shops and a quaint restaurant or two. One great example is Paxico, Kansas, which continues to preserve its historic buildings with individual enterprises, festivals, and events that draw tourists and helps to keep the town alive.
This effort started with one individual several years ago and spread enough to keep the town from becoming a total “ghost.” The locals; however, said that there are many in the community that would have preferred that Paxico had never developed into a “tourist attraction.” It might be surmised that some of these little places have totally died due to the resistance to change of the residents themselves. In the meantime, Paxico continues and has a population of about 200 today.
It is interesting to observe in these many small towns, what their final open businesses are. In many cases, if the location is situated on a railroad, the only open business is the grain elevator. Others that have faired a little better, may have a post office, and interestingly, a bank (perhaps some of the national financial institutions could take some lessons from these small-town banks.) One such place is Barnard, Kansas, where the bank and the post office still survive, surrounded by a number of abandoned businesses on its lonely Main Street. If the community is close to a major highway, it might provide a convenience store/gas station. A few, if there are any service businesses left at all, still have a beauty/barbershop. And, in yet more, the only remaining business is a saloon. Fascinating to see the priorities.
But, for many other small towns, little is left but crumbling buildings and weed-choked yards. For some, their fate is even worse. Unfortunately, I inadvertently stumbled into one small Texas town called Lela as I took a detour off of I-40. Once on old Route 66, it was one of the few little towns I hadn’t yet visited. Taking photos, stopping often, and making notes, I was approached by a burly young man who came bounding out of a house that was so dilapidated it had no business hosting any occupant other than rodents. He came directly to the car, sure that I was there to see him for some purpose. After convincing him I was only there to take a picture of the old church across the street, I high-tailed it out of town. Later, I received a lecture from my brother-in-law about how dangerous it was to have been in this tiny community, which is known to be filled with meth labs and drug addicts.
Adventurer that I am, in some ways I can be quite naïve. Unfortunately, it hadn’t dawned on me that these small towns have, in some cases, become a haven for drug houses that operate their businesses “under the radar.” If I was sad to see the condition of these old towns before, it was heart-breaking to discover that they have sometimes become havens for criminals. I’ve had other “scary” experiences in some of these old places before — being approached by odd characters, and being followed on foot and in vehicles. Though sometimes, these folks are just looking after the property, other times their intentions were unclear.
I’m more cautious now. I don’t venture into ghost towns by myself anymore, even though I’m drawn to their desperate beauty. I’m enticed by the history, the old “homesteading” mentality, the work ethic, pioneer spirit, the memories. In some cases, I’m thrilled to find exactly that, in others, the town has fallen into such despair that only the lowest of the low will inhabit it. If nothing else, I think that I have seen first-hand, some of the reasons that a place becomes a true “ghost town.”