It's real quiet when I pull into Oakesdale, Wash., on a recent Friday afternoon. There's not a living soul in sight. Not even a cat. I left Spokane this morning on a tour of some of the small Palouse farming communities within a morning's drive. After an early coffee date with three women over in Rosalia, I have just spent the half-hour driving here in the company of nothing but an occasional hawk and endless golden fields of wheat stubble. The sky is so blue, but I have yet to see a live person -- or even a car for that matter.
I'd looked forward to a nice break at Katie's Caf & eacute;, but Katie's is closed. Across the street, the drug store looks like it closed sometime in the 1950s. A small collection of old druggists' bottles and trinkets populate the arched windows. On the outskirts of town, the giant flour mill sits empty and sun-bleached. Grass covers the tracks up to the scale, which looks like it's rusted into the ground. The ladder the miller once used to get up on the loads and take grain samples is still nailed to the wall, next to the boarded-up window. Through the small-paned windows at ground level, I can see some of the mill equipment still sitting where the last worker left it when the mill closed back in 1960.
This mill stands as a giant monument to what has happened to many smaller farming communities over the past century: it's still here, but there's nothing much going on. The mill -- and the town -- had its heyday between 1907 and 1939, when it was retrofitted for other work, then finally beaten into submission by bigger regional mills. Just like the surrounding town, it's still beautiful -- in that sand-scrubbed, driftwood kind of way -- but it's only a shadow of what it once was. When the wagons were lined up down the dirt road and the mill roared from dusk to dawn, this was a place to hang out and get news, a place to barter, a place to meet. Today, it's eerily quiet, just like the rest of Oakesdale.
Unless you watch the Friday night high school football highlights on the local news, or unless you happen to get off the main roads in your travels around the Inland Northwest, residents of Spokane and Coeur d'Alene could go weeks -- even months -- without noticing that Eastern Washington and North Idaho are peppered with small towns. Quaint reminders of days gone by, when agriculture, timber and mining defined this region, these towns are now struggling to survive.
Today, about one out of five Americans -- that's more than 51 million people -- live in rural areas, which constitute more than 80 percent of the total acreage of the United States, according to the Institute for Rural America.
But as business and government affairs have been increasingly centralized in larger (and rapidly growing) urban areas, most small towns are slowly shrinking. Retail stores are closing, medical services disappearing and, in some places, the population is growing steadily older because younger, non-farming families have left town for jobs in the cities.
Perhaps that's just the Darwinism of America: In the survival of the fittest, small towns just can't make it in this brave, new economy. It's an argument that many, including new and longtime residents of these small towns, don't accept.
Tom Keefe, a Spokane attorney, visited many small towns in the 5th District of Washington state last fall as he ran against George Nethercutt for Congress. These places seemed quite familiar to him; after all he and his family had just spent six years living in Kamiah, Idaho.
"These places have been and currently are an important part of the fabric we call America," says Keefe. "If we just say goodbye to them, we are going to consolidate land in the hands of a few agri-giants who don't need the little bank and the small main street. It just exacerbates the flow there has been going toward centralization for a long time."
In 1994, Don A. Dillman, the deputy director for research and development at the Social and Economic Sciences Research Center at WSU in Pullman, co-authored the book Against All Odds about a Palouse community called Bremer -- actually based on St. John.
Compared to many other small towns, St. John has been very successful in keeping its population steady and in providing community services for its citizens. One of the many reasons Dillman and co-author John C. Allen give for this success is St. John's ability to hold onto a large resource base, consisting of people not only in town but also outside the city limits, who still identify strongly with the community.
"St. John's population is almost the same as it was at the beginning of the century," says Dillman. "What these people have done is get together socially, and they have been able to address some of the issues that face the community, like how do you build a swimming pool or a golf course?"
But successful community development is not just a matter of coffee clubs and community fairs. It's also a matter of holding onto a strong tax base, and this is why Keefe and others argue that many small towns may need some kind of help to prevent getting caught in a downward spiral.
Oakesdale (population 420) is located about 50 miles south of Spokane, making it about an hour's commute to either Pullman or Spokane. There's a school here, a grocery store, a co-op office, and of course the mandatory rows of grain elevators sitting along the train tracks. There used to be many more retail stores here. Just across from the mill sits an empty hardware store.
But there are signs of small-town life and civic pride. Flags fly from some buildings, and flowers bloom in big planters on the sidewalk. The main street appears to have recently been repaved, and the foundation for a new and expanded fire station has been poured right next to the old one. The grocery store on the corner is still open.
Further down the street, a dilapidated sign reading "Arts and Crafts -- Bookbindery" catches my eye. A sign on the door reads "Old Mill Days photos for free - come in if you want some." The crumbled metal mini-blinds rattle as I enter.
"Yes, you bet I run a business here," says Alan Chidester, the bookbinder. "Obviously I don't draw all my business from Oakesdale. I live in the old drug store across the street, and I've been working here since 1992."
Chidester is a musician-turned-bookbinder, who answered an ad in the paper about 10 years ago. It read something like this: "Work part-time, learn bookbinding, then buy the shop."
"It was this older guy from the Netherlands who owned the shop, but he was looking to retire. He'd moved here from Spokane in 1982, because rent was a lot cheaper here," he explains. "I guess he could own the building here for about as much as he paid in rent back in Spokane."
That's still true for many business sites located in rural areas. And Chidester says that small houses sell for as little as $27,000 in Oakesdale.
But he says his business is doing just as well here as it would in one of the bigger urban areas nearby. "I do business in both directions, down in Pullman and up in Spokane," he says. "My supplies come in by truck or UPS from Chicago or California or from Massachusetts, so there's no reason why I can't just stay here."
Still, there's not much of a retail base left, and Chidester regularly makes the drive to Plummer, Idaho, about 15 miles away, to do some of his shopping. It's sad, he says, to see the stores close.
"The drugstore closed in the '70s," says Chidester, as we chat in the bright sun in front of his store. "The hardware store is closed, too. It's just too hard for them to make it. The transportation alone, you know, what it costs to get the goods here, is killing them.
"And Katie's [Cafe] is closed and has been for a while. Her health is not good," he says. "There's no other place around where you can eat or get coffee."
Chidester is also on the city council, and he is proud of the fact that the new fire station is finally going up.
"That's been in the works for such a long time," says Chidester. "I mean, people were talking about it when I moved here." Getting the funding together for the project was what held it up for so long, but a mixture of fire district, county and state funds has finally been secured.
It's also difficult for Oakesdale to keep a local police station staffed. "The way that works is we get some funding for the position, but it's based on how many people live here, so we can't pay as much as in many other places," explains Chidester. "Usually, the police officers we get come from the academy in Spokane. They stay here for a while, and then they get headhunted away to better paying jobs. It's hard."
Having to travel for even the most basic services, such as car repairs or hair appointments, not only contributes to severing the already frail community bonds, but also drains money out of community coffers. In 1997, the US Census documented that retail sales per capita were $6,342 in Whitman County -- the figure was $10,165 in Spokane County at the same time.
"Local retail stores help provide this sort of base in the community," says WSU's Dillman. "Yes, partly because people get together there, but it's also a tax issue. If people shop at the large grocery stores in Spokane on their way home from work, that large grocery store doesn't pay taxes in the rural town to support the local schools there."
Oakesdale is not the only small town that features mainly empty store fronts on its main street. In Rosalia (population 648), the grocery store is still open, but recently the pizza parlor closed. As you drive in from Hwy. 195, a row of beautiful old buildings, including the century-old bank and the old city hall, now a museum, sit with closed up windows. The lumber store opens by appointment only.
A bit further down Main Street, you see what's left: two restaurants, a couple of antique stores, a small gallery and a bookstore. A closed gas station sits across from the restaurant.
"A good week is where I sell one or two books," says Patricia Voge, the owner of Pat's Books in Rosalia. "Mostly, people just come in and hang out."
Nanette Konishi is the president of Rosalia's Chamber of Commerce. She's recently relocated her family and her business to the quiet of small-town living.
"I'm a newcomer," she says. "My husband and I run a woodworking business out of our home and decided to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city -- Rosalia is where we ended up."
Konishi's story is not that unusual. Lured by cheap -- and we are talking really cheap -- real estate, families move out to get a bigger house for less money.
"There are a lot of houses for sale here in Rosalia, and they run under or around $100,000," says Karen Rockness, the manager of the Bank of Fairfield's branch in Rosalia. "Some young couples move here, but often they work or go to school somewhere else."
All three women, Voge, Rockness and Konishi, agree that they like the slower pace and the quieter life in a small town. Plus, the trip to Spokane isn't regarded as long by any of them.
"People just drive. Many shop there, too. Yes, we are becoming a bedroom community," says Rockness, who's lived in Rosalia all of her life. "But we like it here, and we try to deal with the problems the community encounters as they come."
Many small towns embrace the influx of new people, not realizing that the combination of cheap housing and close proximity to a larger urban area is a double-edged sword.
"As housing prices tend to increase in larger cities, people with lower incomes will tend to look for housing in the smaller communities outside the urban area," says Dillman. "That's where they can find something they can afford. But then, as we start to see services disappear, the lower income people are often the ones who are in an essence stuck in the smaller towns, because they don't have reliable cars and can't travel."
Population numbers have indeed held pretty steady over the last 10 years, something that surprises many.
"I checked the 1990-'99 population count for Washington, and it is almost impossible to find an incorporated town that has lost population," says Annabell R. Kirschner, chair of the Rural Sociology Department at Washington State University. "This really surprised me. I think, what we may be seeing is that the smaller places close to bigger cities have drawn people out from the urban area."
Regardless of that recent stability (which has taken place over a decade that saw the state of Washington gain nearly 1 million new residents), she says many rural towns have lost population compared to 50 years ago, when milling, farming, lumber industry and railroads were the big employers.
According to historical census numbers, Oakesdale's all-time highest population was in 928 people in 1900 -- today it's 420. Rosalia has gone from 767 residents in 1910, to 648 today. Tekoa boomed in 1910 as well, with 1,694 residents compared to today's 826.
Many smaller towns have dropped completely off the map in the last 100 years. Elberton, which is located south of Oakesdale but north of Colfax, was a thriving fruit-growing community of 500 around 1900, but has since disincorporated. Today, only a few houses remain on the outskirts of a county park.
"In the long term, no matter how we look at it, rural communities have been declining in population for a long time," says Dillman. "There used to be many more people on the farms, and the smaller communities provided institutional services to these people. But with the increased centralization, that's disappearing."
Oakesdale is a prime example. "Now our population holds steady right around 400," says Chidester. "Why is that? Back then, farming took so many more people than it does now. The reason Main Street is so wide, for instance, is so they could get in here with a full team of horses and turn around."
Not only are population numbers down over the past 50 to 100 years, but in some towns the face of the population is changing drastically. According to the US Census, 22 percent of the population in Oakesdale is 62 or older. In Washington state, the percentage who are 65 or older is just 11.2 percent.
"Some have already made enough to retire, or start a second job that doesn't require them to stay in the city," says Kirschner. "They may also be seeking to go back to some place they came from."
The aging of the population is also changing the need for health and social services.
"The elderly need more services, and it can be hard for a small town to keep up with that, but Whitman County works with us and helps us," says Voge, who's also on the Rosalia City Council. "The Red Brick Caf & Egrave; takes meals out to some of them. There's a big meal at the church once in a while, and Whitman County works with us, too, in providing nurses."
Since there is no doctor in town, and some of the elderly can't drive, Whitman County has set up a transportation service to help the elderly reach clinics located in Pullman and Colfax -- another half-hour drive away.
"They call this lady and she takes them down there," says Voge. "But she's real busy. She's on the road all the time, and they only pay her mileage. It takes a huge volunteer effort to keep services like that and the meals running."
Where small towns like Rosalia and Oakesdale may have a hard time attracting traditional businesses like plumbers, beauticians and electricians, they would appear to be a telecommuter's dream: cheap housing, peace and quiet, yet only a 40-minute commute from the office.
There's just one problem: the fast Internet services, cheap cell phone deals and broadband-connected world that city-dwellers live in hasn't reached them yet.
"That is a really big problem for the rural communities," says Kirschner. "Even here in Pullman, if you are not on campus, we don't have a good, fast, Internet connection."
Large but low-impact companies -- those in telemarketing or data entry -- looking to relocate could be a great catch for a rural town. But without Internet access, they are likely to head elsewhere.
Legislation has been introduced to provide federal funding for Internet connections, some of it sponsored by Senator Patty Murray.
"Right now there is federal money available for infrastructure building, but the Internet is the future -- it's not just about roads and bridges," said Murray in June, when she introduced her latest telecommunication bill. "The federal government should help fund some of that. I've been out in many of the rural communities that are struggling. Many see a tremendous opportunity for new and different types of businesses."
The Internet is one thing, but in some towns you can't even find a pay phone.
"No, they took the pay phone out of here a while back," says Chidester about Oakesdale's communication challenges. "I mean, the phone company said we'd all get cell phones, and there are some towers going up, but currently, if you had an emergency or something, you'd have to drive to Colfax to find a pay phone -- or knock on someone's door."
The last town on my excursion is Tekoa (population 826). Driving in, I immediately notice more businesses, among them a barber shop, a beauty shop and even a hardware store.
Still in search of lunch, I stumble right into a community event of great proportions: a restaurant -- The Feeding Station -- has just opened two days ago. It doesn't even have a sign yet.
"It's been absolutely crazy," says Lisa Taylor, who waits tables and runs the place together with Robin Harris. "There's still a noon whistle here in town, and when that blew, well, then they just lined up. It was standing room only at lunch."
Tekoa is bigger than both Rosalia and Oakesdale, but it has lost about 100 people since 1990, according to the U.S. Census. A large area close to downtown is striped with a century's worth of train tracks and lined by warehouses and grain elevators -- concrete evidence of an even bigger and busier past. When the trains still ruled, there was a cold storage house here, a pea factory and several other large agricultural industries.
Taylor has just moved here from Coeur d'Alene, and she's totally excited. In between serving the hungry crowd that keeps piling in, she comes over and chats.
"I really like this town," she says. "I mean, check out the prices of housing. When I got here I couldn't believe it. My house wasn't expensive, and it has a hot tub." She lives a few blocks from the restaurant with her two children.
"The school is just great. I mean, there are only 13 children in my son's class -- not 32," says Taylor. "That's as close as you can get to a private school setting in the public system." Yet as many former city dwellers who return to the country, she's still learning to adjust.
"I have to get used to the store closing at 6," she laughs. "And there is 12 miles to the gas station. That in itself takes some planning, you know. And my cell phone only works if I drive a few miles out of town."
But regardless of the inconveniences, she's gung-ho for Tekoa. "They are trying to restore the community theater and maybe get some movies and some theater going," says Taylor. "I don't think this town is going to die out any time soon."
Towns like Oakesdale and Rosalia are relying on community gatherings and tourism to help them survive. Just outside Oakesdale, a large Victorian home often referred to as the Oakesdale Castle is being turned into a bed and breakfast.
In Rosalia, there are plans for the future hosting of farm tours and to have the old Pullman Highway significantly restored and recognized as a scenic byway.
"Tourism is going to be the big push for us," says Rockness. "We have a lot of historic buildings, and we'd like to put plaques up to tell about them and do some self-guided tour. This town has a very rich history. And the Lewis and Clark Trail goes right by here, so maybe we can get caught up in that celebration as well."
But Konishi adds a dose of somber reality to the visions of happy bikers and small kids on hayrides: "I'd love for us to pursue the historic idea, but it's expensive. Some owners have several buildings downtown, and they can't afford to spend any more on them than they already do. Everybody wants to do it, but there's always the money."
Last year, the Community Action Center in Pullman instigated a series of community meetings all over the Palouse addressing the current and future state of the local economy. Konishi went to some of the meetings, and has great hope in the network. She hopes some of the smaller towns may be able to pool their resources.
"What our question was to people last fall was along the lines of: Is the wheat economy within Whitman County changing?" says Judy Allen, executive director of the Action Center in Pullman and one of the driving forces behind the partnership. "We got more than 300 people to show up at the meetings."
The meetings also got county commissioners and local residents involved across the board.
"Some of the issues that were brought in by people were about diversifying the economy," says Allen. "Out of that discussion came a very concrete suggestion of a joint chamber of commerce, to help further the interests of many of the smaller cities. They could really benefit from that."
Keefe says it may be more urgent than that. Rural America could be the endangered species of our social fabric, and if we let that diversity wither, our social ecosystem will grow weaker as a result.
"If we stop caring about the Rosalias and the Oakesdales, there will be impact and consequences on Spokane County," says Keefe, who worked on Eastern Washington issues as an aid to Sen. Warren Magnuson. "For instance, with our punitive and time-sensitive welfare reform, you have to go where the jobs are. So welfare recipients have this clock ticking over their heads, but you are not providing them with opportunities to stay in those small towns.
"It's almost like you have to recruit people to live in those small towns," Keefe continues. "The government could create tax incentives. If we had something like a Marshall Plan for rural America, we could create those incentives and help people move there. We have this energy bill floating around Congress with tax incentives for the big energy companies. We could do that for people, too."
The Palouse Community Partnership meets again on Thursday, Oct. 4,
at 7:30 pm at the Imperial Restaurant in Colfax. Call: (509) 334-9147.