The Bitter Harvest

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Text and Photos Marion County, Kan.


Lost Springs, Kan., took its name from the oasis that early settlers found here. Water gushed from the ground, ran along a creekbed, and then, just as abruptly, was gone again--vanishing into the parched prairie.

The natural springs became a familiar outpost along the Santa Fe Trail in the 1830's. And when the railroads came four decades later, the remote hamlet welcomed its prosperity.

By 1912, Lost Springs supported a doctor's office, meat market, dressmaker, bank, lumber and furniture company, real-estate and insurance agency, barber, jeweler, auto mechanic, veterinarian, mortuary, hotel, cafe, and newspaper. The population reached 300 soon after oil was discovered in the 1920's.

Now, like its namesake, Lost Springs is almost gone.

As night begins to fall, neon beer signs in the windows of Al's Cafe are the town's lone glow of activity. All around are empty stores and tired neighborhoods. About four dozen people live here now.

Howard Collett has watched Lost Springs go. He has watched his family hometown of Elk disappear, too. From the farmstead that his family has tended for nearly 135 years, the retired lawyer and schoolteacher has witnessed the decline that still marches on.

"Ramona is dying, too," he says. "That's the same way Elk and Antelope went."

The population of Marion County has dropped to fewer than 13,000 residents--almost half as many as it once supported. Withering rural communities like Lost Springs and Tampa and Florence are stark reminders that prosperity now flourishes someplace else. Prosperity that lures many young people away from their rural homes.

It is much the same in towns in Vermont, New York, Illinois, Mississippi, Texas, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, and most every other state. The number of rural youths hovers near 15 million:

About 85 percent are white, 12 percent are black, 4 percent are Hispanic. According to 1990 census figures, they are among the 67 million people--about a quarter of the nation's population--who live in counties outside metropolitan areas.

Rural schools remain the pride of these eroding towns. Closer family connections, greater avenues to participation, concentrated individual attention, the promise of safety, and community interest help these children thrive, a chorus of reports has concluded.

Good schools are their blessing.

They are also their curse. Education is killing the very places where it seems to work best. While rural schools are ideal places to learn, rural towns can be tough places to make a living.

Earlier this century, Marion County was singled out as one of the most solid counties in the nation. Its land was productive and valuable. Local farmers grew many varieties of grains, fruits, and vegetables. Its people were able to earn a profit for their goods and, in turn, accumulate savings in several local banks.

It was an unusually diverse place--a county nearly the size of Rhode Island settled by German, French, Irish, and Bohemian immigrants as well as Civil War veterans. The eclectic population established Catholic, Mennonite, Meth-odist, Lutheran, and Baptist churches. In 1910, its 23,000 people supported seven high schools and 118 community school districts.

But as highways replaced railways, many people began passing by Marion County's small towns. Still, the mobility that cars offered marked only the start of the decline.

The biggest blow to small towns, many say, came with school consolidation--the national movement that has closed small schools in the name of fiscal efficiency and academic comprehensiveness. Education researchers still ponder whether bigger schools reap better achievement.

The social toll, however, is more obvious. For about 75 years, Marion County supported as many as 130 school districts. Two years after consolidation began in the 1940's, 31 were gone. In the 1950's, Dobbs, Wren, Brown, Sunflower, Gnadenau, New Hope, Endeavor, Light House, Comet, Merry-Go-Round, Good Hope, and Victory were wiped out. Today, it would be hard to find those places on a map, even a local one. For those who see schools as incubators of a local future rather than a training ground for a global marketplace, school consolidation has become one of the greatest threats to rural life.

Taken together with the disappearance of family farms--wiped out under the premise "Get big or get out"--small towns have become distinctive largely as havens of order and neighborliness rather than independence or self-sufficiency. Within a generation, small-time farmers like Collett seem more like practitioners of some ancient craft, their overalls worn like period costumes.

In the meantime, Collett isn't sure that anybody has bothered to calculate the cost of the school reforms that educators, executives, and politicians have been busily inventing and reinventing.

"It's everybody to his own taste, but it bothers me that these children aren't going to have any grounding in living on little," he says. "I think you have to know that so you don't become just a cog in the wheel."

"Back at our little high school, there were farm kids who had a sense of the country," he recalls. "They knew they had to be responsible, they were self-reliant, they knew mechanics and physical sciences and biology and engineering because they helped Mom and Dad do this and that. And they could do just as well in college and in the professions as kids from the cities."

"I look back and see underpinnings that will take you through all the disciplines," Collett says. "But now, when people talk about the future, I don't know what they mean, except that you don't do anything by hand anymore. I know we are going to need a lot of psychologists and counselors and prison guards, but you have to wonder what percentage of the population will do meaningful work."

Many observers of rural life worry about the extent to which consolidation and the resulting tide of reforms have disconnected people from their place.

In a national economy that favors big markets and big producers, efforts to improve schools by focusing on the big picture have quickly lost sight of places like Marion County. Some of the most acclaimed reports calling for school reform say as much.

"The advent of the computer, high-speed communication, and universal education are heralding a third industrial revolution," promises the 1990 report America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages, published by the National Center on Education and the Economy. The report urges national standards for education among other reforms intended to fuel a more prolific U.S. workforce. "By doing this," it states, "we streamline work. ... Organizations become more efficient. Because they are more efficient, they can sell more. Because they can sell more, they can expand. Because they can expand, they can employ more people."

That goal of a rapid-fire national workforce is achieved by training children for a future that does not--and perhaps cannot--exist in rural towns. So warns the Marion County history book on a table in the local museum.

"The decline of Lost Springs cannot be laid on its citizens but on the evolving economic condition which has affected nearly all small rural towns," the 1972 book reads. "The young people had to leave in order to survive financially. They went to larger communities where more work was available."

"Kids are going to go where the work is," confirms Collett, who has worked in classrooms and offices his whole life so he could afford to keep the 800-acre farm where he raises cattle and milo. "They are trained now since childhood by schools and families that have pointed them toward a living style they can't find here."

A 1988 report by the National Governors' Association criticizes the way standardization had stripped small schools of their local flavor:

"Rather than being grounded in experience, education has become more abstract and more divorced from the economic and social environment in which that education happens," the report reads. "With the existing curriculum, supported by mass-marketed textbooks, students learn more about the national government than about their own town council. They are taught about the workings of the Supreme Court to the exclusion of attention to the justice of the peace or the county commission."

"The school curriculum--and the national media--makes it possible to know more and more about those things over which there is less and less potential for control," the report adds. "At best, it is difficult to imagine that rural community development will travel very far on ignorance of the locality and how it operates."

Wendell Berry, a Kentucky writer and farmer, has also mourned the erosion of local communities. He is alarmed at how easily schools devote themselves to a state or national ideal and dismiss the job of sustaining the places where they exist.

"It is very hard to find evidence that the shakers and movers care," he says. "The education of country people has tended to be about them taking their place in the world of tomorrow, and the world of tomorrow has never been in the country. When I was in school, we read little stories in our readers about city kids coming to the country to visit their grandparents on the farm."

"These towns are important because people live from the land," Berry says. "No matter where they live, they eat, and they are dependent on the land and have stewardly responsibilities. If you live from something, you must use it well. Not being raised to it and inheriting an accumulated knowledge about it is wrong. You have to be raised to it, and our whole society has lost the understanding of that."

"We've lost something in this process, and maybe it is inevitable," Collett agrees. "I don't see many people standing up for the place where they feel like they belong."

He wonders if that sentiment can make sense in such a hurried society.

At night, the stars beam down on the Collett farm like floodlights--the complete darkness all around accentuating the clear night sky. The earth spreads out in all directions, inhabited by trees, crops, cattle, wildlife, and the occasional farmhouse. The open horizon seems to embrace all there is of the skies and fields. Yet, the world has passed this place, and much of rural America, by.

Collett discusses the spectacle of watching a thunderstorm approach and pass--charms that seem at once instructive and old-fashioned.

Beth, his wife, adds, "We've got stars out here you can't see in the city."


Most of the bicycles outside Marion Elementary School are pulled up to the bike rack, although some of them are lying on their side nearby. A few others, painted red and yellow and loud combinations of fluorescent colors, are propped up with kickstands. Not one of them is locked. Inside the school, a bulletin board entices children to show up early for jumping rope.

In Ginger Becker's 2nd-grade classroom, the children are retrieving their coffee mugs for their weekly newspaper-reading session. The teacher and her aides fill each mug with apple juice, in keeping with the week's apple theme. Today, the children also have small muffins to snack on, courtesy of somebody's mom.

After reading their Weekly Reader newspapers, they answer questions about this week's topic: fire safety.

By most anybody's criteria, this is a model classroom in a reformed school. A bank of computers lines one wall of the room; a reading area anchors another. The children sit in small groups, helping one another through the day's activities. Students with disabilities work alongside their classmates. The children are asked to understand that they all learn differently and need to find the best ways to excel.

Becker has structured each of the lessons to teach a combination of subjects. She measures the class by what the children achieve, not how much material she covers. Class sizes are manageable. And nearly every parent attends parent-teacher conferences.

Looking quickly through a journal, Becker describes how she can already see the progress of Amber Richmond, a quiet 7-year-old with short blonde hair and bright blue eyes.

Amber's parents moved to Marion, the county seat, for all the reasons people are attracted to small-town life. Shortly after Amber was born, her parents decided to leave suburban Kansas City, where they both had jobs, to return to Marion, where her father, Rodney Richmond, grew up.

"She was going to be bused, and the school she would have gone to was huge," says Diane Richmond, Amber's mother, who works as a bookkeeper at a local tool-and-die manufacturing company where her husband is an engineer.

"We really like the school system here in Marion," she adds. "It's a lot more personal."

Beyond school, Amber participates in Girl Scouts, gymnastics, the church choir, fall soccer, and summer T-ball.

"There's a lot to keep her busy--too much," her mother says. "But it has been real exciting to come back and see that we could make it work. You find a lot of people who want to, but not a lot who can."

In a math exercise, Amber is working with Molly Rhodes, her best friend. They are weighing apples on a scale. Math, Molly says, is her favorite subject. Amber is less specific. Mostly, she's just glad to be at school.

"I was begging my mom to let me go back to summer school because I didn't want to stop," she says, recalling the end of 1st grade last spring. She likes school so much that she imagines becoming a teacher herself one day. "I would like to teach all of the kids math and stuff," Amber says. "And plan field trips."

Ginger Becker, Amber's teacher, says she not only tries to make school engaging, but also an experience that will prepare these children to consider a wide range of options. City officials boast that their schools are the town's chief drawing card and that Marion graduates fare well against students from the poshest schools in the Wichita or Kansas City suburbs.

"I've never seen a community that wants its kids to broaden their horizons more and says to its teachers, 'Don't feel limited,"' Becker says.

The students' exercises range from a visit to a local orchard to see how apples are grown and harvested to a study of the continents. For the latter lesson, Becker organizes the children as if they were on board an airplane and even goes through the gestures of a flight attendant.

"Some of these kids will never be able to fly," she says, noting that she passes out airline peanuts to make the experience complete.

Through all of the activities, the focus is on helping the students work together and prepare for today's modern work environment.

"We're trying to get these kids to think and problem-solve," Becker says.

"We can offer smaller classes and more opportunities and the security of walking the streets at night without worrying, even though we realize this is not Utopia," adds Martin Tice, the business manager for the 675-student K-12 district and a former mayor of Marion. "We try to provide the best system we can--to provide the education these children will need in the future, whatever that is."

The unspoken question about the future is one that also rumbles through Diane Richmond's mind. She and her husband moved here because they were certain it was the best place for Amber and her little sister, Erin, to grow up. But they also realize it will probably be hard for the girls to stay.

"I wonder," Diane admits. "I would hope she might be able to stay because we enjoy it so much. This place has a lot of advantages, and it is comfortable. But I wonder what she will do, and I wonder how she will react when she goes to college and has to deal with things she didn't experience here."

In truth, many parents who come here to settle cannot feel tied to this place for much more than their own generation.

The tool-and-die company where the Richmonds work, along with another locally owned machine shop, are the chief job prospects here and are far from the high-tech service economy touted in education-reform reports. The care and devotion that Marion County pays its youngest residents is more likely to bear fruit as model citizens in some other town.

Becker's son lives in Texas. Tice has three children, one in Wichita, another in suburban Kansas City, and the youngest at the University of Kansas. One of Howard Collett's four children is a lawyer in Marion, and another is a teacher in Chapman, Kan.; the other two live in Missouri and Colorado.

"Rural schools serve as incubators for the education and skills of young people and adults who form part of the mainstream of urban life," reads a 1992 report by the Council for Educational Development and Research. Other scholars have put it more bluntly: Rather than empowerment, rural schools prepare children for emancipation.

Observers note that the push toward national standards and national goals are bound to continue draining schools of any local personality and, eventually, their local enrollment.

To work better, schools must reconsider not only the way they deliver their curriculum but also the way in which they are bound to the places they represent, some rural educators suggest.

"When we had one-room schools, there was an intense sense of ownership," says Faye King, the principal of Stanton Elementary School in Kentucky's Appalachian Mountains. "But after consolidation, schools became a place where you went, not a place that you owned."

The hallmark of her school is a music program that teaches students to play guitars and dulcimers. While learning the regional music (many family members, while not well educated, are accomplished folk musicians), they learn about their own heritage. By the end of the K-5 school, students are versed in pitch and rhythm and musical notation, and many have moved on to other string instruments.

But the lessons are as much about students staying connected to their mountain homes as anything else. "Until you are firmly established in who you are, you are less likely to envision what you can become," King says. "We are reigniting a sense of ownership."

Yet for many schools, even their best effort comes up short. In Valparaiso, Neb., for example, the district imposes a relatively steep property tax to support its schools, but it can barely afford to offer the state's minimum curriculum. The district is trying technology and employing traveling teachers to offer advanced courses, but residents worry that their children are getting a substandard education.

"These people are proud, and they don't like to face up to the fact that this is second-rate," says Jack Gould, a Valparaiso farmer and a former teacher who has sued the state of Nebraska over its school-funding system. "These people went to school here and live here, but the truth is that we don't stack up--there are no Advanced Placement courses, a limited chemistry lab, and barely any foreign languages."

When the renewal of a rural community seems out of reach, realizing that the children who are left cannot take the courses they need to make the cut for competitive colleges comes as a doubly hard blow, he says.

"We may supply a lot of good labor to the people in Lincoln, but their money does not come out to help us," Gould contends. "Farmers can't get a decent price, neighborhoods are becoming low-income housing, and the little guy is getting destroyed."


On a stroll through downtown Marion, where cars and pickup trucks make fairly frequent stops at the local merchants lining the wide main street, Peggy Blackman, the town's planner, points out a familiar landmark. It's a modest sign planted in the yard of the post office. The white letters neatly arranged on the black board announce upcoming funerals. Some people think it morbid, Blackman explains. But in a tight-knit town of 2,000 with only a weekly newspaper, if someone dies after a deadline, the marker is the only way to notify everyone of upcoming services.

Nobody here thinks it's unusual. It exists because it is necessary.

Under the bright noon sun, Blackman explains that little about this place exists without a reason. Marion is not used to speculative development; it is not accustomed to chance visitors; it is not well versed in spontaneous growth. Like much of America that lies outside the congestion of cities and the sprawl of suburbs, nearly everything about this place is deliberate.

"It's tough for rural counties today," says Blackman, a former Marion mayor who knows all too well the uphill battles that a town this size must fight just to keep going.

"We try to make inroads to the future for the preservation of this community," she says. "But the truth is that what many national companies require to even think about making a deal here is not a reachable amount by a small-town business person, and that's causing the decay of small-town America."

She details the cash requirements of major automotive companies before they will sanction dealerships--a reality that leaves the county with a single car dealer and sends many residents to nearby McPherson or Wichita to spend their $15,000. On a smaller scale, one of the nation's most popular jeans companies requires local merchants to agree to guarantee $10,000 in annual sales before it will sell to retailers.

"On Main Street, Kansas, that's a lot of blue jeans," Blackman says.

Because Marion merchants are not big enough to compete, buyers go elsewhere, commerce leaves the city and county, local merchants are hurt, and, eventually, the town feels the loss.

So, while malls everywhere are selling blue jeans left and right, Blackman and other local officials are looking for ways to create a cooperative to get them on the shelves here. While trays of precooked sandwiches await the lunch crowd in fast-food restaurants along the interstate, phone calls go out to local restaurants days in advance when a bus tour of three dozen says it wants to make a stop in Marion.

Just as residents like Amber Richmond's parents have had to hope against hope to find and keep work here, and Howard Collett has had to labor a lifetime to hold on to his farm, Blackman says nothing comes easy.

Fortunately, Marion has something to show for its efforts. It recently opened a trio of new ball fields and has maintained a scenic park downtown. A new grocery store and the nine-hole country club are doing well. Its small hospital is not losing money. The tool-and-die companies are adding jobs. And a small housing crunch has prompted new neighborhood development and the construction of subsidized apartments for elderly residents.

The news is not so good everywhere else. While Hillsboro, a small town just west of Marion, projects similar growth, many other area towns are going through another rural rite of passage. In the towns of Florence and Peabody, stately Victorian homes now share the street with worn houses and trailers. Cheap housing has attracted low-income workers and welfare recipients.

And no one is predicting that these towns will be able to pull out of their decline. "Evidence for the 'new economy' in which all workers will have to demonstrate vastly increased levels of skill and knowledge is quite thin," says a report written earlier this year by demographer Harold Hodgkinson for the Institute for Educational Leadership. "It would appear that high rates of rural poverty, based on low wages, will be a major factor for years to come in rural-development strategies."

In fact, much about rural poverty now mimics the woes of inner cities, where money and talent is also often lured to more affluent suburbs, researchers suggest. As in the cities, migrant influxes in many rural areas are creating new problems and a bigger demand for services.

Rural children suffer from malnutrition, grow up in single-parent families, and have unemployed parents as often as their peer in the city. The chief difference is that fewer public services exist to help poor families who live in the countryside.

While these trends are evident in Marion County, part of the hard work under way in the town of Marion has been an attempt to head off such problems. Still, Blackman argues, it is hard to shake the signs of trouble. Ginger Becker says, for instance, that cases of abuse and family problems have reached an all-time high in her classroom this year.

"What we would like is slow, regulated growth," Blackman says. "I don't see that we're going to get that much larger. We need to take advantage of technological advances and update our utilities so if we find companies that want to stay, we have the capabilities to help them out."

Blackman, who moved to Marion from Texas 22 years ago, has an incentive to develop a promising future here--her daughter who had moved to Tulsa recently returned to Marion with her family, which includes Blackman's five grandchildren.

In rural towns where the promise of future generations is not so obvious, civic leaders have been forced to become more creative.

Take Ohio, Ill.--a town whose welcome sign reads "Small But Mighty." It's experiencing something of a boom since rolling out the red carpet seven years ago. After passing a tax referendum to keep its high school open, the town decided it needed to consider ways to bolster its tax base. The novel answer was to subsidize the purchase of homes by newcomers.

The town has found a lot of takers--young adults and retirees ready to escape the rising cost of living and safety concerns in bigger towns. The initial program helped the city's population jump by 50 people, to a total of 525.

A more recent promotion offering $10 lots to new residents has drawn the interest of even more young families. Over the next three years, the city's Bulldog Development Corporation expects to fill 100 lots.

"The reality is that when a high school closes, these little towns dry up and die immediately," says Jack Piper, a real-estate developer who has overseen the Ohio program. "The residents who were remaining here were old gray-haired folks like me, and the standard answer was to go find a widget factory. But we don't have the people to spend five years chasing down something like that."

"We chose to do this not through any wisdom, but because we couldn't think of anything else to do," he adds. "This is great, it allows the school to continue to function, which allows the town to continue to function."

The good news for Ohio is that the local high school's enrollment has jumped from 46 to 60, its course offerings have risen from 19 to 44, and elementary school enrollment has increased from 105 to 150. Those figures may not seem like a windfall, but town leaders point out that it took 75 years of natural growth to post similar numbers in Ohio.

Organizers, who have seen the homesteading concept grow among other small Midwest towns, say they have yet to worry about the new residents. "The predominant question of the people who have been interested has been the schools," Piper says. "And our approach is that anybody who cares that much about their kids will probably fit in pretty good. Besides, we were getting too inbred."

Observers and rural activists find it hard to turn their attention much beyond survival--it has proved a monumental struggle that still seems to carry long odds. Beyond that are the more important matters of preservation and conservation, notes the author Wendell Berry, who adds that these larger issues will have to be addressed town by town.

"I don't think there is much hope for public solutions because the public is not concerned about this," he says. "It is very hard to find any governmental interest in preserving these communities."

Phyllis Melton, the unofficial historian of Marion County, says she and her husband, a doctor, settled here 50 years ago because of the economic strength of the area.

"It was diversified," she recalls. "We heard they could lose the wheat but still get the corn. There was banking here. And there was oil, but it was not just oil that people depended on. There was cattle, but not just cattle."

Now, the farms have all been merged together. Farmers tend thousands of acres with the help of hulking combines. The schools have been consolidated and reformed. The once-large families have disappeared, replaced by fewer families with fewer children. And staying here has become harder.

Melton tells the familiar story of a child she remembers who grew up here, left for college, and went away.

"Went away," she repeats.

"That's kind of the story of our best students."

Vol. 14, Issue 08

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