Once upon a time, the story goes, rural America thrived, a land of golden fields dotted with wholesome communities of God-fearing farmers. Then the kids — especially the bright ones — left for the city.
The school closed, and so did the hardware store and one of the churches, and now there’s just a post office and a convenience store where there was once a thriving business district. The post office is scheduled for closure.
That’s the narrative told by too many rural commentators, casual and otherwise. It’s a narrative that University of Minnesota Extension researcher and rural cheerleader Ben Winchester forcefully opposes.
“The stereotype is that there isn’t anybody left in rural America, and those that are, they’re all on opioids,” he said. “We need to re-write the rural narrative.”
Winchester said that doom-and-gloom narratives aren’t justified. More people live in rural America now than did a generation ago, even if they make up a smaller piece of the American pie.
“People don’t move to your town for pity,” Winchester said. “They move for opportunities. Nobody cares that you lost the hardware store 30 years ago… And we’re not all farmers. We haven’t all been farmers in 100 years.”
Winchester looked at Census data to show that the so-called rural “brain drain” popularized in the 2009 book “Hollowing Out the Middle” is being countered by “brain gain.” Rural communities may be losing high school graduates, but they’re gaining residents with more skills and education, according to studies in Minnesota and Nebraska. In Minnesota, Winchester found that most rural Minnesota counties have gained 30- to 49-year-olds, early- to mid-career Minnesotans with significant resources and connections.
In presenting on the most recent Census data available at the 2014 Symposium on Small Towns, University of Nebraska sociologist Randy Cantrell reminded attendees that there is an insult inherent in the cute rhymes of “brain drain” and “brain gain.”
“It implies somehow that the people that don’t leave are somehow inferior to the people who do,” he said. “I’ve hung around a lot of rural communities, and I don’t find a lot of morons out there.”
That said, part of what’s driving these labels is a big demographic change that rural advocates can celebrate. Rural America has, in large part, closed the education gap with urban and suburban America in the last 50 years. “Everything’s gotten better in those rural places in terms of educational productivity,” Cantrell said.
One might guess that many of the 30- to 49-year-olds moving into rural areas are the same “brains” that drained from their hometowns when they went to college. But only about a third of new rural residents are “returnees,” Winchester said. Most new rural recruits grew up elsewhere.
That describes Cory Ritterbusch and Emily Lubcke. They moved to Shullsburg, Wisconsin (population 1,209) to raise their family, but they didn’t grow up there. Ritterbusch was raised in the Chicago suburbs, and Lubcke saw the fields she played in as a child gobbled up by exurban sprawl.
Lubcke and Ritterbusch fell in love with the scenic Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin after Ritterbusch’s parents moved to a nearby resort area. The young couple was searching for a community that had its own school, institutions and identity, a town where their sons could wander on their own to the pool, the library and the basketball court.
“Shullsburg has a really strong sense of place,” Ritterbusch said.
Now, Ritterbusch just finished serving six years on the city council. He works in economic and community development and is renovating a historic tavern that he hopes will someday host community events. Lubcke is a natural resources manager at a resort association, and her volunteer activities center around their kids: the preschool board, Cub Scouts and youth soccer.
Both are very involved in Shullsburg, and that’s one secret to feeling connected in a small town, Cantrell said. There can be lots of opportunity to fill community volunteer and leadership positions, because there are fewer people to do those jobs.
That said, newcomers don’t necessarily want to contribute through legacy organizations, like the Lions Club, Winchester says. They’re more likely to join the bicycling club or the snowmobile club.
“They’re not always looking for the Eagles,” Winchester said, referring to the 120-year-old fraternal club. “They’re looking for the bicycling group.”
When Deanna Cook moved to Bellevue, Iowa (population 2,177), from New York City (population 8,538,000), she imagined she would spend her time quietly reading and knitting on a front porch with a “haint” blue ceiling. She bought a home before she found a job, which also fits a trend. (Those who move to rural areas from bigger communities tend to move for lifestyle reasons and worry about the little problem of making a living later, Cantrell discovered when surveying newcomers to rural Nebraska communities. When people move between rural areas, they do so for jobs.)
Cook took a job as director of the Bellevue Area Chamber of Commerce. So much for relaxing on the front porch. Cook was thrown into a whirlwind of community life. Her public position meant that people got to know her very quickly. At the hardware store, a stranger introduced herself as Cook’s neighbor. A block or so down the street, she might be asked if she got the toner she had ordered. “If people are talking about you because you ran out of toner, that’s fine, but you have to think about those things,” she said. No one paid attention to her printer-ink purchases in New York City.
As sociologist Cantrell puts it, the biggest difference between small-town and urban living is that members of smaller communities have repeat interactions with people they know. In a small town, you know stories about those around you. Another word for that is gossip. If newcomers arrive without established residents knowing something about them, it might contribute to new residents experiencing a sense of coolness from the community.
That can be especially difficult for immigrants, Cantrell said. Ditto anyone perceived as visibly different, such as people of color in a predominately white community.
The other part of the difference between small towns and urban areas is the repetitive quality of interactions, which builds relationships. “In New York, I only had a few people that I knew,” Cook said. Contrast that to having to schedule extra time at the grocery store for all the people you might bump into. In Bellevue, Cook said she found “a lot more friends than I had in a city of millions.”
As Chamber director, Cook also inherited a position on the Bellevue Arts Council. She was a fish out of water. Formerly in investment banking, she knew little about visual arts, but through the group, she found many of the people who became her close friends. Most of them grew up elsewhere, as she did. The newcomers “all band together,” she said.
Cook moved to Bellevue for family, but not because she wanted a safe place to raise kids. Cook’s parents live in the Quad Cities, a metro area of a few hundred thousand people about an hour away. Part of the attraction to Bellevue was that she had a friend there. But, like many urban transplants to rural areas, she put a priority on quality of life to choose her future home. She also valued living in a place that was friendly.
Unlike Cook, Claira Sieverding, age 25, grew up in Bellevue, where both sides of her family have roots that go back 150 years. She and her fiancé split their time between Bellevue, where she works, and Dubuque, Iowa (population 58,531), about 20 miles away.
After growing up in a tight-knit school and faith community, Sieverding found that many of her college peers didn’t care about their hometowns the same way she did. Today, she has a master’s degree in management with an emphasis in human resources and works in corporate social responsibility at Sedgwick, a third-party claims management company. She also volunteers extensively with three community efforts: the Community Heart and Soul visioning process, Marketers of Bellevue and Keep Iowa Beautiful Hometown Pride. In Bellevue, she sees an opportunity to make a bigger ripple than she might in a bigger pond.
While she’s happy to be a token millennial active in rural development, Sieverding sometimes feels like an outlier among her peers. Of the 23 members of the Marquette Catholic graduating class of 2011, Sieverding says about three live in the greater Bellevue area and about 10 in Dubuque or elsewhere in Jackson County, where Bellevue is located. “I definitely feel like an outlier sometimes,” she said. “I get all kinds of compliments from people 15 years older than me, 40 and above, but some of my Chicago friends, they think I’m just being a Leslie Knope.” Once she says it, it’s hard not to see the comparison to the indefatigable, idealistic hometown deputy director in the TV show Parks and Rec.
While Ritterbusch says that no one he grew up with is surprised that he left the ‘burbs, most of their childhood and college friends did not make similar choices.
Ritterbusch is an energetic proselytizer of the merits of small towns and rural life, especially when he talks about natural beauty and the low cost of childcare. Recently, he helped convince a city friend to buy a historic home in nearby Galena, Illinois (population 3,255). Metropolitan quality-of-life exiles may not be a wave, but they are, like Sieverding, making a ripple.