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Some Small Towns Left Behind


J By Charles Sasser


ennings, Okla., west of Tulsa is a one-cop town. Police Chief M.R. Floyd is the entire police force. Tall, wearing blue jeans and boots, he pauses on Main Street in front of one of a number of collapsing storefronts. His refl ection looks back at him from the broken glass, like a haunting from the past. “Several small towns are dying,” he says. In the early 20th century, families nostalgic for the small town life dreamed


of fl eeing the bustle, dirt and crime of the city and moving back to become part of a small, tight community. There was a time when every small community had a school, several


churches, a drug store, an IGA, at least one doctor, a lawyer and a newspaper. Quite a few American presidents were born and grew up in small towns. But, then, agriculture declined, young people were drawn away to the cities, and Small Town America gradually became an anachronism of simpler days. Addington, Okla., in Jefferson County is only one step away from becom- ing a ghost town. With a remaining population of less than 100, its “business district” consists of a short row of storefronts with windows broken, doors hanging on hinges and roofs caved in. Philip Lankisder, a retired truck driver and oil fi eld worker who brought up three sons in Cement, Okla., stands in the wide, almost-deserted street of downtown where businesses are shuttered or deteriorating. The popula- tion of Cement stands at 506, a fraction of what it once was. “I advised my sons to leave,” he says. “There’s nothing for them here anymore.” Debbie Jackson volunteers at the Cement Museum and works part time at the Senior Citizens Center. Like Lankisder, she grew up in the area. She recalls when Cement was an oil boomtown. It sported a hotel, a laundry, an oil refi nery, a cement plant and two grocery stores. “Things started to change,” she says. “The town used to be full of cars on Main Street. Now, it’s almost empty.” Two of the last remaining businesses, the bank and the drug store, recently closed down. Oklahoma is symptomatic of small towns throughout America. Small towns were once full of hope and dreams, of people working and children laughing. Now several are silent and crumbling into the landscape, hollow shells of their former glory. According to the 2015 Center for Rural Studies, there are nearly 300 towns in Oklahoma with populations around or less than 1,000 residents—Big Cabin, Snake Creek, Greasy, Bowlegs, to name a few. The number of dying towns continues to grow each year while their populations decline. “Younger generations don’t want to live in small towns anymore,” asserts


32


Addington, Okla., with a population of less than 100 is steps away from becoming a ghost town. Photo by Charles Sasser


Police Chief Floyd in Jennings, an assumption confi rmed by March 2016 edition of Chronicles Magazine. The Jennings website now lists the popu- lation of the little town at an all-time low of 357. Jennings, like many small towns, Floyd says, is made up of older people. The young that are left behind tend to be poorer than their urban or suburban counterparts. According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, 14.2 percent of the rural U.S. population lives in poverty compared to 11.6 percent of the urban population. Michael Overall in his Tulsa World article, “A Way of Life” published in


August 2016, lists a number of factors that contribute to youth fl ight: noth- ing to do for young people, who subsequently move away; small towns cannot retain the sort of amenities attractive to many people; geographic isolation from job opportunities, and more. Not all small towns in Oklahoma are dying. Wagoner east of Tulsa, for example, is prospering. Mayor A.J. Jones attributes its prosperity to two important factors: a major highway, U.S. 69, runs through; and Wagoner is within commuting distance of Tulsa where 45-50 percent of the town’s citizens are employed while preferring the small town life. “Little towns that have amenities like these,” he says, “and others such as recreational areas or industry will grow.” Jennings High School closed down a few years ago. The local Baptist


church, which once supported a congregation of over 100 souls, now draws in about 15 of the faithful each Sunday. Still, says Jennings City Clerk David Kraft, small towns have advantages over the city. They’re a lot quieter, the serious crime rate is almost nonexistent, and there are fewer rules and regulations.


“It makes life a lot easier if you don’t have a lot of regulations,” he points out. “If you want to remodel your house, put a shed or an outhouse in your backyard, do it.” Debbie Jackson in Cement can never remember a murder occurring in


town. “There’s a closeness here. Everybody knows everybody else, knows their kids. We police ourselves. There’s only one policeman in town; he doesn’t have much to do.” Stop in the Dairy Queen or café in any small Oklahoma town and you


fi nd kind and courteous people. Walls are often lined with snapshots of locals who left and made it big, or of “heroes” serving in the military. Chief Floyd in Jennings cites family values as a small town’s primary attraction. “Young people don’t lose family values when families sit down to dinner together. It’s sad to lose a sense of community and place. Things are too big in the cities and people don’t know each other. Family values are disappear- ing,” he says.


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