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In Jennings, Kans., students from kindergarten through high school total about 30 in a single building. Next year only the elementary grades will remain; Grade 6 and up will be bused some 30 miles to Oberlin or Hoxie. It's expected that the younger kids will be bused away as well. "It's beyond fighting," says Sharon Hickert, a loan officer at the Jennings Bank. The bank and a café are the last businesses on the strip. "We've seen a heckuva decline in the 12 years that I've been here."
A 140-mile stretch in Kansas on Route 4, from Geneseo to Shields, about 40 miles south of Interstate 70 is a veritable death valley. In town after town, schools have been boarded up, and the only preserved building is the American Legion post. These parts have so emptied that a turtle crossing the street has a decent shot at getting to the other side uninterrupted. Entire city blocks sell for $100 at sheriff's auctions, only to be abandoned, tax delinquent and on the block again a few years later.
Rural America has been hemorrhaging population for decades, of course, with small towns trying--and failing--to reverse the outflow by wooing a big manufacturer with tax incentives. "That was the whole game--elephant hunting," says Anita Hoffhines, who heads economic development in Ellsworth. The new approach, known as "economic gardening," is to bring in people and let businesses follow. Not big businesses but shops and cafés that employ two or three people and that would slowly re-energize Main Street. It's a bit of a catch-22. With no jobs available, who will move there? And if no one moves there, how can you start a business? The land giveaways are meant to break this cycle by giving folks an economic reason to take a shot.
It isn't a new idea. Locally organized land giveaways have been tried sporadically for years, without much success. Typically, a town springs to action only when there is talk of shutting down the school. Yet by then the town is already on the slippery slope. In July 1981, Harley Kissner, then a 72-year-old bachelor who owned 640 acres near Antler, N.D., was alarmed by plans to shut down the school. He ran ads in three area newspapers offering ground to anyone who would build a house, move in with children and stay at least five years. The ads got national attention. "People started showing up overnight," says Janet Tennyson, 58. She and her husband run the only gas station in town. In a matter of weeks, Kissner found six takers and put them on generous 5-acre or 9-acre tracts. The new families brought in enough kids to keep the school open. But only for a while. Unable to keep jobs, the families left town a few years later; some had never built a house. The school closed in 1987. Kissner has since died.