Great, plain, empty.
January 17, 2008 12:21 PM   Subscribe

"The Emptied Prairie," a National Geographic article on North Dakota's ghost towns and the decline of the Great Plains. Typically amazing National Geographic photos here. Reminds me of a similar series that ran in the New York Times several years ago, which included this fascinating article by Timothy Egan.
posted by dersins (42 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Tangentially related.

And, no, I'm not sorry for grinding my Great Plains axe.
posted by dersins at 12:24 PM on January 17, 2008


Also tangentially related.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:28 PM on January 17, 2008


I think, and I sincerely hope this doesn't come across sounding asshole-ish, North and South Dakota should be consolidated to one state, then include Puerto Rico as a state. Or at least offer them an ultimatum, either become a state or become your own sovereign country and let them decide what to do.
posted by edgeways at 12:48 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Plow that Broke the Plains [Previously mentioned in this thread]
posted by TrialByMedia at 12:57 PM on January 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well, if I ever decide to buy a huge pile of cheap land just to say I own it, I know where to go.
posted by davejay at 12:58 PM on January 17, 2008


The north and the south can never be reconciled.
posted by maxwelton at 12:59 PM on January 17, 2008


A few summers back we followed the Lewis and Clark Trail from Saint Louis to Astoria. The route takes you from south to north across the Dakotas, as opposed to the usual east-west interstate route.

My God the depopulation and isolation are palpable. Tiny little towns where all the businesses are closed and nearly but not quite everyone has moved on. Every two miles an abandoned farmhouse rolls by on the left or right, ringed with dead trees that died when the last resident moved out and the windmill ground to a halt. You can pull over and take some pictures of the old place then at some point you look out over the featureless prairie and try to imagine a winter there--without radio or music or even electricity--and you whisper "Good for you for getting out."
posted by LarryC at 1:01 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


This makes the settlement of the northern great plains seem like such a wasteful enterprise. We kicked a bunch of people off their land, went to war and killed to defend the rights of settlers, and then 100 years later decided the land wasn't worth living on in the first place.
posted by deanc at 1:02 PM on January 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


I knew a number of Dakotans who attended college with me in Montana. None of them had any plans to return after graduating.
posted by desjardins at 1:17 PM on January 17, 2008


This sort of thing is going on in many places throughout the world...for many years now, people, especially young folks, have moved from the rural areas to towns and cities. Some 25 years ago I visited a small nearly deserted viallage in Spain. The priest told me he no longer did baptisms or weddings but only funerals for the elderly. This trend continues. Instaqdf of blaming or feeling sorry, ask those who leave whey they have gone.
posted by Postroad at 1:18 PM on January 17, 2008


And the locals are protesting.
posted by twsf at 1:26 PM on January 17, 2008


Interesting. I still think I'd take living in a soon-to-be-ghost town over the cookie-cutter hell that is the suburbs, but of course I'm basically stuck in the suburbs like a vast percentage of the rest of the population, because this is where the work is.

One of my dreams is that, within my lifetime, the price of oil will increase enough to drive the final nail into the coffin of 'commuter culture,' and people will stop expecting their employees to show up in an urban or suburban office simply for the sake of being there. If that were to happen, I think you'd see a renaissance in rural America.

Although I'm sure there are people who enjoy living in cities proper, my feeling is that the majority of the people -- myself included -- living in the suburbs and exurbs around major cities (and paying the correspondingly extortionate prices for homes) do so only because it's the furthest away from the city they can get, while still being close enough to work there. Widespread telecommuting would allow people who want to live out in the sticks to live there, and leave the cities for people who want the urban experience.

In reading the articles about the upper Midwest, my main reaction was a sense of relief: there's still empty space somewhere! It's sometimes easy to forget that after you've spent too long on the East Coast's 95 corridor, watching William Gibson's "BAMA" become a reality as the suburbs join together to produce one uninterrupted seething mass.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:35 PM on January 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


One of my dreams is that, within my lifetime, the price of oil will increase enough to drive the final nail into the coffin of 'commuter culture,' and people will stop expecting their employees to show up in an urban or suburban office simply for the sake of being there. If that were to happen, I think you'd see a renaissance in rural America.

I look forward to starvation and being unable to heat my home. People are way too fat!
posted by srboisvert at 1:55 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam . . ."
posted by Standeck at 1:59 PM on January 17, 2008


Just hold on, and buy land in the Northern prairies. When global warming drives millions inland and warms the climate of the north enough to make them vital food-growing regions, you'll be sitting pretty.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:09 PM on January 17, 2008


-1 to National Geographic for putting their pictures behind a lame-o Flash applet.
posted by JHarris at 2:09 PM on January 17, 2008


“Our first baby was a girl, stillborn. Do you know what stillborn means? We had two boys. “I’ve had a good life, a lovely wife. She died seven years ago. I’ve still got my hair. You know I sit here alone for six months at a time, nobody comes to see me. I’ve outlived them all. I’m the oldest man in town.”

No comment. Just thought his words should carry a little farther, is all.
posted by JHarris at 2:18 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I know I've said this here before (and talked about the mass exodus out of the lower midwest that's been happening for years), but I grew up next to a several dead and dying towns in SE Kansas, much to the chagrin of the residents there. It's a little more south than the Dakotas, but the area has the same problems.

davejay, you don't even have to buy land in some places.

Thanks for the post, dersins. I was feeling a little homesick today and this cured me.
posted by sleepy pete at 2:34 PM on January 17, 2008


Also related.
posted by homunculus at 3:23 PM on January 17, 2008


Great post.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 3:35 PM on January 17, 2008


Thanks for sharing. The backlash continues as North Dakotans are roused from hamlet and thorp.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 3:41 PM on January 17, 2008


Excellent post. The American Dream all too often plays out in this fashion. Those are still great places to be, but there is no longer any money to be there. It's painful. Exquisitely so.
posted by caddis at 4:19 PM on January 17, 2008


ask those who leave whey they have gone
According to this – William's county people moved to Ward whose population dropped by 4,292, Burleigh -86, Cass +675, Stark -626 and Grand Forks -4,081. All in all, a grim looking future in terms of things turning around.
posted by tellurian at 4:20 PM on January 17, 2008


Just a prequel to what happens when the water supplies dry up. Phoenix should make an interesting ghost town.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 4:57 PM on January 17, 2008


Wow, what a beautiful article and pictures. As a European I find the distance and the spaces involved magical but a little scary at the same time.
posted by ob at 5:23 PM on January 17, 2008


We live not too far from these areas. I do not see the prairie as featureless, or depressing. Our winters get cold: sometimes -40 temperatures can be felt, and we bundle up appropriately.

But we can see the stars with no light pollution, and houses are cheap, and the four of us in my home all have legitimate work-from-home jobs so that employment in town doesn't matter. Our neighbors are friendly: when my friend came up here and got his car stuck in the snow, literally every car that passed him stopped and asked if he needed help (he didn't, we were on our way, but it was good to know they would have).

We have wetlands with incredible variety in wildlife, and we have gorgeous lakes.

We may be flyover country to you, and the idea of deserted towns might be sort of novel if you're from a place where the idea of "moving up" is to have a 7 bedroom McMansion on a corner lot, but over the last several years, I have been working on a plan to get most of my friends to move here. So far, we have about ten people who have come here hoping for a better life, and we have all found our better life and our home. We like it here. Call it desolate if you want. Home is what you make of it, and for us, the freedom of the prairies is worth missing out on Wal-Mart and Blockbuster. YMMV.
posted by InnocentBystander at 5:29 PM on January 17, 2008 [9 favorites]


I have been working on a plan to get most of my friends to move here. So far, we have about ten people who have come here hoping for a better life, and we have all found our better life and our home.

Is this some sort of hippie setup? Sounds awesome.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:43 PM on January 17, 2008


I have been working on a plan to get most of my friends to move here. So far, we have about ten people who have come here hoping for a better life, and we have all found our better life and our home.

Its so much more than a meth lab, it's a beautiful dream of hope.

;)
posted by Senor Cardgage at 6:27 PM on January 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


And the locals are protesting.

And they can keep on protesting. The demographic and economic tipping point is well in the past; hairbrained economic development schemes buy a few years but can't overcome the longterm trends.
posted by nathan_teske at 6:31 PM on January 17, 2008


TheOnlyCoolTim:

It is indeed a hippie setup. Our endgoal is establishing a Sudbury school in one of these ghost towns, using cheap residential property.
posted by InnocentBystander at 6:38 PM on January 17, 2008


North Dakota ghost towns speak of an irreversible decline.

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. "
posted by neuron at 6:55 PM on January 17, 2008


I remember Garrison Keillor saying that the Dakotas would more naturally be divided into East and West, based on topographic and cultural features.
posted by neuron at 6:57 PM on January 17, 2008


InnocentBystander, I am intrigued by your ideas and would like to read your pamphlet.

(We're still giving serious thought to moving to a planned community in Tenn--going out there in April to take a looksee. Sadly, my husband is seriously snow-averse, so you're probably too far north. But good luck all the same).

If we could truly develop more geographically-independent living styles, these areas could end up being revived someday. But I kind of like that they're going back to a more natural state, though I feel for the residents. It's a natural process for settlements to die out or be abandoned.
posted by emjaybee at 7:03 PM on January 17, 2008


"Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam . . ."

Yeah, check out The Buffalo Commons.
(Previously on mefi in the thread homunculus linked above.)
posted by salvia at 7:40 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wonder how depopulated it'd have to get before we'd consider giving it back to the people we took it from.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:50 PM on January 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


That is an interesting concept.
posted by caddis at 8:17 PM on January 17, 2008


I wonder how depopulated it'd have to get before we'd consider giving it back to the people we took it from.

Or at least stop trying to take more of it.
posted by salvia at 8:33 PM on January 17, 2008


Move along. Nothing to see here.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:20 PM on January 17, 2008


Landscapes remind me of "My Ántonia." Very beautiful.

I shouldn't be, but I'm actually a little bit surprised that people from the state protested. It's happening everywhere, just more prominently in the Dakotas (and near there....) I don't know how I should feel though. I see it happening a looot here in Oregon, and try as they might, the youth are going to leave once they find a way out. Is reporting on ghost towns in their state really defaming them? I don't understand the purpose of their protest. I hear people hating on big cities so often, but it sounds like people still gravitate to cities because of the jobs.

I realize I probably sound dense, but I'm confused.

I feel for those who decided to stay, and are left alone.
posted by one teak forest at 11:49 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


sleepy pete writes "you don't even have to buy land in some places."

There are places like this in Canada as well. However many of them no longer have any local schools or healthcare.
posted by Mitheral at 1:50 AM on January 18, 2008


I grew up in Mandan, ND.

I moved away to college and never returned, and am now living in Chicago. It is a bleak land, in its own way, yes. And the winters are brutal. And the SPACE! So much space! When I moved to Detroit for college, I couldn't wrap my brain around the idea that towns could TOUCH. That one town would end, and the next street over it would be a WHOLE NEW TOWN. I thought people were messing with me when they told me this.

But I have never seen a night sky like the sort to be found in ND. I have never seen a thunderstorm or a sunset as gorgeous as the ones I witnessed growing up there. Nature holds you constantly in awe there.

Now I feel all nostalgic.
posted by Windigo at 9:31 AM on January 18, 2008


Map of the Great Plains part of the USA. Perhaps there will be more artists' communities in the plains, like Harveyville Project, which transformed rural highschools? Artists communities in the midwest and northwest. Kansas depopulation.
posted by nickyskye at 7:21 AM on January 21, 2008


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