Fog seeps in through the draws and coulees around Reardan, Wash., on many winter days, a low gray coverlet that brushes the tops of the Reardan Grain Growers' elevators and makes the town look like an Impressionist painting. The fog doesn't stop the school buses of the Reardan-Edwall School District from departing on their far-flung routes, nor does it deter the early-morning coffee crowd from gathering at Dean's Drive-In. From the moment the doors open at 5:30 am, the regulars are there, drinking plenty of hot coffee and maybe diving into breakfast. The farmers dominate the earliest group, although they're often joined by railroad workers.
"It's the only place in town that opens early," says farmer Ron Soliday. "Most of the guys are in there most mornings, although we usually get out of there a little earlier when it's not winter."
Owner Robin Landreth has run Dean's for the last eight years, and she says the shop's hours evolved to meet the demands of her regular customers.
"We weren't [open for breakfast] at first," she says. "That was my mom's idea. For the first year or two, it wasn't a real big thing, but then all of a sudden it took off. Our breakfast kept getting earlier and earlier. I'd come in and find someone standing by the door, waiting to get in. They all have to be up early -- they're farmers. And they need something they can rely on."
As in a lot of small towns, everybody knows nearly everybody else in Reardan. The community is divided into "lifers" and "newbies," depending on how far one's genealogy extends back into the town's history. If you live in Reardan, you quickly learn not to talk about a neighbor unless you know the twists and turns of their family tree. But everyone who's been here long enough knows who's related to whom, and the town news mill churns on.
The news flies fast among the early morning regulars, too, especially once Fred Springer arrives. Springer retired in 1999 after teaching agriculture and advising the Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter at the high school for 32 years, so nearly everyone in town was his student at one time. Although born and raised in Otis Orchards, Springer has lived in Reardan long enough to witness major changes in the lifeblood of the community.
"When I started teaching in 1967, I had 33 kids in my classes and 31 of them came from farm families," he says. "When I retired in '99, I had a total of 108 kids in class and only 16 of them came off of a farm."
Farm consolidation has hit hard in Reardan. While a section farm (640 acres) could support a family 50 years ago, today's grain farmers need to work anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 acres to get by. Those with resources -- equipment, labor, access to financing, and the energy to work long hours -- survive by growing. The others get out of farming. The end result is fewer farmers and larger farms.
"Small farms are being picked up by larger farmers who are expanding," says Springer. "That's the trend, not just here but across the United States. Families who make the majority of their income from just agriculture are declining."
Soliday deals firsthand with the pressure to expand. He farms his wife's family's farm and leases more for a total of 2,500 acres of wheat and barley.
"Our biggest problem in agriculture right now is fixed input costs: fuel, fertilizer, repairs, equipment, and labor," he notes. "Everything has gone up and up, while the price of wheat has stayed the same or gone down. It's going to be the end of a lot of small farmers. If you're not making money, getting bigger isn't necessarily the answer, but a lot of guys have to become bigger to become more efficient."
Fewer farms mean fewer people doing business in town and fewer families with ties to the land. Reardan residents used to be mainly retired farmers. Now, many retirees move to Spokane to be closer to medical services, entertainment and adult children who've moved to the city. Houses are now being bought by young families who come to Reardan seeking a relative bargain in real estate.
The city struggles to provide water and sewer service at a fair price; Reardan recently upgraded its wastewater treatment facility to comply with Department of Ecology regulations, and residents will soon see their sewer bills increase by about $13 per month. It's not as bad as it could have been -- the town received grant money to cover much of the cost -- but meeting requirements with a limited tax base challenges the creativity of town officials.
It doesn't matter how long you've been in town when a crisis hits, though. When word gets around town that someone needs help, it always comes. A couple of weeks ago, Dale Swant's neighbors repaired a tin roof on his property. In terms of small-town genealogy, he's a newbie, having moved to Reardan 13 years ago. Lisa Moore, Reardan's clerk-treasurer, moved here when her husband came to Fairchild; when he shipped out, the people of Reardan became her family.
"If you're stuck and can't get out, all of a sudden Ed Brommer is out there with his truck, plowing the driveway," she says. "When my son was in Iraq, he was on every prayer list in town, although I do not attend church services here. For me, coming here was like coming home."
Reardan boasts four church communities: Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian. The four pastors meet every Wednesday to visit, to talk, to pray and to coordinate activities like the common Ash Wednesday service held yesterday at the Lutheran church. None of them come from Reardan originally, but their jobs give them a unique perspective on the town.
"Memory and story are really important here," says Rev. Bill Ward, pastor of First Presbyterian Church. "The continuity of the stories and the relationships gives the context to a lot of things that happen here, both good and bad. Change happens really slow. But they're gracious; they tolerate a lot from us pastors."
Pastors see the dark side of small towns, too, problems that others hint at but don't discuss openly -- especially with an outsider. Long-standing feuds can keep people separated, sometimes through multiple generations. Teens sometimes have to leave home to escape difficult family situations, relying on the kindness of neighbors who take them in. Posters with the county domestic violence hotline number have a prominent place in the ladies' restroom at the Red Rooster restaurant. Some families have hit bottom, economically, and struggle with basic survival.
"We have the hidden, rural poor who are just barely hanging on," says Rev. Ward. "We see that all the time, but I think a lot of people don't even notice."
Plans for the Future
Overall, though, Reardan residents love their town. They think it's the best place in the world to live, and they can't imagine going anywhere else. Social life revolves around school sports, and Spokane is close enough for frequent shopping and entertainment trips. Volunteerism here runs high. The Lions Club keeps active with projects, including new softball and baseball fields just east of downtown. The Chamber of Commerce holds a community-wide yard sale each summer and sponsors various events throughout the year. And then there's Mule Days, the annual celebration held the first weekend of June for the past century. More than 200 people volunteer for the event, according to Dale Swant, president of the Mule Days Association.
Swant is also active in efforts to create a railroad museum and a bird sanctuary. The Inland Empire Historical Railway Society, forced to move its railroad display from the Spokane County Fairgrounds, is seeking to develop a museum devoted to regional railroading history just west of Reardan on U.S. 2. Another group wants to create a bird sanctuary along Highway 231, in cooperation with the Inland Northwest Land Trust (INLT) and the Audubon Society.
"There's a big movement in Washington toward watchable wildlife," Swant says. "This is one of the few places in the area where there's water on a year-round basis. A lot of places dry up in the summer, but this is the headwaters of Crab Creek, which flows all the way down to Moses Lake. Around 200 different species of birds have been sighted out here."
Bird-watchers already come to the area, but there are no facilities for them. The volunteers have applied for a grant from the Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop parking areas, trails, kiosks and restrooms; the INLT is raising funds to purchase 240 acres from the current owner.
"We've just put together the Reardan Public Development Authority, chartered by the city," Swant says. "Its sole purpose is to develop the economic possibilities in the area. Lots of people are moving out of the city, to places like this. This is a farm community, but they're all progressive and they know we've got to move forward."
Moving Back Home
Given the upheavals in agriculture, Reardan's identity is beginning to shift, albeit slowly. As fewer families derive their livelihoods from farming, many now commute to Airway Heights, Spokane or Cheney for work, using Reardan as a rural bedroom community. Others -- some newcomers, some with deep roots -- have found a way to live in Reardan and connect to the new economy via the Internet. For example, sisters Pam Soliday and Janet Nesbitt, who are proprietors of the Buggy Barn quilt shop, have gotten involved in e-commerce.
The sisters grew up on a farm, attended Reardan schools and, like a lot of farm kids, were active in 4-H and FFA. Janet moved away after college and worked as a civil engineer for the Navy, living the Puget Sound area. Ten years ago, she and her husband began to rethink where to live.
"We were in a big metropolitan area and the school sent my kindergartener home with a notice about the school being a gun-free zone," she says. "That got us thinking. My husband applied for a job in Spokane, so he's the one who brought us home. I really had to think about it, but I'm glad to be closer to the family."
The sisters rekindled their interest in quilting and began designing their own patterns and fabrics; soon their hobby grew into a business. Their shop has become a destination for quilters from all over, with a blue tourist attraction sign pointing the way from Hwy. 2. They sell quilting supplies in the retail shop, hold classes in the barn next door, and host an annual outdoor quilt show on the last weekend in August. A large part of the retail business comes from their Web site, where customers across the country and the globe log on to order custom fabrics and quilt kits all the way from Reardan, Wash.
By late afternoon, the low clouds and fog have retreated, revealing deep blue sky and endless horizons. Rich, golden light bathes the landmarks along Main Street. As Reardan's future unfolds, the only thing certain is change.
"This is a community that's both old and new," says Rev. Ward. "We have to work together to find a way to cherish and remember the past without clinging to it."
After a winter break, Inland Northwest Crossroads is back as a monthly feature in The Inlander. Send your comments email@example.com.