The “BOOM” in Rural Population Growth

The town of Midwest, Natrona County, Wyoming. At one time this building was the a hotel, before it became a Mason's lodge. Now it sits abandoned on a bluff overlooking the town's football field and two blocks from the local school where a gas leak shut down the only school for 40 miles. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

The kids could smell it as the town's school filled with gases 20 to 200 times the recommended levels. Midwest, Natrona County, Wyoming, 2016.

While most of rural America is facing a population decline of epic proportions, some of the northern mountain and plains states are seeing a big population increase. For example in a couple of years over the last decade North Dakota has been the fastest growing state, if not finishing in the top 5.

While Wyoming hasn’t seen the double digit growth of North Dakota, it has grown and some of that can be linked to oil and gas mining in the state. One of the side effects of population growth in an area that was already hard hit by declines, is the lack of housing and infrastructure. While there may be plenty of houses in a town the conditions of many have become unlivable and local schools and retail have long since closed.

There have been plenty of stories about men who have moved to work on wells, hoping to bring their families with them, but not being able to find suitable housing, schools, or local resources, rely on living in trailers while sending money home.

Municipalities, if they are still even incorporated are left scrambling to find a way to accommodate new residents, while also wondering how long the boom will last and if those accommodations will be well spent money. Essentially bankrupting city coffers when they build a new school, only to see the new residents move when the wells shut down. So like with many ballooning areas, there’s always a fear of a bust.

Midwest, Wyoming however isn’t one of those towns, but does echo a another growing concern to the rural lives surrounded with the increase in oil & gas extraction. Could this “Boom” actually explode and destroy our town?

While there have been cases of actual explosions from pipelines, or wells, the most common concern in towns like this is, “what will life be like when the wells run dry?” However, deep in the background many think, “what becomes of the town if there’s a disaster?” America has a few towns that are now unlivable thanks to mining disasters.

Midwest, Wyoming got a small taste of that second question in 2016 when an abandoned gas well sent gas into the local school, shutting it down. I first became aware of the story after visiting Midwest in August of 2016 and talking with a local resident about the town.

She said that gas had been leaking into the school and some of the kids were getting sick. The end results being the school was completely closed off and the children had to finish their year at the next closest school, 42 miles away in Casper.

As with many towns I visit, I did some searching later on to see what became of the school in Midwest. It appears the school was closed for an entire year and a half after it evacuated, as state and federal agencies looked into the cause and solution for the problem. The company who had run the well before shutting it down paid to fix the problem.

According to reporting from a special PBS/NPR group Inside Energy, CO2 levels in the school were 20 times the recommended levels. Also present was benzene, which can cause cancer, was 200 times acceptable levels.

A great story from the Casper Star Tribune about the return to the Midwest school can be read here. You can also listen or read the initial story about the closing of Midwest school from Inside Energy here.

The fate of Midwest & other mining towns

Eventually the wells will run dry and besides thinking about what that means to the local economy, one has to look at the very likely possibilities that the companies who ran them may no longer be in business the next time one leaks. But if there are no wells left around Midwest, will the town still have a reason to exist.

The fate of Midwest is still uncertain. The town of of just under 400 has shrunk by almost half since 1980, and while that pace has slowed (estimated at -2.2% since 2010) almost of third of the remaining population lives at or below the poverty line.

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No Vacancy – Why I Love Mom-and-Pop Motels

Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.LostAmericana.com
No Vacancy – The Desert Inn, Shoshoni, Wyoming. ~ Photo by Vincent David Johnson
A few months ago I posted up an article about how “No Vacancy” signs are disappearing from American roadsides and apart from nostalgia one could easily admit these signs aren’t the useful tools they use to be. Even on my go where the moment takes you road trips, I still find myself checking in from my smart phone.
Luckily most mom & pop motels that are still around got on board with the Internet and finding one that isn’t owned by Marriott, or Wyndham can be somewhat easy, albeit scary. However, with exception to a rare fleabag motel most of the smaller one location motels I’ve found from Gallup, New Mexico, to Cooperstown, New York have been worth the stay, worth the price, and more so quirky in way you don’t get from big chains. 
 
As much as Lost Americana is about fading rural America, I’m also eventually trying to make it about traveling to these places. In person I encourage folks to stop and think about driving for their next vacation, or make their next vacation a road trip.
 
I encourage you all as well, get off the interstate, take the slower way on Google maps. Stop in these great little towns and eat at places who’s names aren’t familiar to you. One of my all time favorite places to visit was Shoshoni, Wyoming and the Yellowstone Drug Store, which was basically an old school soda fountain that I’d bet hadn’t changed since the 1920s. I visited Shoshoni for the first time since Yellowstone Drug went out of business and it was sad. The town seems a shell of itself without it.
I posted this up just after reading an article about how the vacancy sign is disappearing across America and it reminds me of how hard it is to find these small individually owned motels in small towns.
I can go on and on, but let me end by saying make your next vacation one that’s about the journey and not the destination.
See America.

Population Decline; The Hardest Hit Counties In Each State Since 1990

Since 1990 These Counties Are The Hardest Hit By Population Decline In Their State

By 1990 the number of American farmers leveled off its decline around 2.9 million farmers, yet overall rural population numbers kept shrinking.

The 1990s are a significant time for Lost Americana, which goes beyond the fact that during that decade what was once known as “my abandoned barn project” got it’s start and later became the Lost Americana documentary. No, the 1990s are significant, because it was the first decade where the number of farmers in this country essentially stopped rapidly shrinking, or in more harsh terms “bottomed out. “

By 1990 the number of farms and farmers in America had basically leveled out to about 2.9 million of each, after decades of steep declines that started after World War II when farming account for over 30 million jobs in this country, spread out over 6 million farms. And today it essentially sits in the same position as it did in the 1990s, just over one farmer for each farm on roughly 2.1 million farms. So from the 1990s on, people living in rural agricultural America were no longer being laid off, so to speak, as farms consolidated and technology advancements required less labor (not saying it didn’t happen, just not on the scale it did from 1950 to 1990). No, anyone who was left at this point would have been working elsewhere in the area, yet across the entire country just about every state had at least one declining county. And state with more rural agricultural areas saw many counties shrink. Why was that?

Towns Were Built For Farmers

This is not to say that towns were built only for farmers, but none-the-less these towns would not have existed if not to support the farmer. In a sad irony, the towns that sprung up, especially in the Midwest & Great Plains grew because of the commerce of farming & ranching and are now dying in-part to decreased support needed by farming & ranching. As farms needed less people, schools had smaller enrollments, houses went unsold, or unrented, grocery stores sold less, banks had fewer customers, tractor mechanics had less machines to service and with all this came the consolidation of commerce and not just farms anymore.

This is what it started to look like around the late 1980s on up; Your district closed schools and the kids in your town had to ride a bus miles to a consolidated school for the county. The hardware store closed a few locations in your county and moved everything to the county seat store. If your town had under 1,000 people you’d be thankful to have more than just a bar & a post office left in your town. Those lucky enough to be around retirement age stayed, while younger workers had to leave and the average age of the population increased from the state average by about 5, 10, sometimes almost 15 years in some counties. These along with a list of other issues has made financial sustainability in many rural areas almost impossible for most and in turn you’re still seeing a large outward migration and shrinking populations in most rural counties. Twenty fifteen marked the first time in U.S. history the overall rural population declined.

What Makes A Rural County?

Counties are designated by the size of their largest town and then their proximity to larger cities. A longer explanation of who, what, and just how rural a county is will be in a future blog post, but for now just know that if the largest town in your county doesn’t have more than 2,500 residents, chances are you’ll rural, but not always.

What’s In A Number?

These numbers that you see beside the represent the percentage of population decline and the difference in population between 1990 & 2016.*

Alabama – Perry County 24.9% (-3,185)
Arizona – Only population gains
Arkansas – Monroe County 36.7% (-4,164)

California – Sierra County 11.1% (-371)
Colorado – Cheyenne County 22.9% (-549)


Connecticut – Only population gains
Delaware – Only population gains
Florida – Only population gains
Georgia – Chattahoochee County 35.5% (-6,012)


Hawaii – Kalawao County 32.3% (-42)
Idaho – Butte County 14.2% (-417)
Illinois – Alexander County 39% (-4,148)


Indiana – Blackford County 13.5% (-1,899)
Iowa – Pocahontas County 27.7% (-2,639)
Kansas – Kiowa County 32.1% (-1,177)


Kentucky – Harlan County 25.7% (-9,406)
Louisiana – Tensas Parish 35.2% (-2,506)
Maine – Aroostook County 21.8% (-18,977)
Maryland – Allegany County** 3.7% (-2,816)
Massachusetts – Berkshire County 8.9% (-12,449)
Michigan – Ontonagon County 33.2% (-2,943)


Minnesota – Kittson County 24.8% (-1,434)
Mississippi – Sharkey County 35.5% (-2,514)
Missouri – Atchison County 29% (-2,164)
Montana – McCone County 25.3% (-576)
Nebraska – Rock County 31.1% (-629)
Nevada – Esmeralda County 41.2% (-554)
New Hampshire – Coos County 8% (-2,789)
New Jersey – 2.8% Salem County 2.8% (-1,858)
New Mexico – Harding County 32.6% (-322)


New York – Salem County 14% (-737)
North Carolina – Washington County 12.8% (-1,802)
North Dakota – Sheridan County 38.4% (-826)

Ohio – Jefferson County 17% (-13,594)
Oklahoma – Cimarron County 34.5% (-1,139)
Oregon – Sherman County 10.8% (-208)
Pennsylvania – Cameron County 21% (-1,236)
Rhode Island – Newport County 5% (-4,410)
South Carolina – Allendale County 22.8% (-2,677)
South Dakota – Miner County 30.2% (-991)


Tennessee – Haywood County 8.1% (-1,584)
Texas – Terrell County 42.4% (-598)
Utah – Emery County 1.1% (-116)
Vermont – Rutland County 4.5% (-2,832)
Virginia – Buchanan County 29.2% (-9,155)


Washington – Columbia County 2.1% (-86)
West Virginia – McDowell 45.6% (-16,092)
Wisconsin – Price County 13.3% (-2,083)
Wyoming – Carbon County 6.2% (-1,041)

 

*I could not publish this list without noting that while most, if not all,  of these counties are rural, not all are agriculturally based, some are affected by other factors, like a downsized military base, mining, or logging, but this only pertains to the hardest hit and shouldn’t take away that many other counties from each state not listed meet the factors for which Lost Americana is focused on.

**Technically Baltimore City, which is incorporated separately from Baltimore County was the hardest hit in Maryland, but given that the County of Baltimore has seen a 20% population increase in that time and that this is a look at a regional area, not just individual towns, I felt it was best left off the list.

 

Are you interested in hearing more about the decline in rural farming communities? Get updates via our email newsletter here.

 

Photo graphics for other states can be seen in this gallery.

[envira-gallery id=”338″]

Chugwater, Wyoming

Chugwater, Wyoming

While the places I visit are often on the way down from their peak, there is still often a thing, or two in each that offers a traveler to a reason to stop. The name alone is what made it a dot on the map I needed to drive to. “Chugwater” got its name from the native American tribe in the area, the Mandan. It’s a reference to a buffalo hunt where the bison were chased over the edge of the nearby cliffs and after falling to their deaths many were heard making a chugging sound. A nearby stream is where the “water” part of the name comes from.

Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
Slate #87,  Grain Elevator & Tracks – Chugwater, Wyoming | Aug. 1, 2014 
Like this photo? Buy a print.

 

Chugwater however has one of my favorite stops when driving across the west. The Chugwater Soda Fountain. Just a stone’s throw off Interstate 25 in Eastern Wyoming (directions) , if you are traveling in between Cheyenne & Casper, or heading towards Devil’s Tower, or the Badlands I encourage you to stop. Especially if you have kids. The odds of a place like this still being around decreases year after year. Just ask fans (who I am one of) about the old Yellowstone Drug Store in Shoshoni, Wyoming. A classic soda shop & general store that had hardwood floors and if I remember correctly had floor to ceiling wood walls. Sadly it closed sometime around 2009.

Chugwater, Wyoming.

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
The Chugwater Soda Fountain in Chugwater, Wyoming, right off I-25 in eastern Wyoming, is a must stop for anyone who likes vintage eateries, or ice cream.
Chugwater, Wyoming.

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
I make every effort I can for my children to experience places like the Chugwater Soda Fountain in Chugwater, Wyoming. These places are few and far between and there are less and less of them each year.

Sadly though as I said above, Chugwater is one of those towns in rural America that are on the decline. According to Wikipedia, after seeing a population decline in of 32% in the 1980s, Chugwater had a strong rebound in the 1990s, but slumped again at the turn of this century. So in 2005, a promotion to attract new residents to the town offered building lots for $100, provided the new owner built a house within a year, and lived on the property for at least two years. Four lots were sold. No word on how many built a home, or stayed.

Today Chugwater has an estimated population of 216. It’s only gas station & connivence store closed after car crash and fire in 2012, so residents have to drive as far as Cheyenne to fill up and older GPS devices still list it as a working station, so plenty of motorists low on gas have run into trouble. At least three stopped into the soda fountain while we were there, but good news, kind of, there’s a guy in town who will sell you gas, but at a price.

 

Chugwater, Wyoming.

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
This isn’t the gas station you’re looking for. No really, that one burned down, this one has just been closed for a long time.
Chugwater, Wyoming.

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
They just don’t build ’em like this anymore. The old grain elevator in Chugwater, Wyoming.

 Aug. 1, 2016
Chugwater, Wyoming.

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
They just don’t build ’em like this anymore. The old grain elevator in Chugwater, Wyoming.

 Aug. 1, 2016

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Go out and find your Lost Americana.

Vincent D. Johnson

 

Odd Things In Rural America

The Lost Art of Rural Life

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
What looks like an old log cabin house, sits on a small hill in Goshen County, Wyoming, about 22 miles northeast of Guernsey, surrounded by six telephone pole like posts. What was the purpose for them?

Driving across this great land of ours I often find odd buildings and strange structures that I know little about. When I’m a in major city I usually just chalk it up to creative architects. However when I’m in the country I often have to shrug my shoulders and take into consideration that I’m sure there is a functionality for it, but having grown up in the city I can’t even guess what job it would help out with.

 

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
Goshen County, Wyoming. Aug. 2014.

In the last few years this old log cabin in Goshen County, Wyoming about 22 miles northeast of Guernsey may be one of the more perplexing structures I’ve seen. Not because of the building itself, but because of the six telephone pole like posts that surround the building. Was there something else attached to these posts in the past? Maybe a deck. Seems a little elaborate to do scaffolding to repair a house. Was it a central hub for telegraph lines back in the day? Seeing as there are no other posts in eyesight, I’d say no. Was it for some type of wind, or snow screen to stop drifts on the house? Was it the most elaborate tinfoil TV antenna ever? I have no idea and as I said above, I just have to kind of silently wonder.

 

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com

What I do know is that there is a ton of stuff & ways to do things that people have come up with in the countryside to help make their lives easier & their jobs more efficient and it’s slowly disappearing. Of course it’s not just happening in the rural areas. My two sons love steam trains and each time we visit a railroad museum we hear about how less and less people know what each value does, and just how to make them run properly. I live in a 118 year old house and I know the number of people who can actually work with plaster & lath as opposed to dry wall is shrinking each year. It’s part of what most of us might refer to as a “Lost Art”.

So the internet is a big place. Share these photos, ask around. I’m curious. What was going on here. Is it so simple you’re saying “silly city slicker”, or are you finding yourself showing this photo to the old timers at the local diner?

What’s your guess? Put it in the comments below. Hopefully someone out there still knows why this was done.

UPDATE: an hour after this was posted I got what is most likely the answer: Radio antenna support poles. Used for at least receiving a better signal, as well as possibly sending a better one.

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
What has six posts around it and I have no idea why? This log cabin in Goshen County, Wyoming.