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As Population Shifts to Cities, Small Towns Disappear

Half a century ago, 65% of the world's population lived in rural areas. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, the trend will reverse and 65% will live in cities. Here in the United States, small towns in the vast farmlands of the Midwest are slowly disappearing in the population shift. Bowbells, North Dakota - about 20 kilometers south of the Canadian border -- is the county seat in the fastest-shrinking county in the nation.

Main Street in downtown Bowbells is eerily quiet on a Saturday afternoon. While bright red banners hang from streetlights welcoming visitors to the community, many of the businesses in town - including a hotel, a café, a hardware store, a bowling alley, and a grocery store -- have been boarded up.

"It's a quiet place," says Herman Aufforth, the town's postmaster. "The only thing downtown is the bank, senior citizen's center, Knutson Auto, the post office, Peterson's Department Store, and Johnson's Oil."

Peterson's, which has been in business for more than a century, sells a little bit of everything from food to clothing. That's where I met Mr. Aufforth, who was born and raised in the small town.

He suffers from diabetes, and the doctor he needs to see doesn't practice in Bowbells, but in another town, 100 kilometers away. "If you have health problems, you have (to travel) a distance to see a doctor. I had to have a kidney transplant so I go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester." That's Rochester, Minnesota, across the state line, a journey of 11-hundred kilometers, each way. The closest doctor of any kind is 25 kilometers away in Kenmare, North Dakota -- a slightly larger town than Bowbells.

Kenmare is also where the high school athletes have to go to play football, because the local school doesn't have enough players for a team of its own.

"The school has declined in population," says Colleen Kelly Peterson. "When I was in school, we had classes of 25 to 30 children. I think now the whole high school has 22 children."

Mrs. Peterson left Bowbells in 1977 when her husband's job took him to the nearby western state of Wyoming. She's back visiting her parents, who still live on the family farm. Since she left, farms have gotten larger, requiring more expensive equipment and fewer people to work the land.

"People I knew and grew up with are gone. For all purposes, they've left this area for good," she says, "and their children won't have anything to come back here for. Unless some industry brings jobs to the area, it will just decline."

Somebody did try to bring jobs to the area not too long ago. "They tried telemarketing here a few years ago but couldn't keep it going, because they didn't have enough people," says Delwin Winzenburg, who owns the only eatery in town, Winzy's Drive-In.

"They talk of bringing in economic development, but where is the workforce going to come from? There aren't many young people," Mr. Winzenburg says. "The scary thing is my wife and I are 50, married 32 years, and we are considered a young couple in the area."

What was a community of 500 just 10 years ago, now numbers about 350. But it is a close-knit community.

Not long ago, the Lutheran Church in Bowbells was struck by lightning and damaged by fire. It was rebuilt within a year. "We have a strong congregation," says Carol Whitman, the church's organist. "It's smaller, but what we do have is strong. It's a center for the community activities. A lot of people come here for the coffee and socialization as well as the religion."

Bowbells is an ecumenical community. Bernard Whitman, Carol's husband, says the Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists - the town's three Christian congregations - often hold services together. "We worship together during Lent, from church to church, and it's a strong tie," he says. "If someone needs help, there is always help available. And people are friendly, you can see that here at coffee, the social part of things."

That friendliness is something people who have left Bowbells appear to miss. Many have electronically signed the guestbook on the town's website and added personal notes about their fond memories of the community. And while the long range future of Bowbells may not look bright, many former residents are looking forward to revisiting their past, writing that they plan to return next July, when the tiny North Dakota town celebrates its centennial.