Like most other counties in rural America, Washington County was gaining more people than it was losing during the ‘70s, stirring hopes of an economic rebirth in this ruggedly beautiful but hard-pressed region on Maine’s “Downeast” coast.
The newcomers, many of them yuppies with a yen for open spaces, took over dying businesses and revived them. They bought old homes and restored them. They often paid a higher share of local taxes than they consumed.
But in Washington County, as in many of the nation’s rural counties, that promising picture was shattered during the ‘80s.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s preliminary 1990 count shows that more than half of the roughly 2,400 rural counties across the nation lost population over the past decade. The decline reached more than 32% in the most extreme case--Lake County in the Colorado Rockies.
By comparison, only about 460 rural counties lost population in the ‘70s.
Where once there was talk of a genuine “rural renaissance,” now there is widespread fear, anxiety and depression over the fate of small-town and rural America, still home to more than a fourth of the nation’s population and the mythic bedrock of traditional American values.
Younger people are leaving as economic opportunities fade; older people are finding it hard to get by as hospitals close and doctors become scarce; local governments are being severely strained in their capacity to provide needed services.
“The rural renaissance has been done in,” said Kenneth Wilkinson, a Pennsylvania State University rural sociologist.
Until the ‘70s, the rate of growth in rural America had been on a downward trend since the turn of the century, as the nation’s economy moved rapidly from an agricultural to industrial base.
In fact, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, rural America suffered a net loss--about 1% of its total population in each of the two decades.
Then, during the ‘70s, the “back to the land” movement and the burgeoning number of elderly Americans seeking tranquil spots to retire turned the rural-urban growth pattern around. Rural America’s population rose at a faster rate than that of cities and suburbs for the first time in the nation’s history, with the exception of the decade between 1810 and 1820.
Now the only rural areas generally doing well are those that are prime resort or retirement centers or close to metropolitan counties--defined as having 100,000 or more people with at least one urbanized area with 50,000 or more residents.
California, for example, has only 27 rural counties out of a total of 58 in the state. No California county lost population during the ‘80s, preliminary 1990 census figures show.
The depopulation crisis is most severe in the agricultural states of the Midwest and Great Plains, which were dealt a double economic setback in the ‘80s--first by the recession, followed by the worst slump in farm incomes since the Great Depression.
In Iowa, for example, all but six counties lost population over the past decade, according to the preliminary census figures.
But the devastation can be seen across the country, from the timberlands of the Northwest to the flatlands of the West Texas oil patch to the rolling countryside of the South’s old Cotton Belt to the rocky coast of New England.
Some rural towns--such as the Nebraska community of Broken Bow--have devised new ways to attract and keep people. For example, individuals and companies which depend only on phone lines, faxes and computers--such as some telemarketing and data processing firms--have successfully located in rural areas. But overall no big turnaround is expected because growth in service industries generally depends on proximity to large markets, and that means cities.
“I don’t think it’s at all likely that most of these counties with serious population losses will ever regain their former levels,” said Calvin Beale, senior demographer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As Maine’s easternmost county, Washington County is a scenic wonderland, with some of the most dramatic cliffs, deepest coves and highest tides on the Eastern Seaboard.
But there are also many sites that look like New England versions of “Tobacco Road,” with dilapidated cars parked in front of ramshackle houses or decrepit trailer homes. Almost 40% of its people live below the poverty level, and one out of every three people receives some form of public assistance.
Once, more than 50 sardine canning plants dotted Washington County’s 700-mile coastline. Now only three remain.
Many of the county’s 35,166 residents make their living entirely from seasonal work: raking blueberries in the fall, making fir Christmas wreaths on consignment in the winter and digging clams or trapping lobsters during the rest of the year.
The “back to the land” movement of the ‘70s, which saw much of rural New England invaded by urbanites and suburbanites, brought some promise to Washington County as the population climbed by more than 5,000 people--the first such increase since at least before the turn of the century.
Then the boom fizzled, and the population drain resumed. Lubec, for example, the easternmost town in the United States, went from 2,045 residents in 1980 to 1,851 residents in 1990.
Young people led the way. “I was told when I came here that Lubec exports two things: high school graduates and fish,” said Paul Crandall, a secondary schoolteacher and town selectman who moved here from Massachusetts in 1988.
Right behind them were many of those who had ventured here so eagerly in the ‘70s in search of the quiet, rural life.
“They found it was a little too quiet and too rural,” said Nick Greer, 58, an educator with the Washington County office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service who moved here with his wife and two sons in 1977 from Southern California.
In recent years, more than half a dozen outfits have begun raising salmon in pens dotting the coastal bays. But even though the industry pays relatively well, few residents would argue that aquaculture is the ultimate answer to their economic plight.
Remote and isolated, with no major highways and with a largely unskilled work force, Washington County seems destined to continue just struggling by.
“I don’t see any bright spots on the horizon,” said Peter Boyce, 47, manager at a Lubec sardine canning plant, echoing a common sentiment.
Through two world wars and the Great Depression, the Climax Molybdenum Co.'s gigantic mine in Colorado’s Lake County never failed to provide steady and lucrative work. By the early ‘80s, about 3,200 people were on the company payroll and the county’s per capita annual income reached a record $11,728.
“We were in hog heaven up here,” recalled Ralph Schuster, principal of Lake County High School in Leadville, the county seat, which is situated nearly two miles above sea level against a backdrop of majestic, snow-capped mountain peaks.
Then came the recession of 1981-82. A sharp downturn in the steel industry, coupled with a worldwide glut of molybdenum--a vital ingredient in making steel--forced massive layoffs at the mine. At one point, Climax shut down for 19 months.
Lake County’s population began to plunge. With jobs and people vanishing, retail businesses collapsed, two of the county’s five public schools shut down and social problems multiplied.
“When Climax first closed, food stamps went up 300% and welfare assistance went up about 150%,” said John Ozzello, county social services director. “Domestic violence went off the map.”
From 8,839 residents in 1980, the county population has dropped to 5,975, according to the preliminary 1990 census figures--the sharpest percentage population drop registered by any rural county in the nation during the ‘80s. Per capita annual income, meanwhile, sank to below $9,000.
Many who remain make lengthy commutes through treacherous mountain passes to jobs outside Lake County in the fashionable resorts of Vail, Beaver Creek, Copper Mountain and Keystone.
In Leadville, a county-run day-care center operates 365 days a year, serving 500 infants and toddlers. “We have become a ‘kid town’ during the day,” said Kathleen Brendza, the facility’s administrator.
Employment at the mine has inched up to about 175 workers. But company officials say the mine’s glory days are over.
Autumn colors set the woods afire along Georgia Highway 15 as it winds south from Interstate 20 into Sparta, the seat of government of Hancock County. An ornate, cupolaed courthouse towers over the little town, a well-preserved relic of more prosperous times.
Now jobs are hard to find, and those that are available pay little. The county’s average weekly wage is $247 compared to the statewide average of $405. Better pay is available 108 miles to the northwest, in Atlanta, and some folks are making the drive.
The only new venture of any size in years is something only hard-pressed rural communities seem eager to have in their back yards--a state prison.
Rising on a 148-acre plot about two miles outside of town, the $22-million, 750-bed medium security facility will offer employment to an estimated 300 people when construction is finished in mid-1991.
But whether that can stem Hancock County’s slide is unclear. Six years ago, the county put in a 100-acre industrial park in Sparta. Only one company, a jeans manufacturer employing 92 people, moved in.
In the nearby tiny town of Mayfield, a once-thriving catfish farm that covered 357 acres went broke in 1974. Now Mayfield looks like a ghost town.
The preliminary 1990 census shows an 11% drop in Hancock County’s population from the 1980 figure of 9,500.
As in Maine, the young here know the future. “Most of the high school graduates leave the county once they finish,” said Marvin Lewis, superintendent of the county schools, which have a total enrollment of 1,850 students, 98% of whom are black. “We don’t have anything to encourage them to stay in Hancock County.”
“There’s a saying in the South,” said Douglas Bachtel, a rural sociologist with the University of Georgia extension service. “After the pond is fished out, the only things left are the bullheads and the crappies.”
“It was as if the town died overnight.”
That’s how Winkler County extension service agent Alan Fires recalls the economic disaster that descended upon the once-bustling town of Kermit in the mesquite- and scrub brush-covered oil lands of West Texas after oil prices collapsed in the mid-1980s.
Five major oil or natural gas plants closed, while countless oil service companies went bankrupt. Thousands of laid-off employees left. Between 1980 and 1990, according to the preliminary census figures, Kermit lost 14.5% of its residents, dropping the total population from 8,015 to 6,854.
Those who stayed behind watched their home values fall by more than half. Frustrated county officials struggled to provide basic services as Winkler County’s tax base dwindled from $1.2 billion in 1982 to $699 million in 1990.
Today, Fires said, Kermit is “hanging on by its toenails.”
As the Persian Gulf crisis pushes up the price of oil, there are some small signs of revival in Winkler County’s battered petroleum industry.
All-American Pipeline, an oil transportation company, opened a new office recently in Wink, the only other town besides Kermit in the entire county.
But the office is the first new business to open in the county in five years.
At one time, there were six grocery stores in Kermit; now there are two. Only five of the 20 service stations remain. Three of the five car dealerships also have folded, and a fourth is on the edge of bankruptcy.
Betty Mulso, owner of the Red Apple dress shop, the only such store left in town, said: “It gets tiring, you know, this struggle to stay in business.”
Town officials estimate that at least half the population now is over 60, prompting Leah Bartley, 65-year-old widow of the town’s late chief of police, to lament: “We’re a community of old people, and they’re all dying off. The only thing growing in Kermit is the cemetery.”
To keep the hospital open 24 hours a day, Winkler County officials pay $37 an hour to doctors imported from Odessa, who staff the hospital on nights and weekends. More than 40% of the county’s $6.8-million budget goes to the hospital.
“I suppose it is true we are hostage to that hospital,” said Frances Clark, a judge and administrator for the county.
Winkler County has a standing offer to any physician who will practice in Kermit: a guaranteed $8,000 monthly salary, plus free office space and equipment. There have been no takers for years.
“We’ve had some nibbles,” Clark said. “But as soon as their wife comes through here, we don’t hear from them again.”
Broken Bow, Neb., was on the ropes after the economic downturns of the early ‘80s.
The town’s population was steadily dropping. Farmers and ranchers were losing their spreads. Abandoned storefronts pockmarked the face of the downtown square. A bank shuttered its doors.
Today, only one storefront on the square is empty.
“We were really bad off,” said Chard Hirsch, a community leader and owner of a curiosity shop in the Arrow Mini-Mall adjacent to the newly renovated Arrow Hotel. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re trying.”
The turnaround began five years ago when a group of community leaders raised more than $40,000 to launch an economic development organization that they dubbed NESTbuilders.
Not all of NESTbuilders’ efforts have succeeded. It failed to lure Baldwin Filters, a maker of engine air filters, and its approximately 100 jobs to town. But it was instrumental in getting a new telemarketing firm off the ground, reopening a boarded-up movie theater and opening a tourism center. Marty Strange, program director at the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb., contends that such grass-roots rebuilding efforts offer distressed rural areas perhaps their best hope.
State and federal economic development policies too often favor metropolitan regions, he said. Nebraska’s economic development program, which provides tax breaks for businesses that expand or relocate in the state, resulted in only 535 new jobs for farm-based communities while Omaha and Lincoln got 13,000, according to a study he did in 1988.
“I’m pessimistic about government policies,” Strange said. “I think they’re miserable and getting worse, except in some cases.” The key is not chasing smokestack industries, but rather turning to “home-grown businesses,” he said.
It is government policy that has Mill City, Ore., worried.
Earlier this year, the federal government decided to set aside large areas of the national forest to ensure the survival of the endangered spotted owl. While a final plan has yet to be approved, the sites are almost certain to include sizable sections of the Willamette National Forest, which literally forms Mill City’s back yard and is the chief source of the town’s livelihood.
Even before the decision, Mill City’s timber industry was entering troubled times. A slowing national economy and softening product demand have already led to a number of layoffs and cutbacks.
The town, which straddles the Santiam River and encompasses parts of both Marion and Linn counties, also has had trouble holding on to residents in recent years. After decades of steady population growth, the preliminary 1990 census figures reveal that Mill City suffered a 4% loss during the ‘80s, going from 1,565 people to 1,499.
Some believe that the town should begin now to diversify its economy, so that when the anticipated blow from the federal government actually comes, its impact will be softened.
Others feel, however, that bringing in other kinds of businesses will change the character of the town and destroy its traditional logging culture.
And for others, the only solution is to make tracks for Alaska, where they claim loggers live a freer life.
“People here are frightened,” Mayor Mary Smith said. “There are more and more reports of mills cutting back, laying people off. . . . There’s nothing else here (economically) for us.”
Researchers Ann Rovin, Edith Stanley, Lianne Hart, Tracy Shryer, Doug Conner and Aleta Embrey contributed to this report.
Lubec, Maine. Population 1980: 2.045 1990: 1,851
Leadville, Colorado Population 1980: 3,879 1990: 2,545
Sparta, Georgia Population 1980: 1,754 1990: 1,557
Kermit, Texas Population 1980: 8,015 1990: 6,854
Broken Bow, Nebraska Population 1980: 3,979 1990: 3,778
Mill City, Oregon Population 1980: 1,565 1990: 1,499
RURAL POPULATION DECLINES
Those counties suffering the greatest loss during the 1980s
Population Percentage County 1980 1990* Decline Chief Industry Lake County, Colo. 8,830 5,975 32.3% Mining Platte County, Wyo. 11,975 8,137 32.1 Agriculture/Mining Mineral County, Colo. 804 556 30.9 Mining Greenlee County, Ariz. 11,406 7,912 30.6 Mining Hall County, Tex. 5,594 3,892 30.4 Farming/Oil/Gas Hemphill County Tex. 5,304 3,713 30.0 Farming/Oil/Gas McDowell County, W.Va. 49,899 35,146 29.6 Mining Issaquena County, Miss. 2,513 1,774 29.4 Agriculture Dickens County, Tex. 3,539 2,563 27.6 Agriculture Shoshone County, Ida. 19,226 13,923 27.6 Mining Prairie County, Mont. 1,836 1,378 25.0 Agriculture
*Preliminary Census figures
Source: Economic Research Service of U.S. Department of Agriculture