Photographing the Ruins of Rural America
For 23 years I have been driving country roads, photographing the ruins of rural America for a documentary I call “Lost Americana.” As population decline claims town after town, I’ve been talking to those who remain. Whether it’s in the place I’m photographing or in the cities where I’m showing my photos, all conversations lead to the same question: “How do you stop it?” The simple answer is, you can’t.
If you are already feverishly typing your reply about how your farm town is alive and well, chances are you’re probably not as rural as you think. That or you’re one of the lucky few who have a secondary economy that is keeping your area stable.
I don’t claim to be an expert in rural economics, nor am I a tenured professor with a team of undergrads working on a study about rural life. I am, however, in touch enough to know that there’s a dairy farm crisis for milk producers, corn prices have been down the last few years, and farmers from coast to coast are worried about the effects of a looming trade war. I’ve talked to enough folks in rural towns from South Carolina to North Dakota, New York to Kansas, and beyond, to know that it’s not a cliché that young people are dreaming to get out. And that’s if the town still has young people. In a good number of rural counties, residents over 60 are 30 percent to 40 percent of the population.
So who am I? I’m just a photojournalist from Chicago who started taking photos of old barns to make pretty pictures. But then the journalist inside me started asking questions like “Why are all these farmsteads abandoned?” and “What’s with the vacant storefronts in all these towns?” That was almost 25 years ago. Today America is on its third economic upswing, even as the places I visit have continued to fade away.
In fact, rural America has significantly faded away. This is not something I take joy in writing about. From college through early adulthood, I opted to spend my spring breaks driving around Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, while my friends went to Cancun. I skipped backpacking in Europe and opted to hit up small towns from Dalhart, Texas, to Bowman, North Dakota. Typically one family vacation a year involves me taking my kids on a week-long road trip across rural America as I document it in photos. From the Soda Fountain in Chugwater, Wyoming to Comer’s General Store in Union Grove, North Carolina, and all the rolling hills and endless horizons along the way, I want them to be able to remember what rural America was like, even as vast parts of it have slowly vanished.
It is sad for our country that this is happening. It’s even sadder that it has barely been talked about.
From the pilgrims to the beginning of the 20th century, America was an agricultural country. Westward expansion saw thousands of towns rise from the ground on the prairies of the Midwest and in the Great Plains, just like the crops their residents would plant.
Agriculture would see its heyday during the first half of the 20th century, boasting a peak average workforce of over 30 million farmers from 1900 to 1940. Norman Rockwell images come to mind when most think of rural America from the 1940s through the 1960s: red barns, families with several children helping on the farm, small schools, parades honoring the local veterans, all in the town square where everyone knows each other.
The 1960s began an exodus of residents from rural to urban areas. Had it been focused in just one time and geographical location, it would probably have been regarded as the largest migration in world history. That peak of 30 million farmers shrunk to 15 million, as smaller rural towns in the Great Plains states started to disappear. Danzig, North Dakota (peak population 100) lost its post office in 1955, and its entire population soon after. Today the town is all private property, and Main Street leads to the driveway of a nearby farmer.
In the simplest of terms, “it’s the economy,” but not the economy of the country as a whole, which is seeing record-low unemployment rates and all-time highs on the stock market. This is about the economy of agriculture and how it has changed over the last half of the 20th century.
With the focus on manufacturing, almost no one has taken notice of the slow decline in the number of people working on farms. The number of farmers in the U.S. began to rapidly decline after World War II, as agriculture shed almost 40 percent of its workforce decade to decade, before bottoming out in 1990. Broken evenly by state, the loss of farm labor was about 12,000 workers per year. Meanwhile, companies like Bethlehem Steel were making national news in 1983 as planned layoffs of 10,000 workers in New York and Pennsylvania loomed. Both states theoretically had been losing that number yearly in farm labor since 1950, but this slow attrition went largely unnoticed.
The growth rural agricultural areas saw around the turn of the 20th century began to slow and then tapered off. The overall population of the country shifted from 60/40 percent rural/urban in 1900 to 80/20 percent urban/rural by 2000. In 2015, for the first time in history, the U.S. Census reported that the overall rural population in the country had declined. Which leads us to the term “rural.”
At its core, “rural” just defines an area where people live based on their proximity to other people. Chicago was at one point a rural town on the prairie but grew to be (temporarily) the second largest city in the United States. New Jersey, despite plenty of farms and dairies, doesn’t have a single rural county. Almost two thirds of the over 3,000 counties in America are defined as rural, making up 97 percent of the land, while only accounting for 19 percent of the total population. One person’s “rural” may vary greatly from another’s.
For example, Grundy County in Illinois is surrounded by farmland. The largest town, Morris, has 14,000 residents, many of whom would consider themselves rural. However, according to the USDA and U.S. Census, they are considered a metro county because of their proximity to Joliet (150,000 residents) and the greater Chicago area. Yet 200 miles southwest to Lee County, Iowa, which has similar fields and the towns of Keokuk and Fort Madison (about 11,000 residents each) is considered a non-metro county, or rural county. Both counties may feel rural, but their closeness to resources place them apart.
If Lee County appears more rural than Grundy, then Logan County in North Dakota, could make both feel like a mini version of Chicago. With 787 residents in its largest town, Napoleon, residents of Logan County face over an hour’s drive to any town with a population greater than 2,500. While residents of all three counties may consider themselves rural, the economic opportunities set the population of all three apart. Much is made today of America’s rural/urban divide; more often overlooked is this rural/rural divide.
To really understand the decline of rural American farm towns, look no further than why these towns originally sprang up. Settlements around the world exist for the purpose of commerce, and farm communities are no different. Even as America spread out and train tracks connected small towns dotting the landscape, getting around was nothing like it is today. You shopped and worked in the town you lived in. Train depots and grain elevators made sure the crops and livestock went out and the commercial items came in.
Many rural residents today drive 25 to 50 miles each week to get groceries and supplies, but even by the 1950s traveling to the next town to get groceries wasn’t something most people did. 30 percent of rural households didn’t even have a car.
During the first half of the 20th century there were a record six million farms in America that averaged between 150-200 acres. Even a town like Danzig, North Dakota with its two grain elevators, could have been the hub for over a hundred local farmers. Talking to farmers today it’s not uncommon for Midwestern and Great Plains farmers to work over 2,000 acres. A former cotton farmer in Texas told me that almost all of the agricultural land in their county is now managed by just four farms.
As farm technologies and logistics improved, so did efficiency. In 1930, it took 15-20 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat; five hours by 1960; and under three hours today. Improved irrigation and fertilizer, along with the beginnings of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, meant farmers could produce more and ship more quickly and easily. A typical farm even in the 1950s would have required five farmers, but by 1970 that was down to around three per farm. Today, it’s just over one.
As farm work became increasingly less available, many who relied on it moved away, becoming one less customer at local businesses, and removing one or two children from a local school.
Keokuk, Iowa lost 6-10% of its population each decade from 1970-2010. The Danzigs of the plains—towns under 500 people—started to disappear too.
As people moved, the stores, schools, and even churches closed. The good folks from Danzig moved to Napoleon, their children moved to Bismarck. The people in Keokuk and Fort Madison made their way to Des Moines.
Little did I know that when I started, the 1990s in many ways would turned out to be a pivotal decade for small farm towns and rural America, almost the beginning of the end. Just over a century since millions of people rushed onto the Great Plains, the ’90s would mark the beginning of a time when the quantity, size, and labor of farms in America would flatline.
I still see hope in things like the restoration of a Masonic Temple being converted to a home in Adams, Tennessee; the converted gas station that is the Cottage Café in Amboy, Minnesota; or the Historic Society of Jefferson County, Nebraska trying to preserve the school in Steele City. But the Main Streets that are vacant in Ruby, South Carolina; Turin, New York; Revere, Missouri, and so many other places leave me to fear that most of our small farm towns will be gone by mid-century.
It’s a hard truth and I hope I’m wrong, but for every person claiming their farm town is still going strong, there are 20 others telling me how they miss the farm town they grew up in, but had to leave, as there was nothing left.
Vincent David Johnson is a Chicago based photojournalist, filmmaker, and the person behind the Lost Americana documentary project. When he’s not working on Michigan Ave, chances are you can find him in rural America checking out a town you’re not going to see on a travel show.