Many small towns across the American Midwest are dying. Steadily losing people and Main Street businesses, they await the coup de grace, the closing of their schools. In the second of two reports on struggling rural America, VOA's Ted Landphair visits one little town whose survival may hinge on a vote that will save or eliminate its only school.
Delphos, Kansas, has never been more than a little farm town. Four-hundred-sixty-nine people were counted there and in the surrounding countryside in the 2000 census. That's 25 fewer people than in 1990.
Not too long ago a nursing home, the town's largest business besides the grain co-operative, closed for lack of residents. With his wife, Carrie, Greg Berndt, owns Delphos's only remaining grocery store. It's a classic, century-old building, with tin ceilings, a front screen door that squeaks, and a bell that jingles each time a customer walks in. "The older people keep dying off," he says. "When we opened the store, we had a lot of older residents, up in their seventies and eighties. We've seen a lot of people pass away, and when you know all your customers, each one of them, it seems like there's more passing away than new ones coming in."
"Gonna pack these small-town blues ..."
And as in many heartland small towns, young couples and high-school graduates are leaving Delphos as well, in search of better jobs and a livelier social life.
But geography is key to Delphos's most critical problem, one that could kill the town altogether. The community sits in the northern part of Ottawa County, in the middle of Kansas, 50 kilometers from the nearest city. Some people are moving out of that city, Salina, into southern Ottawa County. But Delphos is too far away to benefit from the gentrification.
Now the school board wants to close its only school, a middle school for 10 to 13-year-olds, and fold it into Minneapolis High School down in the county seat. That's Minneapolis, Kansas - not to be confused with the large city up in Minnesota.
Julie Nelson, a real-estate agent and wife of a local minister, says closing the school would be Delphos's death knell. "We have a small gasoline station, and they rely a lot on the business that comes from the school buses coming in to fuel. Here at the store, a lot of the teachers, after school at night, come here and make purchases. Our post office, if it were to lose the volume of business from the school, would eventually be closed," she says. "And so, yes, the school is a real key to our small community here."
The desperate people in Delphos have swung into action. They rounded up enough signatures on a petition to force a referendum, or public vote, on the school closure this coming November 5. And they raised ten thousand dollars to pay attorneys and outside advisers to help them overcome their lower voter numbers compared with Minneapolis.
Through it all, says the town's postmaster, Jamie Ablerd, Delphos has mustered a lot more of what she calls "gumption", or resolve, than she thought it could. "There's nothing like outside opposition to pull people together and see the benefits of a small community and think it's worth fighting for," she says.
What benefits of a small town? Ask Greg Berndt, who says "runnin' the store here, if somebody's sick, they need groceries delivered to 'em, we go into their house, you know, leave the groceries, put 'em away for 'em, even. You can't find that ever'where."
The president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, Stephen Baccus, grew up in Minneapolis and sent his kids to school in Delphos. So he can see the issue from both sides. "The enrollment in the school system has declined. The budget has declined to the point where it's time to make some changes if you're going to stay a viable, economically sound school system," he says. "One of the things the school board has looked at is closing the Delphos facility, and bringing those teachers and those students into Minneapolis. They don't want to spend the extra money on the busing and on the teachers and everything to keep the Delphos facility open. From the Delphos side, they're very much aware that you lose your school, that is probably one of the last steps before your community implodes on itself."
The folks in Delphos pin their hopes on three strategies.
Critical, of course, is winning the referendum on November 5 and staving off the closing of their school. Delphos residents believe teachers and their famililes down in Minneapolis don't want to have to absorb the new students and teachers from Delphos and will vote to keep the Delphos school open. The Delphos forces hope, too, that people will realize adding students to Minneapolis might necessitate a new building that could result in higher school taxes.
And Barry Nelson puts a third strategy into words. He's a shepherd of two flocks up in Delphos, as a minister and a herder of actual sheep outside of town. "People in the big cities are getting' tired of the mess that they're in," he says. "And they're startin' a migration out of there. They might have to drive in to work n' stuff, but I think you're seein' more and more of that. And I think if we can just hold on, there's gonna be more people comin' out of the bigger town gettin' into the smaller town because it is quieter, there is not as much goin' on."
The problem is, if things don't go its way on November 5, Delphos will have lost its school by the time it enjoys any population gain.
"And I can breathe in a small town"
"Gonna die in a small town"
"And that's prob'ly where they'll bury me . . ."
While the town waits for the fateful vote, Greg Berndt at the Delphos General Store says he's running on hope alone. "We've had accountants come in and say 'You should hang it up.' We're just bull-headed," he says. "Look, if we fail, I can always hold my head up high and say, 'We tried.'"
On November 5, the voters in Delphos, Minneapolis, and the surrounding Kansas countryside will have a lot to say about whether the Berndts' general store, and Delphos itself, have a future.