The last thing that goes is the grain elevator. Shortly before that, the post office. Preceding those, more or less in order, go the hardware store, lumberyard, gas station, grocery, pharmacy, bank and then, most dishearteningly, the schools. Those precious schools. After the kids are gone, it's just a matter of time before Main Street--and what remains of the once cheery little houses rimming it--gets boarded up for good.
Abandoned homes? Usable yet worthless real estate? It sounds crazy at a time when house prices in most parts of the country are soaring and the Internet has allowed millions to set up virtual offices and Web-based businesses anywhere they like. But for vast stretches of rural America, this is cold reality. The kids moved away for college or work and never came back, and now the World War II generation that stabilizes so many small towns is fast reaching the limits of mortality. As town elders die, even their money flees, inherited by offspring who long ago headed for the city--quickening the community's descent into dust. Yes, back home in Kansas they're minting ghost towns by the dozen.
But here's where things get wild. Hoping to reverse the decline, enterprising small towns across the Great Plains have begun offering land at little or no cost to anyone who will build a house and move in. The programs have taken wing in the Kansas towns of Marquette, Ellsworth and Minneapolis. "So far, I like what I see," says Jim Wymore, 40, as he is shown around Ellsworth on a gusty May afternoon. He's in town with his brother Shawn, 39, to check out the land deal. Both are from Chicago, and would be prize catches for any population-challenged community. They have five kids between them--which would bring the school district thousands of dollars in state aid--and jobs that keep them on the road, letting them live anywhere. They're looking for a place where they can get more for their money and raise their kids in a wholesome environment. "My daughter is growing up. She's in middle school," says Jim. "She's getting a little too ghetto, a little too urban. We want to be someplace with family values."
This scene is being replayed often throughout the Plains as a fast-growing band of land-granting imitators has taken root from La Villa, Texas, to Chugwater, Wyo., to New Richland, Minn. Dozens of towns have some version of a land giveaway, and dozens more are considering it. "The giveaways worked once, after the Civil War," says David Darling, an expert in rural affairs at Kansas State University. "They have potential to work again."
This modern-day Homestead Act is a pale version of the one authorized by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, when settlers were given 160-acre tracts to encourage building out the frontier with farms and ranches. Today there is no central authority; the programs are initiated and run locally. Yet Washington has taken note. In March, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota reintroduced a bill that would forgive college debts, grant tax credits for a home purchase and fund small-business start-ups in counties that have lost at least 10% of their residents over the past 20 years. In Hagel's home state, 56 of 93 counties qualify.