A Drive Through The Heartland 4
Nebraska – Little Ruins on the Prairie
Midwestern Stories of Rust, Decay, Blight and Collapse
(Continued from the blog post, “Heartland 3 – Starke Round Barn, Red Cloud, Nebraska.“)
European settlers continued to pour into New England, Southern and newer states in the young American republic in the 1800s. German and Scandinavian farmers from Pennsylvania preceded most other original colonial states in the move to the first frontier, which we now know as the Midwest. They bumped west in wagons, by horse and later by train in search of good farming land.
Good farmland they found in the Midwest, with plenty of rain and the ideal climate for a plentiful yield, despite cold unproductive winters. The soil was also rich West of the Mississippi, but when the woodland and grassy fields gave way to dry grass and sage prairie West of the 100th Meridian in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and Eastern Colorado, the rain ran out. The rain ran out in fact, but not in wishful thinking. Land boosters successfully sold potential new homesteaders on the confabulation that rain follows the plow. Miraculously, it did for almost half a century, a period later discovered to have been abnormally wet.
This century the water chickens have come home to roost. Water is growing scarcer and scarcer in the most westerly portions of the Midwest. Changes in farming technology have also taken a toll on the small farmer. With the rise of big, centralized agriculture, small rural farming towns are losing population all over the country. This affects even more communities in the Midwest because of the proportionally larger number of towns supported by farming.
We have all seen in the national media about urban blight in Detroit, Chicago and other Rust Belt cities, but decay is rampant in urban areas nationwide, as well as in rural areas and small towns in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Indiana and Nebraska. Those last two states: Indiana and Nebraska suffered most in the Midwest. Both states are full of boarded up small towns, abandoned farms and even whole villages that no longer exist, as in no buildings and little sign of occupation on the land. This trend has been under way for 30 or even 50 years, but has been most acute in the last 10.
In the town of North Platte, Nebraska I first noticed the trend most. According to the National Register of Historic Places and several other guidebooks, at least four round barns supposedly exist in the city of North Platte. Interstate 80 runs through the newer part of North Platte, the Union Pacific Railroad runs through the older part of town and the entire city is situated between the South Platte and North Platte Rivers near the confluence. Despite its location on the traffic lanes from several eras, in the west-central part of Nebraska and the west-central part of the U.S., North Platte has at least partially fallen on hard times. Though new buildings are still popping up downtown, older homes and stores farther out are sinking into disrepair and falling down.
Out of the four round barns in the city of 25,000 population, only one still stood when I was there in 2015: The Keith Round Barn. It was overgrown with dark windows blocked or boarded up from inside and a roof with sections open to the sky. I could not approach the barn or get within 50 yards of it because it stood in back of a farmhouse in the process of being rebuilt, with a cable that blocked the only open space passage to the barn.
Occasional tornadoes and the regular blasting wind, extreme winters and broiling-humid summers wreak great havoc on houses and farm structures, especially on roofs in the Midwest. Many other towns had receded much more than North Platte. The smaller towns in the south-central part of Nebraska such as Macon, Franklin, Riverton, Inavale and others were either partially or almost completely abandoned. In Franklin I stopped to photograph a home that had burned several years before, but remained standing in its burned out state.
The towns of Riverton and Inavale were particularly hard hit by changes in farm sizes, methods and fortunes that have contributed to bleak periods in the local economy. Farther east on US Highway 136, not far from Fairbury, I found an entire farm abandoned. The barn hung by two walls as the other two walls were about to fall, the windmill spun in the wind drawing no water, the outbuildings were gloomy, dark and rotting into the ground, the main farm house with the roof nearly collapsed had one wing crushed to the ground and everything had been overgrown with hemp, kudzu, tall grass and willows. The only living beings still around were grazing cows and one bull that I had a standoff with I will share later. Even Beatrice, Nebraska, which for the most part was well painted and in good repair, when I was there included many boarded up homes and businesses.
Any country is only as strong as its heart. If this view of the Heartland is any indication, our society is in deep trouble. Yet, I also found much reason for hope in the Heartland. Detroit and other rustbelt cities are rebounding, each at a different pace. Detroit is not only rebuilding its auto industry, it is also diversifying industries. Artists have taken to inhabiting and painting up inexpensive neighborhoods and currently the Motor City pulses with an art renaissance. More on Detroit in future blog posts in this series and in my nonfiction book-length narrative with working title, “A Drive Through The Heartland.”
(Continued in the next blog post, “Heartland 5 – Elijah Filey – Barn Builder, Mason and Founder of Filey, Nebraska.”)